The Tale of Tillie

Being a Story of Birthdays and Oil Field Engines


| December/January 2001



Tillinghast Oil Field Engine

For many of us, the people and personalities in the engine hobby are what make it such a wonderful hobby to be connected to, and the story of 'Tillie' proves this beyond a doubt.

My husband, Jim, fell in love with oil field engines the first time he saw one at the Portland show in 1999. At Portland 2000, we joined the OFES (Oil Field Engine Society) and started looking at the big engines with a serious view to owning one at some point. Our first attempt at buying one off the Internet ended in dismal failure, which put Jim off buying one unless we could see it for ourselves. That experience also set me thinking. It was February 2001, and Jim's 40th birthday was coming up in June; Hmmm ... an oil field engine would make a rather spectacular present for a landmark birthday.

The Plot Thickens

A major problem, however, was secrecy. Jim and I have one computer connected to the Internet, and an e-mail address each. As whomever happens to be using the computer gets all the mail when it is downloaded, it seemed somewhat risky to rely on our e-mail accounts for correspondence. To work around this I set up a new e-mail account disguised as an inactive archive so Jim wouldn't be interested in it, and sent a message to a select group of friends from the Stationary Engine Mailing List outlining my plan and asking for help. The response was instant and enthusiastic. And almost immediately, one member of the group suggested an engine he knew was for sale by one of his contacts in West Virginia.

Bill Tremel, an avid oil field engine collector, has dreams of one day owning an example of every engine built in Washington County, Pa. At the time of my request, he had just acquired one of them, a Northrup, so a 15 HP B.D. Tillinghast he knew of would have to wait. But, maybe that engine would fit the criteria for what we were after? It was well within the price range, it was a half-breed with an interesting history, and Bill had access to a wealth of information from a Tillinghast relative he had met. This was sounding good!

On the last Sunday of April, three of the team went to look at the engine. The resulting news was mixed: The engine was in slightly worse shape than expected - the piston was seized, it was missing oilers and the rear connecting rod bearing, and it had a few freeze cracks, the worst of which was on the head. On the plus side, the cross head was in good condition, the fuel and intake valves were still on the engine, the rear babbitt was good, and there was a clutch pulley on it.

Although the question was asked - 'Is this the right engine?' - when I look back at the e-mails exchanged over those next few days, I think the decision had already been made - THIS was the right engine for a BIG project. Two weeks later Bill and another 'Tillie Team' member, Arnie Fero, went to collect her, taking plenty of photographs of the engine as they lifted it out from a bunch of other rusting flywheels and carefully placed her on Bill's trailer for the journey to western Pennsylvania. A couple of the pictures were posed 'specials' of the engine on the trailer with scenic backgrounds. Knowing there was no chance of getting the engine to England in time for Jim's birthday, my plan was to present Jim with a gift-wrapped photograph and an owner's certificate on Jim's big day.