The Tale of Tillie

Being a Story of Birthdays and Oil Field Engines

Tillinghast Oil Field Engine

Content Tools

For many of us, the people and personalities in the engine hobby are what make it such a wonderful hobby to be connected to, and the story of 'Tillie' proves this beyond a doubt.

My husband, Jim, fell in love with oil field engines the first time he saw one at the Portland show in 1999. At Portland 2000, we joined the OFES (Oil Field Engine Society) and started looking at the big engines with a serious view to owning one at some point. Our first attempt at buying one off the Internet ended in dismal failure, which put Jim off buying one unless we could see it for ourselves. That experience also set me thinking. It was February 2001, and Jim's 40th birthday was coming up in June; Hmmm ... an oil field engine would make a rather spectacular present for a landmark birthday.

The Plot Thickens

A major problem, however, was secrecy. Jim and I have one computer connected to the Internet, and an e-mail address each. As whomever happens to be using the computer gets all the mail when it is downloaded, it seemed somewhat risky to rely on our e-mail accounts for correspondence. To work around this I set up a new e-mail account disguised as an inactive archive so Jim wouldn't be interested in it, and sent a message to a select group of friends from the Stationary Engine Mailing List outlining my plan and asking for help. The response was instant and enthusiastic. And almost immediately, one member of the group suggested an engine he knew was for sale by one of his contacts in West Virginia.

Bill Tremel, an avid oil field engine collector, has dreams of one day owning an example of every engine built in Washington County, Pa. At the time of my request, he had just acquired one of them, a Northrup, so a 15 HP B.D. Tillinghast he knew of would have to wait. But, maybe that engine would fit the criteria for what we were after? It was well within the price range, it was a half-breed with an interesting history, and Bill had access to a wealth of information from a Tillinghast relative he had met. This was sounding good!

On the last Sunday of April, three of the team went to look at the engine. The resulting news was mixed: The engine was in slightly worse shape than expected - the piston was seized, it was missing oilers and the rear connecting rod bearing, and it had a few freeze cracks, the worst of which was on the head. On the plus side, the cross head was in good condition, the fuel and intake valves were still on the engine, the rear babbitt was good, and there was a clutch pulley on it.

Although the question was asked - 'Is this the right engine?' - when I look back at the e-mails exchanged over those next few days, I think the decision had already been made - THIS was the right engine for a BIG project. Two weeks later Bill and another 'Tillie Team' member, Arnie Fero, went to collect her, taking plenty of photographs of the engine as they lifted it out from a bunch of other rusting flywheels and carefully placed her on Bill's trailer for the journey to western Pennsylvania. A couple of the pictures were posed 'specials' of the engine on the trailer with scenic backgrounds. Knowing there was no chance of getting the engine to England in time for Jim's birthday, my plan was to present Jim with a gift-wrapped photograph and an owner's certificate on Jim's big day.

The Resurrection

Back at Bill's farm, Tillie was unloaded and various measurements were taken to hand on to various team members. Penetrating oil was put in and around the cylinder to start work on freeing the piston, and the following day came the exciting news that the piston was already out - with a little encouragement from a hammer. The original rings were found to be serviceable, so they were removed, the ring grooves were cleaned and the rings reinstalled.

It was at this stage that the first suggestion came to give Jim more than just a picture of his engine - we would have enough for a book! Numerous digital photographs were taken of every stage of the work, and I kept all the e-mails that were flying back and forth daily, as they constituted an unforgettable record of who did what and how the work was progressing.

Bill, in the meantime, dug up some background information on the Tillinghast Machine Co., which, we learned, was founded in the 1880's as an oil field repair shop by Barrett Dyer Tillinghast. Later, Tillinghast and two other investors patented a steam/gas convertible, known as a D.C. & U. Tillinghast. The Tillinghast Company then started building kits, simple two-cycle gas cylinders for steam beds. With the kit came the balancing flywheel and sometimes a clutch. The same, basic cylinder design was built and used from early 1900 up until the late 1940s.

Over the following two or three weeks, the clutch pulley was freed off and the engine stripped down so the bedplate could be handed on to Dave Rotigel, who had been preparing to build the skids ever since the engine had first been sighted.

The rear bearings were proving to be a tricky problem, as no one either had any suitable brasses or had contacts who had any. Those going to the Portland swap meet were armed with dimensions for the brasses, and another member of the engine list, Dallas Cox of North Carolina, was called on to look through his collection of bearings. Dallas found one that was close enough, provided nothing better could be found, and assuming someone could machine it to fit.

Dave took pictures of the bedplate before and after cleaning it, and these pictures were circulated on the Internet and at the Coolspring show in Coolspring, Pa., in the hope that someone would be able to identify the steamer. The only casting marks were the numbers 13173 - possibly a casting date of Jan. 31, 1873?

It was now almost a month since the engine had been bought, and time for Jim's birthday. I called his book A Brief History of the Pennsylvania Oil Fields and the Oil Field Engines, and put several old pictures of the heyday of the oil fields on the cover, and one new picture - altered to make it look as old as the others - of 'Tillie.' The first section covered the birth of the oil industry, the use of steam engines for pumping oil and the development of the half-breed engine. It then went on to the engines built in Washington County - the Northrup, the Gardner and the Tillinghast. This section was finished with an e-mail Bill Tremel had sent to the engine list 18 months before, following his first meeting with B.D. Tillinghast's grandson, Don Goldreit. There was a copy of a short article about half-breeds, followed by the most significant page in the book - a photograph of Tillie on Bill's trailer, with the words 'Happy 40th Birthday, Jim -this is your B.D. Tillinghast 15 HP Half-Breed Oil Field Engine.' The following page introduced the next section: 'The story, told in e-mails and photographs, of how it was hunted down and captured, and is now being tamed at the hands of experts.' There were 28 pages of e-mails, 22 pages of detailed photographs, and the book was completed with a few pages of encouraging comments and heckling from various members of the team. A neighbor put the pages together for me with a spiral binding, and at a big family party Jim was given his book. I think it took Jim a couple of days before the realization sank in that he now actually OWNED an oil field engine -even if it was on the wrong continent!

Getting it Going

Meanwhile, progress continued. Slight traces of original paint were found that suggested the original steam engine to have been battleship gray, while the Tillinghast conversion parts were dark green. A crack in the cylinder was proving difficult to weld, but advice from both the engine mailing list and the OFES mailing list pooled knowledge on the subject and the crack was finally welded satisfactorily. The problem, it seems, was that every time the crack was welded it would open right back up after the cylinder had cooled down. Bill found a welder who used a special welding rod for cast iron, welding three-quarters of an inch every three hours and finally getting it to hold.

The head had been handed over to Craig Prucha in upstate New York, who is well known for his ability to restore complete basket-case engines. When he completed his work on it, he took it to Coolsprings, where Dave Rotigel's son, Dan, collected it, who then handed it over to Bill in Scottdale, Pa., at a Fort Allen club show so it could finally be reunited with the cylinder.

Dave and Arnie spent a lot of time making the skid out of 10-inch x 10-inch oak, sanding it to perfect smoothness and applying multiple coats of varnish. The wood came from Dave's neighbor, Andy Johnson, who runs a sawmill. Andy also provided invaluable help later in the project with his lifting equipment when it was time to put the 4,750-pound engine in place on the trailer.

By the end of July, work was speeding up. The plan was to take Tillie to the Portland show and have a full week running her, with access to plenty of advice from other oil field engine owners. Her debut, however, was to be at Bill's club show, National Pike, in Brownsville, Pa., where some of the key team members would be present for the first running. Also, Tillinghast's grandson was hoping to be there to see a Tillinghast engine come back to life.

Bill was working on gaskets, the hot tube chimney and various other parts, Arnie was doing the plumbing for the gas and water supplies, and Dave had decided that as there were only microscopic traces of paint left, he would paint the engine in its original two colors, gray and green. The rear bearing brasses were once again causing difficulties, and with time running out the team turned to a much-respected engine man, John Fankhauser, for help. John ran engines on oil leases during his working years, and now designs and builds model engines. John and his friend Bill Norris, working in 95° F heat to fit the rear bearing brasses on the engine in time for her first show, finally sorted things out.

The exhaust, which had come from Rick Monk in Michigan, was fitted, and about this time an e-mail dropped into my inbox from Ted Brookover in Missouri. Ted had been a team member for some time, offering encouragement and practical advice, but it seemed there was no call for his practical talents with magnetos and ignitors, or his considerable artistic abilities at detailing and pin striping. Tillie was hot-tube ignition, and all the historical information we could obtain suggested that her original appearance had been purely functional, with no pin striping. Ted had thought about how he could contribute something to the project, and finally hit on making a decal to put on the skids to identify the engine. This idea was greeted with great enthusiasm, and Ted set to work making two, 60-inch long decals reading 'Tillinghast Machine Co., Pat. 1899,' to be applied to the skids when we all met up at Portland.

Unfortunately, Jim and I were to miss the most exciting moment of the project, the first startup. We flew to America just a couple of days before the Brownsville show, and we were in New England, out of e-mail contact, for the crucial event. The day before the show, John finished fitting the brasses, Arnie plumbed in the gas and water, and Dave took her for a drive to make sure she was well secured on her trailer.

At 12:08 p.m. on Aug. 10, 2001, Tillie came to life, just as Don Goldreit, Tillinghast's grandson, who had himself worked in the company machine shop, arrived at the show. There was a problem with leaks into the water jacket, but a new gasket was cut overnight and Tillie was ready for running again the following day. Tillie was ready to meet her new owner!

On Aug. 15, the French family arrived in the Pittsburgh, Pa., area, heading almost immediately for a celebration cookout at Dave Rotigel's, where several team members had gathered for Tillie's presentation. Bill Tremel was unable to be there, but we had Dave Rotigel (skid building, painting and project coordinator), Arnie Fero (plumbing and assistant to Dave), John Fankhauser and Bill Norris (machining of bearing brasses), and Steve Webre of Louisiana. Steve had been in on the secret from the beginning - his love of the oil field engines had begun and grown alongside Jim's, and he had taken possession of his first oil field engine the day before. There was a ceremonial unveiling (removing the tarpaulin) to reveal Tillie in all her glory, decorated with 40th birthday helium balloons. Minutes later, Jim had his first lessons in running his own oil field engine, first at the business end with the gas valve, and later learning the art of tramping the flywheels to start her.

Some of the 'Tillie Team' in Portland: Sitting on the trailer, left to right, is Dave Rotigel, Jim French, Helen French and Reg Ingold. Standing on trailer, Rick Monk (upper left) peers over Dallas Cox's shoulder, Arnie Fero (barely visible) hides behind John Fankhauser, Christian French leans on a flywheel, Mel and Steve Webre stand to his left, and Ted Brookover stands in back.

Tillie in Portland

The following week was spent at Portland, with Jim listening to advice from engine list friends, fellow OFES and other oil field experts who take their engines to the show. Tillie ran well, particularly after she was fitted with a new gas regulator, and by the middle of the week Jim was able to start her single-handed for the first time, much to his delight. When she gets back to England, there won't be anyone to whom Jim can turn for hands-on knowledge. Ted applied the decals to the skid, and we decided having him and his paints handy was too good an opportunity to miss, so Tillie was subtly adorned with pin striping on her cylinder and flywheels. Two small oilers were replaced to get the 'look' right, and Jim stripped down the Powell oiler to try to stop it leaking. At this point Brice Adams of Indiana, the founder of the engine mailing list, remembered he'd found a Powell oiler he had no use for in a box of brass parts he'd bought. Another contributor to the project!

Jim French's 15 HP B.D. Tillinghast oil field engine. Through an amazing group effort, this engine was restored and presented to Jim at this year's Portland show, a 40th birthday present from his wife, Helen.

At Easter time, when the project was in its infancy, we had a visit from another list member, Reg Ingold of Australia. When I had a chance, I told Reg what was going on, showed him the pictures we had at that stage, and so recruited another team member. After Jim's birthday, Reg asked if he could have a copy of the book I had made, and that set me thinking. To make about 15 copies, one for each team member, would prove difficult. But, I thought, we're all familiar with computers - after all, that's what brought us together - so the day before we left for America I gathered together the most up-to-date e-mails and pictures of what was happening. I then updated the original book I had made for Jim, and was able to give a 'Story of Tillie' CD-ROM to those present at Portland, mailing copies to friends in California and Wisconsin as required. A printed copy sat with Tillie during the show so people could see just what an extensive project it had been.

Back in February, when I set this all in motion, I had absolutely no idea what would evolve. I think I had expected my friends to find a complete engine, something that could be stored, untouched, until we arrived for the Portland show. The fact that so much time and effort was put into completely restoring this engine makes it much more of a treasure than any iron could possibly be - every person who contributed their skills put something of themselves into Tillie. When Tillie is sitting under the apple trees in our garden in England, or running on a rally field here, every sight and sound of her will be a constant reminder of the love of many distant friends.

Helen French compiles the Stationary Engine List for Gas Engine Magazine. She lives in Leicester, England, with her husband, Jim. Contact her via e-mail at:

'At 12:08 p.m. on Aug. 10, 2001, Tillie came to life, just as Don Goldreit, Tillinghast's grandson, who had himself worked in the company machine shop, arrived at the show.'