In Memoriam

People are at the Root of the Old Iron Hobby/ and John Fankhauser Knew that Better than Anyone A Tribute to a Special Man

| July/August 2003

  • Memoriam

  • Memoriam

I haven't been in this hobby all that long, but I've known John Fankhauser the whole time.

The first guy I really got to know was Dave Rotigel. He introduced me to the Fort Allen (Pennsylvania) Antique Farm Equipment Association. I was working on my second engine (a 3-1/2 HP United) and I had a ton of questions about it, especially some problems with the mixer. Dave suggested I attend the next show, as he had someone he wanted me to meet, the smartest damn engine man he knew. This was John Fankhauser.

We sat in the shade and jawed for a while, and I dragged out my mixer. John gave it a long, slow examination and finally said, 'Am, what I'd do is put that old mixer up on a display shelf and put a good Model T carburetor on your engine. It'll run much better.'

That was John. He had a real appreciation for old engines, whether in their working clothes or beautifully restored. But deep down, John was an engine man, and for an engine man the thing was a piece of equipment with work to do to put food on the table.

As I started attending more and more engine shows, John would often ride along. Coolspring, Sistersville, Portland, Siam, Asheville, Findlay ... long drives made much shorter and more enjoyable with John along for the ride. He told stories about his working days in the family dairy and about working his own oil wells. He talked about oil field engines from first-hand, personal experience. The man had done so much, and he was an articulate storyteller.

The more I learned about his life, the more he reminded me of my Dad. My Dad died when I was 26, so I never got to share things with him that came to me later in life, things like engines, which he would have loved. My Dad and John had a lot in common, and I think they would have been great friends.

John was always one for a good joke, and when he was telling one his face would crinkle up in a smile because he knew it was a good one. And when you told him one that struck him as funny he laughed! Head back, mouth wide open, a deep, hearty belly laugh. You wanted to to tell him another good one, just to share his enjoyment.

He also had an impish side. The first year Jim and Dolly (Helen) French came over to our side of the pond, John had a bunch of us over for dinner. After pouring everyone a large glass of his homemade wine he stood up and said he would like to propose a toast. In his deep voice he said, 'Here's to our wives and to our lovers' - long pause and a twinkle in his eye - 'May they never meet.' That was John, too.

As John got older he sold his big engines and focused on model engines. John would set up at one of the shows and would be busy with visitors the entire time. He rarely had a chance to sit. I have a vivid mental picture of 'The Professor' standing at his engine table, two sweetly running engines in front of him, and 10 or 15 folks hanging on his every word. He was a great talker, knowledgable, and he touched and enriched a great many lives.

Not everyone knows that John not only built his model engines from scratch, but he also designed them, mostly in his head. During our road trips he would describe 'next year's engine' that was in progress in his mind, talking about the things that worked out well and the things that sent him back to the drawing board (so to speak).

One experience I'll never forget happened one year when we were staying in Decatur, Ind. Tommy Turner had his gearless Olds at Portland that year, and John was like a little kid who's just gotten his first new toy. He was fascinated with the Olds, with how it ran and with the original bill of sale and correspondence that Tommy had on display with it. He studied that engine for hours, and he was especially taken with its gearless timing. Each day as we commuted back and forth to Portland he would talk through how he was going to build one. It was just amazing to watch and listen to the design evolve in his head. Sure enough, next year, proud as punch, first engine show he's all grins and says, 'Am, wait till you see this.' And there it was, the gearless that I had the rare pleasure to watch being born.

John Fankhauser gives Jim and Helen French's 15 HP Tillinghast a spin at the 2001 Portland show. John was instrumental in the engine's mechanical restoration.

John, being the perfectionist he was, continued to tinker with it for over a year before he pronounced it finally done. The man was a master craftsman.

John was probably the most observant man I've ever known. He'd arrive at my place before dawn and comment on a particular star alignment or some subtle aspect of the weather. Not idle chat, but a shared observation. He had a deep appreciation for the simple things in life and for nature.

I remember a couple of times sitting in the nice warm sun on a crisp fall day, with the smell of fallen leaves blending with the smell of burnt propane, listening to and watching a big ol' engine just thumping along. Sitting there like a couple of big old hound dogs on the porch, he turned to me and said, 'Arn, it just doesn't get better than this.' He enjoyed life deeply.

John's work ethic was astonishing. When we recovered the Long Lake Fairbanks-Morse diesels, John was an integral member of the crew. He started working right after breakfast, took a short break for lunch, and worked 'til it was tools down at 6 or 7 p.m. One of those days when we were sitting at the motel shooting the bull and enjoying a couple of beers before going to bed, he quietly said, 'It's hell getting old, I just can't work like I used to.' He had just put in a series of days that would have worked just about anyone 1 knew right into the ground, and he wasn't happy about his performance. I can only imagine what he must have been like as a young man in his prime.

The last time I saw John was last fall at Apple & Arts. Saturday had been a mess; wind, rain, cold, mud. Sunday was gorgeous; perfect fall weather with big crowds. John was in charge of the big engine building and had the engines thumping away as sweet as ever. Late in the afternoon after the crowds had thinned, I stopped at the engine shed to chat. John was sitting (a rare thing) in the sun on a chair in the doorway, watching the last visitors head for their cars. He had just given his apple a big lusty chomp and was chewing reflectively as a great looking gal walked past, carrying her cider to her car. John sighed contentedly and said, 'Arn, that's a fitting end to a beautiful day.'

John died March 25, 2003, at the age of 83. I'm really gonna miss John, but I'll never forget him.

John is survived by his wife, Bette Harris Haffey-Fankhauser; a son, Albert J.; a daughter, Wilma Louise Fitzner; three grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

Submitted by Arnie Fero, Plum Boro, Pa.


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