The Power of Volunteers

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

article image
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!

The Lasting Legacy of Marvin Mills

For 1995, our volunteer team wanted to make at least a few steps towards the eventual museum mill exhibit. We knew funding would be needed to help pay for materials. To better show the story of Marvin Mills and build awareness, we decided to add the buckwheat mill alongside the Foos engine at the annual show.

A flour sack with a buck head in the background, and

It had become apparent during disassembly and removal of the mill from Fayette, Iowa, that it would be nearly impossible to reuse the original wood structure. The space available for the mill in the museum would also have a much different footprint and height than the original structure.

Anticipating the need for new building beams, my dad, Louis Tuller, arranged to have beams cut at the steam-powered sawmill during the show. Several 25-foot 8-by-8 beams were cut, plus smaller boards to use as reinforcing struts.

A man stands in a grassy fairground field monitoring the restored mill engine as it…

While running at the show, the Foos engine made quite a bit of rod noise, so the piston and rod were removed at the end of the show. Jim Patton took them home to make a new wrist pin to take out the slop. It was also decided that before the next show, we would clean and repaint the engine.

Recovering from an unbearable loss

Tragedy struck Midwest Old Threshers in December. Held on the second Saturday of December, the Old Threshers’ annual meeting was typically attended by many volunteers and exhibitors. The roads that day were icy and slick. That afternoon, we heard of an accident north of Mount Pleasant. A group of Old Threshers volunteers was headed to the meeting in a motorhome. In a terrible collision, all eight people in the motorhome were killed.

All eight were big supporters of Old Threshers; several were key volunteers in the mill project. Jim Patton, Virgil Coonrod, Bill Benishek, Steve Barron and Jack Dye all played major roles in the mill removal. Jack’s wife, Marnell, and Doug and Mary Lou Wiley also were lost in the accident. It was a shock; we grieved for our lost friends.

The volunteers lost in the accident were irreplaceable, but the mill project needed to continue. The volunteer team was resilient. Gradually our ranks grew, as new volunteers joined us. We were dedicated to getting the Marvin Mills project complete and operational again.

Drafting a design for the new structure

Foos had been chosen as the feature engine for 1996. We wanted the Marvin Mills Foos to be a star attraction. Over the summer, the engine was cleaned thoroughly, the bright metal parts were polished and the rest was painted dark green, much like the original Foos color. The wrist pin fit was fixed and the engine reassembled. There were several Foos engines at the show, but none was finer than the 15hp Foos from Marvin Mills.

After the 1997 Old Threshers show, the Foos was moved inside Museum B in preparation for the start of the mill exhibit. An area of the museum near the Farm Implements Exhibit was the chosen location. With the space for the exhibit identified, detailed planning began. Louis constructed a model of the mill to help everyone visualize arrangement of the equipment.

In the spring of 1998, work intensified to define details of the building construction, with Steve Alt, Louis and myself all heavily involved. Key to this design was determining how the structure would be downsized from the original building dimensions to fit a smaller space, but retaining the original arrangement. All the measuring we had done in the original structure in July 1994 proved its worth.

A man kneels beside a model of the original Marvin Mill

Height restrictions presented a major challenge. We considered creating a hole in the museum floor to lower the equipment into a basement, but scrapped this idea as it would make the display much harder to view. The solution was to lower the height of each level to the bare minimum. With that adjustment, equipment on the third level would just clear the museum roof.

No detail overlooked in equipment placement

Beam spacings were maintained through the center of the building, allowing equipment spacing to correlate to the original layout and keep drive pulleys and sprockets in proper relation to one another. The stone grinding mill was moved to the front, improving visibility. That helped to locate the engine in the structure as we ran the pulley directly from the engine’s clutch shaft.

The main drive shaft would be at the back wall. Belts from pulleys on that shaft would power machines in the lower level, as well as drive an upper-level line shaft that would power all the machines above. A hidden electric motor would turn all the equipment, even if the engine were not operating.

A faded wooden block bearing the mill's original patent.

Detailed plan drawings specified key dimensions of all the major components of the building. Barn builder John deNeui, Ely, Iowa, was enlisted to cut beams to length and cut the details of the end connections. In this post-and-beam structure, no metal fasteners were used: It is held together with wood pegs.

In early June 1998, the floor of the museum was cut out where the engine foundation would be poured. The foundation was framed with reinforcing bars inside. Concrete was poured into the frame and six mounting studs for the engine were added at the appropriate spacings.

Crew tackles old-fashioned barn raising

In late June, it was time for a barn raising. A large contingent of volunteers was on hand for the weekend. Many hands would be needed, as we set an ambitious goal of erecting the entire structure that weekend. The transfer of the Foos engine from its temporary wood skid to its new concrete foundation had been accomplished a few days before.

black and white photograph of the volunteers posed around the partially-reconstructed beams of the mill.

Under John’s direction, we began by constructing the east wall flat on the floor. Once all parts of the wall were together, it was slowly raised with the use of a fork truck and fastened to the museum floor with metal brackets. Each north/south beam structure was constructed similarly. Each was then stood up, working to the west, adding the connecting beams one at a time along with cross braces. Several volunteers would lift and hold the beams in position; a maul was used to tap the joint together.

We hit the heat of the summer that weekend, with temperatures near 100 Fahrenheit. Despite the heat inside the museum, we made good progress and all lower-level beams and the two ends were erected by early afternoon.

Attention turned to construction of the upper level. The middle two north/south beams were shifted from the lower level, so we needed to build them one stick at a time. The shift was necessary to allow for proper location and support of machinery in the upper portion of the mill. Pieces were lifted with the fork truck where possible, but a number were hoisted into position by volunteers.

Wood dowels were used to lock the pieces together, so holes were drilled at each joint and heavy hammers were used to drive the dowels into the holes. The core structure of Marvin Mills was now standing. It was a big accomplishment!

Over the summer, the Old Threshers shop staff added sheeting to three walls. They also constructed the floor for the main level. In the weeks leading up to the Old Threshers show, volunteers cleaned mill equipment and several pieces were placed in the mill.

Behind-the-scenes installation details

Many work weekends were held from fall of 1998 through spring of 2000. The work included mounting equipment and adding line shafts and drive pulleys. Elevator sections were shortened and reassembled. Line shafts at the back of the building were installed and the proper pulley combinations were made.

The 2000 Midwest Old Threshers show became the completion target. Many, many details still needed to be completed. Louis, being located in Mount Pleasant, handled many of the details, tasks and connections. Without him sponsoring and pulling the project along, it likely would never have been completed. Work weekends continued through the summer.

the volunteers in matching shirts take a picture on the reconstructed mill

The engine’s cooling system still needed to be constructed. One of the original tanks was cut down and placed in the back corner of the lower level, where it had been in the original structure. A good barrel was placed inside of it and water piping was routed to the engine. One of the original water pumps was restored and belted to the engine.

A large electric motor was installed out of sight on the main floor. It was connected to the main line shaft by a chain drive. The engine’s clutch mechanism was reassembled and aligned with the drive shaft.

Finessing the display

Electrical lighting was added to the barn using fixtures similar to those available during the time of the mill’s operation. The original small generator and electric box from the mill was installed at the back wall in the engine room.

Various mill artifacts were installed, including vintage tools, pulleys, spare parts and signs. Paper sacks were printed with the original Marvin Mills logo. Safety railings and fencing was placed at the front. A partial roof was constructed, hiding the museum roof from view.

Three men and a child stand in front of the mill's restored engine during a…

Signage identified and explained mill equipment, and shared the history of Marvin Mills. Brochures were prepared for visitors. A large set of mill stones provided by Bob Marvin was positioned in front of the mill, along with signage for Marvin Mills and a small stone hammer from the mill.

The exhaust from the Foos was routed out the back of the building. The engine was test-run in the new display that summer. It was now necessary to step outside the museum to hear the exhaust and see from the smoke if it was too rich. The electric motor drive was also tested, and adjustments were made to alignment and tightness of belts.

Finally — the dedication ceremony

The dedication ceremony for the new exhibit was set for the week before the show. Invitations were sent out to volunteers who had participated in the project, as well as many Old Threshers supporters.

Bob and Mary Kay Marvin arrived the night before the dedication. Many volunteers were present when Bob saw the exhibit for the first time. We all looked forward to getting his reaction.

a man standing in front of the reconstructed mill

I think Bob was stunned by what he saw that evening. We were glad to see the smile on his face. We took him through the entire structure and ran the Foos engine and mill equipment. He was awestruck. It was a great moment, validating the investment of thousands of hours of volunteers’ time.

Bob spoke at the dedication the next day and was quite emotional. He described his family’s history with the mill and his memories of it. He was thankful for the many volunteers who had made the project happen.

Volunteers’ lasting legacy

Today, the exhibit is part of the ever-growing displays in the Heritage Museums of Old Threshers. It is unique in that it can be operational. The mill and the Foos engine are always demonstrated during the Old Threshers show. Volunteers are on hand three times daily to start the engine and chat with visitors about the mill.

In 2010, a large video screen was added, showing photos and a video produced by my son, Zachary Tuller. The video captures the project from the beginning through reconstruction, showcasing the contributions of volunteers.

A man gives a talk about the mill to a group of gradeschool children in…

Old Threshers hosts tours each spring for hundreds of students. Marvin Mills is one of the stops. Volunteers run the Foos engine and the mill, and explain the purpose and operation of the mill, complete with examples of the input (corn, wheat, oats) and output (cornmeal and flour). It is great to see the children’s interest. Maybe the mill will be the spark for some to learn more about agriculture, engineering or history.

Volunteers were the real heroes in this project. Each one made a difference; each one contributed to the exhibit. Their pride and ownership were evident at the 2000 dedication and continues today, as volunteers operate the mill at the annual show and during school tours, and maintain the equipment. Without these volunteers, there would be no Marvin Mills today. Their lasting legacy is the living exhibit of the mill. FC


The Marvin Mills exhibit exists today because of the monumental efforts of many volunteers. In the past 20 years, numerous Marvin Mills volunteers have passed away. Those lost in the motorhome accident have now been gone more than 25 years. The collective efforts of all of these volunteers live on in Marvin Mills. “Marvin Mills lives.”

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. He can be reached 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.

  • Updated on Jun 1, 2022
  • Originally Published on May 19, 2022
Tagged with: Iowa, volunteers
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