Article published in Belt Pulley Magazine
Printed in January/February 2005 issue of Belt Pulley Magazine
It sounded like an old locomotive.
Chug, chug, chug chug. Chug, chug, chug, chug.
But instead of a train pulling into a depot, the big black behemoth was a 10-ton diesel engine wowing spectators at the 39th annual Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Show.
Anyone who has ever attended the popular exhibition at Portland, Ind.Ìs, Jay County Fairgrounds undoubtedly has seen the 1923 Model YV diesel engine built by Fairbanks-Morse. The 100-horsepower, two-cycle, two-cylinder engine is quite a prize, with its 2-ton, 4-foot-diameter flywheel and two pistons measuring 14 inches in diameter each.
Three times a day for five days this past August, that valveless engine produced about 50 horsepower per cylinder at about 200 rpm. A half-hour before its scheduled start, visitors would start filling in the bleachers so they wouldnÌt miss out on the first chug. By showtime, it was standing room only, and when the big diesel really got going, it commanded everyone's full attention.
Being a vendor at the show, it took me three days to get around the fairgrounds and come across the Model YV. But it was worth the long walk ... and, more importantly, the long wait.
The Fairbanks-Morse Model YK had been used from 1923 through 1946 to press tile in the Jackson Brick and Hollow Ware Co. at Brownstone, Ind. It sat idle until 1981, when the Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Association rescued it and, a year later, undertook a restoration headed up by Ken Doherty. Last year, the gargantuan engine got a new paint job.
While interesting, that history is not what first drew me to the Model YV. Nor was it the fact that the steel monster could mesmerize hundreds of people for an hour at a time. For me, the attraction of the diesel engine was simply that it was built by Fairbanks-Morse ... and, I believe, my grandfather.
His name was Theodore Petter, but everyone at Fairbanks-Morse in Beloit, Wis., called him "Pete," since "Peter" is how the immigration officials spelled his last name when he arrived in America from Germany via Winnipeg, Canada, around 1914.
Grandpa worked in a sawmill up north until World War I, when he enlisted in the army. The armistice was signed just as he arrived in New Jersey to ship out ... a big sigh of relief for a man whose brothers were fighting for the Kaiser. So this not-yet-American-citizen with a thick Deutsch accent was reassigned to Fort Leavenworth, Kans., to guard German prisoners of war. Rather ironic, I think.
Upon his honorable discharge, Grandpa came home to Wisconsin, married his sweetheart, Blanche Conklin, and moved to Milwaukee, where he worked as a machinist at Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Co. A year later, however, they returned to her hometown of Beloit ... she always claimed it was to take care of her ill mother; he always said it was because Blanche was homesick.
Either way, they were in Beloit in 1919 when Grandpa both became an American citizen and landed a job at Fairbanks-Morse, one of the oldest industrial manufacturing companies in the nation. Founded in 1830 by brothers Thaddeus and Erastus Fairbanks, the company was acquired by employee Charles Morse in 1916, just three years before Grandpa arrived on the scene. It was known far and wide for the scales, diesel engines, electric engines and pumps it produced for industrial use.
Grandpa Petter worked in the "B Shop," though nobody today seems to know what the "B" stood for. He ran a turret lathe, turning the ends of the pistons for the diesel engines. He always said proudly, and not without a little humility, that he was the only machinist doing that job ... and that when he retired 43 years later, it took three men to replace his expertise. I don't doubt it for a minute.
Grandpa was always very proud of being employed at Fairbanks-Morse and the job he did there, even though the workload became nearly nonexistent during the early years of the Great Depression. Mom told me that, when she was a child of about 12, "Daddy" would work for an entire week and come home with only 25 cents to show for it. Things were quite different a decade later, though, when he was at the plant working overtime for the war effort on Saturday and Sunday, as well as weekdays.
Beloit, Wis., was a company town and Fairbanks-Morse was the company. Its whistle blew at 7 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., signaling the start and end of the workday and lunch hour. All Beloiters set their clocks by it ... well, all except for my mother, who couldn't hear the siren until age three. She still remembers back to 1923 how, on the day after her tonsils and adenoids were removed, she ran inside the house crying, "Mommy! Mommy! I heard Daddy's whistle!"
Grandpa rode his bicycle to Fairbanks-Morse each day and Mom always wanted to go with him. So heÌd scoop her up into the front basket and pedal on over to Merrill School, where she'd disembark and walk back home while he continued on his way. The Petters bought a car in 1927, but Grandpa still walked or rode his bike to and from work.
When he came home, "Pete" was dirty from head to toe, though not as much as the men who worked in FairbanksÌ foundry. He would enter the back door of their Porter Avenue bungalow and immediately head down to the laundry sink to scrub up with Ivory before supper.
Grandpa was very proud of being a member of Fairbanks-Morse's Quarter-Century Club. As such, he would invite my father to join him at company picnics, and the entire family would drive down from Madison to tour the plant during open houses. Never did Grandpa miss out on a chance to visit the "B Shop," and never did he miss an opportunity to show us where he worked so diligently for decades.
Grandpa Petter is now long gone, but his 43 years at Fairbanks-Morse are not forgotten. Sitting in places of honor in our home are a pair of gold-rimmed, oval safety glasses Grandpa wore his first years on the job, and a steel toothpick holder he machined during a lunch hour three-quarters of a century ago.
But as wonderful as those treasures are, neither could walk me down Memory Lane as did watching that big, black 1923 Fairbanks-Morse Model YV spitting and sputtering for the Portland, Ind., crowd. Seventy-one years had passed, but I could clearly see "Pete" standing at his turret lathe in the "B Shop," turning those 14-inch pistons. Say ... is that the 4 o'clock whistle?
(Editor's note: Christine Spangler lives in Fort Atkinson, Wis., where she serves as managing editor of the local newspaper. She and her husband, Peter, a high school metals teacher, attend Midwest antique tractor and engine shows as vendors of Rustbeeter™, a sugarbeet byproduct that removes rust from ferrous metals without damaging the surface patina.)