Iron Man Of The Month


12-Horse Frick Engine

Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390.

Joe Fahnestock

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Union City, Indiana.

Swartzendruber-a name to reckon with, let alone spell or remember. It was three years after receiving a letter from Omar Swartzendruber and two personal visits that I was even able to mentally visualize the name sufficiently to register in my memory.

And, when I did decide to seek out the natural habitat of this man with the long, unpronounceable name, my task was made none the easier, simply because I could neither spell nor speak the nomenclature of the one for whom I was searching. Indeed, no one thereabouts in 'them thar hills' could either elucidate about the man with the long, unspeakable name, or guide to his whereabouts, except to advise me to 'bar to the left, then to the right and ask the folks up the lane.'

Finally a pudgy little gentleman, leaning on a crooked cane beside a little red country schoolhouse at the crossroads did recall a certain fellow with a lot of old machinery out beside the red bank barn further on up the winding road.

'I rec'llec the opened up the road with a bulldozer after the blizzard of '50,' quoth he. And on we went over the winding, hilly country turnpike, veering to the right, thence to the left, until the stench of piggy manure stopped the motor of our little red truck right smack in front of someone's hog barn.

The bearded gentleman from within laughed at our dilemma, then directed us to follow the winding path on the other side of his barn to the haunts of the man whose name we couldn't pronounce. And even after visiting a couple hours with him, I still couldn't spell Swartzendruber until I had arrived back home and read it printed in a book he had given me.

Iron man OMAR SWARTZENDRUBER and his 12-Horse Frick Engine. He re-flued it, and welded and ground out new teeth all around the bull-gear, and it's run fine for over six years. So he thinks he did the job right. It sits out right in front of his little home, down around the winding path in Miami County, Troy, Ohio.

'Yes-this must be the place,' we mused. 'There is the old machinery, and the steam engine right in front of his little house, the frog pond and the big bank barn just as we had visualized it would be.'

We were afraid to get out because of the vicious dog that was barking and racing around behind the strong, iron fence. Then the friendly little man came out and smiled, beckoning us to get out and come in.

'You don't remember me,' I said, putting out my hand to shake his. 'I'm Joe-the fellow you sent a little tape recording of your steam engine and the frogs croaking in your pond. You remember you paid me a visit a year ago.'

'Oh yes-now I remember. It's Joe,' he replied. 'Come on in and meet my wife, Ruthie.'

'I'll try and quiet the dog,' said he, yelling at Princess but not succeeding. 'Our house is like a jail with these iron bars. We have to keep a vicious watch dog in order to keep children from swimming in our frog pond which is twenty-two feet deep in places, and we don't want any drownings.'

It was a small, unpretentious home in which the Swartzendrubers lived. There was the ancient brick fireplace and the old Detroit pump organ that dominated the parlor and gave it a homey look.

'When we moved into this house the fireplace had been boarded up. We decided we wanted to use it, but felt it wasn't safe, so, after I got my steam engine, I acquired an extra water tank, and we thought we'd put it in the fireplace as a sort of substitute to the Franklin Stove we were going to use to hold the fire,' explained Omar. 'We also relined the flue with a steel pipe to make it safe for firing.'

'We had a hard time finding your place,' said I. 'We couldn't very well pronounce your name when we inquired of folks, but I think it's pronounced something like Swartzendruber.'

'That's right,' laughed mine host. 'You did well pronouncing it. You know it's as 'Irish' as sauer kraut.'

'The first thing we saw was your steam engine when we were coming up your lane,' I said, changing the subject from household to machinery. 'What kind of engine is it?'

'It's a 12-horse Frick Engine,' replied Swartzendruber. (I hope I've spelled it correctly-WOW). 'My Dad threshed and sawed out in Iowa. I grew up with machinery all around me, learned to help him out, and by the time I was fifteen I was pretty big for my age so my father felt he had trained me well enough to run the engine myself.'

'I thought I'd never own an engine myself, but the one I have now had spent its life in the hills of Kentucky- shows pretty well by the wear that it's seen a lot of service. It was made in May of 1902, and shows a serial number of 9933,' explained Omar. 'I got it through a man at Greenville, Ohio, but can't recall his name right now. When we got it home, we enjoyed about eight weeks of labor, both day and night, and got it to running.'

'We re-flued it, the valve was out and we fixed that. The bull-gear was pretty well gone, so I welded three days on that then ground the gears down to size for two days, using a jig, with advice from other welders,' says Swartzendruber. 'I've used it now for six or seven years and it hasn't broken, so I thank the Lord it's in pretty good shape yet,' chuckled the plucky sauer kraut Dutchman with the Yankee ingenuity. 'I've never had it on the belt, but when I got the valve set I wanted to hear how it sounded, so I improvised a Prony Brake by placing a board under the flywheel and applied pressure alternately by a hydraulic jack to make it bark. I ran it that way once at the Darke County Threshers, Greenville, Ohio, and many of my friends got a bang out of its bark.'

The old Cat 60, of 1929 vintage which Iron Man Omar Swartzendruber bought back in '45. He kept the roads open during the big blizzard of 1950-dozing three days and nights without letup. Whenever a part would break, he'd weld it back together-everywhere there's a place to take weld-and it still runs fine.

The old Marion Roller which Omar Swartzendruber made look and sound like a steam engine, by separating the exhaust and adding oil and water.

The old Frick stood gaunt against the overcast skies and the big frog pond behind it, directly in front of the little Swartzendruber home-as resolute as some fabled and legendary iron sentry guarding the entrance against all invaders. Its tall black stack, steam gage and steam dome lent a stark contrast to the lovely natural background of cattails lining the water's edge, framing the old dock and wooden rowboat while on a grassy knoll jutted a very ancient and country-fied springhouse of many years' vintage. One was pleasantly reminded of Thoreau's 'Walden'. What a wonderful place for a tired old Iron Horse to pasture. And we are quite sure that, whenever our Iron-Man Swartzendruber gets tired of throttling his Frick, for change of pace he sneaks away with rod and line to the old boat nestled among the reeds, to row across his big pond and drop a hook for a fresh water bass or two for Ruthie to fry for supper.

Omar Swartzendruber says his machinery is only a hobby. His real 'business' is making up religious tapes from bible lessons, delivered by eminent theologians, and giving them to anyone interested in studying to better themselves. Although he lives very humbly, he once gave two fine tape recorders to missionaries that couldn't otherwise afford to purchase them for their mission work.

But there come those days, now and then, when Swartzendruber fires up his engine and invites the neighborhood kiddies over to ride the hay wagon, or even run the Old Frick, just to give the younger generation the 'feel of a steam throttle'. For Omar Swartzendruber, with twenty-eight grandchildren and some great-grandchildren for descendants, is a very religious, public-spirited fellow-a rather unique off-shoot from the usual run of steam engineers whose minds and hearts are circumscribed by iron and steel, reciprocating pistons and barking smokestacks.

Of all the changes and repairs he's had to make on his engine and other machinery, says Omar, 'Most of my junk is the product of hardship, as I say. If you don't have it and can't afford it you have to make it. My family has a 'dig' they throw at me- that if Dad could buy something for twenty dollars and make it for thirty, he'd make it,' laughs he.

Like Thoreau's 'Walden'-when Iron Man Omar Swartzendruber gets tired of engines, he saunters out to his wooden boat to do a little fishin' for bass in his deep pond. What an idyllic setting in nature-the cattails and reeds lining the pond, the ancient spring house in background. The natural springs furnish wonderful drinking water for our Iron Man and his Iron Horse.

For instance there was the matter of not enough clearance between the throttle linkage and the engine to protect the fingers. Whereupon Swartzendruber added a length of rod here and a bit of welding there to widen the gap. The way it was originally constructed an engineer could mash his fingers while working the throttle.

'We simply couldn't have some of these little neighbor kids get their fingers mashed-or anyone else for that matter, when running this engine,' he explained.

Showing me some indentations in the flywheel spokes, Omar Swartzendruber figured that the original owners in Kentucky must have had clutch trouble, using a chain to keep it from slipping.

'And by the way things look, they must've rolled it over and down one of those Kentucky hills,' says he.

Speaking of his experiences with his old '29 bull-dozer, a 'Cat-60', which he bought in '45, says Omar, 'I was the only thing you could get during the war. I rebuilt it, we made the blade for it, and during the big blizzard of 1950 we bull-dozed for three days and three nights. When the snow banks got as much as eleven feet deep, I took it myself, and when they were down to eight or nine inches I let a less experienced man take over. By the time we got the snow cleared, we had ground three inches off the center of the blade and a couple rollers were beat out, so it wasn't so exciting, profit-wise. I told the fellows if we'd just have waited and let the Good Lord bring out the sunshine and melted it down, we'd have been ahead. But it did let the people get out and get the necessaries.'

'It was one of the first ones built in Peoria, Ill., No. P. A. 6591. Naturally a young squirt just starting in the bulldozing business got all the jobs that others didn't want. I broke it in about every imaginable place and welded it. Finally where some of the castings have cracked, I've just welded heavy strap metal around it to hold it together, (like a bundle), but it still works fine, and it's paid for its fixin' as it went.'

Engine on left is a 1920-40 x 140 Cross Compound Reeves. Engine on right is a 1915-32 x 110 Double Simple Reeves. Both engine have Canadian 'Alberta Special' boilers. Owned by W. H. Jurney & Sons, taken in the early 1920's at Vulcan, Alberta, Canada.

'I used a Ford F-8 motor in it for quite a while with two transmissions and I had a Cadillac Hydramatic water-cooled transmission out of a 31-ton Sherman Tank which cost eight hundred dollars. It worked fine, but the roller chain I was obliged to use made so much noise that it made me deaf. So I took it out and put the Ford back in. Now I've acquired a General Motors Truck Engine, Chevrolet 409, with a truck transmission and it has more horses than I need and it works beautifully. But it's old and ugly, like its owner,' chuckles Omar-which in our opinion makes it look pretty nice.

Omar took me over to another part of his barn lot to show me an old Marion Road-Roller which he had worked over. The stack looked like that of a steam engine. And he had separated the exhaust of the four-cylinder engine in order to make it chuff and puff very much like a traction engine, emiting exhaust like steam whenever he added oil and water to create the effect.

But taking me into the house, Omar Swartzendruber showed me the other side of his life, quite different from his machinery. In his farm studio were several high-quality tape recorders.

'The machinery is only my hobby. This is my 'real business' and I don't get paid for it either,' he explained. 'Over the years I've made it a point to record over seven hundred, twenty-four minute Bible Lessons of such eminent Bible scholars as Dr. Donald Barnhouse and others. I make up these tapes, and give them away to anyone interested in getting a good education in the Biblical Scriptures, but I don't sell them. My problem is to find people who are sufficiently interested to want to listen to them and study to better themselves.'

'The late Dr. Barnhouse was one of the greatest of Bible scholars,' points out Swartzendruber. 'Although I never met him, he was a twin brother of mine, in years.'

'For over thirty years I used to work on automobiles for people. It didn't matter what they thought of their cars, it was my job to fix them so they'd work, although I always listened to what they had to say what they thought was wrong with them,' he added. 'And it's the same way with our own lives. It's not what our own opinions are about our lives that count, but what is wrong with them that needs fixing.'

'Do you call that a 'business'- making up expensive religious tapes and giving them away free to others who will benefit by them?' queried I.

'Well, I call it a 'business', although it's really a privilege to do so and help others who honestly want to study to improve themselves,' replied Omar.

For your tireless efforts at repairing the old machinery to help your neighbors and keep the old-time Americana alive-and for your selfless charity in wanting to better your fellow men by propagating the Good News of the Gospel free and without charge, we offer you, Omar Swartzendruber, a prominent seat of honor in our Hall of Iron Man Fame.

'God gives us so many blessings, and I don't want you to leave without a blessing,' said Omar, handing us several wonderful books of religious subjects-one by the eminent Dr. Barnhouse, and other fine authors, including nature stories to be read or given to children we know.

'And God bless you, Iron-Man Omar Swartzendruber' said we, as we waved goodby and wound back over his hilly lane-toward home.