Grass Show at Harrodsburg

Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390.

John Hoover

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

He was the longest-whiskered, fullest-bearded Sparky we'd ever seen in 'them thar' parts. But the Blue Grass Steam and Gas Engine Show at Harrodsburg, Ky., where he'd come to do some spark-in', was a long way from his native 'ha'nts', back in the 'Land O' Lincoln', just this side of the Mississippi.

Nuts about steam engines and nuts about gas engines--Earl Holmes dubs himself an 'engine nut' from Chestnut, Ill. And this writer, having followed the scholarly little figure making his rounds over the Blue Grass grounds, sparking arguments both pro and con, hither and thither amongst the engines, wasn't about to doubt it.

Looking more like a Johannes Brahms in overalls than a farm engine mechanic, the knowledgeable Mr. Holmes lent his august presence throughout the length and breadth of the new Blue Grass Show grounds during its two-day event at the Mercer County Highway Department just outside Harrodsburg, Ky. Whether it was going over the fine points of antique classic automobiles, old-time farm tractors and gas engines, or arguing steam versus gas--the little fellow with the Santa Claus beard always handled his subject with a fine-tooth comb. And should the diverse opinions about internal combustion and/or steam ever culminate in an argumentative impasse, the astute Mr. Holmes (not Sherlock) would merely comb more facts out of his whiskers of long experience to settle the hash, capping it off with a heady froth of unbiblical explosions like a good Spark Plug should.

'I like steam--run many of them, only Reeves, double-cylinder, for that's all they made,' quoth the indomitable Mr. Holmes. 'But if you ask me about any of these old gas engines or automobiles, I can tell you plenty, too, as I've worked on about all of them. And that includes the old tractors, too.'

Spotting Angerreau McConnell's 1938 Huber HK Tractor of 37? Horsepower on the drawbar, Sparky Holmes jumped up on the rear deck and began preaching like a hard shell mountain Baptist from a soapbox pulpit on the vices and virtues of the old-time tractors and how he used to service and repair them.

'If you had an Aultman & Taylor with a battery ignition that they had when they come out, you went to your tractor to start it of a morning, you opened the pet-cocks or priming-cocks, you turned the tractor over slowly a few times and went off and left it while you had something else to do, like greasing the hand-cups,' expostulated preacher Holmes to the amusement of McConnell and the 'congregation' gathered 'round. 'Then, after you've greased about so much of it, you went and poured plenty of gasoline in the four priming cups. After that you went around and done some more chores as I called it, then you went around and shut the cocks, and then you went back and finished your greasin'. Just don't get in a hurry, as 1 always say,' continued Holmes in a solemn patter while his audience began to chuckle. 'Then you climb up there and kind o' look around to see who's a-watchin' and then you shut the choker--be sure you shut the choker--and then you press the button and--BANG, she goes.'

Spark Plug Earl Holmes explains virtues of 1927 Willys-Knight engine to Omar Swartzendruber. The bearded Holmes came all the way from Chestnut, Illinois to attend the Blue Grass Show at Harrodsburg, Kentucky. This Willys-Knight was parked by our STEMGAS trailer, by owner Frank Cornish, who told me to use it as 'My personal car-and if anyone was interested, it would be for sale for $1500-completely restored.'

After his 'sermon', Sparky Holmes then stepped down from his tractor-deck pulpit and proceeded to lecture Angerreau McConnell how best to start his Huber. Uncorking the four spark plugs, and holding onto the wires and plugs, Spark Plug Holmes could soon tell if the spark was 'coming through' by the sudden jolts he got throughout his stocky frame, sufficient to make every whisker in his beard stand out straight from his chin and jowls. But Sparky didn't mind it, as for years he'd been used to doing it. But, as for Angerreau McConnell, turning the heavy crank in the hot July afternoon sun, he was ready to call it quits, whether the Huber started or not--which it did after Holmes re-corked the plugs, applied the wires and Angerreau leaned once more into the crank.

Stopping to examine the 1927 Willys-Knight sedan that Frank Cornish parked over by our Iron Man/Gas Engine stand, (which he said was my personal car to drive on the grounds, and which I could sell for $1500 if I got a buyer), Spark Plug Holmes lifted up the hood to comment on the Knight Engine.

'This Willys-Knight was one of the finest engines ever made,' quoth he. 'It had many good features, such as the sleeve valve which was quiet, they never wore out and never had to be ground like other cars. Besides it was the first car to ever have this unusual ignition system seen here, and the first to have a gas economizer installed in the engine.'

'Be he ever so humble--there's no one like Holmes'--Spark Plug Earl Holmes preaches a sermon on old-time tractors atop the deck of Angerreau McConnell's 1938 Huber Tractor. His methods of starting the big Aultman-Taylor Tractors was as humorous as any old-time stump speech or medicine show minstrel. (Could Mr. Holmes be descended from the illustrious lineage of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes?) (Or is he just 'Holmes on the plains?)

The fine old Willys-Knight which Frank Cornish has had completely rebuilt to tip-top original condition--one that brought back many memories to me as a lad who was privileged to ride only once in such a luxurious vehicle-was completely surveyed from stem to stern by the eagle eye of Spark Plug Holmes who, like a bearded patriarch of old, pronounced his blessing on it as a finely-preserved specimen in the classic car field.

From engine to engine, up and down the two long gasoline alleys of the Blue Grass Show, Spark Plug Holmes sauntered then paused in deepest thought as he listened intently to the off-again, on-again banging of each exhaust after which he philosophized as to the pros and cons of each. Should any brave soul venture forth to engage in verbal battle with our Spark Plug, by way of arguing some moot point, Holmes would hold his ground thusly, 'Well now, I've worked on about every blankety-blank kind of engine you see here and I know.'

Like a bearded patriarch of old. Spark Plug Earl Holmes drove the Joe Dear-pronounced his 'blessing' on the old tractor I made and especially the Delco Engine that powers it.

'I've worked on Internationals, Economy's, John Deeres--about any blankety-blank engine you can name,' was his reply. Then, stopping over by the Joe Dear, parked in front of the Stem-gas Publishing establishment, he paused. Peering intently, his head bent low and his beard brushing the vital parts, Holmes gave his official and priestly blessings to what he thought was a well-constructed little tractor. Stepping up onto it and taking his seat at the 'controls', he commented, 'The Delco Engine, in my estimation, was one of the best-designed and constructed of the old gas engines.'

I replied, 'Yes, it's only a horse-and-a-half engine, but despite that I plow our garden, pulling a nine-inch plow.'

'It makes no matter what the horsepower is, just so the engine does what it was intended to,' replied Holmes. 'It's a well-built engine. And people who don't know just can't understand the value of the long stroke and what it will do, when all they know are the later square-type engines.'

It amused me, watching Spark Plug Holmes drive the little Joe Dear, like the old-time comic strip of Foxy Grandpa who never let his fabulous grand-kids outdo him on anything.

'It sure runs mighty good,' he commented. Then, stepping down, he was off again, lost in the Sunday crowd of the Blue Grass Show. But, not being successful in evading me and my camera, we both wound up over by Forrest Cunningham's 23-65 Case Engine over by the ivy-covered silo.

'Here he comes again with that camera,' snapped Spark Plug Holmes to his gracious host, Forrest Cunningham, in front of the big Case. The two were shaking hands, directly in front of the big golden eagle on the smokebox front. It was a Methodist Brotherhood handshake at that.

'If I was to thresh and work engines, I'd of course choose gas, as it's easier to handle and get going on the job,' said Holmes. 'But when I want to play and fool around with an engine, then 1 prefer steam.'

'These blankety-blank gas engines are all right, and I like them, but there's something about steam that I love,' he went on.

Methodist Brotherhood handshake in front of the big Case Eagle. Spark Plug Earl Holmes, a Methodist Sunday School teacher for 30 years at Chestnut, Illinois shakes hands with Forrest Cunningham, superintendent of Methodist Sunday School at Harrodsburg, Kentucky. Forrest is a co-owner of the 23-65 Case. He is also a director at the Blue Grass Engine Show.

'You know, Mr. Holmes here is a Sunday School teacher in the Methodist Church in his hometown,' explained Cunningham. 'He can swear like a trooper, but he tells me he's never missed more than three Sundays teaching his class in over thirty years,' laughed Forrest. 'I'm superintendent of our Sunday School in the Methodist Church, here in Harrodsburg. I really ought to pin a medal on him for his record, don't you think?'

'Yes,' replied I. 'The medal could be for both the swearing and the Sunday School attendance.'

'By the way,' commented Holmes, waking up to the facts of life. 'You're the one who writes these stories in the magazines, aren't you? And some of them touch on religious subjects, too? Well, I showed some of them to my preacher back in Chestnut, Ill., and he liked them.'

But all has not been only gas engines, flivver motors, steam and Sunday School in the busy years that have made up the life of one Spark Plug Earl Holmes. For there was the stint he did during World War One training in the early air force of that day.

'I was trained under the English at Fort Worth, Texas. Mr. Vernon Castle was our instructor,' he went on.

'Vernon Castle and his wife, Irene, were famous dancers, back around 1913,' I reminded him. 'They gave many public exhibitions of expert dancing, and they invented the famous 'Castle Walk'.'

'Yes, that's right. Vernon Castle was head of our 84th Air Force Division,' reminisced Holmes. He and his wife, Irene, gave dancing instructions all over the world. (Can you imagine Spark Plug Holmes swinging the Castle Walk?) 'And on a Christmas Day, we had a big show in one of the hangers, a moving picture of Vernon and Irene Castle called, 'The Castles On The Seashore.' That was the title of the picture.'

Unscrewing the cap on his thermos bottle, commented Holmes, 'This is my favorite drink at any engine show. I buy 15 cents worth of ice water and crushed ice, and drink it. Real refreshing.'

Commenting on the array of Blue Grass Engines, reaching from horizon to horizon, Holmes summed it up this way. 'This is a nice show. There are lots of engines here, and I want to come hack next year. And if any of you happen through Chestnut, Ill., drop by and pay me a visit.'

To you, Spark Plug Earl Holmes of Chestnut, Ill.--for being an engine nut like all the rest of us nuts--we offer you a front-row seat in our Hall of Spark Plug Fame. For keeping the memories and know-how of the grand old gas engines and classic cars, the antique tractors, even the steam, alive for us today--we doff our Spark Plug Katy in deference to your fine and notable record. Keep those Sunday School doors ajar for all the rising generation and intersperse your Sunday lessons with an old engine memory now and then, to lend power to your 'preachin'. And don't worry if you happen to forget a cuss word or two now 'n then. The Lord works in mysterious ways-- you know.