Bert’s a Wizard When It Comes To Engines

By Staff

Sent to us by Lorraine Martyn, 1375 Eleventh Avenue, Edgar,
Wisconsin 54426, this article appeared in the Stevens Point
Journal, of Stevens Point, Wisconsin 54481.

Bert Gordee has begun taking time to enjoy his status as one of
Steven Point’s mechanical wizards.

At 84two decades later than most folkshe’s joining the ranks
of the retired, to amuse himself by tinkering with his collection
of purchased and self-made engines instead of repairing ones
belonging to others.

Bert, who lives at 516 W. Harding Street, Stevens Point,
Wisconsin, has been a mechanic since he was a teenager, and
that’s so long he’s developed a language all of his own.
His ‘mechanicese’ and references to parts and processes of
engines are sprinkled into most of his conversations.

Bert stepped into retirement several months ago, after spending
nearly 40 years with Murat Ignition and Battery Shop. He didn’t
leave on his own terms; a heart problem from which he has since
recovered necessitated a slower pace.

His boss, Bob Moss, said it would be difficult to find a more
reliable worker than Bert. ‘He hardly ever missed a day, and I
don’t remember him ever taking off for a cold or anything like
that. Besides, he could always figure things out. And he can sure
tell you anything you want to know about how an old car runs,’
Moss says.

But at Murat’s, car repairs weren’t Bert’s
specialty. Small engines were, and in the course of his career, he
probably contributed about as much as anyone to making the city an
attractive place by keeping the power lawn mowers of townsfolk in
running order.

He also fixed snow blowers, boat motors, anything with small
engines, including a balloon inflator and golf ball picker.

Bert got his first real job in the Buick Garage at Argyle in his
native Green County. He preferred working to being a student, but a
few years later, he was enthusiastic about the opportunity to
attend the Max Sweeney Motor School in Chicago. Then came the
Depression, when jobs disappeared and hardly anyone had a nickel to
spare. Bert and a friend traveled from farm to farm in the Monroe
area, fixing machines for farmers in exchange for a place to sleep
and a hot meal.

The farm country was filled with steam engines in those days,
and Bert developed a fascination for them. He memorized every
working part, and in later years drew on that experience when he
developed a hobby of recreating models of some of those old
mechanical horses.

‘I don’t care what kind of an engine it is, big or
little, I like all of them pretty much the same. I found it
interesting to see how each one ran because every manufacturer had
a little different idea,’ he observes.

Looking at what he does as an art form of sorts, Bert relates an
old story to his visitors: ‘You know, my dad always told me
that to be a successful mechanic, you had to be a dressmaker, a
carpenter and a blacksmith all in one.’

He moved to this area in the mid-1930’s, settling first in
Rudolph, where he was employed at the Piltz Hardware for 20 cents
an hour.

Later, he did mechanic work for Mattlin Auto Parts, Ace Body,
(in what now is the second floor of First Financial Bank), Moland
Bros. Trucking, and Advance Express here.

While at Ace Body, he had an opportunity to buy a 1935 Pontiac
in pristine condition. It became the start of a collection that
also features a 1941 Ford three-quarter-ton pickup truck, engines
galore, and eight tractors, including a 1936 Farmall 12, a 1924
J.I. Case 22-40, and six hybrids made by hand by the master
mechanic himself from parts of several different vehicles and work
machines. There’s even a turn-of-the-century threshing machine
for beans, peas, buckwheat and sunflowers that Bert restored.

Some of his favorite handmade engines are steam-powered, the
source of much attention whenever he takes them to parades and
shows throughout the state about eight Sundays each year. A huge
handmade air compressor ‘is one of my pride and joys,’ he
claims.

Bert’s wife, Olive, to whom he has been wed for 54 years,
says she enjoys accompanying him to steam engine shows more than
she did going to boat races every week when he was active in that
hobby before World War II.

One of her favorite events is the annual show near Edgar of the
North Central Wisconsin Steam and Gas Engine Club, which Bert
helped organize about 20 years ago.

Bert babies all of his engines as if they were living, breathing
creatures, and when he gets them humming, they act as such. Each
one has a story, he says, such as the engine from the late Dave
Field that was used on an island farm on the Wisconsin River, just
south of the city. It powered a clam-raking enterprise in which the
meat was used to feed hogs and the shells were sold to a local
button factory.

Incidentally, the pigs fed by the clams had a fishy taste after
being butchered, and a lot of people didn’t like that, Bert
recalled with his powerful voice.

As the old wizard showed me through his sheds full of machines,
he talked about life and how to live it. ‘Stay on your own side
of the fence,’ is his philosophy.

Then he added a bit of lore about being a mechanic. ‘They
always used to say you had to be half crazy to work on a Ford. By
golly, I’m beginning to think that’s true.’

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