Several years ago, my father-in-law, John Nahrwold, told me about a big gas engine that was in the basement of an elevator at Grabill, a small farming community in northeast Indiana. Last spring the subject was mentioned again. My father, Oscar Schuller and son, Mark, John and I went to the elevator to see the engine. I knew it was big from what John had told me, but I wasn't expecting the sight that my eyes met when I walked down the steps into the basement.
Mounted 8 feet wide, 20 feet long, and 6 feet deep sat the biggest one cylinder engine I had ever seen. The engine itself was 17 feet long and the two flywheels were 6 feet high. One flywheel was 10 feet wide and the other was 17 feet. The piston was 7 feet long. Nearby sat a generator which the engine powered to furnish electricity to operate the elevator. The engine and generator were covered with dust and cobwebs. Everything was there, just as they had stopped using in 1947. We opened the engine cover and using a pry bar turned the flywheel and found that the engine still had compression. After cleaning the nameplate, we saw that it was a Buckeye Oil Engine manufactured by the Buckeye Machine Company in Lima, Ohio.
Several people had expressed interest in the engine, but no one could figure out a way to get it out of the basement. John had several ideas to solve the problems in removing the engine and also how to transport it after it was out. My brother-in-law, John Michael Nahrwold, was also interested in preserving the engine. After discussing the various possibilities, the four of us, John Nahrwold, John Michael Nahrwold, Oscar Schuller and I decided to buy the engine.
All four walls, as well as the ceiling and floor of the basement, were cement with the exception of a 6-foot section of wall behind the engine which was cement block. There was a cement beam directly above the engine. We assumed that the engine had been brought in through the 6' opening and then it was closed. To line up with the cement block section, the bolts still holding the engine to the cement foundation had to be cut and the engine moved forward 4 feet and to the left 4 feet.
Removing the Buckeye
By the last week of July we had our plans and equipment ready to remove the engine. We had to get the engine out during the weekend of August 3-5 since the elevator wanted to stay in operation during the week. Using rollers and jacks we slid the engine under the cement beam and moved it in front of the cement block section. The flywheels rubbed the bottom of the beam on the way under it so it was a tight fit.
After the elevator closed Friday afternoon, we removed the cement blocks which crumbled from age, and we dug a trench to the basement using a backhoe. The special trailer to carry the engine, that John designed and built by revamping an old car-hauling trailer, was backed into the trench and lined up in preparation for Saturday's work.
Bright and early Saturday morning we started moving the engine out of the basement and onto the trailer using a winch, jacks and steel rollers. John had welded a ramp to the back of the trailer to make it easier to load the engine. Again we had a tight fit with the flywheels scraping the top of the opening. It was a slow process of pulling, jacking and blocking to lift the engine up and over the tires on the trailer to get enough clearance to get the flywheels in front of the tires. Of course, a crowd gathered to watch the progress of what had been called an impossible task. After hours of slow, patient work, the engine was finally in place on the trailer. John's calculations on the trailer were so good that we only had to drop the 1 foot diameter bolts into place and fasten the engine to the trailer.
After a break for a picnic lunch brought by our wives, we hooked a semi-tractor and two 90 HP diesel tractors to the trailer. The crowd watched with anticipation as the engine was pulled from the hole after 44 years underground.
To satisfy curiosity, the engine was taken to a scale nearby and weighed. Our estimate of 15 tons was only short by 10 pounds. Adding the weight of the trailer of 2 tons makes quite a load.
After removing the generator and other pieces of machinery, we started replacing the cement blocks and closing the hole. The weather had been nice, but rain Saturday and Sunday caused some problems in finishing the job. However, we met our schedule and had everything finished by Sunday evening.
The history of the Buckeye
As we know it, the history of the engine starts in 1935 when a disastrous fire destroyed the elevator and flour mill in Grabill. The owners at that time decided immediately to rebuild. A 220 line was necessary to power the machinery of the new elevator, flour mill and the hammer mill used for custom grinding. Since only a 110 line was available in Grabill, the management decided to purchase a new 125 HP engine from the Buckeye Machine Company. The company is no longer in operation, but was considered a reputable firm in heavy machinery. The flywheels, weighing several tons each, were shipped separately and installed after the engine was mounted on the foundation. The engine was used until 1947 to power a generator which produced 440 electricity for the motors which ran the elevator.
The current owner of the elevator said they quit using the engine after "the governor went wild" ripping loose the bolts that anchored the engine to the concrete foundation. Since the electricity necessary to operate the elevator was then available, it was decided not to repair the engine.
Glenn Lederman, who operated the elevator when the engine was working, stated, "There's nothing wrong with that engine. It was in good shape when it quit. We had it started once since then, but couldn't leave it run because it would have flown apart."
In talking with other people who knew about the engine, we were told that you could hear it for miles around when it was running. The windows in town would shake and rattle especially when the engine would misfire and get a double load of fuel on the next firing.
Our plans for restoring the engine to operating condition have received a set-back due to the unexpected death of John Nahrwold last fall. He was the engineer and the driving force behind this undertaking.