That Old Guy That Shows No More

By Staff
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Dale (left) practices some 'homespun philosophy' on 'Red' Faulconer (right) of Orange, Virginia, at the 1983 Madison County Gas Engine Show.
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Dale looks over the WICO E-K on this old cement mixer found out in the weeds behind the barn. 'The fun is finding them and fixing them up!' Dale would say.

2843 Mistwood Forest Drive, Chester, Virginia 23831-7041

Today’s America has somehow forgotten the heroes of the
industrial revolution that mechanized the farmlands and small town
industries that helped make what we take for granted today. Over
the past few years, I have taken notice that fewer and fewer of the
‘old guys’ are showing up at the gas and steam engine
shows. You know what I mean, those ‘old guys’ who always
drew a crowd of modern day collectors as they told the stories of
technological or agricultural days gone by. Those stories added
flavor to the hobby and brought some life to the cold iron that was
on display. Nothing beat a real life experience of what equipment
used to do and what part it played in mechanizing America’s
heartland. Stories not only included what the machine did, but also
their primitive ways and idiosyncrasies, as well as tidbits about
the people who operated them. These story tellers realized the
value of their experiences and the need to pass them on. For most,
it was not the work of ego but the work of true love for the
accomplishments of the American farmers and their part in making it
happen.

It all started for me in 1983. A local community college
professor, Jim Latta, introduced me to a ‘unique guy’ by
the name of Dale Zickefoose. I met up with Jim one night at
Dale’s house in the prestigious west end of Richmond, Virginia.
After walking in the front door of this well appointed house, I
thought I had made a wasted trip to visit a trinket collector or
something of the like. After we chatted for a while, I guess Dale
felt comfortable enough with me to carry us to the basement.
(Editor’s note: ‘Carry’ in this case is a Southern
expression meaning ‘to take.’) It didn’t take long to
tell that this uptown house had a down home cellar. The basement
was packed with every imaginable mechanical device made during the
early days of American farming. Each piece had its own story. The
dead air in the basement sprung to life as the line shafts hanging
from the ceiling shook the entire house. That night, we fired up
for the first time Dale’s recently restored Ellis gas engine.
This engine was featured on the back cover of the Gas Engine
Magazine January 1986 issue. After leaving Dale’s that night, I
knew I was hooked for life.

After several months of visits with Dale, he saw fit to take me
to ‘the chicken house.’ I didn’t understand the value
of a chicken house other than it may be full of chickens. Boy, was
I wrong. Overwhelmed by the splendor of his collection, under one
roof, I witnessed the operation of 26 different types of gas
engines and an array of horsepower configurations. Uniquely, each
engine was accompanied with a piece of farm equipment to be run by
it. Dale maintained that you could not adequately demonstrate an
engine without properly operating a piece of equipment with it.
‘It is the only way to show how it was used on the farm,’
Dale replied. As O. Winston Link worked to capture by photograph
the late days of steam locomotives, Dale Zickefoose spent the last
thirty years of his life rescuing ‘old iron’ from farm
dumps, barnyards, and corn cribs. Although Dale’s mission did
not capture the end of an era like the steam locomotive, Dale did
capture and pass on the real life mechanical experiences of most
Americans who grew up on the farm, regardless of size or type.

Dale attested that his displays should show the full scope of
farm use. A corn sheller could not be demonstrated without a fodder
chopper and hammer mill operation. His Westinghouse 32 volt D.C.
generator belted to a 1909 Middleditch could not be demonstrated
unless it was accompanied by his 32 volt fan, butter churn, lamp,
and blower. To witness a Zickefoose demonstration was to witness a
snapshot of full view from start to finish.

Dale was born into a family of eight on June 18, 1912, in
Crawfordville, Iowa, and his stories told over the years summed up
the life of a poor Iowa farmer to a pretty well off oil pipeline
quality manager. It wasn’t until Dale’s death on April 10,
1994, that I reflected and realized the true value of Dale’s
life and all of the others like him who lived through and
contributed to the hard times and efforts as America’s heart
land metamorphosed to what it is today. A few months ago, my friend
Larry Jones of the Smithsonian Institution and I got together and
swapped stories about Dale’s life and experiences. Larry had
known Dale for about 10 years before I entered the scene, and has
probably forgotten more stories than I have ever heard. We decided
to get together some of Dale’s old stories on paper to
‘pass on’; to share in an unwritten history of days gone
by; to remind you of someone you know or who has passed (passed
away or died); or to make you wonder what happened to that old guy
who doesn’t show any more.

Certainly, one of Zickefoose’s greatest philosophies was
‘Perception is greater than reality.’ He would begin his
justification for this belief with a story about his neighbor and
work it into a technical situation. While frequenting the local
country store down the lane, a neighboring woman visited the grocer
with a bowl full of freshly churned butter. The lady stated her
case that she had found a mouse in the bowl of butter and that she
fished it out making the butter okay. She followed by saying that
she wanted to trade her butter for some of the grocer’s butter
because she could not eat her butter having thoughts of the mouse
having been in it. The grocer quickly agreed and disappeared into
the back room to bring out some new butter. He soon returned with a
freshly molded butter block and sent the lady on her way. After she
cleared the doorway, the grocer broke out laughing and explained to
Dale that he, in fact, had molded her own butter, thereby relieving
himself of the contaminated butter she had brought and creating a
pleased customer at the same time. Dale would continue to link this
story to molding the farmland. Dale was one of the people to
witness Barney Old field driving an Allis-Chalmers on pneumatic
tires at the Iowa State Fair in 1932. Dale said there was jeering
and heckling from the farmers all around the race track making fun
of the rubber tires on this A-C. The first demonstration was made
by running the tractor around the track at a high rate of speed.
This brought more heckling and jeering from the crowd. However,
when they began to compete against other brands of tractors at the
fair on steel, the A-C on rubber out plowed and out-pulled the
other tractors on steel. The demonstration was followed up by a
race around the track to exhibit the great speed of the A-C
floating on air. Needless to say, the attitude of the farmers and
onlookers was changed to give this new animal a second chance.
Certainly the reality of the new speedy super tractor did not come
out for years until in Walt Beuscher’s book, The Plow Peddler,
where Walt told of these demonstrations at state fairs and how
Harry Merrit, General Manager of A-C and great promoter of
perception, had road gears installed in the tractors which were
used in demonstrations to increase ground speeds.

By catching on to this perception and profiting in reality, a
few years later Dale signed on with the International Harvester
Corporation and joined in the act. Dale’s first job with IHC
was to travel with the WD-40, a semi-diesel. Being of a height of
under six feet, but of great strength, Dale was assigned the job of
traveling with the WD-40 to state fairs and farm machinery shows.
His task was to crank the WD-40 by hand to demonstrate that even
the shortest of persons could easily crank this horse of an
engine.

Following the stint with the WD-40, while living in Minnesota,
Dale had honed his skills on how to sell things by perception.
International Harvester felt he was so good at this that they set
him up in a new D series International pickup in which he traveled
the countryside selling IHC cream separators and milking machines.
He often boasted that he sold cream separators, even at a time when
their popularity was dropping off, by perceiving that each home
could survive with a small garden plot, a dairy cow, and a cream
separator.

Shortly following, World War II broke out and IHC changed into
military production and laid off its sales staff. Dale’s
military ambition was to be a Navy instructor, but he failed the
physical due to lymphoma. Dale finally broke serious and became a
school teacher. He often boasted that he taught science, physics,
math, and ‘homespun philosophy.’ One of his students caught
his eye and they got married, had more kids than I could count, and
moved to Virginia in 1963. Dale attested that marrying a woman
eight years younger would help keep him young.

Dale changed gears somewhere along the way and became a
petroleum pipeline quality control manager. Richmond’s Colonial
Pipeline Company signed him on in 1963, and he came east ahead of
the family. Dale’s greatest act of perception was ahead of him
as he convinced his kids to move east. Dale bought a puppy that had
not even been born yet and the act began. He wrote the kids back in
the midwest daily about how big the pregnant dog was getting and
that ‘their’ puppy was growing inside of it. Dale often
commented that those kids were so anxious to go east to see the dog
that they didn’t even get homesick. Following the move, the one
that did get homesick was Dale.

Dale longed for other mechanical tinkering that he had so
enjoyed while living in Iowa. Although he had outgrown the antics
of hot wiring the hogs’ slop trough and pestering the barnyard
felines, he still had that urge to hunt for old iron and watch
things run. As the Colonial’s pipeline moved up into Virginia,
Dale had every surveyor and construction worker scouring the
right-of-way ahead for old gas engines and farm implements. I often
wonder how many ‘kinks’ were made in the pipeline in order
to take that barn or shed with something good in it!

Dale’s collection grew, and by the 1970s steam and gas
engine shows began to pop up around the area, giving Dale the
opportunity to show off his old iron and tell a few stories. Before
long, people from all over would write or come by to swap some
tales. You always knew a good one was coming when Dale would start
off a story with, ‘Sayyy, I remember when…’

Dale’s stories would pop up from nowhere. He would make fun
out of the simplest tasks such as fixing the point gap on a Model T
spark coil. Dale asked, ‘Sayyy, do ya know how much hair wire
is in this thing?’, as he worked the coil over. Of course, as
usual, it was always a rhetorical question with Dale. After all
guesses were in, he replied in plain sense, ‘Enough to reach
Billy Finks’ and back.’ (Billy Finks was the Iowa farm
owner next door.) Dale and his brother unwound a T coil just to see
how much wire was in it. It reached round trip and got caught up in
his dad’s mowing machine the following season. Dale recalled,
‘Dad couldn’t figure out where all that damn wire kept
coming from.’

Dale shared some of his thoughts on religion in plain English.
He stated frequently that a local Iowa blacksmith had a good handle
on heaven and hell. He advised Dale that there were three sure fire
ways a blacksmith could go to hell. One was to bang on cold iron,
two was to spit in the quench pot, and three was to not charge
enough. Dale lived by these beliefs and even added one of his own
to the listnever paint over rust!

I was always impressed by Dale’s sense of immortality. One
day he and I were looking over a six horsepower Mogul with a
mechanical lubricator that belonged to Bill Roberts, a friend of
ours. Dale asked Bill if he would sell it to him, and Bill said,
‘No.’ Dale replied, ‘Well, just leave it to me in your
will.’ Bill Roberts was about twenty years younger than Dale
and in a lot better shape than Dale was!

As time grew into the 1990s, Dale fell into poor health.
Recovering from a head injury and brain aneurysm, Dale scaled back
his collection to miniatures and scale models that he could handle.
He made it a point to sell his ‘good stuff’ to his
collector friends at a great discount because he knew it would be
in good hands. Father Time caught up with Dale, and he was moved
into a nursing home. Lymphoma, his diagnosed cause for failing the
military physical in 1940, had taken its toll and Dale slipped
away. My last visit to Dale was within ten days of his death and he
was semi-conscious. We chatted about the metal lathe he had sold me
and talked about gas engines for awhile. Dale’s departure on
April 10, 1994, was peaceful with his wife Ida at his side. The
funeral service brought out gas engine collectors that had not
shown in years. Dale’s son, Bob, summed up his father’s
entire life in one sentence, ‘My father was a teacher to all
those that paused to listen, and I cannot say that I have one bad
memory about my life and times that I spent with my father.’
Dale now rests in Thornton, Iowa, and lives on in the minds of us
who had the honor of hearing his stories and reliving his
experiences. We all miss Dale and all of those other ‘old
guys’ who don’t show anymore.

Author Kevin Page would like to acknowledge the contributions
made to this article by Larry N. Jones, Preservationist, of the
Smithsonian Institution.

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Preserving the History of Internal Combustion Engines