P.O. Box 681 Amherst, Massachusetts 01004
Some boys like their engines small, some others like their engines large. The boys and their engines came in all sizes and ages to the Bernardston, Massachusetts, Gas Engine Show, held the weekend of May 29-30, 1993. Bernardston, an honorable old New England Yankee town of about two hundred years vintage, is a stone's throw south of the Vermont border and a wink off the main north/south highway, Route 91, a serpentine roll of tarmac that divides New England in half, parallel to the Connecticut River rambling lazily nearby.
It was a festive atmosphere, not unlike an old-time New England country fair. But the music was not banjos or guitars or bass fiddles. The music was engines, engines, and more engines, all singing their solos. Some sang intensely and fervently, but more engines were singing to the beats of different drummers, soloing so casually and deliberately and steadily.
The usual summer engine show gypsies camped on the spacious hayfield and availed their wares while spinning their tales for the engine fans and enthusiasts. Enthusiasts ventured from as far as Pennsylvania farmland, a day's journey from the south, to the Green Mountain state of Vermont, to the north, a few minutes for the crow in flight. And they came from Canada, the behemoth farther yet to the north that rains its geese (enroute to sunnier and warmer climes) upon New England's fields each fall.
Locally manufactured engines were sprinkled here and there among the many common makes. One, the Holyoke, was from a small foundry out of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Once one of the great paper manufacturing cities of the country, Holyoke, a milltown girded by canals and rivers, is now a shell of its former self, a rusty and decaying reminder of an abandoned inner city.
For this Massachusetts native, however, it was a real pleasure to see the local gas and steam marques. Originally used in the grist mills, lumber mills and furniture manufacturing industries that dotted New England's many rivers, the engines once again sang their symphonies but not to produce products. Now they produced pleasure for the ear of the beholder. The old timers remembered with relish the beat of the tunes of steel and steam, gas and air in this pastoral town at the foothills of the rolling Berkshire Mountains.
What I particularly enjoyed were the trans generational exchanges that I witnessed, as father and son, grandfather and grandson, and uncle and nephew or niece carried on their unique duets singing the virtues of their machines as they recalled them or as they manufactured big tales. Is it not a reward to witness in this age of disharmony and distraction from family wholeness some of us knew in our youth, a common thread of interest in the fabric of American life many of us experienced on the farm, in the shop or at the local mill? The legacy of the machinery fires in us who appreciate, maintain or restore a sufficient inspiration to finish another project for a show next year.
Besides the pleasure of recalling a simpler time, engine and vehicle restoration encourages us to play at that which once represented labor for so many Americans. But perhaps more importantly, it allows us to keep a slice of our history alive while we renew and recharge our memory juices and reaquaint ourselves with a kind of passion or, if that is too strong an impulse, an appreciation for working machines and the engineers who conceived them, the men who made them in the foundries and machine shops and persons like you and me who run them and maintain them.
Yes, I am saying that a person can love even an inanimate object like an engine or a tractor. A machine is just so much more than a hunk of iron or a skeleton of steel with arteries of copper or brass feeding it its staff of life, water, oil and fuel. It is so much more than electrical impulses and rubber footwear keeping steady pace. It is so much more than all of this wrapped in a coat of shiny new paint. It is part of our past. We are part of it. The Mississippi writer, William Faulkner, once wrote, 'History is not past. It is not even history.'
At the Bernardston Engine Show, as at shows throughout the land, the past is not relegated to the dustbins of neglect or indifferent memory. It lives on in our shows and in the participation of the folks who appreciate shows across the land. We ought to appreciate our efforts and those of our neighbors, whether they be from old New England Yankee towns or from the open plains in the Midwest or the mountains to the far West or from the sun belt of the rural South. We all ought to appreciate our-selves as we doctor a part of our history into the realm of rebirth. As I visit these shows I constantly marvel at the feeling of renewal I feel when watching, hearing and feeling life sigh, sputter or surge from an old engine.
I have a tired 1938 Allis Chalmers WC on steel sputtering right now. If you see it next summer at a show here in New England, you may be surprised at its transformation. But I won't be. It will have been nurtured, coaxed and weaned to accept new challenges dressed up in its graduation finest.