The Haircut Engine, a 10 HP International Harvester M, is rescued 60 years after being abandoned in a Tennessee gristmill.
In the January 1997 issue of Gas Engine Magazine, Burton R. Marsh wrote in about “The Haircut Engine,” a 10 HP International Harvester Type M that had been shown to him by Bill Erwin. Mr. Erwin was a barber and a friend of Burton’s brother Joe.
Mr. Erwin ran a gristmill and feed mill in Tennessee as a boy of 11. Sixty years later, Mr. Erwin took the Marsh men to see if the engine was still there. The IH was still in the shed, but it was on its side, stuck and badly rusted. Burton tried to contact the owner of the land for permission to rescue the engine without any luck. But that doesn’t mean the Haircut Engine was forgotten …
The story of the Haircut Engine continues 16 years, to the month, later.
It’s January 2012 and I’m down in Alabama, from Tennessee, to visit with Burton Marsh. Throughout the day we had a good time looking at some of his collection of iron and talking of things of the past. He shared with me many stories of himself and his brothers growing up in the South, as well as stories of his military service and on into his life as a father and husband. It made for a very nice day and the beginning of a very good friendship. As I was about to leave for home, Burton shared one last story with me. It was the story of the article that he had written for the Gas Engine Magazine.
At the time he thought that it may have been eight to 10 years ago that he had written it, when in fact it had been 15. Burton shared the story of the Haircut Engine: an engine sitting in the woods that was not far from where I live. Without hesitation he was able to tell me where it was and who owned it. The gentleman’s name, Robert, was right there as if he had spoken to him just yesterday. Burton is 87 years old and has an amazing memory for names and details.
After listening to the story I, of course, had the normal questions that any man or woman would have if he or she is interested in old iron and rust. Burton told me that he had no luck buying the engine from Robert, that he didn’t know if it was still there and that he no longer had any interest in trying to purchase it. Within five minutes he was able to produce a phone number that was actually still active. We made a call from Burton’s shop but were unable to speak with a human. The good news came a day or so later when Robert returned my call and was open to conversation about possibly letting the engine go.
Robert stated that he had not set foot on the property in more than 20 years. He said he was considering building a cabin for a little getaway place there, but it was landlocked and he wasn’t sure who owned the property around his.
He gave me directions that would take me to a locked gate where the old county road was blocked off. If I were to park at that gate I could walk the mile or so on the overgrown road down over the bluff and should see the old buildings still standing along the river at a switch back. He also added that he wasn’t sure if any of the engines or buildings were still there, but I was welcome to go take a look.
After hanging up, I called Burton immediately to set a date with him to come up for the hike if he was up for it. I am not sure if he was headed for his car before he hung up or what, but I think I heard the front door close before I heard the click of the phone! No really, we set it up for the next day.
Burton was here at the designated time along with his friend Johnny, and we headed out. It was a cool, clear January day as we hit the road. As we got closer to our destination, Burton said that we were not in the right place and that he had never seen any of the area that we were in. I assured him that the directions were correct and we would know as soon as we found the gate.
As we arrived he still wasn’t convinced that we were in the right location, but we got out, crossed the gate and were on our way down the bluff. After what seemed to be a half mile or so, Burton was sure, without a doubt, that we were in the wrong place.
As I mentioned earlier, his memory is sharp, so I was starting to have my doubts too. At this point we decided that Burton and Johnny would stay there on the bluff and that I would continue on. After reaching the bottom I had to continue on for a few hundred yards before I hit the river. Across the river I could see the old buildings up on the hill and, looking closer, there was the old engine sitting out in the open, much closer to the river than I would have imagined. I called the other two and told them to come on down.
All along Burton had said that we were in the wrong place, but that was only half correct. We were in the right place but on the wrong side of the river. Well as you can guess I took my boots off, threw them over my shoulder and took off wading the river. Although it was cold it was only a little above my knees.
Upon reaching the engine, as you can see, it was in really rough shape. As Burton mentioned in his earlier article, there were parts missing off of it, the head was cracked and the side of the water hopper was now broken out. But all of the grease cups were in place, the carburetor, minus the needle valves, was there, and even the clutch pulley was intact. Laying half buried in the sand were the grist mill stones and the line shaft that ran it. Other than that, the building that is pictured in Burton’s original story was completely gone. I took a ton of pictures and headed back across the river to share them. The hike back was a long one, but the conversation was that of excitement and possibilities.
The following weekend I was able to contact Robert, the landowner, again to try to negotiate something to get the ol’ 10 home. I told him what I had found, and that the directions he had given me took me to the wrong side of the river, something I thought worth mentioning if he was in fact going to try to build anything there. He told me that he was way too busy to do any research in regards to the property. So we came to an agreement: If I did the research and found the owners (and phone numbers) of the properties that had him landlocked, cut him a small road into his place and brought him the grist mill stones, then I could have the engine.
The computer age has simplified these types of searches. I pulled up Department of Transportation maps as well as county public records and their maps, and then printed them out to reference and cross-reference exactly where the engine was sitting. All of this information gave me the names of the land owners that surround Robert’s property.
A little more digging and I had one phone number to give me my start. The person that I really needed to talk to owned all of the property on the south side of the river. Permission to cross this property would allow us to get to the engine without crossing the river. Two or three calls later and I had it. When I called the number I reached a very sweet elderly lady, Jane.
I told Jane my reason for calling and that I was trying to gain access to Robert’s property. She was aware of the engine and buildings that were sitting there but had no clue as to their condition. She didn’t have a current number for Robert but she wanted it so that she could contact him.
My mom, 78 years old, happened to be in town so I thought it would be a good time for me to go back out to the site, meet Jane, and let my mom and her visit while I checked out what it was going to take to get back to the engine so I could get it out.
Jane gave me the permission that I needed, but she also stated that the old road on her side of the river fell a couple of hundred yards short of where I needed to be to retrieve the engine. I went down to survey the situation and came to the conclusion that by removing five or six small trees and cleaning up some brush I could, with careful, meticulous maneuvering, get a small tractor and 16-foot trailer backed up to the engine.
From this point on the stars aligned. On my way home from Jane’s I recruited my two brothers for help. I then stopped by a saw mill and ordered 18 rough cut 2x6s to make a lifting jig. By this point it was into mid-February, so I gave myself a couple weeks to gather all of the things that I thought I would need to be able to get the engine out.
The second weekend in March 2012, my brothers showed up from Illinois and off we went. As you can see in the pictures, it was a beautiful day to be working outside, in the woods, recovering old iron that may or may not run again. The tree cutting and brush clearing took no time at all. We backed the trailer, along with all the tools and rigging, within a few yards of where the engine was sitting. We dug around the base and used the torch to cut the bolts holding the engine to what I can only assume were the original skids, cut the exhaust pipe and then pulled the engine with a come-along to a more upright position. We took the clutch pulley off to reduce some weight, and then erected the prefab jig over it and started the lift. Once we got it lifted we placed new makeshift skids, which I had already made up before going, under it and then lowered the front end back down. The back was now raised high enough to get the edge of the trailer back under the skids. We cut the exhaust pipe in two pieces to use as rollers and then lifted the front up again to roll it on. The whole process, cutting, loading and lunch, took less than four hours and then we were on the road home.
The engine had been sitting for several decades without running – at least one decade in the open with no shelter – and it was a mess. After evaluating it, I decided that I was going to get it apart as far as I could get it, take it off of its base and put it on a set of casters so it would be easier to move around. Then I’d get the piston soaking in hopes that it would come out.
I took the rod bearing and main bearing caps off and sprayed the gears down with whatever spray lubricants I had in the shop. Even though the rod was disconnected and there were no main bearing caps on it, everything was still stuck. After about three or four weeks of spraying and pulling on the flywheels every time I was near the engine, still nothing was moving. Burton called to get a progress report and said that he would be up the next day to evaluate where I was with it.
Upon his arrival, Burton gave the engine a brief one-two look over and then asked if I had a wagon jack. With hesitation I told him that I did but I didn’t want to go forcing anything to move for fear that we would break it. He asked me to get the jack and told me to rest assured that he wasn’t going to break anything.
I guess that is where I became the muscle and he became the brains. He had me set the jack on the bottom of the left flywheel. On the first click into pressure the left side came free from the rust that had it hung up. He then had me repeat the same on the right side, and within 10 minutes of his arrival the flywheels were free and moving. At this point I was able to get the rod moving up and down at the wrist pin. Things were looking up!
For three or four weeks after that I had a 4x6 piece of wood with the corners shaved off sitting in the cylinder and a 10-pound sledge sitting beside it. Every time I would be near it or walk by it or just need to burn off some steam I would hit it a minimum of 10 times. I had a line drawn on the board and knew that I was not making any progress. So at this point I made a plate with a filler hole to replace the head and bolted it on. I then filled the cylinder with a 50/50 mix of brake fluid and acetone. I sat the engine in the back of the shop for three months or so. When I finally got back to it, I looked inside the crank housing to see if I had any type of seepage around the back of the piston. As you might guess, there was none.
At this point I removed the cap and fluid and went back to my good ol’ traditional beating of the piston. This all carried on for some time before I realized I was doing nothing more than building the strength in my forearms and getting a good work out. So it was time to step it up in the aggressive department. I took the 4x6 out and shortened it so that I could put the plate back on and tighten it down using the head bolts. I put 150 pounds of torque on each. This time while hitting it with the sledge, somewhere between 15 and 20 hits, I heard the pitch of the sledge hitting the steel change. When I got the torque wrench back on it I had lost my torque and knew it had moved. From here on I could see the drawn-on line on the board move without a doubt. But as some may know the piston on an International M has to come out the front, so I continued back with the piston a couple inches or so. This way I could have a nice, clean area to push into if and when I got it moving forward.
The process of moving forward really didn’t go as planned. I thought that as big as the flywheels were that I could get enough force to move the piston, but that didn’t work. I had an old scrap plow that I cut apart and made a bearing cap. Then I welded a piece of steel to it that was long enough to stick out the back hole of the M’s housing. To that I welded a strike plate. It only took a couple good, hard, solid strikes with the 10-pounder to get the piston moving forward again. The day it started moving forward I called a friend, Ol’ G.L., to come up and help catch it.
The rings were stuck but all five were intact. So with a lot of soaking, spraying, prying and not getting overly aggressive they all came off. At this point I honed the cylinder, dropped the head, fuel pump, igniter and carburetor off to a couple of friends, Mike and James. They did fabulous work on all four. Without their help I honestly doubt that the engine would be running yet today.
While these were being repaired I got online to start hunting for a magneto, springs and igniter trip arm. Throughout this search I spoke with many very helpful people trying to steer me in the right direction as to where to find the parts and information that I needed to get it back up and running.
This search led me to Bob Gill and Rob Charles. Both were kind enough to listen to my story in regard to the engine and then listen to a couple of issues that I was having with it as well. Bob loaned me parts so that I would have a physical reference while making some things. It was Rob’s suggestion as to how to fix the water hopper. There were 264 10-32 screws used in the repair. The repair consisted of fitting the piece in the hole, securing it with clamps and then drilling holes all the way through the hopper, using a starter tap, running it down until the tap just goes through the backside. I used red Loctite on a 10-32 and ran it down until it jammed up. I cut the screw off and peened it over as if it were a rivet. I recruited Ol’ G.L. again to assist in this process. I felt that this was my best repair option considering the entire engine is all one casting. I think that it turned out really nice and adds character to the overall look of the engine. It tells the story of its rough life in the river bottoms of Tennessee.
On July 5, 2013, I invited everyone in the area that helped me with the engine, as well as my brothers, over for a post-Fourth of July celebration and the inaugural running of the Haircut Engine – its first running in many, many years.
Burton was the first to give the big flywheels a tug. With a little help and about three revolutions, the Haircut Engine was off and running again. We ran it for a couple hours or so. Short of some 8-cycling going on, it started and ran great. I guess I am in search of a new exhaust spring.
I feel as if Burton was almost as happy and proud to see it run as I was!
See video of the Haircut Engine.
Contact Steve Allison at email@example.com.