Old Betsy

Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390.

Joe Fahnestock

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Dayton Daily News & Radio's 'Joe's Journal'

If you've ever been caught bug-eyed, shivering in your britches at the sight of what appeared like some primordial green grasshopper, jumping and hopping its way around over a threshermen's reunion grounds, the chances are a thousand-to-one that it's just 'Old Betsy' wanting to be looked at. For 'Old Betsy's' big iron connecting rod resembles the running gears of a giant katydid when she's lumbering from place to place -- a sight sufficient to scare old-timers into switching brands of chewin' tobacco scrap and womenfolk into hiding till it's passed. But, contrary to that first impression, 'Old Betsy's' one of the kindest, most inoffensive-souls that ever prowled a reunion ground. Though she can surely bark, her bark is without bite -- for her big 8-inch piston travelling its 14-inch stroke was made for the blessing and benefit of mankind in reclaiming swamp land to raise vegetables to feed a hungry people. 'Old Betsy' won't jump out at you and gobble you up. She just wants you to look at her and admire her brawn as she struts her stuff and flexes her huge muscles like a beast of burden -- a kindly brute turned out to pasture, enjoying her golden years.

'Old Betsy' is powered by a 15 horsepower International Engine, vintage of 1915,' says Spark Plug, A. C. 'Jack' McKibben, her builder and master who resides at 407 Catherine Ave., Columbia City, Ind. (15 mile west of Ft. Wayne.) 'My son who works at the Bendix Plant at Benton Harbor, Mich., was hunting on the House of David farm when he discovered this old engine sitting inside a shed. It hadn't been run for twenty years.'

According to Spark Plub McKibben, old-timers claimed the engine was used to pump water off of a forty-acre tract of river bottom, pumping the water back into the river at a rate of 7500 gallons a minute by running a huge water wheel with twenty-five buckets, each bucket capable of 100-gallons capacity.

'It turned the wheel three revolutions a minute, keeping the water eight inches below the ground level on that forty acres, making it possible to raise enough vegetables for the House of David and quite a lot for the Benton Harbor market,' explains Jack McKibben.

'When I went up and bargained for it, I had to hire a bull-dozer to level the levee down so I could pull the engine out from the middle of the swamp,' says McKibben who experienced the perennial trials and tribulations of the devoted Spark Plug in stalking his prey.

'I have my own workshop -- do custom work -- and also play around,' muses Spark Plug McKibben. 'Every year we have the Old Settler's Parade. My buddy, Oren Haas had built a kind of steam engine that went over big in the parade, so I decided to make 'Old Betsy' and I took first prize twice.'

Like the Captain of a river boat, Spark Plug Jack McKibben pilots 'Old Betsy' on a land cruise past the registration building at the Old Time Threshers & Sawmillers, Ft. Wayne, Indiana. 'Old Betsy' is just a friendly sould who wants folks to look at her. A lot of iron just to take one pair of trousers a ride over a reunion ground.

Finally surmounting the hurculean tasks attendant upon hoisting the big 15 horse International onto a one-ton International truck chassis where he bolted it down securely to keep it from jumping off, every time its 63-inch flywheels kick around, McKibben was yet faced with the almost impossible problem of how he was ever going to turn the big fly-wheels fast enough to get it to fire.

'I finally came up with the idea of mounting a 'little' 10 horsepower Nova Engine (made in Grand Rapids),' pointed out McKibben. 'By cranking the Nova and getting it started, I was able to get the big International started through a double-clutch mechanism I rigged up.'

McKibben went on to explain that, by starting either engine, he can thus start the other engine. But he didn't explain how he'd get the bigger engine started first, just in case the little engine bucked its job and wouldn't fire -- for it was the smaller engine that he installed for the express purpose of starting the bigger one that he couldn't start. All of which leaves us, the writer, sort of hanging on the horns of a dilemma for want of an answer that possibly only a Rube Goldberg could provide.

At any rate suffice it, for the sake of telling this story, that the routine order of flipping this and pushing that to get the things in motion that will eventually result in getting 'Old Betsy' into locomotion are the accepted order of the day. The sun rises early, the effulgence of its rays elutriating the threshermen's reunion grounds in an elysian paradise, a veritable elysium of engines, engineers and people. Sniffing the tantalizing aroma of ham 'n eggs, flap-jacks 'n strong farm coffee wafting on the crisp morning breezes, the dedicated Spark Plug points his nose in the direction of the cook-shack tent and begins walking into the wind in anticipation of a hearty repast to get him in motion for the vigorous activities of the day. Thus fortified, our Spark Plug decides that a promenade of the reunion grounds is quite in order. Mounting 'Old Betsy' our hero turns on the ignition, yanks at the carburetor choke and depresses the pedal that releases one end of the double-clutch while with his remaining free hand he shoves the four-speed truck transmission into neutral, preparatory to strong-arming the fly-wheel crank on the 10-horse Nova, an operation requiring bodily disembarkment from the driver's seat to the front end of the conglomerate contraption. Having coaxed old Nova into motion, the Spark Plug fidgets with more controls leveling her off to the proper point of internal combustion known as 'function.' Satisfied that the 'stem' end of his land-cruising yacht is now in order, ye Spark Plug rushes back and mounts the 'captain's deck' midships where he frantically depresses more clutch pedals, shifts more gears, flips more ignitions and yanks more throttles, the result end of which, provided his operation is successful, sets the main driving engine in 'Old Betsy's' stem to firing. With a few dozens more mechanical manipulations and adjustments the 63-inch fly-wheels of the 15-horse International rapidly pick up speed, then taper off into the loud and long-spaced exhausts signalling to Cap'n McKibben that all is in readiness in the engine rooms of 'Old Betsy' for a morning 'cruise' over the threshermen's parade grounds. It's as simple as that for the single occupant riding 'Old Betsy' rather than walking -- unless you prefer jumping into your Volkswagon which might even be simpler.

But Spark Plug Jack McKibben says he likes to 'play around a little' as well as work. And we are inclined to believe just that. For, whenever McKibben goes out to play around with 'Old Betsy' you can be sure he doesn't do it without a considerable amount of work.

Spark Plug Jack McKibben takes friends, Oren Haas and Cecil Kleopper a ride on his rare Bryan steam tractor. He doesn't need any brakes -- just blow that whistle and she stops. A quick way to empty the boiler. It looks like antique dealer, Roy Little, standing to the left, is trying to figure out how he can stuff the Bryan into his side pants pocket.

Just like riding his Bryan Steam Tractor -- an anachronism so scarce in the country that they can be counted on the fingers of one hand with a couple of fingers missing. Should Jack the Spark Plug ever tire of riding around atop 'Old Betsy,' he still would have to work at starting the fire and building up a head of steam before he could 'play around' with that rare 'toy.' But, though you may be a bit startled and jump out o' your boots when he blows that monstersteamboat whistle -- he won't run over you, for all the steam goes out the whistle and that stops the vehicle.

And now, before folks get to thinking that Jack is also a sort of Iron Man too, we'd best blow the whistle on this epistle by saying, 'Thank you, Spark Plug McKibben, for all the work and play you've done to make 'Old Betsy' run -- so that we can see what a wonderful place the world can be.

Spark Plug Jack McKibben oils up around the innards of 'Old Betsy.' It was 'love at first sight' when McKibben discovered the huge 15-horse International Engine sitting in a shed down in the swamp near The House of David in Michigan, where it was used for years to reclaim land from the river for raising vegetables.