Like Panning for Gold

1905 Olds 12 HP engine

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P.O. Box 15368 Pensacola, Florida 32514

I'm not really a fixer-uppersome folks like to get every nut and bolt right and paint 'em up. I don't restore them. I just take an old one, gunk it down, clean it up and get it running.' So says Clinton Edwards, this year's president of the Dixieland Old Engine and Agriculture Club, of himself.

Jim Townsend, a Cantonment, Florida, John Deere restorer, had interested me in restoring old tractors. Even though I have read GEM for two years, this was my first show and I was excited to finally get a chance to talk to people about old engines. I was interested in how the old engines worked and in the people who restored old engines.

Approaching The Dixieland Old Engine Show parking area slowly, I saw a line of tractors to my left, and a tent with lots of folks, which I guessed was the food area. Straight ahead toward a cluster of pecan trees, I heard a faint 'chick a chick,' and could see other people gathered. I walked in that direction and began to see a collection of display tables, trailers, and free standing equipment roughly arrayed in a semicircle under the trees.

Drawing closer, the pitch of the old engine sound changed, from the faraway 'chick a chick' to a deeper 'chuck . . . chuck.'

I stopped to look at a large old green Fairbanks Morse engine which was driving a belt to an antique corn shucking machine. The old engine 'chucked' and a little smoke poofed upward. The big flywheel spun quickly, then seemed to slow down until I thought it would quit. Another 'chuck' and the flywheel sped up again. This was the old 'hit & miss' engine I had heard about. The owner dropped a corn cob in the shucking machine hopper. The kernels were stripped off the cob and moved down a shaking screen to fall into an old woven oak basket. The cleaned cob shot out over the basket and fell to the ground. I stood transfixed. This old stuff worked! There were pistons, rods, cylinders, valves, crankshafts and flywheels, but configured much different from modern engines and machinery. You could actually see the piston thrusting in and out of the cylinder; the open connecting rod attached to the open crankshaft which ran to large and colorful flywheels on each side of the engine. Because of a lower RPM, oil reservoirs sitting atop the crankshaft journals provided ample lubrication to the rod and crank.

I knew I should ask a lot of questions but I couldn't. I was just the new guy, poking around, who didn't know enough to ask any questions.

Looking closer, trying to figure out how it worked, I could see the intricate mechanism which alternately lifted, on some unseen signal from a governor somewhere as the engine slowed, allowing a valve to close and the engine to fire. 'Chuck,' and a puff of smoke, as the engine speeded up once more; part of the mechanism opened the valve and a bar fell down to lock the valve open, the engine kind of free wheeled and the flywheels spun until they slowed enough for the governor to close the valve and start another cycle of 'hit or miss.'

Further around the circle of displayed engines there was a beautiful maroon 1905 Olds 12 HP engine which looked better than when it came from the factory. The original tool box was still with the engine. The flywheels were nearly a yard across and it must have weighed more than 3,000 pounds. I later learned that Norvin Bauer, spending lots of money and time restoring that engine, was dissatisfied with the first paint job, and had scraped all the paint off and begun again. The results were spectacular it didn't look like a work engine anymore.

Nearby, a blue 1918 Alamo 12 HP was driving a water pump. It weighed 3,180 pounds, and the piston was 7 inches in diameter, according to an attached sign. This engine had been restored, but you could see the rough surface beneath the paint from years of rusting. The water bucket had been rigged so the pump could pump water continuously without running over the bucket or water supply running out.

Most of these restoration projects had been 'discovered' in fields, woods or old barns where they were deserted whenever they stopped running or as newer engines and machinery displaced them. Some of the smaller restored engines were Maytag washer engines several Maytag Twins made between 1937-1952, and even an older single cylinder (1911-1923). I was amazed they were manufactured over such a long time span.

Several owners were observed cranking over balky engines pulling the flywheels through, often stopping because of the intense noonday heat, perspiration dripping from their noses and chin.

There were tables of old wrenches, a rusted saw rig, and rusted engine parts for sale or trade.

Near the road, the line of tractors included restored Massey Harris, Farm all, John Deere, Oliver and an old 1930 Oliver Hart Parr. There were few tractors and no spectators the primary interest being back at the antique engine display area.

Norvin Bauer's shed, situated between the row of tractors and the exhibit area, was wall to wall with old farm equipment, engines, tools, pictures, signs and assorted odds-n-ends. Doris Bauer, Norvin's wife, said Norvin still wants to buy everything. He is planning a museum to help preserve the past.

The fish fry and food tent was doing a brisk business, and clusters of folks were gathered around, each deep in conversation.

Bobby McGowan from Brookhaven, Mississippi, told me there were folks from Gautier, Pascagoula, Columbia, and Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Dothan, Alabama; and Pensacola, Florida.

Later, Doris Bauer told me some of the farthest traveling exhibitors were Frankie Hill, Southpond, Florida; Homer Farrell, Columbus, Mississippi; Bill Currie, Enterprise, Alabama; and Jim Gramlich, Cantonment, Florida.

As I walked through the display area, it dawned on me that this gathering was very much like a large family reunion. Ladies were visiting about homemaking and the engine restoration hobby. The men were discussing their engines and restoration efforts with obvious satisfaction. They were delighted with questions and the opportunity to expound on their efforts, trading recommendations for the solution of sticky problems or the obscure location for needed parts or engines. There really were not many who were just visitors or spectators. These folks enjoyed camping, meeting together and helping preserve a portion of history.

'They greet new arrivals, wondering what old fence or pile had turned up an old engine,' Clinton Edwards added, when I mentioned the primary interest of members seemed to be visiting with one another and talking about their experiences or solutions to problems.

Clinton thought I should look up Raymond Taylor, who lives in Pensacola. He told me that Raymond made a lot of models and engines out of stuff one out of an old discarded air compressor. Said he knew how to make any-thing run.

Most of the exhibitors knew each other. Later when we looked at pictures from the engine show, not only did Raymond Taylor recognize the engines, he knew all about the owners.

'Our main show is the first week in April at Laurel [Mississippi] Fairgrounds. We've had people from as far away as New York. The fall show moves around to pockets of 8-10 members. Norvin Bauer invited us to his place; we liked it so much we came back for the fall show again this year,' said Clinton, who has been a member of the Dixieland Old Engine Club for eight years. The club, which was formed in Biloxi about 10 years ago, now has 87 members from Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

'How many engines do you have?' I asked, finally loosening my tongue.

'Don't rightly know right now. Had 52 at one time, but sold off the large ones. Probably 25 to 30 now,' responded Clinton.

Although it was my first show and I couldn't bring myself to ask many questions, I came away with new friends and a newfound interest. Clinton Edwards' words 'Finding them in the rough is like panning for gold. I really enjoy rescuing one that has been lying there asleep for 40 years, then getting it coughing and sputtering, and bringing it back to life' has left me checking GEM for the next show.