Little calliope

Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390.

Don Murdoch

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

He was the most apologetic, unobtrusive little fellow on the grounds.

'Would it be all right if I set up my equipment here? If not, I can move elsewhere, or I don't even need to set up at all if I might be in the way,' came the humble pleas from the timid one. Indeed, had someone sneezed or coughed in the wrong direction, and at just that very moment, the whole grand extravaganza might suddenly have vanished--man, equipment and all--leaving us the poorer by far.

But no one coughed or sneezed at that particular instant, and the little fellow was busy unpacking his small traveller's valise out of which came a common housewife's cannister vacuum sweeper, a yardage of flexible hosing and a diminutive keyboard that looked like a little tot's toy piano.

'Borrowing' a folding chair that someone had just got up from, lighting a cigarette and placing his left hand on the tiny keyboard, during the moments that followed we weren't sure whether the back end of our red farm truck was a circus calliope on parade or The Robert E. Lee steaming down the Mississippi.

But we were hearing some of the sweetest steam calliope ditties of the old-time riverboat and circus varieties wafting from the little brass whistles protruding up from the tiny keyboard. Using the tail-gate of our farm truck for a stage and the truck bed as acoustics for his concert hall, Benny Powell was making his debut performance on the little air-calliope he had just finished and fetched to the Blue Grass Steam and Gas Show at Harrodsburg Fairgrounds, Kentucky. Like any first-nighter appearance, Benny was bowing graciously after each number to the cheering crowd gathered around his 'open-air' concert hall--his fingers typically a bit nervous, but enjoying every moment of his initial triumph in the performing musical arts. The applause called for encore after encore--the smiling, bowing Benny playing on and on throughout the rest of the day.

It was the cutest, neatest little calliope we had ever seen which sounded for all the world like the big ones on boats or wheels. And the thrill of it all was in no way diminished when, at the close of his concert, Benny Powell packed his entire rig back into the little suitcase and carried it by one arm back to his car--putting it to bed for the next day.

But the most amazing part of Benny Powell's concert was the fact that he made the calliope and played it with one arm--having lost his right arm from a German tank shell while serving as air coordinator in France during World War Two. For 3enny Powell is a superb mechanic--more properly a mechanical engineer, capable of out-stripping most fellows with two arms in accomplishing whatever he decides to build.

They laughed when I sat down to play-', but after he began playing his little calliope, Benny Powell was the one who was laughing. He made his concert debut, using the tail-gate of our pick-up truck for a 'music hall', at Blue Grass Show Harrodsburg, Kentucky.

It's not Fred Flintstone in the Flintstone--it's Benny Powell, driving the little golf cart with the fringe on top, which he made for his late father. 'It's powered by a 6 HP Wisconsin engine', he says. 'Dad liked it so well, he drove it to town for the morning mail and other errands'.

Benny Powell's calliope fits into a small, suitcase-like box, easily carried on the running board of his 'custom' touring car, built and designed on an old Dodge chassis.

And as we followed Benny over to his conveyance to observe how he transports his diminutive calliope, we were further surprised to see him stack it on a spacious old-time running board of a snazzy custom touring car--his freelance version of the classical car which he had designed and made over an old Dodge chassis. The folding top was up, to furnish shade for the summer day, the antique headlights and prominent fenders, the straight lines, the un stream lined radiator and windshield, the strap-iron bumper and klaxon horn, protruding out in front, all reflected the grand atmosphere of highway travel in The Good Old Days with a flare that belonged solely to Benny Powell, the one-armed mechanical genius.

It was after the Blue Grass Steam and Gas Engine Show was over, that we were afforded an opportunity to visit the work-shop haunts of Benny the innovator over by Danville, Kentucky, upon the invitation of his friend, Angerreau McConnell, who provided the transportation to and from. Here it was that we observed Powell the genius, tuning up the brass air-whistles to his amazing little calliope. Here he explained how he had made all the brass whistles, and the little keyboard, including the mechanical couplings that made up the action between keys and pipes, releasing each tone at the slightest touch. This was but Benny Powell's first venture into the field of air calliopes, and he was already busy planning a larger, more sophisticated keyboard console in the future on his shop drawing boards, as envisioned in his ever-inventive brain case.

Benny Powell took us a ride on his 'Little Toot', stern wheeler along Herrington Lake, Kentucky. It's an eye-stopper wherever Benny navigates. Even more so, when he takes his calliope along and plays it. Powered by an 85 HP Falcon engine, Benny says it uses only 8 HP to cruise. It looks like three stacks on top deck--one is ventilation for blowing the boat whistle. The other serves as exhaust for playing the calliope. The third one happens to be my wife waving 'Ship Ahoy'--to me, a landlubber, balancing on a rock jutting out of the lake as I snapped my camera.

What we had seen so far was only just a beginning. Though we were not disillusioned about being anywhere else than the grounds around Benny Powell's homestead and work shop, we were now and then wondering if perchance some Hollywood Television Movie Sets might not be far away.

Was it, or was it not, Fred Flintstone that we saw motoring up the winding lane leading toward Benny's house and work shop area in what looked like the familiar stone-age version of a Flint-mobile? We were ready to bet an entire carton of sugar-coated Wheaties that it was, until the flop-topped jalopy ground to a halt before us and it was Benny Powell, not Fred Flintstone, that was waving and smiling before us. He explained that he had built the modern version of the stone age Flint mobile primarily as a golf cart for his father's use.

'Dad liked this little car so well he used it to run to town and get the morning mail and on many of his other errands,' laughed Benny Powell, lifting up the hood to give us a view of the 'power' that drove it. 'I used a six-horse Wisconsin Engine to run it,' said he. 'And I have made another one similar to it, powered also by a six-horse Wisconsin, sitting down in the barn.'

A look-see into Benny Powell's magic-filled barn was like a visit to the back-shops of some movie set or carnival storehouse. There were other little vehicles, all of one-lung or two-lung internal-combustion torque; little racers and hot-rods, a tiny fire engine and various small cars, the like of which kids dream of, in various stages of planning and completion.

After explaining the diverse fantasies that make up his barn dreamland, Benny Powell was off again, racing his Flint-mobile around the circular lanes of his country estate, dodging trees and shrubs, looking more than ever like Fred Flintstone in a mad dash to beat his wife home from an evening at the local stone age night club.

Though the afternoon shadows were already lengthening, Benny Powell had saved his biggest surprise for the last. We just had time for Angerreau Mc-Connell to drive us down through the lovely Kentucky hills where we climbed down the steep embankments of Herrington Lake for a ride on Benny's 'Little Toot' stern-wheeler which looks for all the world like a page out of a Disneyland storybook.

'I worked three winters on planning and building this,' explained Benny. 'I powered it with an 85-horsepower Falcon engine, but use only 8-horsepower. With two-speeds forward and one reverse, I can cruise along the lake at five miles an hour in second gear, but can go eight if necessary.'

Benny had the engine re-worked, built his own manifold, rigged a pump on it, and uses a regular automobile clutch and transmission.

'The motor sets in backwards and is run just like you drive a car,' says he. 'You guide the boat with a regular car steering-wheel, and I have all the instruments--a speedometer, oil-pressure gauge and temperature gauge. But I also have red lights to warn some of the fellows who don't watch their gauges when they run my boat.'

The two tall, picturesque river-boat stacks atop the pilothouse, lend a crowning glory to Benny's storybook 'Little Toot' stern-wheeler which faithfully resembles the large prototypes after which it was fashioned.

'One stack is for ventilation, the other one is for exhaust,' says Benny. 'The ventilation is furnished by an automobile air-conditioner compressor and is used to blow the whistle. The exhaust stack has a 3-pound hinged weight or flop-valve for the purpose of running my air-calliope when I get it installed.'

'The stern paddle-wheel wasn't as hard to make as it was to paint,' laughs Powell. 'It's chain-driven from a drive-shaft running down the left, or port-side through a universal joint and drive-shaft mounted on pillow blocks to a Crosley rear-end. The Crosley rear-end has no spider gears. It's only a straight shaft and from there connects by a 100-chain directly to the wheel.'

Benny's stern-wheeler boasts all the accommodations the large river boats incorporate.

'We have a shower on board which we rig up by means of a hose we call the 'lovely pink snake' to our garbage bucket punched with holes which is hung overhead so everyone can have a warm shower,' explains Benny. 'We have a two-burner gas stove for cooking our own meals, and a counter to serve from. We even have a 'john' behind it on the poop deck--for 'short people' whose heads don't stick up above the counter,' chuckles Cap'n Powell.

We were the center of all river eyes, the five of us cruising down Herrington Lake in Benny Powell's 'Little Toot'-- Angerreau McConnell, Carl Smith, Benny, my wife and me--even without the nostalgia of the riverboat calliope which he plans to install when all the bugs are worked out. From cabins and docks all along the shores came hand waves and cheers from the little groups congregated to see the tiny stern-wheeler cruise past.

In the pilot house of 'Little Toot'-I. to r. Carl Smith, my wife, Pat, Benny 'Spark Plug' Powell at the pilot wheel and Angerreau McConnell. I was precariously balancing on the prow and focusing my blunderbuss camera.

This past summer of 1971, my son, Danny, and I restored two Stover engines, one 4 HP and a 2 HP. We would like some information or history on the Stover Engine Works.

That's Danny above with the restored 2 HP Stover engine. We think the date of this engine is about 1916.

We both enjoy your magazine very much.

You should really see them go wild, when I bring along the little calliope and play it,' shouted Benny over the sloshing of the paddle-wheel and the rumbling of the rigging as the sleek little welded hull glided over Herrington Lake.

'It took me half a winter to make the little calliope,' explained Benny. 'Most of that time was taken up by book-work, studying up how to make it. My wife was so helpful, going to the library and bringing home books on calliopes for me to read, getting in the mental work and research. Then I had a friend that teaches physics at Center College who got me a book that gave me a lot of help, as far as theory goes, what makes a whistle 'whistle', the corrections and things like that. You just can't run down to the corner and ask your 'friendly calliope maker' to tell you what to do in a thing like this.'

Benny made up all the twenty-eight whistles on his calliope which incorporates a little over two octaves.

'But I wound up making around forty-five whistles before I got what I wanted,' muses Powell. 'It starts with A, with a frequency of 440 and goes up through two octaves to the following C. A neighbor lady gave me an old vacuum cleaner to run the calliope,' laughed Benny. 'I checked out the blowing side and it gives about a pound-and-a-half pressure.'

'The full length of this lake is thirty-six miles and we've been into every slough along it,' says Benny. 'But our longest runs have been on Kentucky Lake, the full length which is two-hundred and sixty miles. We've even gone beyond the navigational limits, as this boat doesn't draw much water.'

'Then we've been out on the Ohio River as far as sixteen miles, up through Marquand Lock from Carrolton,' added Benny Powell, scanning his navigation charts like an 'Old Salt' just returned from the briny deep.

After several years of irregular work the old 30-60 Aultman-Taylor came to life and strutted its stuff at the 1971 SW Iowa Antique Machinery Show. The tractor was purchased from Kenneth Barr of York, Nebraska several years ago by A. C. Eshelman. The operators of this tractor for the show were Max Miller and Leland Romig of the Grant, Iowa area.

This is an interesting engine and very pleasant to listen to. It is a 2 cycle American Sawmill Company engine of the 3 hp size. The gas tank is not original and I understood that a drip oiler fed the oil instead of mixing the oil and gas. Am I correct?

The afternoon shadows had lengthened almost into evening, when Benny set me off on a craggy rock jutting from the banks of Herrington Lake, to get a snapshot of his pert and seaworthy 'Little Toot'. On the way back to the dock, each was afforded a short stint at the rudder wheel and throttle, just to capture the feel of being Cap'n of a boat for a minute or two.

As we hove into shore, Benny said, 'You-all had better get on up those long steps before it's too dark, while I put 'Little Toot' to bed for the night. Don't worry about me--I know those steps so well I've come up them many a time in pitch darkness.'

We knew when we had arrived back at the Benny Powell country home. There were the signs in the trees that reflected the wily Kentucky humor which Benny had posted here and there. 'Drive Slow--Little People At Large', which years ago had warned that his kids might be playing in the lane. And the sign 'Householder', leading to the house next door where his 'in-laws' live--and to which all junk mail, addressed 'Householder' arrives, much to Benny's utter amusement.

To you, Benny Powell, modern innovator of the Flint mobile, the steamboat calliope and the fabled stern-wheeler of riverboat fame, the 'Little Toot'--we doff our Spark Plug katy in deference to your superb accomplishments and the right to a seat in our vaunted Hall of Spark Plug Fame. For overcoming your Second World War wounds, at the hands of a German tank while dispatching our Air Force planes in France, serving as prisoner of the Germans and lingering for months in an army hospital--yet reclaiming for us and future generations a glorious era of our past--we thank you and honor you for the heroic struggle.

Instead of defeat, looking to a life of uselessness, you have shown us the way and brought courage and blessing to all.

And, as his Boy Scout deed for the day, may we hope that Angerreau Mc-Connell will convey your correct address to president Carl Secchi, as a rightful recipient to one of those Blue Grass-Champion Spark Plug Plaques, as a very special award for merit.