Discovered: Engine in the Wild


I spotted a flywheel buried in ivy.

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West Tree Frog Lane, Chilmark, Massachusetts 02535

It had been several years since I had discovered an early engine in the wild, and I was beginning to think that those days were gone forever. A few weeks ago, however, I got a lead at the town dump that sent me scrambling to locate and uncover an old engine.

This story involves some luck-being in the right place at the right time- and also a technique I have often used in the hunt for old iron-advertising. That day I went for a ride on my 1950 Solex motor bike and decided to swing into the dump to see what treasures might have come in.

I noticed an elderly fellow inspecting the Solex.

'I have one of these,' he said enthusiastically.

'A Solex? I asked.

'Not a Solex, a Mobylette. I have several of them.' He explained that he lived part of the year in Bermuda and had used the Mobylettes for transportation on the island since the 1960s.

We talked about old machinery and I told him that I have been collecting and restoring gas and steam engines for 25 years. I invited him to come to my place sometime and see the collection. Fifteen minutes after I arrived home, a blue van came slowly in the driveway and I recognized my friend from the dump. I opened a row of doors to my engine shed.

'Oh my!' he exclaimed. 'I've never seen anything like this!'

I went through my usual routine about how farm engines were used in the countryside before electricity and named all the machines they powered. I could see he was fascinated.

I closed the choke on a 2 HP Simplicity, casually rolled the flywheels through compression once and then brought her up a second time. I gave the flywheels a hard pull and off she went with a hearty puff of smoke. My guest

gave a shout of glee and watched the Simplicity hitting and missing.

'I have an old engine in my yard that you're welcome to,' he said. 'It's pretty far gone, but maybe it would be of some use to you.'

Sensing once again the thrill of the unknown, I asked him what kind of engine it was.

'I can only tell you that it sits this way'-he motioned up and down- 'and it has a big wheel on its side.'

'One flywheel, not two?'

'Only one, as I remember. It's a big, heavy engine.'

I imagined a diesel from the 1950s that had been salvaged from some wrecked fishing boat. Nonetheless, any lead deserves an investigation. I told him I would like to have a look at it. He went to his car and wrote a note authorizing me to visit his property, as he would be away for a few days. He handed me the note, saying the engine was in the bushes behind the garden.

A week later I called the number my friend had written on his note and got a recording saying the Old Oyster was not at home-but I knew I was welcome to visit his place in his absence.

With my engine buddy Bill Honey, I walked into the Old Oyster's yard and found a small sunken garden at the edge of the lawn. Behind the garden was a wall of dense bushes. I scanned the vegetation for a sign of the engine, but saw nothing; I walked along the back edge of the garden, searching the tangle of growth and suddenly spotted a flywheel buried in ivy.

I carefully pulled away the ivy and removed a heavy steel plate resting on top of the engine. A two-cycle, marine type upright engine was slowly revealed, but I immediately saw that this was not the usual marine model. It had a large spoke flywheel about twice the diameter of a marine flywheel, and the engine sat on a tall cast iron base that flared out gracefully on all four sides. When I got the ivy cleared I saw a governor with flyweights between the flywheel and cylinder. A two-cycle stationary engine! Finally I noticed a big cast tag on the back side of the cylinder. I had just acquired a 4 HP Lathrop stationary made in Mystic, Connecticut.

I was able to push the engine up on one edge of its base and slide a piece of heavy plywood underneath it. Then I skidded it out onto the lawn using two 4' x 4' pieces of plywood, one in front of the other, and across the yard to the truck.

I took a moment to look over the engine. It was a beauty! Weathered green brass parts were everywhere: water pump, governor weights, igniter and other ignition parts, primer cup and even an original oiler with its glass intact. I saw traces of nickel on some parts. The Lathrop showed the usual effects of long outdoor exposure: all nuts and bolts were rusted down to little pointed cores and all other steel parts were half their original size. The iron, however, was excellent. Only the water jacket on one side was seriously damaged; several square inches of iron were missing. (When I began to disassemble the engine, I discovered that the headless bolts were almost hard tight and were still shiny and perfect where they were not exposed to the weather. The cylinder above the piston, never having seen water, was also excellent.)

As of this writing, the Lathrop is apart, except for the stuck piston; the cylinder is soaking in 'weasel juice.' Unlike open crank farm engines, most marine types have closed crankcases- which means the piston has to come out of the top of the cylinder. On headless, jug cylinder models the going gets even tougher.

I had one surprise while I was taking the engine apart. The entire crankcase cavity was chock full of lamb's wool! Mice had come in the intake pipe and made themselves a very warm apartment house. At some time during its retirement, the old Lathrop must have spent time on a sheep farm.

I have learned about the engine's history from the Old Oyster. He bought it, along with other heavy treasures including a 200 lb. bronze bell from a bell buoy, from a junkyard in the 1950s for yard sculptures. The junkie told him the Lathrop operated a winch that was used to haul out boats on a railway in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Are there other Lathrop stationeries out there? If anyone in engine land has information about another one, I would like to know about it.