January 8, 2005 in Voices

Old-time power

By The Spokesman-Review

In the warmth of his wood-heated shop, Herman Meier grabs the rim of a giant iron wheel and pumps a gaseous breath into the lung of what was once the heart of American farming. There’s a gasp, a cough and the faint scent of gasoline as the one-cylinder gas engine wakes from an 80-year slumber. Meier has a knack for raising these pre-automobile engines from the dead, and a love for what they once meant to rural America.

From the late 1800s to the 1950s, gas engines powered rural America, in a large part because the vast majority of American farms had no access to electricity. Investor-owned utilities considered the cost of electrifying farms prohibitive. Utilities opted instead to stay in town where the miles of wire required to hookup one farm could electrify hundreds of customers. Rural customers who did hookup to power often bore the entire cost of the connection, which according to the Rural Electrification Administration, was often twice a farm’s annual income, though a gas engine could cost as much as $90.

A farm boy from the Washington coast, Meier said his family bartered with a local utility company to get power out to their home. The utility needed power poles and the Meiers had tall, straight cedar trees on their land. They were fortunate, Meier said, because the farm day started and stopped with the rising and setting sun for most agrarians.

Between dawn and dusk, gas engines powered everything.

“We had to pump our water, run the washing machine, grind grain,” said Andy Gortsema, an engine collector from Fairfield. “There was no electricity until the 1930s.”

Meier’s museum is an 80-exhibit dedication to a life driven by pulley’s and machine belts. There are massive circular saws, belt driven and used to cut logs. There are Maytag wash machines designed to be hooked up to the pulley of a simple gas motor so the family laundry could be done. There are engine-driven pumps used for irrigation and family drinking water.

Meier tells a story about attempting to fire up the Maytag washer at a county fair and having little success. A crowd was gathering as the engine belched the white clouds of smoke still rich with unburned gasoline when an 80-year-old woman in the crowd spoke up.

“Need some help with that?” the woman said.

The crowd laughed as the woman, an old farm wife, revealed the secret to gas-driven Maytags; they’re turkeys to start if the spark plug’s cold. Any farm wife knew she had to unscrew the spark plug from the motor and put it in the oven for a while to warm it up.

One of the beauties of gas-fired engines like the one in the Maytag was their simplicity. They were more like Fisher-Price popcorn mowers than automobile engines in that almost all of the moving parts, of which there were sometimes less than two dozen, were visible. A person couldn’t fire up one of the simple single-piston engines without getting a simple lesson in mechanics.

The engines consisted of a round piston pushed by rods into a relatively air-tight cylinder. Gas was added to the cylinder and, as the piston pushed upward, the fuel was put under high pressure, then ignited by a simple spark when the pressure was at its highest. The ensuing explosion forced the piston back down, and the motion of the piston pushed a massive iron wheel around. Belts looped around the iron wheel were then connected to the pulleys of farm and household machinery, which were trundled to life much like a chain-driven bicycle wheel.

“They are very simple,” Meier said of the engines. “But you have to remember that in 1911, how many people had ever seen anything mechanical.”

Would-be mechanics with Rube Goldberg sense would try anything to keep a tiring engine alive. They’d bolt carburetors from Ford motorcars onto the engines, make their own mufflers. When bearing casings gave out and the little steel balls crucial to keeping everything turning were about to fall out, farmers would use a clothing belt to patch things back together, Meier said. The home remedies often worked.

The electrification of the family farm, coupled with America’s drive for scrap metal during World War II, marked the end of the gas engine as a rural mainstay, Gortsema said. He estimates three quarters of America’s gas engines went to scrap yards during the war.

Today collectors comb through old barns and Internet classifieds for what’s left of the simple machines, which get found in the oddest places.

Meier has an engine that a friend found rusting in a roadside ditch up in Canada. Gortsema has a motor found by scuba divers in Priest Lake, Idaho, some 30 feet beneath the surface. He speculates that someone was probably floating the 200-pound engine across the lake on a raft, capsized and never bothered to retrieve the engine. Once utilities stopped giving farmers the cold shoulder, the gas engine’s fate was sunk.

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