Salute to a Dream

The late Don Walters lives on through the engines he acquired.


In front of the 280 HP 4-cylinder Fairbanks-Morse marine engine owned by the American Thresherman Assn. in Pinckneyville, Ill., stands (from left): Paul Kurtz (head mechanic at Pinckneyville), Pat Hidy (John’s wife), Harold Kurtz (American Thresherm

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On the Sunday morning of Oct. 13, 2002, engine enthusiast Don Walters of Gower, Mo., woke up early to attend the 2002 Small Farmers Reunion at the Lathrop (Mo.) Antique Car, Tractor and Engine Assn.'s show grounds, only to be severely injured when he flipped on a light switch and his home exploded due to a propane leak. Several days later, on Oct. 25, Don died in the hospital as a result of the injuries he sustained in the fire.

There is a silver lining to this dark cloud, however. The town of Pattonsburg, Mo., had been destroyed by the Flood of 1993 and relocated, auctioning off much of the city property in 1998. That auction netted Don four very large Fairbanks-Morse engines (used in the city power plant) for the paltry sum of $2,000. Plus, he was able to witness all of them running just a few days prior to his purchase, so he knew what he was buying. For two grand he took ownership of two 150 HP 2-cylinders (one of which was sold to the Western Missouri Antique Tractor and Machinery Assn. in Adrian, Mo.), a 300 HP 4-cylinder, a 600 HP Opposed Piston (OP) 8-cylinder and many other parts, tools and paperwork for the engines.

Once the deal was finalized on Aug. 22, 1998, it took a year and a half to get the engines moved from Pattonsburg to the Lathrop show grounds. The 4-cylinder was moved on a logging truck, but the rest of the engines were disassembled and transported in pieces in a joint effort by Don and many of his fellow Lathrop club members.

Once the engines were moved and set up in Lathrop, the only engine Don ever had running before his fatal accident was the 4-cylinder. In February 2003, four months after the accident, his dear friend John Hidy received a phone call from Don's brother, David. He told John he wanted to meet him at the show grounds to give him some of Don's old wrenches. While they were there, John asked if they were ever going to run the engines again, and that's when this silver lining really begins to shine! David said he had talked it over with his father and other brother, and they had decided to hand the engines over to John. John said he was absolutely floored, not only because he just inherited one heck of a great collection, but also because the family thought enough of him to leave Don's dream in his hands.

Don never did get to see the 2-cylinder run after it left the Pattonsburg plant. When John and his crew started on it, they did a thorough cleaning inside and out, re-plumbed everything, torqued down the head gasket and routed the 10-inch exhaust up through the ceiling.

For the club-owned 3-cylinder, all that had to be done was the prerequisite cleaning of the engine and a rebuild of the compression relief valves, done by Bill Anderson Sr. (Gas Engine Magazine, August 2005, "Showstopping Sheffield"). John says, "What I gave him was total junk, and when he returned them to me, they looked brand new. It was just amazing what he did with those valves."

Since the 4-cylinder was the only engine Don ever got to see running before he passed on, John hasn't had to do much but maintain it, thus far. The 8-cylinder OP engine is still a work in progress, which John wants to have running by next year's show. This engine, he explained to me, uses 16 pistons firing in eight vertical cylinders and spins two crankshafts, an upper and a lower. John says it will most likely go outside, because he expects it to be pretty loud.


Although John knows his way around an engine quite well, he knew he would need an extra hand, so he began searching for a particularly good mechanic who had been at the 2002 show. His search came to a screeching halt when he finally tracked down the very talented Dennis "Junkyard" Fust of Humansville, Mo.

In talking with John, it sounds like Dennis, a diesel mechanic by trade, is THE man to see when it comes to the repair and maintenance of these large engines. Just this past August, John and Dennis made their way up to Pinckneyville, Ill., to the American Thresherman Assn.'s 46th Annual Steam, Gas and Threshing Show. Their mission? To fix the club's 280 HP reversible Fairbanks-Morse that hadn't run since 1989 and had been sitting on their grounds for over seven years. Despite several attempts by several different people over those seven-plus years, no one was able to get it started. If it would ever run, their intent was to place it in the "center ring" of the show grounds - and they refused to set it there until it did.

As it turned out, the injectors were fouled up, and as John explained to me, you must have the proper test stand to work on them. John just so happens to own two of these test stands. When John and Dennis thought they had it licked, they turned it over just three times before she started. The engine was immediately moved to the center ring and ran all day Thursday, Friday and Sunday during the show. For their efforts, John says the association treated them like royalty for the entire weekend, saying it felt as though they were on vacation. John and Dennis also had a story written about them and their efforts in the Southern Illinoisan newspaper, titled "Chugga, Chugga, Chugga."

Dennis comes to Lathrop about once a year to help John, and has for three years now. According to John's wife, Pat, he loves wrenching on the giant engines and sharing his expertise. Dennis also works on Adrian, Mo.'s 2-cylinder Fairbanks (sold to them by Don) and just finished working on the Missouri River Valley Steam Engine Assn.'s 4-cylinder Fairbanks while at their Back to the Farm Reunion in Boonville, Mo.

Other Key Players

Another important helper John mentioned was Matt Robinson, a 17-year-old from Weatherby, Mo. He's been helping out with the engines since he was 13 years old, doing everything from cleaning various parts and rewiring to helping John re-plumb the coolant lines. Pat says he's a great help, not just another set of hands, and he loves to be around the old iron.

Bill Breese has also been a key element in the restoration of these engines. Don had the oiler for the 2-cylinder, but it had a broken part and he didn't know how to fix it, which is one reason he never got it running.

Bill was in Lathrop looking at the engines about a year prior to Don's accident, and told them there were some of these Fairbanks engines in an abandoned copper mine, on an abandoned island, near his hometown of Ketchikan, Alaska. The engines were still intact, and were used until the mine, and island, were abandoned in 1941.

John stayed in contact with Bill, but nothing ever transpired with the "island engines." That is, until John was handed Don's engines and knew he would need an oiler for that 2-cylinder; especially now, because the broken oiler was in Don's house when it exploded. Also destroyed in the fire were all the polished brass plates for the engines, all the manuals and all the documentation from when they were new. But John was more concerned with getting the 2-cylinder operable, so he contacted Bill and told him he'd really like to get his hands on those oilers if at all possible.

Bill then set out one morning to make the voyage out to the island on his boat, a four-hour trip, one way. As it turned out, the oilers were both 8-line Madison-Kipps, of which seven lines still worked on one of them. Right now, the other oiler is being rebuilt for use on the 2-cylinder. The oiler currently on the 2-cylinder will most likely go back to Bill in Alaska, as he intends to rescue the 2-cylinder from the island and restore it.

When he returned home, Bill sent an e-mail to John that read: "I went out this morning and got those oilers for you. I sure hope they're what you need because they're already in the mail to you. Just send me $66.30 to cover my shipping costs and they're yours." John was ecstatic, to say the least, getting two oilers to his door for less than $70.

Two more Bills, Bill Anderson Sr. and Bill Anderson Jr., have also put in many hours of hard labor on the engines. Bill Sr. is an excellent machinist and has fabricated numerous parts for the engines, and Bill Jr. has been happy to lend a hand on many other various jobs.

John claims this is the largest collection of "big" Fairbanks-Morse engines in the state, and, it's been said, the largest collection west of the Mississippi once you include John's not-yet-running Fairbanks generator.

John really wanted that generator, which, at the time belonged to Don, and had pestered him about it on a few occasions. Just two or three days before the accident, John again asked him if he would part with it, and again, got the same answer. John even offered him triple what he paid for it, but he still wouldn't let it go. Of course it's now in John's hands, and he plans to have it re-wired, install new packing in the water pump and give it a good freshening up sometime in the near future.

Plans to construct a new 30-by-50-foot building to house the engines are already brewing in John's head, as well as building a multiple-engine water system in which all the engines will share the same coolant and run through the same lines. He's already bought a new Quincy air compressor to start the giant engines. John claims they require 250 psi to start, but his compressor will only pump 175 psi. However, he still manages to pull it off by using a very high volume of air.

A Real Devotion

As should be apparent by now, John is extremely devoted to keeping these engines running for Don (and the club), having already invested thousands of dollars and countless hours of work. "I always knew when Don needed help with something," John says with a grin. "He'd show up at my place with a can of Diet Pepsi and two bags of peanuts as payment!"

John will be the first to tell you he couldn't have done all this without the support of his loving wife, Pat, and their fellow club members who have lent a helping hand: Gene Doty, Glen Edwards, Tim Griggs, Brad Foster, Paul Brown, Jim Lee, Glen Colhour, Curly Gardener, Lyle Wolford, Butch Hopkins, Marion Hopkins, Ralph Hopkins, Jim Plowman, Sam Swindler, David Walker, Harry Lewis and George McCorkle.

Although Don is no longer with us, a sign in the doorway of the engine shed pays tribute to his memory: "His dream is continuing, thanks to those who remained behind and have labored on - spurred by the thoughts of him and the feeling that he will always be a part of this place."

John welcomes anyone interested in viewing the engines at Lathrop to contact him for an appointment - he'd be more than happy to show them to you.

Contact engine enthusiasts John and Pat Hidy at: 5647 S.W. McComas Lane, Plattsburg, MO 64477; (816) 930-3548;