What makes an antique gas engine sell for $200,000? The answer is invariably linked to the piece’s rarity. But for John Merry of Walla Walla, Wash., rarity was only one of the factors involved in his decision to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a very early Golden Gate gas engine at an estate auction in June.
“The fact is, this is a historical treasure for Walla Walla,” he says. “Really, it’s a hidden treasure, because most people don’t understand the history of the internal combustion engine; they think the car came first. This could be Walla Walla’s first internal combustion engine.”
That aside, the Golden Gate — built before 1895 by Adam Schilling & Sons, San Francisco — is an admittedly rare engine. Production numbers are lost to time but fewer than 10 Golden Gates are known to exist today. Factor in unusually advanced design and original paint, and it’s no surprise that the engine drew uncommon interest.
And then there’s the backstory. Two lifelong friends, both avid engine collectors. A rare engine slips through one’s fingers into the other’s hands. A tag-along nephew who grows up chasing engines with his uncle. A nurse’s name badge; an 11th hour financial backer. Who shot J.R.? Who cares?!?
Gilbert Merry, John’s uncle, farmed for years near Walla Walla. A collector with diverse interests, he gathered up antique tractors, engines and motorcycles as well as Indian artifacts, rocks and antique bottles. A self-taught machinist, he was known for his uncanny ability to coax old engines back to life.
“My uncle Gilbert and Ted Small were close friends and early engine collectors in the Walla Walla Valley in the early 1960s,” John recalls. “They collected engines, tractors, whatever they could find.” In the late 1970s, a local family offered an antique engine to Gilbert. Being common, the engine held no particular appeal; Gilbert passed on it.
For whatever reason, Ted didn’t. When the common engine was offered to him, he bought it. Then the sellers asked if he had any interest in a big old vertical engine abandoned out on their farm. No one in the area knew the Golden Gate gas engine existed, let alone that it might be available for purchase. “Of course when Ted saw it, he knew he’d found something special,” John says. “He said that as soon as he got it loaded on his trailer, the first place he took it to was Gilbert’s.”
The family members who sold the Golden Gate to Ted were descendants of the engine’s original owner. They told Ted that the engine was first used as a power source for woodworking equipment. Later it was used to pump water; later still it ran a seed cleaner. An 1895 photo shows a Golden Gate engine pumping water on a wagon in front of G.H. Sutherland Co., a hardware store on Main Street in Walla Walla. “The engine I bought is the one in that photo,” John says.
Golden Gate began building gasoline engines in San Francisco in 1891. “Schilling was the financing arm behind Golden Gate,” John says. “A few ‘Schilling’ engines were made in the same size as this, but this one is marked as a Golden Gate, not a Schilling. Most of the others we know of are 3 and 4 hp engines.” Schilling & Sons also dabbled in automobiles, building the first car (the “Golden Gate”) produced for sale in California.
From the beginning, Golden Gate engines showcased advanced design. “They were one of the first companies to manufacture an engine with an overhead cam,” John says. “It was pretty unusual for that era.”
John’s engine has long been identified as a 7 hp vertical but he thinks that is incorrect. “After careful study, I believe it to be a 10 hp,” he says. The largest Golden Gate known, the engine features fuel injection and a flyball governor that controls engine speed. It has a 7-1/2-by-10-inch bore and stroke; the 52-inch flywheel has a 4-inch face. “No. 4” is stamped on the head and cylinder. “We believe it to be the fourth one built,” John says.
As a boy of 10, John became his uncle’s apprentice. “I traveled with Gilbert ever since he started collecting engines,” he says. “We went all over the country looking for them. He collected probably some of the best examples of engines in this area.” But the prize, the Golden Gate, was just out of his grasp. “We both knew that engine was very rare,” John says. “The name ‘Golden Gate’ doesn’t get much better; that name adds a lot of value to it.”
As Ted and Gilbert aged, declining health made it difficult for the old friends to get together. John stopped to visit Ted on a regular basis, and once a year, at Gilbert’s behest, he went on official business. “Gilbert still wanted to buy that engine,” John recalls. “But Ted would never sell it; it was his treasure.”
Ted died five years ago. The Golden Gate remained in his family’s hands until the decision was made to sell it and his vast collection at an estate auction in June 2013. In January 2012, Gilbert moved to the Washington Odd Fellows Home in Walla Walla. There, 10 days before Ted’s auction, Gilbert passed.
“On the day Gilbert died, my wife and I were sitting next to his hospital bed,” John says. “A nurse came in with paperwork for us to sign. We’d never seen her before. I looked at the badge on her uniform and it said ‘Ellen Schilling RN.’ Seeing the Schilling name like that really shocked us both. A Golden Gate never comes up for sale, Gilbert dies 10 days before the auction and we see ‘Schilling’ on a nurse’s name badge.” It was a simple coincidence, but an eerie one nonetheless.
A serious collector in his own right, John has built a heavyweight collection that includes an 1893 Hercules 5 hp built by Palmer & Rey, San Francisco; a 20 hp Brown-Cochran, Lorain, Ohio; an 8 hp Atlas King Bee, Atlas Engine Works, Indianapolis; a 1901 square-rod 4 hp horizontal Stover, Freeport, Ill.; and a “Charter” Fairbanks, Morse & Co. 2 hp vertical dating to the 1890s. The Golden Gate would clearly be a perfect fit for the collection. During Gilbert’s final days, John promised him he’d do his best to buy the engine.
Drawn by the Golden Gate, rare tractors, a 1910 Auburn and Indian motorcycles from the 1940s and ‘50s, more than 900 bidders registered online and onsite for the June 22 auction in Lowden, Wash. John was prepared to step up to the plate and swing — within limits. “I had a backer, but I only had so much to spend on the engine,” he admits, well less than $200,000. Just before it came time to bid, a man approached. “He knew me and he knew Gilbert,” he says. “He came up to me and said, ‘You buy that engine. Don’t you let it get away.’ He also backed me on it.”
With bids coming in $10,000 hits, John fought to remain calm. “I almost stopped,” he says. “When it got to $200,000, I couldn’t believe it had gone so high. One more hit and I would have been out.” But the only remaining bidder surrendered, and the engine was John’s.
It’s not every day a guy spends $200,000 on an antique. But John’s a seed farmer and by late June, his mind was on spraying fields. The engine held center court in a quiet shop while the collector’s attentions were directed elsewhere.
Still, even at the end of a busy day on the farm, John’s thoughts skipped back to the Golden Gate. “I’ll take it to some shows,” he says. “It should be shown. These engines are as scarce as hen’s teeth now. People are interested in them. My granddaughter really likes them, and my son and daughter enjoy them.
“But,” he adds, almost as an afterthought, “they didn’t have the experience of going out and finding them.” FC
Leslie McManus is the editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.