Fairbanks-Morse Does Double-Duty


In this 1987 photo Bill Clements operates the 'American No. 2' sawmill he restored and powers with the Fairbanks-Morse. (Photo courtesy of The Enterprise newspaper.)

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8254 Riviera Dr., Severn, Maryland 21144-2429

In 1923 the Leonardtown Ice Company placed an order for a single-cylinder 50 HP vertical oil engine with the Fairbanks-Morse Company. Primarily, the engine was to serve as the compressor of the refrigerant in the ice-making process. This occurred before the arrival of the REA (Rural Electrification Administration) and electricity to St. Mary's County in southern Maryland. The company delivered the engine on February 12, 1924. Secondarily, the engine drove the D.C. generator which supplied electricity to the town.

By 1927, the demands for electricity grew such that the town needed a larger engine, so this old engine was replaced. Fortunately, the story did not end there. Mr. H. Robb Cecil and his father, Mr. John T. Cecil operated a mill in Great Mills, Maryland, which itself needed more power to operate the machinery. Originally, Cecil's Mill used an overshot steel water wheel to operate the grist mill and a sawmill. Later, John Cecil installed a stationary steam engine to supplement water power, which was vulnerable to drought conditions. In 1927, H. Robb Cecil moved the Fairbanks-Morse to the mill where it shared the power-generation chores. With the engine came the first electricity to Great Mills. The Cecil Mill generated electricity using water power, steam power and, finally, diesel power.

The generator functioned while the mill operated and storage batteries handled the lighting load when the mill was quiet. At times, the mill operated 24 hours per day. John T. Cecil maintained that the wheat ground better at night. Perhaps it had something to do with the moisture in the air. The REA did not arrive until 1949.

Today, the mill-race stands dry, the ten-foot tall by twelve-foot wide water wheel is silent and the stationary steam engine seems to have left no trace. Steam and water-powered grinding and sawing stopped when John T. Cecil died. His son, H. Robb Cecil continued to operate the mill, using the Fairbanks-Morse alone until his death in a sawmill accident in 1959.

A brass plaque embedded in stone at the mill site reads:


A sawmill has been on this site since circa 1820. The present structure has been restored using most of the 'American' parts dating from 1910. The mill has not operated since the fatal injury of H. Robb Cecil on 22 April 1959. Restoration was completed in 1987 by William J. 'Bill' Clements.

In 1975, John A. and William Cecil donated Cecil's Mill to the St. Mary's County Historical Society. The Mill appears on the National Register of Historic Places.

Bill Clements, a true engine enthusiast, learned of the old Fairbanks-Morse in 1981, while shopping at the Cecil's General Store in the historic complex. Apparently, he could not resist the challenge to restore the old engine. By 1983, he had the engine operational and then undertook the restoration of the sawmill. The sawmill, a 1923 'American No. 2' had deteriorated badly. However, by 1987 he had restored both to operational condition and today the sawmill operates when Bill and others are available. All work is voluntary and the mill, like most enterprises, needs money.

During the recent demonstration of the sawmill, a large cedar log furnished boards which will serve as mantle pieces and cedar chests instead of firewood, and the proceeds of the sales will go toward the operation and maintenance of the mill. Most support comes from individual donations.

The mill is open to the public March through December, Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. It is located on Indian Bridge Road just off Route 5 in Great Mills, St. Mary's County, Maryland.

People today refer to the Fairbanks-Morse as a diesel engine, but in its day they may have called it an oil engine as often as anything else. It was designed to run on kerosene or a kerosene-like distillate. With modifications, it could run on heavier oils1. Today it operates on diesel fuel. It is a two-cycle, or two-stroke, engine and employs an auxiliary engine to compress air for starting. Sometimes referred to as semi-diesels2, such engines use two ports on opposite sides of the cylinder, one for intake and one for exhaust, which are uncovered by the piston very near the end of its power stroke. Fresh air, under pressure, is forced into the cylinder above the piston and deflected toward the top of the combustion chamber. At the same time, the fresh air forces the burned gases out of the exhaust port. Upon the return of the piston following the end of the power stroke, it once again covers the intake and exhaust ports and compresses the fresh air. As the piston reaches top-dead-center, the injector sprays fuel into the compressed air, forming an explosive mixture. Upon contact with retained heat, the mixture explodes, or rather burns rapidly, generating the power stroke. The resultant expansion of the burning mixture increases the pressure in the combustion chamber, pushing the piston down on the power stroke. As the piston descends, it compresses air below, which in turn provides the input for the next cycle and the process becomes self-sustaining.

Ordinarily, torches provided heat for starting the engine. In later years electric-powered glow-plugs replaced torches on engines of this type.

Although this Fairbanks-Morse engine has only a single cylinder, its massive flywheel and its ability to maintain a constant rpm made it ideal for the applications of powering electric generators and sawmills. It drove the mill's machinery through a wide belt and a massive, cast-iron pulley. A wooden clutch arrangement made shutting down the engine unnecessary for the transfer from powering the grist mill to powering the sawmill.

The electrical system, the grist mill and the sawmill were belt driven. 'The foot-wide belts transferred the power from either the waterwheel, the steam engine or the Fairbanks-Morse. The best belts were said to be oak-tanned leather. (One of the enterprises of the old mill was a tannery). Leather belts were normally 3/16' in thickness and weighed about 60 lbs. per cubic foot. They should be run 'with the hair-side over the pulley' for greater adhesion. Four-ply cotton belting was considered equivalent to single-leather belting.3

The engine is referred to as a Type Y and bears serial number 574317. It is rated at 390 lb. torque @ 252 rpm.


1. Conversation on November 7, 1991 with Fairbanks-Morse. The restoration was helped greatly by assistance from the company which is still in the business and supplies large engines for, among other things, powering ships and submarines. It now does business under the name COLTEC, having divested itself of the firearms business. The engine came well-documented. The mill has recovered or retained the original bill of sale and accurate, detailed records of its history. Fairbanks-Morse provided all the information necessary for the restoration. Even though the engine was celebrating its sixtieth year, it is still possible to purchase a copy of the original manual for ten dollars. While the company no longer supplies original parts, secondary sources still exist to keep these old engines alive.

2. Dedrick, B. W., Practical Milling, National Miller, Chicago, 1924, p 485, 490. Reprinted The Society For The Preservation Of Old Mills, 1989.

3. International Correspondence Schools, The Mechanic's Handbook, International Textbook Company, Scranton, PA, 1904, p. 142.