MEMORIES OF WILLIE

For, Some Projects Just Take a Lot Longer Than Others

James River

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3511 Clydewood Avenue Richmond, Virginia 23234-2425

My parents moved to Richmond in 1944 and I went into the fourth grade. Willie and Mamie Collier lived in the five-room stucco bungalow across the street from our place. They also owned the extra lot next door to their house and an ancient paint-free Fordson tractor stayed under the big oak tree. Willie drove a rather decrepit looking 1935 Packard when they went to church and the grocery, and a beat-up pickup truck to the business he owned over in town.

Most summers Willie wanted to plant a garden in the extra lot, but it was too much to spade by hand, so Willie would try to get the Fordson running to plow the field. Those two had a constant disagreement: Willie would try to get the Fordson running and that old tractor would annually refuse to run. Usually by the time Willie got that old tractor to run, it was too late to plant.

In the Collier's backyard was a very decrepit old building made of corrugated galvanized metal. Part of it had once been a chicken coop, and the larger part was his home shop collection of stuff left over from the business. It was just jammed with old scraps of iron beams, bars, rails and pieces of machinery. In the midst of this collection was an old wood stove which occasionally got hot from pieces of old wood. There was only an oil-soaked dirt floor to hold all this stuff. It was a wonderful place for this school kid to visit.

Now Willie had his own business, Collier Bros. Machine Works, across the James River in a run-down industrial area of Richmond. The Federal Reserve Bank now occupies that property. The machine works was in a building which matched the tin shop at home, but was much larger. Again, it had only an oil-soaked dirt floor and a few light bulbs hanging in odd places from sagging rafters.

Willie was known to repair machinery all around the Richmond area. He worked on the boilers for several laundries which I believe were still run by steam. He would get called to go work on machinery at State Farm, a penitentiary 35 miles up the river, which is still operated by the State of Virginia.

Some regular income he received was for taking the flat spots off of railroad car wheels. He had an ancient lathe in which he could hold both wheels and axle and machine them smooth and round again. You could barely walk through the clutter of the place. It was just like the home shop except that the pieces were larger and heavier.

But smalltime maintenance was never a priority for Willie. To this day, I can recall that what passed for a restroom in this shop was a very dark place only five feet square with, maybe, a 25-watt bulb for light. It was one of those tiny sinks which mounted in the comer, and it is still the only sink I have ever seen on which the faucet dripped long enough to wear down the porcelain to the bare cast iron.

Sometime in the middle 1950s Willie decided to build a nice garage behind the house. The state had bought up the old industrial area and he had retired. The old shops were torn down, and the local scrap dealer gave him very little cash for the many truckloads of iron and steel that they hauled away. Of course, I watched all of this with great interest. While cleaning out the home shop, there came to light a 2 HP Jaeger hit and miss engine which was quite complete and not stuck, and a Fuller and Johnson water-cooled lawn mower which was stuck. Willie said he had bought it new about 1917. I expressed much interest in these two pieces and we arrived at a price of $25 for each of them. Willie was rather happy because the scrap man would have given him only a few cents for them.

I really had no idea what to do with either of these machines and knew of no one who could help. The Jaeger got moved several times, and it was 15 years later that I first saw it run when a friend borrowed it to take it to a small engine show.

I took the mower apart, cleaned away the dirt and some rust and painted it green and red with yellow pinstriping. It took several years of not knowing what I was doing to get the piston free.

Somehow I was able to borrow an original owner's manual for the mower. I was to copy it and return the original. Now in the early 1960s, copy machines were not everywhere as they are today. The only way to get a copy was to go to a blueprint shop. Well, when I went back to get my copies, I found that the shop had lost several pages of the booklet. I am still looking for a complete copy of this owner's manual.

The magneto was missing from the unit but I was able to find, in the manual, the make and model of the mag. I ran a want ad in Hemmings Motor News, and was quite surprised when a firm in California which was rebuilding old mags, wrote that they had one. I had found the name of someone in Denver who had one of these mowers which was running. He agreed to have the mag shipped to him and he would see that it had the right gear and would work on his machine. This all worked out fine and I eventually received the mag.

I was involved with being in the military for a while, and the mower parts remained scattered around our basement for several years. I got some of it back together but there was always some more parts to find. One day a mechanically inclined friend said he was tired of looking at it, and he would take it home and finish getting it together. It stayed in his garage for maybe two years, until he told me to get it out of the way. It still wasn't completely together. It sat next to the Jaeger in my garage for about eight more years.

Several years ago, I had the good luck to meet Leo Korb. He is known in this area for being able to make most any old engine go from a frozen piece of junk into a finely running machine in a short time. I found this to be true when he took my 6 HP Fairbanks which was frozen and missing all of the important parts. It didn't take very long for it to be complete and running. Leo talked about the Fuller & Johnson mower nearly every time he came to visit and finally, a few months ago, said, 'Let's get that thing on the truck. I'm going to see it run.'

Several weeks later, Leo called to say that yes, he had gotten it to run but it had proven to be the most difficult machine he had ever seen to get started. The mag has no impulse starter, and the tiny pulley on which you wind the rope is so small that you cannot get a spin on all that machinery enough to get it going. The only way we have been able to get it running is to jack up the rear of his truck and push the flywheel against the running tire. Rather contrary, but it works. It took a bit more than 40 years to see it run.

Now I will close with several questions:

Does anyone else have a Fuller and Johnson mower, running or not? The only other one I have ever seen was at The Old Threshermens' collection at Kinzer, Pennsylvania.

If there is one running, how do you get it started?

Does anyone have a complete owner's manual for this machine? I would like to get a complete copy if the original is not available.

Does anyone know if the mower which was in Denver around 1960 is still in some collection?