DESERT ENGINES

Towed Road grader

Content Tools

3818, White Sands Twentynine Palms, CA 92277

This towed road grader, which is about 60 to 70 years old, was built by J.D. Adams and Co. of Indianapolis, Indiana. The ID plate on it reads 'Adams Leaning Wheel Grader #10.' The serial number is 8751. According to Buff, it was used in the early days to grade out many of the roads around here that are now concrete ribbons of high speed traffic. There is another plate on it that indicates it was sold by Brown Bevis Co. of 470 E. Third Street of Los Angeles. Can any reader add to this?

As a new subscriber I am particularly fascinated by GEM articles about the almost detective-like efforts people go through to find engines and/or parts, and then authentically refurbish them. The articles I've read are generally from east of the Rocky Mountains, and particularly from the Midwest. I don't recall any articles from desert writers, although the desert can be a 'mother lode' source of old engines. As a Mojave Desert dweller, I'd like to relate some of my experiences with old engines.

This cement mixer was a very recent addition to Buff's collection. It has a Fairbanks-Morse 3 HP, 475 r.p.m. Z engine on it. The engine is pretty complete, however it is frozen up. There is no magneto on it either. The mobile frame that the engine and the mixer sit on was made by the Spence Co. of Waterloo, Iowa. It had a wooden tongue on it for towing that was in pretty bad shape, and Butt has it off in preparation of making a new one. I see no reason why, once the engine is running again, it would not make cement as well as it ever did. The photo at right shows Buff and my 8-year-old daughter, Erin.

The principle use of the old one-lungers revolved around mining and related activities. Prior to the arrival of the Marine Corps in the town of Twenty nine Palms, California, for instance, the area's economy was driven in large part by mining. Since coming to the desert, I've noticed what I call the 'desert syndrome.' This syndrome generally consists of never throwing anything away and letting it pile up in your yard. Amazing what you will see in yards.

The other day, for instance, I stopped at a yard containing an old tractor which had metal wheels on it. I had been meaning to stop for months and I finally got around to it. I introduced myself and asked the owner if I could look at his tractor.

There must be a gene of friendliness that is attached to the 'love of old mechanical things' gene. The gentleman, Buff Vreeken, was just as hospitable as could be. Not only could I look to my heart's content at the tractor, but he also had an old road grading machine (towed variety), which he delighted in showing me. In addition, he had an old air compressor that weighed a ton if it weighed an ounce. The compressor was on the back of a truck and Buff was in the process of getting it off and setting it up where one could look at it. He has since gotten it off the truck, and mounted it on a large timber on the ground and is painting it up beautifully. 

When I first saw the compressor, I thought it was an old steam engine. No, sure enough, it was a compressor with, I'd guess, an eight inch bore. The compressor was made by Chicago Pneumatic. Buff said it had been at a mine in the area since the early 1900's. It had been powered by a one-lunger. It must have been a whale of a big one-lunger!

The tractor, which first attracted me to the yard, turned out to be a Fordson from around 1922 or 1923. It has a crack in the exhaust manifold and the circular part of the steering wheel has fallen victim to the fierce Mojave Desert sun. However, the engine is not seized up, and it would probably run if the ignition system were tweaked. Funny thing is that a week after I saw the tractor in the flesh, so to speak, there was one in the June GEM, except the latter has a steering wheel and I presume it is fully operable. Alert readers might also notice that somewhere in Buffs tractor's life an owner cut holes in the wheels. I think Buff said it had worked in an avocado orchard and the holes gave some kind of benefit.

Buff still has friends here in the Mojave who can recall desert life in the pre World War II era. Some of these early settlers still retain their original 'old iron'! I hope to talk with as many of them as possible so that their rich lore can be preserved.

I've included pictures of Buffs items along with some data and available history. As I mentioned earlier, the 'desert syndrome' is alive and well here in Twenty nine Palms. I suppose it comes from the early days when the place was rather isolated and you often made do with what you had on hand; hence, the saving of everything. The other side of this same coin is that things just don't rust out and deteriorate (except from the sun) or get overgrown as they do in wetter areas. This means that mechanical devices here in the desert are generally in good shape, which makes for some very interesting finds.