My Little Engine

My Little Engine

Content Tools

6637 Pendleton Ave., N. W. Roanoke, Virginia 24019

We lived on an eighty-plus acre farm in Upshur County,. West Virginia, on what everyone called Pleasant Ridge. Our post office address was French Creek, which was a small village about five miles away. We lived with my father's uncle-by-marriage, John C. Long. For me, from the time I can remember, he was Uncle John and wherever Uncle John was, one could usually find me. Hot in the summertime or cold in the winter, it didn't make any difference I wanted to go with Uncle John. I would ride one of the horses and hold to the hames while Uncle John plowed, or I'd be on top of a wagon load of hay by his side on the way to the barn from a haystack in the field.

When I was about five or six years old we went to an auction at Holly Grove, which was two or three miles from home. Holly Grove was a small logging and sawmill village located on the very headwaters of the Little Kanawha River. It boasted of a boarding house, a store, a Baptist church, school, post office, telephone switchboard (crank type) and a covered bridge. Holly Grove was a normal thriving community indicative of the early nineteen hundreds. They had their church revivals in the wintertime, and for recreation, square dances in the homes in the summertime. I don't remember an item that was sold that day at the auction, except a small gasoline engine and a fodder cutter which was powered by the engine. These two items were located in a little outbuilding behind the house and store. Uncle John bought both the engine and the cutter. When the auctioneer announced, 'and sold to J. C. Long,' I think my heart skipped at least one beat and maybe two.

Now I'm almost 83 years old and I can still remember that moment as if it were yesterday. I never left that engine the rest of the auction. When anyone came by, I would proudly announce, 'Uncle John bought it.' The next day we took the team and wagon and brought the engine and the fodder cutter home.

It was common practice at that time, in the hills of West Virginia, for almost everyone on farms to grow a field of corn. The corn was cut in September before frost and shocked in the field. After the ears had properly dried it was shucked by hand. The corn was stored in the granary to fatten the hogs for butchering in the fall and fed to the chickens and other livestock during the winter. The fodder was hauled to the barn and cut by a hand cutter and fed to the cows. The cutter consisted of a trough about five feet long and twelve to fourteen inches wide with a sharp knife with a handle which was attached to one end of the trough. This was all mounted on three legs about waist high. The operator would lay three or four stalks of corn fodder in the trough, raise the knife with the handle, slide the stalks up to whatever length he wanted to cut, and then bring the knife down with a sharp thrust.

To say the least, it was quite a chore to cut the fodder every night and morning to feed the cows. Uncle John had now solved this tiresome and time-consuming job with the new 'outfit.' This fodder cutter, as I said earlier, was powered by the little engine. The cutter blades were mounted on a heavy wheel just like an ensilage cutter, but was designed to run at a much slower speed, and instead of a revolving belt with cleats in the bottom of the feed table to pull the stalks into the cutter blades, this cutter had two powered drums about four inches in diameter and eight inches long, turning in opposite directions, that pulled the stalks between them into the cutter knives. The top drum was tension loaded by two hardwood strips running down each side of the feed trough. The strips were firmly bolted on one end, while the other end was attached to each side of the top drum. The effect was spring loaded while the drum could move up and down. The feed mechanism was adjustable, whereby the stalks could be cut from approximately one inch up to about three or four inches in length.

What an improvement this was over the three-legged contraption. I was so mesmerized at its operation that I could stand, regardless of how cold it was, and watch by the hour as Uncle John fed the cutter. To my joy, once in a while, he would allow me to put a stalk or two in and watch it inch its way through the rollers. I would wait maybe a whole hour just to feed the cutter once or twice.

The engine was a marvel to me from the moment 'and sold to J. C. Long' came from the lips of the auctioneer until even today, as I will tell you about later.

I wasn't allowed, of course, to 'bother the engine.' I wasn't old enough, as I was only about six or seven. Little did anyone know that very soon I had learned and knew exactly how to start and operate the engine: open the gas, shut off valve on the tank, set the mixer control wheel at #3, put the crank on and turn the flywheel until the cylinder compression was tight, close the knife switch on the coil in the battery box and finish the compression stroke with, a turn of the crank and maybe throughout the next one. . . Oh, the music of that 'spat, spat.' That's all there was to it, because I immediately opened the switch and watched as she coasted to a stop. If I would let the engine run any longer, Mom would surely hear and that would bring my fun to an abrupt stop. Sometimes I would go and peek out one side of the big double doors to assure myself that the coast was clear. Once I was inside I was always careful to close both the doors.

Whenever I determined no one was near I would go back and repeat the engine starting process. By that time I was a year or two older and early on had learned that my mother surely had eyes in the back of her head, by now had begun to wonder about her hearing mechanism, and wondered if it might not be equally rated with her eyesight. She began to be curious about my increased frequency of going to the barn to play, especially since the old barn had long been in need of replacement, and really didn't seem to her to be anything there that would attract a boy of six or eight years old to play.

Ah! The engine! Then she thought, 'That may account for the exhaust fumes I occasionally detect on his jacket when he comes in.' The same smell that was there when Uncle John would return from the barn when the men were cutting fodder. But how? The 'how' question was sufficient for me to be followed on my very next play at the barn. The barn was built with boards nailed up and down and strips nailed over the cracks. The strips were mostly all gone and one could peek inside through the cracks almost anywhere. On this particular occasion the engine had already hit its two or three spats, the switch had been thrown and she was coasting down, when suddenly it became light as day inside the barn. I hadn't heard the door open, but when I quickly turned around, there in half of the big double door stood my mother like a statue in the middle of the opening. Suffice to say, my barn playing ended immediately. However, my love and attraction to that little engine lived on.

I had never seen another engine except a huge monster mounted on a wagon and pulled by a team of horses that came to our place one time with a threshing machine to thresh oats for Uncle John. It had a water tank to cool the engine, and the steam rolled out as it struggled to run the thresher while it did its job with the oats. The water and steam was interesting to me since 'my engine' was cooled by a little fan mounted on the side of the cylinder wall and run by a sewing machine belt around the flywheel.

Time went on, year after year. I finished grade school (one room), then to high school, graduating in 1934, and on to college. Then I married and returned to the adjoining farm of my childhood. By that time Uncle John had gotten older too, and didn't have much use for the engine and cutter any more, so he gave them to me. I immediately moved them to my place. My insurance at that time would not allow the engine to be located inside the barn, however, a lean-to on the side was okay, so that's what I built to house the engine, running the belt through the side of the barn to the cutter. After using the engine and cutter only one season, I received my greetings from Uncle Sam. Now it was off to basic training, then to France with the 29th Division, Nor-many, Brest, the Sigfried Line, etc., and back home in November, 1945. In February of the next year, the barn accidentally burned down and all that was saved were the cattle. Everything else was a total loss, which of course included the cutter and my little engine.

Maybe you have noticed that I have never mentioned the name of the engine or the manufacturer of the fodder cutter. At the time it didn't seem to make any difference. It was only after they were gone that it became important. How could I go about finding a replacement? No name nothing and I had never seen another engine like it, or a cutter either, for that matter. I had never heard of GEM. Didn't know anything about engine shows. That was in the late '40s, so I thought my only hope was to watch auctions. So this I did throughout West Virginia, Ohio, and part of Kentucky. One day I found out about an engine for sale not far from home. I went immediately to check it out. There was no nameplate on it and the owner didn't know the make either. The ignition system was makeshift and so was the mixer. It ran however, although not too good. I bought it. After all, it was an engine and it was the only one I had found after looking for several years without any luck. I could at least start this one up once in a while and reminisce.

A few years later my job took me to Roanoke, Virginia. I would not live on a farm, but in a housing subdivision instead. I took my engine along anyhow. When I would fire the engine up, living in a subdivision, the strange noise would cause quite a commotion, an attraction new and different. Soon I was introduced to GEM. I subscribed immediately. Before long I was attending engine shows. It was almost as exciting as being a child. Never did I realize there were as many engines in the whole world as I would see at one show. Naturally with that many engines, I thought surely there would be another like my 'little engine.' But no luck. Then Wendel's book was announced. I thought surely my day had come! At least I could find out who had made my engine. When the book became available I may have gotten the very first copy, who knows? I went through the book page by page, after page. No, my engine was not there. I was back to square one. The engine show route was my only chance.

One day at the Denton, North Carolina, show while browsing among the hundreds of engines, I could hardly believe my eyes. There, along with two others, was my 'little engine' sitting on a tarp all by themselves. No one was attending the engines, so I just waited around for some time, growing more impatient with each minute. I finally inquired of someone close by and was told the engines, they thought, were for sale, but the owner had gone to lunch.

By that time I was so excited that it was difficult to contain myself. I went back to the engines and parked myself on the tarp prepared to wait whatever time was necessary for the owner to return. Soon a pickup truck with Wisconsin license plates backed up to the engine. It wasn't long before it became evident that they were preparing to load the engine. When I asked what their intentions were, I was informed that they had bought the engines. Would they consider selling the little air cooled engine?

Emphatically, NO! They had never seen another like it. Well, even if they had never seen another like it, they at least had never grown up with one as I had and that little engine couldn't possibly mean half as much to either of them as it did to me. Luckily I had already copied all the information from the nameplate: No. 69606 HP 1 John M. Smith MDSE. Co. Chicago, ILL. I consoled myself by the fact that the engine had 'been around.' In addition to being badly worn mechanically, the gas tank was dented in several places. The tank cap was missing. The cooling fan was in bad shape. The engine would have required a lot of work to have suited me. With that chance lost, I continued to look.

In the fall of the late eighties, I decide to attend a show that I had never been to before, at WNC Agriculture Center in Arden, North Carolina. By that time I had been retired for several years and had developed a heart condition that limited my activities a great deal, but not my determination in up-turning every stone to find my little engine. Since this show was several hours' drive from Roanoke, my wife and I drove down the day before and stayed in a motel nearby. Bright and early the next morning we were at the show. I began my usual routine of inquiring about a certain little air cooled engine. Would you know, about the second person I asked said, yes, there was one down on the lower side of the lot and went on to tell me about where. Of course, I didn't waste any time heading in that direction. Sure enough, tucked over in a little out-of-the-way place was the engine along with its owner, Merlin Beck-ham. The engine was exactly what I had been looking for all these years. There it was, running smooth as a sewing machine. He had recently acquired the engine, he told me, and this was his first time to show it. The engine was tight all over, complete in every aspect, except for the crank. It seemed to have been well taken care of. I believe Mr. Beck-ham had known the original owner who had used the engine very little. Then the question, would he sell it? 'No, not yet,' he answered. He wanted to play with it for a while. I told him my story, hoping that he might sympathize a little and change his mind. But, alas, this did not work either. He did promise, however, to let me know if and when he decided to sell. At that I gave him my card with my name, address, and phone number. 1 came home, both disappointed and elated. At least I had found the proverbial 'needle in the haystack' and also had my foot in the door to buy the engine.

Time went on and attendance at the same show the next year, and four heart by-passes later, I had seen or heard nothing from Mr. Beckham, so I wrote to him one day. Soon I had a reply. No, he no longer had the engine. He had let a Mr. Paul Cox in Lebanon, Kentucky, have it on a trade, and Mr. Cox was now in Florida for the winter. He gave me both of his addresses and phone numbers. I immediately called Mr. Cox in Florida. He wasn't anxious, but he would sell the engine. He quoted a price and we came to an agreement. It was still winter and he wasn't going home to Kentucky until spring. In June he was to bring the engine to Big Edd's Little Engine Show and Early Farm Days at Windmill Acres Farm in Newton, North Carolina. What a day that was! Meeting Mr. Cox, giving him a check, and loading my 'little engine' in my truck and heading home. That was three years ago and I am still looking for the fodder cutter. Maybe someone out there knows of one and will let me know about it. Not many days go by that I don't start the little engine and listen for a few minutes and reminisce. And well may be, cut a little fodder in my imagination.

I wouldn't think about ending this story without thanking both Mr. Beck-ham and Mr. Cox. It was with their cooperation that I was able to bring my long and often discouraging search to a pleasant conclusion. Thank you both, very much.

Uncle John passed away while I was in Normandy during World War II. He never knew of the engine and cutter being burned and for that I am grateful.

Bye now, think I will go and start my engine. Let's see open the shut off valve at the gas tank, set the carb wheel at #3, close the switch and give the wheels a spin or two. I don't have a crank, you know.