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.