By Staff
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Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390.
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Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390.
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Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390.
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Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390.

Dayton Daily News & Radio’s ‘Joe’s

He was the longest-whiskered, fullest-bearded Sparky we’d
ever seen in ‘them thar’ parts. But the Blue Grass Steam
and Gas Engine Show at Harrodsburg, Ky., where he’d come to do
some spark-in’, was a long way from his native
‘ha’nts’, back in the ‘Land O’ Lincoln’,
just this side of the Mississippi.

Nuts about steam engines and nuts about gas engines–Earl Holmes
dubs himself an ‘engine nut’ from Chestnut, Ill. And this
writer, having followed the scholarly little figure making his
rounds over the Blue Grass grounds, sparking arguments both pro and
con, hither and thither amongst the engines, wasn’t about to
doubt it.

Looking more like a Johannes Brahms in overalls than a farm
engine mechanic, the knowledgeable Mr. Holmes lent his august
presence throughout the length and breadth of the new Blue Grass
Show grounds during its two-day event at the Mercer County Highway
Department just outside Harrodsburg, Ky. Whether it was going over
the fine points of antique classic automobiles, old-time farm
tractors and gas engines, or arguing steam versus gas–the little
fellow with the Santa Claus beard always handled his subject with a
fine-tooth comb. And should the diverse opinions about internal
combustion and/or steam ever culminate in an argumentative impasse,
the astute Mr. Holmes (not Sherlock) would merely comb more facts
out of his whiskers of long experience to settle the hash, capping
it off with a heady froth of unbiblical explosions like a good
Spark Plug should.

‘I like steam–run many of them, only Reeves,
double-cylinder, for that’s all they made,’ quoth the
indomitable Mr. Holmes. ‘But if you ask me about any of these
old gas engines or automobiles, I can tell you plenty, too, as
I’ve worked on about all of them. And that includes the old
tractors, too.’

Spotting Angerreau McConnell’s 1938 Huber HK Tractor of 37?
Horsepower on the drawbar, Sparky Holmes jumped up on the rear deck
and began preaching like a hard shell mountain Baptist from a
soapbox pulpit on the vices and virtues of the old-time tractors
and how he used to service and repair them.

‘If you had an Aultman & Taylor with a battery ignition
that they had when they come out, you went to your tractor to start
it of a morning, you opened the pet-cocks or priming-cocks, you
turned the tractor over slowly a few times and went off and left it
while you had something else to do, like greasing the
hand-cups,’ expostulated preacher Holmes to the amusement of
McConnell and the ‘congregation’ gathered ’round.
‘Then, after you’ve greased about so much of it, you went
and poured plenty of gasoline in the four priming cups. After that
you went around and done some more chores as I called it, then you
went around and shut the cocks, and then you went back and finished
your greasin’. Just don’t get in a hurry, as 1 always
say,’ continued Holmes in a solemn patter while his audience
began to chuckle. ‘Then you climb up there and kind o’ look
around to see who’s a-watchin’ and then you shut the
choker–be sure you shut the choker–and then you press the button
and–BANG, she goes.’

Spark Plug Earl Holmes explains virtues of 1927 Willys-Knight
engine to Omar Swartzendruber. The bearded Holmes came all the way
from Chestnut, Illinois to attend the Blue Grass Show at
Harrodsburg, Kentucky. This Willys-Knight was parked by our STEMGAS
trailer, by owner Frank Cornish, who told me to use it as ‘My
personal car-and if anyone was interested, it would be for sale for
$1500-completely restored.’

After his ‘sermon’, Sparky Holmes then stepped down from
his tractor-deck pulpit and proceeded to lecture Angerreau
McConnell how best to start his Huber. Uncorking the four spark
plugs, and holding onto the wires and plugs, Spark Plug Holmes
could soon tell if the spark was ‘coming through’ by the
sudden jolts he got throughout his stocky frame, sufficient to make
every whisker in his beard stand out straight from his chin and
jowls. But Sparky didn’t mind it, as for years he’d been
used to doing it. But, as for Angerreau McConnell, turning the
heavy crank in the hot July afternoon sun, he was ready to call it
quits, whether the Huber started or not–which it did after Holmes
re-corked the plugs, applied the wires and Angerreau leaned once
more into the crank.

Stopping to examine the 1927 Willys-Knight sedan that Frank
Cornish parked over by our Iron Man/Gas Engine stand, (which he
said was my personal car to drive on the grounds, and which I could
sell for $1500 if I got a buyer), Spark Plug Holmes lifted up the
hood to comment on the Knight Engine.

‘This Willys-Knight was one of the finest engines ever
made,’ quoth he. ‘It had many good features, such as the
sleeve valve which was quiet, they never wore out and never had to
be ground like other cars. Besides it was the first car to ever
have this unusual ignition system seen here, and the first to have
a gas economizer installed in the engine.’

‘Be he ever so humble–there’s no one like
Holmes’–Spark Plug Earl Holmes preaches a sermon on old-time
tractors atop the deck of Angerreau McConnell’s 1938 Huber
Tractor. His methods of starting the big Aultman-Taylor Tractors
was as humorous as any old-time stump speech or medicine show
minstrel. (Could Mr. Holmes be descended from the illustrious
lineage of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes?) (Or is he just
‘Holmes on the plains?)

The fine old Willys-Knight which Frank Cornish has had
completely rebuilt to tip-top original condition–one that brought
back many memories to me as a lad who was privileged to ride only
once in such a luxurious vehicle-was completely surveyed from stem
to stern by the eagle eye of Spark Plug Holmes who, like a bearded
patriarch of old, pronounced his blessing on it as a
finely-preserved specimen in the classic car field.

From engine to engine, up and down the two long gasoline alleys
of the Blue Grass Show, Spark Plug Holmes sauntered then paused in
deepest thought as he listened intently to the off-again, on-again
banging of each exhaust after which he philosophized as to the pros
and cons of each. Should any brave soul venture forth to engage in
verbal battle with our Spark Plug, by way of arguing some moot
point, Holmes would hold his ground thusly, ‘Well now, I’ve
worked on about every blankety-blank kind of engine you see here
and I know.’

Like a bearded patriarch of old. Spark Plug Earl Holmes drove
the Joe Dear-pronounced his ‘blessing’ on the old tractor I
made and especially the Delco Engine that powers it.

‘I’ve worked on Internationals, Economy’s, John
Deeres–about any blankety-blank engine you can name,’ was his
reply. Then, stopping over by the Joe Dear, parked in front of the
Stem-gas Publishing establishment, he paused. Peering intently, his
head bent low and his beard brushing the vital parts, Holmes gave
his official and priestly blessings to what he thought was a
well-constructed little tractor. Stepping up onto it and taking his
seat at the ‘controls’, he commented, ‘The Delco
Engine, in my estimation, was one of the best-designed and
constructed of the old gas engines.’

I replied, ‘Yes, it’s only a horse-and-a-half engine,
but despite that I plow our garden, pulling a nine-inch

‘It makes no matter what the horsepower is, just so the
engine does what it was intended to,’ replied Holmes.
‘It’s a well-built engine. And people who don’t know
just can’t understand the value of the long stroke and what it
will do, when all they know are the later square-type

It amused me, watching Spark Plug Holmes drive the little Joe
Dear, like the old-time comic strip of Foxy Grandpa who never let
his fabulous grand-kids outdo him on anything.

‘It sure runs mighty good,’ he commented. Then, stepping
down, he was off again, lost in the Sunday crowd of the Blue Grass
Show. But, not being successful in evading me and my camera, we
both wound up over by Forrest Cunningham’s 23-65 Case Engine
over by the ivy-covered silo.

‘Here he comes again with that camera,’ snapped Spark
Plug Holmes to his gracious host, Forrest Cunningham, in front of
the big Case. The two were shaking hands, directly in front of the
big golden eagle on the smokebox front. It was a Methodist
Brotherhood handshake at that.

‘If I was to thresh and work engines, I’d of course
choose gas, as it’s easier to handle and get going on the
job,’ said Holmes. ‘But when I want to play and fool around
with an engine, then 1 prefer steam.’

‘These blankety-blank gas engines are all right, and I like
them, but there’s something about steam that I love,’ he
went on.

Methodist Brotherhood handshake in front of the big Case Eagle.
Spark Plug Earl Holmes, a Methodist Sunday School teacher for 30
years at Chestnut, Illinois shakes hands with Forrest Cunningham,
superintendent of Methodist Sunday School at Harrodsburg, Kentucky.
Forrest is a co-owner of the 23-65 Case. He is also a director at
the Blue Grass Engine Show.

‘You know, Mr. Holmes here is a Sunday School teacher in the
Methodist Church in his hometown,’ explained Cunningham.
‘He can swear like a trooper, but he tells me he’s never
missed more than three Sundays teaching his class in over thirty
years,’ laughed Forrest. ‘I’m superintendent of our
Sunday School in the Methodist Church, here in Harrodsburg. I
really ought to pin a medal on him for his record, don’t you

‘Yes,’ replied I. ‘The medal could be for both the
swearing and the Sunday School attendance.’

‘By the way,’ commented Holmes, waking up to the facts
of life. ‘You’re the one who writes these stories in the
magazines, aren’t you? And some of them touch on religious
subjects, too? Well, I showed some of them to my preacher back in
Chestnut, Ill., and he liked them.’

But all has not been only gas engines, flivver motors, steam and
Sunday School in the busy years that have made up the life of one
Spark Plug Earl Holmes. For there was the stint he did during World
War One training in the early air force of that day.

‘I was trained under the English at Fort Worth, Texas. Mr.
Vernon Castle was our instructor,’ he went on.

‘Vernon Castle and his wife, Irene, were famous dancers,
back around 1913,’ I reminded him. ‘They gave many public
exhibitions of expert dancing, and they invented the famous
‘Castle Walk’.’

‘Yes, that’s right. Vernon Castle was head of our 84th
Air Force Division,’ reminisced Holmes. He and his wife, Irene,
gave dancing instructions all over the world. (Can you imagine
Spark Plug Holmes swinging the Castle Walk?) ‘And on a
Christmas Day, we had a big show in one of the hangers, a moving
picture of Vernon and Irene Castle called, ‘The Castles On The
Seashore.’ That was the title of the picture.’

Unscrewing the cap on his thermos bottle, commented Holmes,
‘This is my favorite drink at any engine show. I buy 15 cents
worth of ice water and crushed ice, and drink it. Real

Commenting on the array of Blue Grass Engines, reaching from
horizon to horizon, Holmes summed it up this way. ‘This is a
nice show. There are lots of engines here, and I want to come hack
next year. And if any of you happen through Chestnut, Ill., drop by
and pay me a visit.’

To you, Spark Plug Earl Holmes of Chestnut, Ill.–for being an
engine nut like all the rest of us nuts–we offer you a front-row
seat in our Hall of Spark Plug Fame. For keeping the memories and
know-how of the grand old gas engines and classic cars, the antique
tractors, even the steam, alive for us today–we doff our Spark
Plug Katy in deference to your fine and notable record. Keep those
Sunday School doors ajar for all the rising generation and
intersperse your Sunday lessons with an old engine memory now and
then, to lend power to your ‘preachin’. And don’t worry
if you happen to forget a cuss word or two now ‘n then. The
Lord works in mysterious ways– you know.

Gas Engine Magazine
Gas Engine Magazine
Preserving the History of Internal Combustion Engines