Black Beauty

125 HP C. H. Brown engine

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3 Washington Street Brattleboro, VT 05301

The setting was the 10th annual Central Massachusetts Steam & Gas Machinery Association Show at Orange, Massachusetts airport June 28 and 29, 1986. The 'star' was Doug Johnson's giant C. H. Brown engine. You couldn't miss it!!! Weighing in at 12 tons, this engine sports an eight foot flywheel, has a 13' piston, 34' stroke and packs 125 horses of power. What's the story behind this gleaming black giant that dominated the Orange show?

The engine was made in Fitchburg, Massachusetts around 1909 or 1910. It ran the machinery in the Smith and Day Furniture Company in Baldwinville, Massachusetts and as near as anyone can figure was last used in 1949 or 1950. Twenty years later when the engine was going to be scrapped, a construction man saved it, remembering that Doug Johnson of Wendell Depot, Massachusetts was a collector of old engines. Acquired by Doug in 1974, the engine sat in pieces in a field by his house and rusted for ten years more.

In the summer of 1985, assisted by his brother Don Johnson, Doug set out to restore the engine to working order. His goal? To have it ready to display at the Central Massachusetts show in 1986.

'We worked nine days a week,' quips Doug, 'after work and weekends for eleven months straight.'

The brothers built a shed to cover the engine, with a large plastic front facing south for solar heat in the winter. In freezing weather the shed would maintain a workable 40° to 50° because the huge metal parts had absorbed heat all through the day. At times condensation would be a problem and they would have to leave the flaps open whatever the outside temperature.

Both brothers work in Athol, Massachusetts, Doug as a machinist and Don as a machine operator. How did these after-work hours affect their home life? Says Doug of his wife Sheila: 'The understanding is a lot. When your wife doesn't moan and complain, that makes it a lot easier.'

Says Sheila Johnson in turn: 'He loved working on that engine. He had to have loved it if he would miss meals! Sometimes I would call him three or four times and keep reheating his supper. But I didn't get upset because he was having such a good time.'

Brother Don adds: 'No, I'm not married. Actually, you're married to this when you're working on it!'

Doug Johnson has been a collector of gas engines for many years. 'At one time I had 80 or so. I bought, swapped and sold. I did most of my collecting before the time of the gas engines shows, when engines could be had cheaper than nowadays. Right now I have 8 or 10 engines, including a real nice Abenaque.'

Doug also owns the restorable parts of a Putnam engine. Like the C. H. Brown it was made in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. It will weigh in at 25 tons with a 16 foot flywheel. He would consider selling it. 'It should be set up permanently once it's restored, and not moved.'

Clusters of fascinated show-goers gathered around this black giant at the Orange show to watch the slow motion proof that it was indeed in fine working order. As yet the Johnsons have no boiler to provide the steam to operate the engine. At its public debut in Orange the engine was being turned over smooth as silk by a 3 HP Briggs and Stratton with a 200:1 gear reduction just to show off the velvet smooth motion of this 'Black Beauty.'

Sheila Johnson: 'I'm glad it's done and glad he succeeded in getting it done for the Orange show.'

Doug Johnson: 'I kept saying, 'I don't think we're going to make it.' '

Sheila: 'And I kept saying I knew you would!'