Fairbanks-Morse Does Double-Duty

By Staff
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In this 1987 photo Bill Clements operates the 'American No. 2' sawmill he restored and powers with the Fairbanks-Morse. (Photo courtesy of The Enterprise newspaper.)
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The engine room was not big enough to get the entire engine in this photo but it does give a feeling for the size of the 1923 Fairbanks -Morse at Cecil's Mill in St. Mary's County, Maryland. (Photo by Betty Fowler)

8254 Riviera Dr., Severn, Maryland 21144-2429

In 1923 the Leonardtown Ice Company placed an order for a
single-cylinder 50 HP vertical oil engine with the Fairbanks-Morse
Company. Primarily, the engine was to serve as the compressor of
the refrigerant in the ice-making process. This occurred before the
arrival of the REA (Rural Electrification Administration) and
electricity to St. Mary’s County in southern Maryland. The
company delivered the engine on February 12, 1924. Secondarily, the
engine drove the D.C. generator which supplied electricity to the

By 1927, the demands for electricity grew such that the town
needed a larger engine, so this old engine was replaced.
Fortunately, the story did not end there. Mr. H. Robb Cecil and his
father, Mr. John T. Cecil operated a mill in Great Mills, Maryland,
which itself needed more power to operate the machinery.
Originally, Cecil’s Mill used an overshot steel water wheel to
operate the grist mill and a sawmill. Later, John Cecil installed a
stationary steam engine to supplement water power, which was
vulnerable to drought conditions. In 1927, H. Robb Cecil moved the
Fairbanks-Morse to the mill where it shared the power-generation
chores. With the engine came the first electricity to Great Mills.
The Cecil Mill generated electricity using water power, steam power
and, finally, diesel power.

The generator functioned while the mill operated and storage
batteries handled the lighting load when the mill was quiet. At
times, the mill operated 24 hours per day. John T. Cecil maintained
that the wheat ground better at night. Perhaps it had something to
do with the moisture in the air. The REA did not arrive until

Today, the mill-race stands dry, the ten-foot tall by
twelve-foot wide water wheel is silent and the stationary steam
engine seems to have left no trace. Steam and water-powered
grinding and sawing stopped when John T. Cecil died. His son, H.
Robb Cecil continued to operate the mill, using the Fairbanks-Morse
alone until his death in a sawmill accident in 1959.

A brass plaque embedded in stone at the mill site reads:


A sawmill has been on this site since circa 1820. The present
structure has been restored using most of the ‘American’
parts dating from 1910. The mill has not operated since the fatal
injury of H. Robb Cecil on 22 April 1959. Restoration was completed
in 1987 by William J. ‘Bill’ Clements.

In 1975, John A. and William Cecil donated Cecil’s Mill to
the St. Mary’s County Historical Society. The Mill appears on
the National Register of Historic Places.

Bill Clements, a true engine enthusiast, learned of the old
Fairbanks-Morse in 1981, while shopping at the Cecil’s General
Store in the historic complex. Apparently, he could not resist the
challenge to restore the old engine. By 1983, he had the engine
operational and then undertook the restoration of the sawmill. The
sawmill, a 1923 ‘American No. 2’ had deteriorated badly.
However, by 1987 he had restored both to operational condition and
today the sawmill operates when Bill and others are available. All
work is voluntary and the mill, like most enterprises, needs

During the recent demonstration of the sawmill, a large cedar
log furnished boards which will serve as mantle pieces and cedar
chests instead of firewood, and the proceeds of the sales will go
toward the operation and maintenance of the mill. Most support
comes from individual donations.

The mill is open to the public March through December, Friday
through Sunday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. It is located on Indian Bridge
Road just off Route 5 in Great Mills, St. Mary’s County,

People today refer to the Fairbanks-Morse as a diesel engine,
but in its day they may have called it an oil engine as often as
anything else. It was designed to run on kerosene or a
kerosene-like distillate. With modifications, it could run on
heavier oils1. Today it operates on diesel fuel. It is a
two-cycle, or two-stroke, engine and employs an auxiliary engine to
compress air for starting. Sometimes referred to as
semi-diesels2, such engines use two ports on opposite
sides of the cylinder, one for intake and one for exhaust, which
are uncovered by the piston very near the end of its power stroke.
Fresh air, under pressure, is forced into the cylinder above the
piston and deflected toward the top of the combustion chamber. At
the same time, the fresh air forces the burned gases out of the
exhaust port. Upon the return of the piston following the end of
the power stroke, it once again covers the intake and exhaust ports
and compresses the fresh air. As the piston reaches
top-dead-center, the injector sprays fuel into the compressed air,
forming an explosive mixture. Upon contact with retained heat, the
mixture explodes, or rather burns rapidly, generating the power
stroke. The resultant expansion of the burning mixture increases
the pressure in the combustion chamber, pushing the piston down on
the power stroke. As the piston descends, it compresses air below,
which in turn provides the input for the next cycle and the process
becomes self-sustaining.

Ordinarily, torches provided heat for starting the engine. In
later years electric-powered glow-plugs replaced torches on engines
of this type.

Although this Fairbanks-Morse engine has only a single cylinder,
its massive flywheel and its ability to maintain a constant rpm
made it ideal for the applications of powering electric generators
and sawmills. It drove the mill’s machinery through a wide belt
and a massive, cast-iron pulley. A wooden clutch arrangement made
shutting down the engine unnecessary for the transfer from powering
the grist mill to powering the sawmill.

The electrical system, the grist mill and the sawmill were belt
driven. ‘The foot-wide belts transferred the power from either
the waterwheel, the steam engine or the Fairbanks-Morse. The best
belts were said to be oak-tanned leather. (One of the enterprises
of the old mill was a tannery). Leather belts were normally
3/16‘ in thickness and weighed about 60
lbs. per cubic foot. They should be run ‘with the hair-side
over the pulley’ for greater adhesion. Four-ply cotton belting
was considered equivalent to single-leather

The engine is referred to as a Type Y and bears serial number
574317. It is rated at 390 lb. torque @ 252 rpm.


1. Conversation on November 7, 1991 with Fairbanks-Morse. The
restoration was helped greatly by assistance from the company which
is still in the business and supplies large engines for, among
other things, powering ships and submarines. It now does business
under the name COLTEC, having divested itself of the firearms
business. The engine came well-documented. The mill has recovered
or retained the original bill of sale and accurate, detailed
records of its history. Fairbanks-Morse provided all the
information necessary for the restoration. Even though the engine
was celebrating its sixtieth year, it is still possible to purchase
a copy of the original manual for ten dollars. While the company no
longer supplies original parts, secondary sources still exist to
keep these old engines alive.

2. Dedrick, B. W., Practical Milling, National Miller, Chicago,
1924, p 485, 490. Reprinted The Society For The Preservation Of Old
Mills, 1989.

3. International Correspondence Schools, The Mechanic’s
Handbook, International Textbook Company, Scranton, PA, 1904, p.

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