Fitting the Pieces Together

Iowa man re-creates unique show display featuring wood puzzles from his childhood.

on the job

The crew – Keith, Galen and Vernon – on the job, while Keith’s youngest daughter, Lauren, takes a break.

Photo courtesy James L. Perron

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Coming up on Labor Day weekend in 1976, I was riding my bike down the rows of gas engines at the Midwest Old Settlers & Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.

It was Tuesday afternoon, and I was just out of school for the day when my brother caught my attention. I rode up to see what was going on, and met Ray Rylander from Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was making wooden puzzle pieces. He handed me 12 pieces and said, “Well, kid, if you can put them together, you can start work tomorrow.” I somehow got all but one piece together. Ray accepted that as “mission accomplished,” and a long friendship – and a passion for puzzles – was born.

As a kid, I had worked around the Old Threshers grounds since 1972. I got my first “Early Bird” button in 1973, when I was 8 years old. The old-timers around the grounds knew who I was and seemed to accept me. I would work there during Christmas break and most of the summer. I learned a lot during those volunteer experiences.

Ray and I hit it off well. I spent the last few weeks of each summer enjoying mountain climbing and prepping for the show. Then we’d load the truck and trailer and drive back home to Mt. Pleasant, where I helped him set up for the reunion. He had a 4 hp C4 Cushman engine that he used to run the saw table. We cut 12-piece symmetrical puzzles made up of identical pieces.

As the operation grew, at each reunion other engines were added to run multiple saws, but the Cushman always pulled the slotting saw (Dado head). In about 1984, Ray and I parted ways. It was time for younger kids to get involved and my interests had shifted to college and work. But the puzzle operation and memories of those early experiences always stayed in my mind.

Putting the pieces together

In 1993, after my son was born, I picked up a few small table saws and packed them away with the hope of creating a display like Ray’s, maybe as a father-son event. In 2005, I purchased a complete Cushman C4 at an auction. The trip home was quite emotional; this plan that had been in the back of my mind for such a long time might actually come to be. I had the saws and now I had an engine – not just any engine, but a Cushman, just like the one Ray had started with.

The engine purchase was made just two days before the Mt. Pleasant show, so it was too late to put a display together. Family members and friends goofed around with the engine, but they didn’t know anything about it. We knew it needed gas and spark, and you had to spin the flywheel to start it. The engine finally ran (horribly) in my mother’s backyard on Sunday of that weekend. I could finally begin making grand plans to get the puzzle operation going.

What could possibly go wrong?

I had purchased a small Dado head set over the winter, as well as miscellaneous parts. How complicated could this be? I had an engine and saws, and the rest should be small potatoes. Three weeks before the 2006 show, we began working on the engine and saw tables. We were not even sure what direction to pull the flywheel to make the engine run. I called my old friend Ray for help.

By then, he was up in years, a little fragile and kind of cranky. He drove from the east edge of Colorado to tell me I was “flippin’ nuts” to be doing something so stupid. “The puzzles faded years ago,” he said. “Nobody’s going to buy no flippin’ puzzles.”

Ray helped us with the engine, but he wasn’t much help with the saw setup. We worked day and night for a week before the show to build the saw table. It operates using a line shaft mounted under the table that drives three saws: one to rip wood strips, one to cut the strips to length and one with the Dado head. That one uses jigs to cut slots in the blocks of wood. All the pieces are the same, so the setup and jigs, once set, are relatively easy.

Then Ray made an announcement. “The engine ain’t big enough to pull that kind of load,” he said. He packed up and left in a huff. I’m sorry the friendship ended on a sour note. I really think that what I created was a compliment to what he had done 30 years earlier.

Yep, the engine is too small

In 2006, we cut some puzzles and burnt the bearings out of two saws. The engine ran like crap, but wow! It was fun! Thirty years had passed since I first cut, made and sold puzzles at the 1976 show. As the show wound down, we made plans for the next year’s display.

Three weeks before the 2007 show (I tend to procrastinate a little), we drug the puzzle operation out of storage and made improvements. My uncle had helped a little in 2006, but he really stepped up in 2007. He rebuilt the carburetor and had the Cushman purring. He put new bearings in the saws, and the show went well. A lot of people commented on the engine’s performance (we learned about the carburetor gasket between the bowl and throat). By the end of the show, we had made a lot of sawdust, a few dollars and had burnt all the bearings out of the saws: time to redesign.

My passion for the puzzles continued to grow each year, but I must admit I’m tired of them by the end of a seven-day show. Then it’s time to pack them away until the next year. Ray was right: The 4 hp Cushman engine was too small to run all the saws at once. We managed by running one saw at a time.

Engine becomes more than a power source

Meanwhile, other engine enthusiasts kept telling me about an 8 hp twin-cylinder Cushman that would have ample power to run all the saws. At the time, my interest was in the puzzles, not the engines. My family of five plus kinfolk was using the puzzle and engine display as a gathering spot. They’d run around and work the show, stopping by the booth whenever. That was the way I’d dreamt it; family enjoying the show and its many offerings.

But my interest in the engines began to grow, if only because I had to keep the engine running to make puzzles. In 2008, it was apparent that the original C4 engine was getting tired. So I drove eight hours to Minnesota to buy a 4 hp C1 850 rpm engine. It was said to have run the year before, but after I bought it, we discovered that it had major lower end problems, so it was benched.

Then I located another C4 and arranged to pick it up at the Badger Steam & Gas Engine Club show in Baraboo, Wisconsin. My son, Galen, and I left at 4 a.m. Friday and arrived there at 8 a.m. We followed a load of old iron in through the gate and ended up finding another C4 on an original banjo cart. This ignited my interest: I had heard how hard those are to come by and how expensive they can be. I purchased the banjo cart engine and the other C4. (I passed on a Sears 1-1/2 hp Farm Master and am still kicking myself over that.)

Becoming collectors

The 2008 Mt. Pleasant show went well. My uncle had three engines running well, the saws were completely redesigned and worked out pretty good. The slotting saw gave up on the third day and was nursed through the rest of the show. A new ball bearing saw was purchased at the show’s trading post to be installed in the display the following year.

Seeing a 1-1/2 hp Cub ignited an interest in the Cushman Cub engines, and 2009 marked the start of the Cub collection. Galen decided he wanted to collect the horizontal line. We travelled to the Darke County fairgrounds in Ohio (another nice show) to pick up an 8 hp twin-cylinder Cushman. Galen acquired a 4 hp Cub.

Soon all our efforts went into getting the 8 hp to run and a cart built before the Mt. Pleasant show. The twin-cylinder dropped a cylinder on the fourth day, but pulled the saws just fine firing on one cylinder. Galen’s 4 hp Cub ran for the show but wasn’t quite right (his great-uncle got it running right for the 2009 show). The new slotting saw cooked the ball bearings by the end of the show, but a viable solution was developed for a permanent repair. By then my uncle had developed a knack for rebuilding Schebler carburetors and getting everything adjusted correctly.

I continued to learn more about Cushman engines and their unique features. Everett Cushman’s engineering was way ahead of its time and was piquing my interest. After the show, at an auction in Clinton, Iowa, I found a 10 hp twin-cylinder engine, lightly stuck. My nephew and brother-in-law tinkered with it and got it to turn over. Too bad no one checked the crankcase for mice nests: That took two teeth off the large timing gear. The C1 engine was completely torn down and rebuilt but didn’t get to see any show time.

Devising a way to lighten the load

By 2011 the collection had gotten out of control. I had my original gray 4 hp C4, Mr. Banjo C4, red C4 (my uncle’s favorite), C1 (a newer version of the C4 that’s been completely rebuilt (but it’s not pretty), a self-contained C1 power unit with a magneto and radiator, a 5-6 hp C34 in progress, an 8 hp twin-cylinder that drives the saws, a 10 hp basket case, three C4s in loose condition, and a C4 with Dixie magneto (pretty). Galen owns a 4 hp Cub, a 2 hp Cub and a 1-1/2 hp Model X. We have also collected water and gas tanks, as well as screen coolers, battery boxes and literature.

Galen and I displayed 14 Cushman engines in 2011. The engines are heavy; moving them around is a two- to three-person job. In 2010, I found a truck dolly pivot handle at Baraboo. That spurred construction of carts for most of the engines. We set them up like semi-trailers. We use the same dolly to pull, steer and navigate the engines into the display and back to storage. This eliminates the need for expensive front-end bolsters, and the engine lineup looks uniform while displayed.

We also implemented this setup on the saw table and will create a pit box set that has a work bench vise and parts/tool storage with the same setup. I have a wooden fence around the saw and belt area, and a two-rope barrier around the engine display along with a workbench area. We had Cushman owners bring us carburetors to rebuild and two C4 engines to get running (we had them running by the end of the show).

As the display grows and I learn more about the Cushman engines, I have put together information. I have it laminated and posted around the display. My uncle Vernon comes back from California every year two or three weeks before the Labor Day show to make sure the engines are running just so. It’s pretty awesome to see all of the engines running at once and three saws making the 8 hp bark a little. I’m always open to questions and new information on the Cushman company. If you see me at the show, please stop and say hey. We still make puzzles even though the demand has faded. The puzzle passion is strong, but we have become Cushman crazy. FC


Postscript: I wrote this story seven years ago with intentions of dropping it off at the Farm Collector booth at Mt. Pleasant. That didn’t happen until 2016. A lot has changed in seven years. Galen now owns more Cushman engines than I do, and has moved into Cushman-related items and Cushman-influenced engines. I’ve lost count but I think the herd is around 80 types and models.

I harbor two regrets. The first is that my friend and mentor Ray has never spoken to me since he left the booth in 2006, but a package arrived from him two months later containing a flat belt that we’re still using. The second is that my uncle, having suffered a stroke, is no longer able to come help during the show. Just having him around the booth would be great.

Cherish your time with the older generation. Argue, laugh and learn: you will miss that when they are gone. Take the younger generation under your wing. Teach them when you can, tolerate what drives you nuts about them and nurse their confidence. –Keith Perron

Keith Perron, 500 E. Warren St., Mt. Pleasant, IA 52641; (319) 931-0907; email: kperron@mediacomBB.net.