Although a love for old iron was always in her blood, Kaili Ruggiero was 7 years old when she attended her first antique engine show. The show was put on by the Maryland Steam Historical Society, and this is where Kaili got her first piece of equipment: a "rust-bucket" garden tractor.
"Dad figured I would be interested (in the hobby) because I always followed him around and helped him with any project, such as antique cars and a jukebox," Kaili says.
Kaili remembers a lot about her attraction to antique machinery from her childhood. "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel was my favorite story. I had a little video that I wore out, and I still remember all the songs!" she recalls. "I remember sitting on the basement floor testing tubes for the jukebox, drilling wood for a porch when I was quite small, and setting up and telling stories about my old Marx toy train that I named Rudy at Christmas time."
She remembers getting "bitten by the bug," as they say, while riding that tarnished garden tractor back at the Maryland show. "I was holding the throttle open and trying to steer it, when the spark plug wire just blew off the plug!" she says. "I thought it was awesome; tractors were so cool!"
Kaili currently owns a 4 HP 1912 ARACO hot tube engine; a 5 HP 1923 Jaeger FW; a 1-1/2 HP 1931 IHC M; an 8 HP 2-cylinder Cushman, circa 1918; a 1952 Clinton Rugged Rider garden tractor; a circa 1940 Clinton engine; a circa 1930 Sattley air-cooled engine; a circa 1925 Briggs & Stratton running a Demming pressure pump; and a 1949 Farmall Cub. She also has a minibike, made with an antique frame and a 1960 Clinton engine.
She is most proud of the Farmall because she says it was the best restoration she and her father have done together. "I was so proud that we turned something tattered and dull into something shiny and running great!" she says.
Her toughest restoration yet has been the 5 HP Jaeger, although she says the ARACO has been the hardest, it's just not done yet! "That engine (the Jaeger) was a mess. It had everything but the magneto and the oiler, but someone had taken it apart and covered it with horrible paint and re-arranged everything," she says. "Now, this was one of our first big engines, and even though we had the book, we couldn't figure out how to time it. After getting the cylinder re-bored, a few new parts and some tips from Harry (www.smokstak.com), we got her running. Also, getting all that nasty paint off was quite a hassle."
The reactions of the old iron community to 20-year-old Kaili's age and gender have varied. "My friends all think I'm a little out there," she says, "but in the old iron community, I get things like, 'Wow, we need more girls like you!' I rarely see other women, especially young women, who are interested in rusty and dusty things. Sometimes I get the feeling that some young men find me a threat because I know more than they do. But they need to realize that gender should never discourage or encourage one's behavior."
Kaili says she will attend at least seven shows this season and she looks forward to some of her favorite things: "The sound a steam engine makes, it's almost breathing; the smells like exhaust in the air and the taste of farm-fresh food," she says. "I love running and driving things, like getting stubborn engines to start and controlling those big tractors."
In the future she would like to expand her collection in different ways. "I would like to own a steam engine, an OilPull, a National Transit hot tube engine, a 1972 Duster, a 1968 Barracuda, a Harley, an IHC Titan and a Fuller & Johnson," she says. "You know, little stuff like that."
Whatever the future of this old iron hobby, it is a guarantee that Kaili will be there. She encourages collectors to get more young people involved. "Take 'em to shows," she says. "Parents, get your daughters, as well as your sons interested. Girls like to play in the dirt, too!"
Contact Kaili Ruggiero at: email@example.com