Avid Collectors of Ottawa Engines

A Pennsylvania couple assembles inspiring collection of Ottawa engines

George and Helen Myers, keeping watch over their exhibit at the show in Ottawa, Kan., this summer.

George and Helen Myers, keeping watch over their exhibit at the show in Ottawa, Kan., this summer.

Photo by G. Wayne Walker Jr.

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Meet George and Helen Myers, ambassadors for Ottawa. Ottawa engines, that is. 

The Blain, Penn., couple have been collectors for years. Phonographs, classic cars, they've done it all. But these days they've narrowed their scope to Ottawa engines, originally produced in Ottawa, Kan. They're avid collectors - they have 31 pieces of the Ottawa line, including tractor saws, engines and drag saws - but they're also unofficial ambassadors. From their home base on the east coast, where Ottawa is slowly becoming better known, they spread the word, maintain a comprehensive collectors' registry, and generate good will.

"We're the eastern contingent," George said. "There's getting to be more interest in Ottawa in our part of the country, since we started up with it."

Helen said easterners are starting to include Ottawa engines in their collections.

"I think they're starting to realize that an Ottawa is a very important and unique piece of equipment," she said. "And I'd like to think we had something to do with that."

The couple's own entrance into the Ottawa line came by accident.

After he retired in 1991, George went to a sale to get an engine to rebuild. That deal fell through, but on his way home, he happened on to a farm sale.

"Well there was nothing there but junk," he said. "But I wanted to buy something that day. I saw a piece of junk with 'Ottawa, Kansas' on it. It had a saw blade on it, but nobody knew what is was. Finally, somebody said it probably had had an engine with it, that it was probably a drag saw, but he acted like it was not the biggest bargain in the world.

"Eventually, I bought a drag saw. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. I'd never seen anything like it, but my fellow engine collectors didn't think much of it," he continued. "Well, that reaction intrigued us, because we're kind of rebels. So we found out everything we could about Ottawa Engines."

What they found was more than a sleepy rural company.

"I thought Mr. Warner (company founder C.E. Warner) was a great man," George said. "He did his thing, his way. Really, he was up there with Edison and Ford ... they were three great men."

When the couple researched the company through the Ottawa, Kan., historical society, they found more than they bargained for.

"When we saw the company literature, we were really intrigued," George said. "The fact that Ottawa was sold through the mail, and the sales brochures were so colorful, so bright and pretty ... it didn't look much like other engine literature. Their artists' conceptions were so great."

The company's foundations were modest.

"They started out as poor farmers on a homestead in Kansas," he said. "They were raising hogs, and then they got into the fence business, and had a foundry. They were running that company really without much more than guts."

Warner's vision was unique for the time, George said.

"Today, a company will build a product, and then convince people to buy it," he said. "But Warner figured out a need, and then started building: he had a market right away."

The couple was hooked. They started seeking out shows that featured Ottawa engines. But the company line was little known in their part of the country.

"In the east, where we are, the only thing in Ottawa you'd readily find is drag saws," George said. "The others are kind of scarce."

"A couple of years ago we went to a show in Indiana," Helen said. "They were featuring Ottawa, so we took two engines. We got there, and there was only one other Ottawa there!"

Meanwhile, collectors in Ottawa, Kan., had initiated their own show. The Myers' made their first trip to the company's birthplace in 1995, and they were sold. They've been to every show there since, taking as many as five different pieces from their collection every time.

They've been fortunate on those trips to meet and visit with people who had direct connections to the Ottawa company.

"We met a man who'd been a former night watchman at the company," George said. "He was in his eighties; he'd started working there at the end of the engine era. We've learned that they had a sign company within the business, and a stone quarry in Missouri."

They even discovered a former employee who was a co-designer of a piece in their collection. "These are the kinds of things we've learned," George said. "That just makes it all worthwhile."

"They've really adopted us in Ottawa," Helen said. "They've been very, very friendly, welcomed us with open arms. We really do like going to shows in the midwest. People are just friendlier."

The engines they show are as historically accurate as possible.

"We're not just interested in getting them to work," George said, "but in getting them exactly the way they were. I have no objection to people that improve on a restoration, but we try to put them back the way they were originally."

Adding a further unique touch, George crafts handsome inlaid-wood carts for the engines. His carts are truly his: he cuts oak trees in woods near the couple's home, saws the logs in his own mill and planer, and does the inlay work himself.

They're also creating a data base of Ottawa engines.

"We keep a list of names and addresses, serial numbers, horsepower, and style of engine on everyone we meet who has an Ottawa," Helen said. "We hope one day to be able to learn it all."

They're making a good stab at it already.

"We will go to no end for information," George said. "We're so enthusiastic about it that we sometimes ramble on."

They're glad to lend a helping hand to other collectors.

"If people have a question, I'll go to any expense to try to get them an answer," George said. "I've prepared drawings, I've borrowed parts to have copies made at an Amish foundry, I'll send pictures. I don't want to be in business: I'm not in the engine business as far as buying and selling. I just want to have fun, and I've found that helping people is fun."

Those who contact the couple for help should include their engine's serial number, and should be prepared to reciprocate.

"I want to get information, as well as give it," George said. FC 

For more information, contact George and Helen Myers, RR 1, Box 237A, Blain, Penn., 17006; (717) 536-3711.