Grooming the Great Iron Beast

By Staff
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Butch welding the base to the trailer while Ernest lends a helping hand.
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The Buckeye rested in this engine shed for over 80 years. Ernest Felterman is shown pondering the best way to remove the engine.
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A cool view of the 16-inch cylinder bore.
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A long reach for the 20,200-pound engine. Note creek where alligators looked on.
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Butch with grandson Luke Felterman after priming the engine
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Butch painting the Buckeye.

My brother, Ernest, was telling me about the
big Buckeye engine across Bayou Teche from Verdunville, La. It
seems some of the members of the Bayou Antique Engine and Power
Assn. had been looking at it for a couple of years, but the
logistics of recovering the machine were quite formidable.

For starters, about five miles of dirt road leading to the
location had to be traversed, so good, dry weather was a must.
Then, after reaching the scene, a 30-foot canal on the southern
edge of the vast Atchafalaya Basin stood between the engine and the
dirt road. And yes, there were alligators in the canal.
Additionally, the engine was on a concrete foundation on the far
end of a shed where it had powered a 20-inch centrifugal pump used
to drain the sugar cane fields. The plantation owner, Shadyside Co.
Ltd., had given us permission to remove and restore it, and Ernest
and I decided it was a doable project and we would give it a
try.

First, the two of us, with the help of my son, Danny, began the
task of cleaning out a huge swamp rat nest in the engine base that
had apparently been started many years ago, and added to each year
since. Next, we began freeing the engine from all service lines,
the 10-inch exhaust, the big sailing clutch and the eight
1-1/4-inch foundation bolts. We jacked, blocked and wedged it up in
preparation for rolling and sliding it closer to the canal.

In mid-May 2003, we hired a crane service from Broussard, La.,
to provide equipment to lift and haul the engine and pump to our
shop in Patterson, La. The move date was set for June 3. It had not
rained in two months, but guess what happened? Yep, before daylight
it came down in buckets. The big crane arrived along with an
18-wheeler, only to find the dirt road impassable. We paid the
$3,000 mobilization/demobilization fee, licked our wounds and
renewed our determination to get that big sucker out of the swamp
one way or another.

Moving Day

It continued to rain enough to render the dirt road impassable
throughout the summer. Then our break came on Oct. 8, 2003 –
General Crane Service provided equipment to accomplish our task.
Danny worked with us again and provided invaluable assistance due
to his experience with heavy lifting. The engine weighs 20,200
pounds and we had to reach out about 80 feet to get it. My other
sons, Lee and Jody, along with Ernest’s son, Michael, pitched in to
get the job done.

Removal of the back wall and part of the roof of the old pump
building was the first order of business. This old structure had
been standing for many years, dating back to the Civil War when
steam was the power source for the drainage pump. It was with a
tinge of sadness that we watched it being wrenched apart.

Recovery of the machinery went fairly smoothly. We laid down an
aluminum walkway across the canal to facilitate the many foot
crossings required. Watchful was the word for the gators, but they
kept their distance. The crane operator was able to half-lift and
half-drag the engine close enough to the canal to pick it up.
Lifting the pump, air and cooling tanks, 20 inches of riveted pipe,
the big sailing clutch and other related equipment went more
quickly. By mid-afternoon, we were back in Patterson, unloading at
our facility. The work had just begun.

The Disassembly Begins

A team of Bayou Old Time Engine and Power Assn. members led by
Dick Gibbens, Ernest Felterman and myself, began the task of
restoration. Others who provided invaluable assistance with time,
skill and ideas were Bob Legnon, J.B. Castagnos, John Smietana,
Audie Taquino, Ted Mire and Ralph Olmstead. From time to time,
there were a few walk-ons. Some of the guys would drive up to 60
miles just to get greasy, in anticipation the day smoke rings would
fly.

Our goal was to have the Buckeye on display and running at the
Cypress Sawmill Festival in April 2004. Workdays were called on an
irregular basis when it wasn’t too cold or rainy. Lunch breaks were
enjoyable and productive as we ate “Buttercups” take-out food,
sitting around the welding table discussing strategies for the work
ahead and telling good engine and boat stories.

The engine was stuck after not running for over 60 years, but
with the help of a 20-ton jack, a couple of 4-foot-long bars in the
flywheel perimeter holes, and liberal doses of Gibbs penetrant, we
got some movement. Disassembly and cleaning were a major part of
the work. Dick’s gin pole and sliding I-beam on his 30-year-old
Chevy truck, as well as our John Deere front end loader, did the
heavy lifting. After quite a few weeks, the 3-piece head, piston,
piston rod, crosshead, connecting rod, bearing caps, fuel pump and
governor had been removed. With the exception of the piston rod
(which had to be replaced due to pitting, thus preventing a seal in
its packing gland), all major parts were found to be usable.
Fortunately, the cylinder bore was in good shape, as were the main
and connecting rod bearings. Dick did soldered the bearings where
needed and reshimmed all of them.

The big stuff was tough to handle and time consuming, but the
seemingly insignificant items used up a lot of hours, too. For
instance, it took two men over three days to remove five rings from
the piston, then scrape, chisel and wire brush the heavy buildup of
carbon from the ring grooves. Keep in mind, the distance for one
trip around a 16-inch piston ring groove is over 4 feet – and there
were five of them. Even for an oil burner, you would not expect to
find so much carbon. The scavenging chamber was almost completely
clogged. At various times, Dick took parts to his well-equipped
home workshop in Schriever, La., for repair, as did Bob in his very
interesting Jeanerette shop. J.B.’s Steam Cleaner and Automotive
shop in Donaldsonville, La., was a continuing source of support,
also. Their skills working with lubricators, fuel pumps, governors
and other more complicated components gave a tremendous boost to
our work.

Ernest and I looked for a trailer on which to mount this
14-foot-long hunk of iron, one stout enough to handle the shock of
a single 16-inch piston cranking two 3,000-pound flywheels at 100
RPM. After scouring the region, we struck gold right here at home.
Earl King donated an old King Trucking 30-foot dual axle Nabors
trailer with two 14-inch I-beams running down the middle and spaced
just right to weld the channel-iron base to, which supports our
treasure.

We replaced the old, rotten decking with solid 2-inch pine, and
after varnishing, it contrasted nicely with the iron, which we
painted black, and the Buckeye decked out in green with a wisp of
silver here and there.

I repaired one of the old sugarhouse tanks to mount on the
trailer for use as a cooling tank. The Buckeye starts by direct
injection of compressed air into the cylinder, so Ernest and I took
an old, almost forgotten Quincy compressor we owned and mated it to
an equally old Fairbanks-Morse engine. The original air receiver
from the pump station measured 23 inches in diameter by 9 feet
long, and was heavy as lead. Dick hydrostatic tested it for us, and
once more, the old stuff showed quality. With the Buckeye and
supporting components in place, our trailer was now about filled to
capacity with antiques, particularly when the Felterman brothers
were included.

Voilá!

March 26, 2004, turned out to be our big day. Dick liked to
describe our work as “Grooming the Great Iron Beast,” and the
grooming was now complete. The ignition cup in the cylinder head
must be heated to start the engine. Propane heat was insufficient,
so we applied acetylene rosebud torch heat, and after various
piston positions and air valve manipulations, she began running
after all those years in hibernation. She seemed to celebrate by
blowing smoke rings 50 feet in the air. With little fuel in the
tank (purposely), it soon stopped.

Our second attempt didn’t go as well. As a matter of fact,
that’s putting it rather mildly. That big sucker kicked back and
started running backwards! We didn’t even know it could do that! We
turned the fuel tank valve off, but to no avail – she was still
gaining RPM. The entire trailer was shaking two feet in all
directions. It was like Hopalong Cassidy chasing the bad guys on
top of a freight train. Smoke rings began topping out at 75 feet or
more. The neighbors were converging. When things are not going well
in our group, we look to Dick. He was at the front of the engine
hanging on to an air line, with all eyes on him. Dick made his way
around to the fuel pump and governor area like a sailor walking a
storm-tossed deck. He manually opened the fuel pump bypass valve,
applied extra pressure to the fuel shutoff valve, and probably
prayed. She began to slow and finally stopped. Thank God! That was
it for the day, so we rolled her back in the building.

One week later, I hired a heavy duty truck to move our trailer
to the Cypress Sawmill Festival, which is held near Patterson the
first weekend in April each year. After Ernest overcame problems
with our antique air compressor, we were able to start the engine,
to the delight of many festival attendees – there’s just something
about those smoke rings! Repeat performances were staged morning
and afternoon on both Saturday and Sunday. It was fun, we achieved
our objective, and we reached our goal on time.

The project was a real challenge, and I thank God that we were
able to overcome the obstacles with no accidents or injuries. To
me, a number of things made the effort worthwhile. First, we
rescued a piece of history that was on its way to oblivion. Next,
our group of restorers enjoyed a level of fellowship that would be
hard to equal anywhere. And finally, it was a source of enjoyment
for countless people of all ages who often ask, “When will the
Buckeye run again?”

Contact gas engine enthusiast F.C. “Butch” Felterman Jr. at:
P.O. Box 189, Patterson, LA 70392; (985) 395-3538.

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