Rhythmic putt-putt-putts of gas engines, puffs of smoke belching from coal-fired steam traction engines, acrid smoke and shrill engine whistles welcomed about 65,000 visitors to the 34th annual Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Show in Portland, Ind., Aug. 25-29. Exhibitors came from 37 states, Canada, Australia, England and Sicily, and visitors – including a group of engine enthusiasts from the Netherlands – came from all over.
Old engines and tractors evoke memories of a simpler time, when family farms were the backbone of the Midwest economy. In the early years of this century, engines ranging from 1-10 hp provided power for everything from washing machines to lighting systems, water pumps to corn shellers, grinders and saws. Steam engines furnished the power to thresh grain and run industrial machinery. This equipment represented the peak of technological achievement in its day. However, much of it was obsolete by the 1930s, as electricity became an affordable alternative. The workhorses of an earlier age were largely forgotten until they were rediscovered by collectors in the 1960s and 70s.
Scott Hirshey, Geneva, Ind., finds the classics offer a link to the past.
"I enjoy the people and the constant activity," he says. "People stop to say 'I remember when Dad (or Granddad) had an engine like this' and then share their tales of life before electricity."
Scott doesn't remember his first show: He was just 2, and traveled by stroller. Two years later, his grandfather – the late Harold Hirshey – exhibited a small engine in Scott's name, and a collector was born.
Scott's pride and joy is a 1914 Mogul sideshaft 8 hp engine. He rebuilt the sideshaft, put in new bearings and did the machine work.
"This is the size engine used in small machine shops, small industry, and to pump water," he says.
Scott and his father, Charles, are partners in the collecting hobby. The two own 100 to 150 engines. "We're going for the bigger ones," Charles says. "A 50 hp Bessemer is our largest."
Their collection includes a 25 hp Superior, tractors, and a steam traction engine. At Portland, they exhibited a 19 hp Crossley made in England, and a 15 hp Olin once used to pump oil in Pennsylvania.
Donald Michael, Bryant, Ind., had fond memories of an Indiana tractor once owned by his father. When he heard of one for sale in Mishawaka, Ind., he and son Dwain drove to the salvage yard. It took two trips to the yard's "back forty" to find remains of the tractor. Knowing there was a 1920 Model F Indiana tractor in that rusting pile of junk, the Michaels paid $850 and took it home. The tractor had cast iron parts, but none of the steel was useable. They worked for four years rebuilding every part on the tractor. With no operator's manual to work from, they often relied on Donald's memory.
Their current project is a 1918 Model E (SN 401). When finished, it will be on permanent loan to the Hancock Historical Museum in Findlay, Ohio, as part of a "made in Ohio" exhibit.
Aleck Smith, St. Mary's, Ontario, Canada, has been exhibiting his John Deere equipment collection at Portland since 1986. His display this year included a valuable 1940s-era John Deere 12A 8 hp engine once used to power a seven-foot combine, and a 1934 JD 3 hp engine. He also showed a 1920 JD two-horse walking plow, and a J. Fleury & Sons grinder used for cracking corn and rolling oats.
Debbie and Edwin Clark, Delmar, Iowa, displayed Wisconsin-built engines. Debbie is most proud of a Wisconsin Model AB 2 1/2 hp that she bought at an auction for $10. She enjoys the historical aspect of the hobby, and likes to pass that on to the next generation. During the show, the Clarks demonstrate engine power by blowing up balloons for kids.
"I love all the engines," Debbie says. "Watching how water was pumped from the well ... how old timers used log saws to prepare lumber ... the kids are amazed!"
A rare treasure is on permanent exhibit: A 1923 Fairbanks-Morse Model YV 100 hp engine. From 1923 to 1946, the two-cycle, two-cylinder engine was used to press tile in a Brownstown, Ind., tile factory. The engine weighs about 10 tons; a four-foot flywheel weighs about two tons. Each of two pistons is about 14 inches in diameter. The valveless engine produces 50 hp per cylinder at about 200 rpm. When the engine starts up, all eyes and ears follow the smoke and noise.
The Spark Plug Collectors of America held their 24th annual meeting in conjunction with the 1999 Portland show. The 300-member group has its own pavilion on the fairgrounds where collectible spark plugs are displayed, swapped and sold. Member exhibits showcased the wide variety of plugs available.
"Every internal combustion engine used a spark plug, and more than 2,000 companies made them in the 20th century," said Chad Windham, group president, Pendleton, Ore. "Every manufacturer thought he had a better idea for a plug that would not fail." FC
For more information: Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Association, Jack Rouch, 310 E. North St., Portland, IN 47371; (260) 726-4036. Online at http://tristategasengineandt.intuitwebsites.com.
Retired librarian Virginia Felts is a travel writer, focusing on museums and historic sites. Her interest in the Portland show dates to her childhood on a family farm in that area.