Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the June 2004 Gas Engine Magazine.
Every now and then, an engine comes along that stops the entire old-iron community in its tracks. Charlie Inman’s 20-hp Stickney is one of those engines.
Charlie seems almost embarrassed when asked to talk about the remarkable 20-hp Stickney he fished out of Montana’s Milk River. Ever since he got it running last year, the Havre, Mont., resident has become something of a celebrity in the old-iron community. One of three 20-hp Stickneys known to exist, the history of Charlie’s engine can be traced back to 1937. That was the year construction started on the Fresno Dam, 14 miles west of Havre in north central Montana.
In 1937, the Stickney was just an old engine, a contractor’s beast of burden running a pump or a light plant, just one part of a contingent of machinery employed to dam the Milk River.
Charlie’s dad, Bert, was a mechanic attached to the dam project, and Charlie remembers him saying the Stickney ran almost constantly. ‘Dad used to say that on a clear night you could hear that thing running, even though it was 2 miles away.’
When the dam was completed in 1939, the construction crews packed up and moved on, leaving the Stickney behind as junk. Charlie’s neighbor appropriated the abandoned engine, hauling it a mile from the old dam workshops to his property on the Milk River. There, he set it up on the river bank running a pump to irrigate his crops. The years rolled by, and the Stickney stayed at its post.
In 1951, the Milk River flooded, the river bank gave way, and the Stickney rolled into the river. ‘When it fell in, they tried to pull it out,’ Charlie recalls. ‘But back in those days, there weren’t any machines to pull it out. I used to go down and sit on the river bank when I was a kid and dream of hearing it run.’
The river slowly claimed the engine, but before the Stickney disappeared completely under a layer of silt, Charlie’s neighbor tied a steel cable to it, staking the cable to the bank. By the 1980s, the engine had slipped from sight, and the only reminder of its existence was the cable running from the bank, disappearing into the silted riverbed.
Charlie’s boyhood interest in the engine never waned. If anything, it continued to build over the years. Out of sight, but not out of mind, the Stickney was a goal Charlie was set on fulfilling. Finally, in the spring of 2000, the opportunity to retrieve the engine through the proper channels presented itself.
When the backhoe arrived to dig out the Stickney, at least 1-foot of silt covered the engine. ‘All they knew when they started to dig, was there was supposed to be a big engine at the end of the cable,’ Charlie says of the process. Working steadily but gently, the crew was able to dig around the Stickney. To this day, Charlie’s still amazed they didn’t hit the engine with those first few swipes of the shovel, as they lifted away years of silt and exposed the Stickney.
With the engine safely retrieved, the real work had yet to begin. As Charlie started disassembling the Stickney, the toll of its years of entombment was readily apparent. ‘There wasn’t one thing that didn’t give me trouble,’ Charlie says of restoring the engine, explaining that lime had accumulated over every square inch of the Stickney, making the restoration especially difficult. ‘It was like removing stone.’
Charlie pushed on, patiently applying himself to the task. It took him seven days just to remove the intake valve spring, chiseling off the lime and rust using a screwdriver and a little hammer. It took 20 days to get the clutch pulley free, and four months to get the piston to move.
Remarkably, the piston was in good shape, as was the cylinder bore. Charlie reused the original rings, but as he installed them he knew he would regret the decision to reuse them. ‘The rings didn’t show much wear,’ Charlie says, ‘but when I went to put the piston in the hole and compress the rings, they compressed much too easily.’ In the end, Charlie ran the engine for about 12 hours with the original rings, but eventually had a set of custom rings made, which he has since installed.
Major castings such as the cast iron muffler, cylinder jacket and water hopper were cracked or broken, but looking at the finished engine it’s hard to notice Charlie’s repairs. He did all his own metal stitching and welding, and poured the babbitt for the bearings.
In fact, about the only thing he didn’t do was the casting work, which included sourcing a new clutch fork, clutch handle, fuel pump and seat. Charlie had the words ‘Chas. A. Stickney Co.’ included in the seat casting, which was done by Bill Santos in California. It’s the only non-stock piece on the Stickney.
A farmer by profession, Charlie’s no stranger to working his way through mechanical problems. But the Stickney presented challenges he’d never faced. ‘You take a one-cylinder engine, how hard can that be?’ Charlie asks rhetorically.
He found out, noting that Stickney used its own design even on the nuts holding the engine together. Intent on an accurate restoration, Charlie made his own tool to copy Stickney’s nut design. Charlie notes that none of the engine’s hardware is standard, making restoration and fabrication of seemingly simple items time-consuming. ‘One thing I learned is that there’s nothing that can’t be done,’ Charlie says of the restoration.
When the Stickney slipped into the river in 1951, it landed on its side, the tongue of its cart pointing up. When they tried to retrieve the engine at the time, all they got was the front axle, wheels and tongue. After a while, even those were sent to the scrap yard.
That left Charlie with a badly rusted cart frame and an incomplete set of trucks. Remarkably, Charlie located an original 20-hp cart, complete with trucks, in Canada. ‘They’re absolutely perfect, and absolutely the right ones,’ Charlie says.
In the summer of 2001, Charlie attended the annual Butterfield (Minn.) Threshermen’s Assn. Steam and Gas Engine Show. There, he met other Stickney engine collectors who encouraged him in his push to restore the 20-hp Stickney. Charlie went to Butterfield again in 2002 and committed to finishing the engine in time for the 2003 Butterfield show when Stickney would be the featured engine.
In the course of the restoration, Charlie worked almost full-time on the engine in the winter months, backing off only during the growing and harvesting seasons. Although he made remarkable progress, he missed his goal of having it running by December 2002 – but he didn’t miss it by much.
Three months later, after what Charlie calls, ‘The most difficult, challenging thing I’ve ever done,’ he was ready to start the Stickney. Al Giarratano, a Connecticut-based engine collector Charlie knows only through the Internet, had aptly named the engine ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ On March 8, 2003, with a shop full of people on hand – including a few of his Minnesota Stickney friends – ‘We kissed her and woke her up,’ Charlie says.
Three years of dedicated, hard work suddenly culminated as the engine fired, and Charlie realized his life-long dream of restoring the Stickney had been accomplished. ‘A few minutes later, when it struck me as to what had happened, the tears started, and I had to go stand in the corner for a bit. If anybody has ever had a dream when they were a kid, and had it come true when they were older, they know what it’s like,’ Charlie says.
In August 2003, Charlie took the Stickney to the Butterfield show, followed by a swing over to Indiana for the annual gas engine extravaganza in Portland. The Stickney stole both shows, and Charlie’s grandson, 13-year-old Marcus Inman, who accompanied Charlie on the trip, stole the hearts of many show-goers. Marcus, already an avid small-engine enthusiast, mastered the art of starting the Stickney, rocking it back on compression and firing it off almost every time. It was a sight to see, and one not soon forgotten.
Inspired by boyhood longings, Charlie undertook the restoration of this elegant giant to fulfill his own dream. In the process, however, and to his great surprise, he has inspired every engine owner lucky enough to witness the fruits of his labor.
20-hp Stickney at a glance
Built by Charles A. Stickney Co., St. Paul, Minn.
Serial number: 23943
Year manufactured: Circa 1913*
Horsepower: 20 at 225 rpm
Bore and stroke: 10-by-15 inches
Ignition: Hit-and-miss, make and-break igniter
Weight: 8,000 pounds
Flywheels: 70 inches, 1,700 pounds each
The exact year this engine was made is uncertain. Although Stickney quit making engines in 1913, it is believed that until 1920 the company continued putting engines together from leftover inventory, stamping the serial number when the engine was sold. This engine is believed to have sold in 1916.