The Power of Volunteers

Recalling the old-fashioned teamwork that brought Mount Pleasant's Marvin Mills exhibit to life.

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by Barry Tuller
The Foos engine emerges from the basement, rolling up the planks on its flywheels, pulled by a mounted winch. Harold Woods and Jim Patton adjust the planks and blocks as it goes by.

Many antique tractor clubs across the nation have undertaken major recovery efforts in the name of preservation of a steam engine, gas engine or tractor. But few sought to preserve the relic’s surroundings as well. In the first segment of a two-part article, Barry Tuller recalls the recovery and relocation of a rural mill and its contents – including a 15hp Foos engine.

One never knows where a lead on an engine will take you. This story begins late in 1993. My father, Louis Tuller, was on the Midwest Old Threshers board of directors in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Among his areas of responsibility was the gas engine area. People sometimes contacted Old Threshers for information on gas engines, and those inquiries were funneled to me by my dad. An inquiry that fall sought information on a large gas engine once used to power a mill.

I met Bob Marvin in late December in below-zero temperatures with snow on the ground. The engine in question was a Foos. It had provided power for his family’s mill in Fayette, Iowa. Although mill operations ceased after a devastating flood of the Volga River in 1947, he had many fond memories of the mill.

old mill in disrepair

By 1993, when I visited the mill, the building was in a state of disrepair. In one corner of the building was an opening into the foundation. Stepping down into the hole to get to the lowest basement level, I could see the 15hp Foos. Mounted on a concrete pedestal, it had massive flywheels. There was a clutch on the off side and the shaft disappeared through the stone wall next to the engine. The engine would not turn, as the piston was stuck, but it looked to be quite complete. The water pump for cooling was also there as well as two massive water tanks.

vintage ad for Foos engine

On the other side of the basement was a large corn sheller. A cleaner of some kind hung in the back corner, along with the power shaft with many pulleys and fragments of belts. A steep stairway led to the main level. On this day, the opening was covered and we were unable to explore further.

A vision of an exhibit

Bob’s family had a long history of operating mills in the Fayette area. The mill with the Foos engine was built in 1910, replacing an earlier steam-powered mill that was destroyed in a fire. The 1910 mill was put up quickly to get the mill back in operation. Interestingly, the 15hp Foos was not powerful enough to run the mill at capacity, so a second 25hp Foos engine was added. Bob’s mother sold the 25hp Foos in the 1970s. Other machinery in the main area of the mill included a stone grinding mill and a buckwheat mill.

vintage flour bag image

I made an offer on the engine and Bob said he’d consider it. Meanwhile, I began to consider another possibility. I had grown up in Mount Pleasant and experienced Midwest Old Threshers my whole life. Our family began collecting and showing gas engines in 1974. When the Old Threshers Foundation was created in 1986, I was named to its board of directors.

The foundation was created to make new exhibits and capital improvements possible, such as the Wilkie machine shop and the Peterson AC dealership displays. Old Threshers was just starting on a new Farm Implement exhibit as well. My mind envisioned Marvin Mills as another exhibit for the museums, telling the story of how grain was processed and turned into useful products.

I discussed the possibilities with my dad and Mount Pleasant Administrator Lennis Moore, a skilled exhibit designer. Each was enthusiastic about my idea and I contacted Bob with a proposal for donation of the entire mill to Old Threshers. In time, he and his family agreed to the proposal.

A major undertaking

In April 1994, Lennis, my dad and I visited Marvin Mills and explored every part of it. The building was in very poor shape. Part of the roof had fallen in, and some of the wall was missing. The main floor was partially collapsed, and the stone grinding mill was close to falling in. Fortunately, the main mill equipment was protected by the peak of the roof.

The mill had processed a variety of grains. Several elevators rose from the basement to the peak of the roof. All of the equipment was operated by line shafts, with the engine in the basement providing power for the main line shaft across the back of the basement.

The main floor had a small workshop with a workbench. There was also a small generator and electrical equipment to provide lighting. As the building had not been used for more than 40 years, everything was covered in a thick layer of dirt. It was a time capsule of a small-town mill from the early 1900s, and all the key pieces were still there.

Preparing for recovery

Following approval by the Old Threshers board, we began the planning process. It would be a monumental task to disassemble and transport the mill’s contents from Fayette to Mount Pleasant, 140 miles away. Virgil Coonrod, Cedar Rapids, volunteered to help with a crane and semi-truck and trailer. Many other volunteers signed on for the project and pledged to bring trucks, trailers and equipment. Our date for removal was set for the last weekend in July.

gas engine in disrepair below building

Before we removed anything from the mill, we documented everything with photos and video. This would allow us to better reconstruct the mill into a new display. Steve Alt, West Liberty, Iowa, and I spent a long day at the mill in early July, documenting everything, taking measurements and diagraming the site.

A few weeks into July the project almost came off the tracks, when Lennis had second thoughts and expressed safety concerns. Virgil, who could not be there to help, also had concerns. All were resolved when Jim Patton, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, stepped up to take the lead with the Coonrod support equipment.

A three-day operation

The disassembly and transport weekend would take place in three days, supported by volunteers who committed to the project. A crew from Cedar Rapids arrived a day early to remove brush and weeds, allowing access for the crane and semi-trailer. A tilt-back truck was also positioned to receive the Foos.

On Friday, volunteers were split into smaller teams for maximum efficiency. Jim Patton led a small group working on removal of the Foos engine. Richard Thompson, Dallas City, Illinois, and George Alt, West Liberty, Iowa, led the effort to remove the remainder of the roof, allowing access to the contents with the crane on Saturday. Remaining volunteers focused on removal of small items, every piece of which was tagged and documented. A couple people recorded the work in photos and videos.

man looking up at corn sheller

The engine team initially worked to make sure the key parts were not stuck. The plan was to set the engine on its flywheels and then pull it up ramps out of the basement, a task made easier by flywheels that would turn. We were in luck: The piston was not stuck! Piping to the cooling tank was removed. The connection to the main shaft through the wall was severed. With the nuts on the mounting studs of the foundation base removed, the engine was jacked up so cribbing could be placed under the flywheels and cylinder.

Moving an engine; removing a roof

Then began the slow process of inching the engine forward off the foundation base and moving it toward the opening in the basement wall. Once there, an incline of heavy timbers was used to construct ramps to pull the engine up. A heavy wheeled support was placed under the cylinder. Finally the engine reached the tilt-back truck bed and started onto the metal surface of the bed.

gas engine being removed from mill basement

We all let out a slight gasp when the engine made the transition from the wood ramps onto the truck bed, freely rolling forward an inch or so. It was easy from there, as the engine was pulled forward with a winch to center it on the truck bed where it was prepared for transport to Jim’s shop in Hiawatha, Iowa.

The team working on the roof was also busy during the day. Initial efforts started from the outside, removing shingles and working down to the structure. To speed the process, Richard and George used a Skil saw on the outside to cut down the roof, enabling removal of sections of the roof between rafters.

They also worked from the inside with an electric jab saw, making cuts that enabled us to break smaller sections free. By day’s end, the roof was completely removed. Most of what remained inside were bigger pieces, including mill equipment that would be lifted out with the crane.

Working from the top down

Additional volunteers arrived Saturday, bringing the total to about 25. The Coonrod crane was carefully positioned adjacent to the mill building, and semi-truck and trailer were nearby. Volunteers began removal of equipment from the upper level using slings. The tall elevators were split to allow removal of the top part first.

As we worked our way through the building, we tried to salvage the main support beams for use in the display. These showed evidence of being hand-hewn and several were barely squared. The building had probably been erected quickly and the beams were severely warped. Several beams were loaded, as well as one roof peak and parts of the walls.

people atop an old structure

Efforts then turned to the equipment on the main floor. Slings were placed on the stone grinding mill and it was hooked to the crane. The wood around the mill was rotted, so it was carefully loosened from its mounting, preventing a further tip into a hole in the floor. A sorghum press that had been run by a steam engine outside the building, with the belt passing through a window, was also salvaged.

To get to the equipment in the basement, the flooring on the main floor had to be removed. Equipment in the basement was removed in a precise sequence in order to pick the equipment with the crane. A large corn sheller and a pair of cleaning mills were also retrieved. The main power shaft was also in the basement with a variety of pulleys. Completing the disassembly, the crane was used to remove the remaining walls and lay them on the ground.

Making a leap of faith

By late afternoon, everything was out of the mill and loaded into trailers and trucks for the trip to Mount Pleasant. Among the last items removed from the structure were the engine’s big cooling tanks. These were badly rusted, but we wanted to use them in the display.

Bob Marvin was with us in Fayette for disassembly and removal of the mill. It was a huge leap of faith for him, giving up the family mill, Marvin Mills, to people he barely knew. His hope was that the mill would live on in Mount Pleasant and be shared with thousands of visitors, but I’m sure he had doubts. Would Marvin Mills ever be complete and operational again? Would this volunteer crew actually be able to put the mill back together again?

Less than a month later, on August 27, 1994, the Foos made its grand entrance at the Midwest Old Threshers grounds. Jim Patton had been busily working on the engine to make it operational for the show. A layered base of 4x4s had been constructed for it. All working parts had been loosened and cleaned. For this show, the Foos would share a row with Old Threshers’ other big engines, the 35hp Olin and the 15hp Reid.

restored Foos engine

A suitable barrel was found for use as a cooling tank. A stand to support the barrel was added to the wooden engine base, and the barrel was piped to the engine. A gas tank was added and mounted to the side of the base. To limber up the engine, we belted it to a tractor so it could spin for a while.

Wires were added and a coil and battery hooked up. With a person turning each flywheel, the engine was spun. After a short time, it fired and came to life. We made further adjustments and the engine ran fairly consistently for several hours each day at the show. It was a big victory for the volunteer crew that had recovered the engine and Marvin Mills just a month earlier. The Foos lives again! FC

Coming in Part II: The Lasting Legacy of Marvin Mills


Barry Tuller collects gas engines and related belt-driven equipment, literature and advertising. He enjoys learning about engines, and researching the history of the people and companies that made them. Contact him at btengines@gmail.com.

For more information: Visit the Marvin Mills display during the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion September 1-5, 2022, at the showgrounds at 405 E. Threshers Rd., Mount Pleasant, IA 52641; email: info@oldthreshers.org; online at Old Threshers.

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