Iron Man of the Month: Harold Fleisch

Harold Fleisch

The “High Priest” at old Pence Machine Shop, Harold Fleisch does a job at the huge lathe — largest in the shop. They can make anything from tooth-pick holders to full-sized engines — but they can't make a wedding ring.

Joe Fahnestock

Content Tools

If the Almighty ever needed any repair work done on this old world, He might well have to wind up down at the old Pence Machine Shop in West Alexandria, Ohio, to get the job done.

For, though there may well be shade-tree mechanics, strip-shed machine shops, back-alley garages and village smithies still a-plenty throughout the length and breadth of this land of ours, there is only one last place you wind up at to get that certain piece fabricated for your old steam engine or gas tractor. Yes, it’s the old Pence Machine Shop where Harold Fleisch presides as high priest, supreme authority and final judge at the vortex of the manifold mechanical problems that daily wind up at his doors.

You’ve tried everywhere else, and failed. So you go to Harold Fleisch with your problem. He makes a few quick measurements, rushes into the office and has a huddle over the pencil-scrawled time-and-order book beneath a low-hanging shade with his male secretary, tells you to leave the piece and call back in a couple of months. You feel lucky you got in, and go away with that satisfied confidence the piece will be made. Fortunate for you the Lord didn’t beat you to Harold Fleisch with some of His big problems or you’d never get that blamed steam engine or tractor fixed for the summer reunions.

There’s always been a legend about the old Pence Machine Shop that’s lingered throughout the Great Miami Valley in Buckeye-land — a legend that’s gathered moss over the years, instilling fear and trembling to lesser mechanics who’ve only wished they could do what is done within its vaunted portals. Merely mentioning the name Harold Fleisch to an engine man conjures the kind of respect usually accorded only the Deity. Whenever you and I have problems that nobody else can solve, we take them to God. When engineers have engines that no other shop can fix, they take them to Harold Fleisch.

So strongly has this legend gripped me that, for a long time, I kept putting off the challenging burdens of attempting to even evaluate it in story and picture. For years I have been haunted by the illusion that the dedicated shop man and mechanic is a hard guy to penetrate. It was with fear and trembling that I approached the portals of the Pence Machine Shop, unlatched the imposing wood door and walked in with my camera and tape recorder to see what might happen.

But, instead of having a wrench thrown at me, I found the busy little Harold Fleisch one of the most affable and genial of men with an out-going personality that belied former impressions of crusty old machinists and shop men. Instead of grunting or growling as if I was a nuisance, he spoke fluently and explained graciously anything I would ask.

If my question pertained to an old Frick engine on which he was repairing the flue-sheet and flanging the flues at the smoke-box end, he even hooked up his air-hammer to show me how the job was done.

If I asked him about the giant shop lathe, he immediately assumed the typical shop-man’s pose for his picture.

If I queried him about the giant one-cylinder Rumely OilPull which towers above all the other machinery in his spacious shop, he climbed up on it like a squirrel affronts a tree, to show me the answer to my inquisitiveness.

When I invaded the dark and ancient office, instead of seeing a pretty young miss attired in a mini-skirt, there was a stolid-looking man with his hat still on, sitting like the legendary Scrooge at the old roll-top desk. But, instead of screaming at me like a Scrooge for invading his privacy, Clifford Neff was most congenial and soft-spoken.

The photographer’s art was not needed here. These men didn’t need instructions how to “pose for their pitcher and look at the birdie and say ‘cheese.’” They all knew their work and did it, while all I had to do was snap the shutter. (Boy, was that a relief!)

“I was a farmer till I was twenty-nine years of age. I farmed over near the Indiana-Ohio state line,” said Harold Fleisch. “Just as I was planning to get married, I was at my girl’s house one Sunday and the phone rang. It was Mr. Pence, asking if I could come to work for him Monday morning. I’ve been here ever since.”

The multifarious sounds of shop machinery were resounding omni-directionally from every nook and cranny of old Pence Machine Shop, located down by the Penn Central tracks on E. Third St., in West Alexandria. What a symphony of air-compressors, grinders, riveting hammers and sputtering gas welding torches it all made, sufficient to warm the cockles of any steam engineer’s heart.

“I had to put about twenty-five new flues in this engine,” said Fleisch, peering into the smoke-box of an old 22 horsepower Frick. “I had to cut out about half of the old flue-sheet and weld in a new piece.”

“Ought to work like new,” explained Fleisch. “Fellows often used to neglect cleaning out the smoke boxes, and the soot would gather moisture and rust out the flue-sheet.”

“Looks like a pretty good job,” said I, casting an inquisitive look at the finished masterpiece. “But just how do you know where the rust ends in an old flue-sheet, and exactly where to cut it out so it can be replaced with new metal?”

“After a while experience tells you where the soot-line has been,” replied Fleisch. “Years ago I used to rebuild flue-sheets right out in the fields. Did it all by hand then. A job like this would take about three days of steady work.”

I looked at the jagged curve where the old and new metals had been welded together, and at the newly-flanged flues just replaced. Then I pondered a Biblical parable over in my mind, warning about sewing new cloth onto old, wondering the wisdom thereof. But I knew that Harold Fleisch knew what he was doing and was much more conversant with the whims and wiles of steam-engine knowledge than I.

Then I asked him, “Will it hold up under pressure just like when the engine was new?”

“Well, it ought to,” confided he. “Fixed many a one just like this and they always worked.”

It was no easy task, following the rapid pace of the spry Harold Fleisch from job to job throughout the large shop, lugging camera and tape recorder, focusing distances and figuring parallaxes and lens apertures. From lathe to office for a quick huddle over the books, thence back to the well-stocked tool room, pausing with wrench in hand long enough to scribble a mathematical equation on a scrap of cardboard for a younger employee, after which he hopped up onto the big one-cylinder 15-30 Rumely Oil to point out a few details of its immense size and proportions.

“This has a ten-inch piston and a twelve-inch stroke,” explained Fleisch, looking down from his tall perch beside the heavy Rumely flywheel. “I hope to have it at some of the reunions this summer. Nothing wrong with the engine. All I had to do was clean it up and paint it.”

My thoughts went back to Ira Edger who used to build these huge machines, right on the main erecting floor of the Rumely factory and how he told me that out West, on a clear morning, wheat farmers could hear their neighbor start a one-cylinder Rumely nine miles away. And I believed him, for when one of these monsters fires, it sounds like a civil war cannon blasting the ramparts of the Confederacy.

“Tractor like that ought to pull about eight to ten plows,” said Fleisch.

It required an agile foot, dodging ’round the many long flat belts that hung from the old overhead line-shafts to power the diverse machinery at Pence Machine Shop, trying to keep apace with the agility of the nimble Harold Fleisch.

“Up to a year ago we powered this whole shop by this 15-horse International gas engine over here in the corner,” pointed out Fleisch. “It ran everything since the year 1912. All these line-shafts were installed when Mr. Pence erected the shop back in 1905. Cost only a quarter a day to run it.”

“I’ve been here forty-two years, myself,” said Fleisch. “I own the place, but it still goes under the name of Pence Machine Shop.”

Heading back to the far corner of the shop to check the air-compressor, Fleisch paused a moment to swap a few words with a couple of “guest mechanics” who dropped by to borrow tools for a “Do It Yourself” job of their own. Thence past the shop forge he led me, stopping long enough to call my attention to a small steam engine with upright boiler sitting nearby.

“This is a model some fellow brought in,” he said, turning the boiler upside down for a look at the flues. “Wants me to build a little firebox under it so he can run it.”

A moment later Fleisch was showing me his huge array of heavy tools for riveting boilers and hanging flues. “Just think what these would cost you, if you had to buy them today,” he said, turning away long enough to settle another problem that secretary Cliff Neff was trying to explain to a customer that had dropped by. The problem necessitating another quick visit to the office for more scribbling of mathematical equations and time computations, after which Harold showed me some very old calendar pictures of Model T Fords and antique horse-drawn farm equipment which had been hanging on the wall since the time when.

It was in the heavy-laden tool storage room that Harold Fleisch proceeded to show off the gamut of heavy drill bits and babbitting forms which Pence Machine Shop had accumulated over the decades since the year 1905.

“We’ve got every size drill, all the way from an eighth on up to two-and-a-half inches,” said he, grabbing a few of the largest ones to emphasize the claim. “And these on the shelf are bottom cups for babbitting engine bearings.”

“The weight of these tools on some of these old wooden shelves has them sagging like hammocks,” I mused, my memory going back to the old “Out Our Way” cartoons by Williams, showing baggy-overalled shop men, their cheeks bulging with tobacco cuds, groping for tools in dingy, over-stocked factory store rooms.

Escorting me to the opposite and far end of Pence Machine Shop, Harold Fleisch stopped to inspect the cutting out of a smoke-box ring for the front of the old Frick engine which welder Phil Price and Maurice Miller were finishing in the rough. Price and Miller, both sons of farmers, represent the rising, captain of industry echelon of youthful day-shift employees at Pence with sufficient roots in the past to eliminate the so-called “generation gap.” And the job they were finishing off appeared to be a most enviable coalition of geometric torching.

Meantime, “secretary” Cliff Neff was waiting once again with time-book in hand, to latch onto Harold Fleisch as he “flashed” by. Another problem having developed that required the master’s touch.

“You fellows don’t believe in pretty young secretaries in mini-skirts. Pence Machine Shop is definitely a man’s world,” said I to Neff. “What kind of work over the years has caused you to wind up as male-lib secretary to Harold Fleisch? Isn’t this man’s invasion of woman’s domain in the secretarial office a reversal of trends?”

“For years I sold big tractors and farm machinery even several of the big one-cylinder Rumely OilPulls, like the one sitting over there,” explained Clifford Neff with a wry smile between his jowls. “Also I was a farmer in between times.”

Here we have the combination big-implement salesman and farmer as the “perfect secretary” at the Pence Machine Shop. Either you had to be a machinist or farmer to get into the holy of holies with Harold Fleisch. (Women beware!)

“The only time we ever had a woman secretary was when one of the men secretaries was sick and Harold Fleisch’s wife came in to balance the books,” laughed Neff.

“I’m just old-fashioned enough to believe that even the small farm is going to make a comeback,” mused he. “I still farmed with horses up till just five years ago. Then one day a couple of Amish came by and ‘forced my hand’ at selling them my fine sorrel team. I even tried to bribe them to allow me to withdraw from the bargain. But they replied, ‘A word is a guarantee, you said you’d take five-hundred and we’ve given you the money. We’ve come to get the horses.’”

“I’d like to go back to farming,” said Neff. “And if I did, I’d get me another team of horses. I love to pitch manure by hand. I still have my horse-drawn manure spreader.”

Through the rear door of Pence Machine Shop, Harold Fleisch led me to where some of his prize antique monsters are sitting around, some under a pole shed, others out-pouring into the open air. There was an old engine with the name “Banting Manufacturing Co., Toledo, Ohio,” on the rusted smokebox front. Also an old Mogul tractor and a gaunt-looking International cultivating tractor, and a Titan all of various vintages crowded among the gaunt, towering silhouettes that almost hide a rear view of Pence Machine Shop.

And then there was Harold’s little masterpiece: a half-size model of an under-mounted Avery double steam engine, dubbed the Bull Dog.

“I built this model back in ’55,” said Fleisch. “It runs fine, and I’ve had several of the reunions around here.”

“You make everything from toothpick holders to the big, full-sized engines here, don’t you,” I replied. “Tell me, could you even make a wedding ring if someone needed one right quickly?”

“We can do about anything, but I don’t think we could make the wedding ring,” laughed he.

It was getting to be dinner time. As I passed from the portals of Pence Machine Shop, I noted Maurice Miller and Phil Price, their factory lunch pails propped up on the old Banting Machine Shop engine, munching their noon repast. Everything appeared turn-of-the-century still around Pence Machinery Shop. And I was happy it did.

And now, Harold Fleisch, you can return home to the “Missus,” only on the promise that you take her for a spin in your old 1919 Essex Sport Coupe as a sort of anniversary when you both took your honeymoon trip in the old vehicle.

To Harold Fleisch and old Pence Machine Shop at “West Aleck,” Ohio we doff the Iron-Man Derby in humble respect. For a great machine shop with its growing stock of tools and equipment, still run by the big flopping leather belts ever devoted to reclaiming the Age of Steam and the Era of Old-Time Gas Tractors for generations to come, we offer you an honored niche in the vaunted Halls of Iron Man Fame.
We can’t forget the Great Days because you won’t let us forget. IMA