Bert's a Wizard When It Comes To Engines

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Sent to us by Lorraine Martyn, 1375 Eleventh Avenue, Edgar, Wisconsin 54426, this article appeared in the Stevens Point Journal, of Stevens Point, Wisconsin 54481.

Bert Gordee has begun taking time to enjoy his status as one of Steven Point's mechanical wizards.

At 84two decades later than most folkshe's joining the ranks of the retired, to amuse himself by tinkering with his collection of purchased and self-made engines instead of repairing ones belonging to others.

Bert, who lives at 516 W. Harding Street, Stevens Point, Wisconsin, has been a mechanic since he was a teenager, and that's so long he's developed a language all of his own. His 'mechanicese' and references to parts and processes of engines are sprinkled into most of his conversations.

Bert stepped into retirement several months ago, after spending nearly 40 years with Murat Ignition and Battery Shop. He didn't leave on his own terms; a heart problem from which he has since recovered necessitated a slower pace.

His boss, Bob Moss, said it would be difficult to find a more reliable worker than Bert. 'He hardly ever missed a day, and I don't remember him ever taking off for a cold or anything like that. Besides, he could always figure things out. And he can sure tell you anything you want to know about how an old car runs,' Moss says.

But at Murat's, car repairs weren't Bert's specialty. Small engines were, and in the course of his career, he probably contributed about as much as anyone to making the city an attractive place by keeping the power lawn mowers of townsfolk in running order.

He also fixed snow blowers, boat motors, anything with small engines, including a balloon inflator and golf ball picker.

Bert got his first real job in the Buick Garage at Argyle in his native Green County. He preferred working to being a student, but a few years later, he was enthusiastic about the opportunity to attend the Max Sweeney Motor School in Chicago. Then came the Depression, when jobs disappeared and hardly anyone had a nickel to spare. Bert and a friend traveled from farm to farm in the Monroe area, fixing machines for farmers in exchange for a place to sleep and a hot meal.

The farm country was filled with steam engines in those days, and Bert developed a fascination for them. He memorized every working part, and in later years drew on that experience when he developed a hobby of recreating models of some of those old mechanical horses.

'I don't care what kind of an engine it is, big or little, I like all of them pretty much the same. I found it interesting to see how each one ran because every manufacturer had a little different idea,' he observes.

Looking at what he does as an art form of sorts, Bert relates an old story to his visitors: 'You know, my dad always told me that to be a successful mechanic, you had to be a dressmaker, a carpenter and a blacksmith all in one.'

He moved to this area in the mid-1930's, settling first in Rudolph, where he was employed at the Piltz Hardware for 20 cents an hour.

Later, he did mechanic work for Mattlin Auto Parts, Ace Body, (in what now is the second floor of First Financial Bank), Moland Bros. Trucking, and Advance Express here.

While at Ace Body, he had an opportunity to buy a 1935 Pontiac in pristine condition. It became the start of a collection that also features a 1941 Ford three-quarter-ton pickup truck, engines galore, and eight tractors, including a 1936 Farmall 12, a 1924 J.I. Case 22-40, and six hybrids made by hand by the master mechanic himself from parts of several different vehicles and work machines. There's even a turn-of-the-century threshing machine for beans, peas, buckwheat and sunflowers that Bert restored.

Some of his favorite handmade engines are steam-powered, the source of much attention whenever he takes them to parades and shows throughout the state about eight Sundays each year. A huge handmade air compressor 'is one of my pride and joys,' he claims.

Bert's wife, Olive, to whom he has been wed for 54 years, says she enjoys accompanying him to steam engine shows more than she did going to boat races every week when he was active in that hobby before World War II.

One of her favorite events is the annual show near Edgar of the North Central Wisconsin Steam and Gas Engine Club, which Bert helped organize about 20 years ago.

Bert babies all of his engines as if they were living, breathing creatures, and when he gets them humming, they act as such. Each one has a story, he says, such as the engine from the late Dave Field that was used on an island farm on the Wisconsin River, just south of the city. It powered a clam-raking enterprise in which the meat was used to feed hogs and the shells were sold to a local button factory.

Incidentally, the pigs fed by the clams had a fishy taste after being butchered, and a lot of people didn't like that, Bert recalled with his powerful voice.

As the old wizard showed me through his sheds full of machines, he talked about life and how to live it. 'Stay on your own side of the fence,' is his philosophy.

Then he added a bit of lore about being a mechanic. 'They always used to say you had to be half crazy to work on a Ford. By golly, I'm beginning to think that's true.'