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Washington Voices

Engine Buffs Fire Up The Past

The nearly 250 antique engines on Tony Meier’s property on East Wellesley represent more than simply the retired rancher’s love for old things.

They represent hard work, turn-of-the-century style.

These rough-looking cast-iron contraptions - some produced by long-forgotten companies with names like Economy, Associated and New Way - performed equally rough tasks on oil derricks, farms, in quarries, at sawmills.

Meier, 82, and his son, Herman, 56, both members of the Inland Empire Gas and Steam Buffs, have restored dozens of them.

“One of the goals of our club is to preserve the history of these motors, but it’s really the history of American industry,” said Herman Meier, standing next to his dad and a large nine-horsepower Economy, sold through the Sears-Roebuck catalog around 1909.

The pair’s virulent antique madness - there’s a sign in Tony’s garage that reads “Warning! Antique Pox Very Contagious” - began around 1979 with an old gas engine sitting around Tony’s shop. He and his son got to talking, and decided it might be fun to restore it.

Eighteen years later, they have restored about 70 gasoline-powered engines.

Included are a handful of vintage gas-fired Maytag and Briggs & Stratton washing machines, completely restored and functioning like it was still 1912.

“Believe me, I’d be divorced if I told my wife she had to wash clothes in this thing,” Herman says, establishing priorities. “I’m kind of attached to her. What’s it been, 37 years.”

Herman, an administrator at Holy Family Hospital, comes by his mechanical prowess honestly. His dad worked as a Chevrolet mechanic during the 1930s, and later spent decades near Twisp, Wash., running a cattle ranch - and the machinery it took to do it.

Tony still has the engine he used to pump water on the ranch, as well as a larger one that ran the huge circular sawblade rusting nearby. That one’s not restored - but for a reason.

“Some people have them and they’re very nice,” Herman says. “We’ve kind of stayed away from them. They’re kind of dangerous. If you take ‘em to a show and chop your hand off, that’s not real cool.”

The pair show their restored engines at six or seven antique engine exhibitions a year, including at the Inland Empire Gas and Steam Buff’s Spokane Interstate Fair display. They buy their engines and spare parts at regional swap meets devoted to antique enthusiasts.

When they find an interesting engine - like the rusty old 1909 “New Way” engine that drove a water pump on a homestead near Waterville, Wash., - they take it home with them.

“First, you take a pretty good look at ‘em, to see where you are with condition,” Herman says.

Then, carefully soaking the engine parts in oil to free them up, the Meiers take the engines apart. They sandblast the often-brittle cast-iron pieces, and repair what is cracked or broken, normally by brazing the pieces back together.

Once finished, these antiques can be worth upwards of $5,000.

“It’s taking something old and broken down and making it look like new,” Tony says, looking around him at the work horses that have become his blue-collar treasures. “That’s what we get a kick out of more than anything.”

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