Old-Time Power

By Hermine Hull - October 5, 2006

Nineteen years ago, a group of friends approached the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society trustees with the idea of holding a show of old engines, tools, and farm equipment at the fairgrounds. Bill Honey, George Hartman, Dan West, Tommy Thomas, and Franklin Benson were the friends who saw the preservation of the Island's agricultural heritage in their collections. The Agricultural Society agreed, and they have been enthusiastic supporters and sponsors of the Antique Engine Show ever since. Originally a stand-alone event, for the past few years the show has been paired with the annual Harvest Festival which was held at the fairgrounds last Saturday.

Bill Honey. Photo by Susan Safford
Bill Honey, a dedicated antique engine enthusiast and one of the show's founders. Photo by Susan Safford

The old-fashioned engines hold a strong fascination for people of all ages. It may be the thrill for youngsters of seeing miniature pistons and pumps at work, or the nostalgic pleasure for older folk to be reminded of how things used to be. And it is truly intriguing for anyone to view close-up these graphic examples of how energy is made, especially in our high-tech times. On Saturday the engines whirred and sputtered, back-fired and chugged, attracting a constant crowd. Along with the working engines, proudly demonstrated and explained by their owners, a row of shiny vintage vehicles and some sturdy classic tractors drew many admirers as well.

The vintage vehicles were all shined up for their Saturday appearance. Photo by Alan Brigish
The vintage vehicles were all shined up for their Saturday appearance. Photo by Alan Brigish

The show also provides a very visual lesson in the history, science, and socio-economic development of New England. The small steam engines were the earliest, dating from the mid-1800s. Simply put, a separate boiler produced the steam that powered the engine. All factories and mills were run by steam or water or a combination of the two.

This classic Mercedes has the look of elegance. Photo by Barbara Ronchetti
This classic Mercedes has the look of elegance. Photo by Barbara Ronchetti

Gasoline engines evolved in the late 1800s. Gasoline was a waste product of the oil distilling process that produced methane gas; it was burned or thrown into rivers. Gasoline was cheap, accessible, and instant. Engines started right up, instead of needing the time and preparation to get the boiler heated to make steam. With systems of pulleys and belts, the gas powered engines proved useful for general farm chores. They replaced man-power to cut fire wood, ran washing machines, grinding machines, threshers, water pumps, and ensilage machines. The engines were small, lightweight, portable, and easy to repair. Larger systems were adapted for factories and sawmills. By 1900, there were over 2,000 manufacturers of gasoline engines.

Oliver Saffery. Photo by Diana Waring
Vintage tractors are a hit with the kids. Oliver Saffery took the wheel at the 2004 show. Photo by Diana Waring

The Antique Engine Show displays run the gamut from early boilers and steam engines, gasoline engines of varying degrees of complexity, and some of the actual equipment powered by these engines, like tractors, threshing machines and winnowers, trucks and cars, dating to around 1950. The late Leonard Athearn for many years arrived at the show in one of his Model Ts, dating from the mid-teens to 1920s. Harold Rogers and Dale McClure made doors and shingles respectively with engines that produced a reassuring burst of noise and power as they performed their tasks. George Hartman is renowned for his collection of toy steam engines made by the Weedon Company of New Bedford, dating from between 1890 to the 1920s. Bill Honey, while still working for the Martha's Vineyard National Bank, stopped by Machine and Marine before they closed and came home with two gas engines, both in need of repair. Repair them he did, and he began going to shows off-Island with the group who eventually started the Vineyard show. Ernie Mendenhall, Howard Borregard, and Mike Cutler all brought their trucks, spit-shined and polished, some sporting official Massachusetts license plates dated the year of manufacture of the trucks.

Bill Honey. Photo by Susan Safford
Bill Honey. Photo by Susan Safford
All of the engines and equipment are pristine, well-oiled and maintained. They are, for me, like pieces of kinetic sculpture that fascinate with the beauty of their perfectly-engaged mechanisms. It is sobering to realize that many of the parts are hand-made, cast and polished, to fit a piece of equipment that needs to be restored. Several of the people I spoke with bemoaned the lack of interest of young people. George Hartman described the show guys in terms of "old guys" and "dead old guys." George encourages anyone who might be interested to call him.

The Vineyard show is not the only one. Several times each season, a group of Vineyard friends loads up Bill Honey's truck the day before they head off on the 7 am boat to arrive, unpack, set up their camp, and enjoy the company of fellow "gearheads" at shows off Island. Memorial Day weekend is spent in Bernardston. The show in Orange takes place at the end of June. Eliot, Maine, is the destination at the end of July, followed by the "biggie," Dublin, N.H., the weekend after Labor Day. Then comes the Vineyard show, always in late September or early October.

Aside from the camaraderie of shared interests, there is a lot of trading, buying, and selling done at the shows. As often, though, someone will lend a needed part to be brought home, copied, and returned at the next show.

I was lucky enough to speak with Phil St. Jean, who most of the others regard as something of an icon for the breadth and depth of his knowledge. He was the person who patiently led me around the exhibits and gave me my history lesson.