GILBERTSVILLE – Dick Brown pointed to the contraption mounted on a steel frame with steel spoke wheels and said, “That right there is what started it all. That was my grandfather’s.”
Brown remembers the 1-1/2-horsepower McCormick-Deering gasoline engine, vintage 1931, placed underneath a windmill on his grandfather’s Indiana farm. When the wind was too tranquil to turn the windmill, the gasoline engine was pressed into service to pump water from a well.
Brown traces his fascination with things mechanical to those early days on the farm. It led to a career as a heavy equipment mechanic and, over the years, the acquisition of a variety of things that run through the mainstream of collecting and go far beyond, to some very unusual and rare items.
The 42-by-50-foot shop across the road from their home in the Moors Camp area houses much of the collection. Many of the antique engines were once on display at the Forgotten Past tourist attraction near Briensburg, but now the collection of 42 single-cylinder gasoline engines are at the shop.
They share space with a variety of items ranging from toy trucks and construction machinery to antique pedal tractors and pedal cars, to tea sets, to miniature steam engines, to coffee grinders, to what Brown calls “an extended collection of racecar stuff,” to a Cretor’s Popcorn Wagon (vintage 1894), to a 1940 Caterpillar D2 crawler tractor, complete with original paperwork and a magazine advertisement for the yellow machine.
Some of the toys belonged to the Browns’ granddaughter, 12-year-old Elizabeth Stevenson of Calvert City. Some were from Dick’s childhood, and others are highly valuable collectible construction toys Brown acquired during his career in the industry.
There’s more – watch fobs and belt buckles, all of them related to the construction industry, plus various other toys, some of them added because of the Browns’ pet dogs.
“We bought a Boston terrier puppy two months after we were married, so we have been collecting Boston terrier stuff for 42 years,” Ruth said. “And some of them were antiques when we started collecting then, so they’re pretty old now.”
Later, an English bulldog puppy – the first of three – joined the family, so English bulldog items were added to the collection.
“Originally, all this stuff was in our house,” Ruth said. She admits the collection has grown to fill the extra space the shop provided.
“Our treasure is somebody else’s junk,” she said with a smile.
Some of the equipment was acquired in working condition, but other pieces required long hours of restoration and repair.
“I’ve got a picture back there of [an engine] that was kicked off the well and a tree grew up through up it,” Brown said. “We had to cut the tree off the flywheel to get it out.”
For these engines, there’s no inventory of parts at the local equipment dealer or auto parts store. Brown makes many of the parts he needs, and he has a buddy who casts some parts and pieces.
“You can’t go to a junkyard and find this stuff,” Brown said. “There are two or three big swap meets over the country that you can get a lot of good stuff, if you look long enough. I know people all over the world through the hobby. I found what I needed in Victoria, Australia.”
It took a long time to take delivery, but it would’ve taken a long time and considerable effort to produce a duplicate.
“I was getting ready to borrow one from a friend of mine and use it as a pattern from it and have one made at a foundry,” Brown said.
Brown says he had “one of them no-sleep deals,” and was awake on the computer in the early morning hours.
“Three 3 o’clock in the morning is 3 o’clock in the afternoon over there,” he said, and he found somebody who had what he was looking for. The part “made my engine complete.”
Brown’s engines take turns in public view at various shows, “14 or 15 a year, as much as 400 miles out,” Brown said. He trailers one engine from his collection to each of the shows, including the annual “A Walk Through Time” event at Calvert City, other regional exhibitions and two of what Brown describes as the biggest shows in the genre. One is in Portland, Ind., and he will be at the other, in Cool Springs, Pa., this week.
The Browns met when Ruth was working as a waitress in a restaurant in Boswell, Ind. They married in 1971, and for their honeymoon, they took a trip to the Daytona 500 stock car race.
Construction work brought the Browns to western Kentucky shortly after they were married. Brown maintained equipment for a Michigan-based company that was building Interstate 24.
“We fell in love with the area when we were here,” Ruth said. “Our daughter was 2 years old. We decided we liked it well enough, we wanted to stay here. They wanted to send him somewhere else, but we decided we’d pull up and stay here.”
That was in 1975. After a couple of years in Lone Oak, they moved to the property in Gilbertsville in June 1977.
Brown, 69, is retired now. His wife, 62, works in the heart catheterization lab at Lourdes Hospital in Paducah.
Their daughter, Michelle Stevenson, is a Marshall County High School graduate and teaches at Calvert City Elementary. Granddaughter Elizabeth, a middle school student, and her dad, Ricky Stevenson, are now antique engine enthusiasts in their own right, Brown says. He has given the McCormick-Deering engine to Elizabeth, and she has two other engines of her own.
Elizabeth’s dad has 18 engines, Brown said.
The collecting just goes on and on, the Browns say, showing a wooden-box ignition coil for a Model T Ford and “our latest prize possession” – a bell from a steam railroad locomotive, which rests on an old Fairbanks-Morse scale.
And there’s no end in sight. At present, all 42 of Brown’s gasoline engines are in running order, but he’s not resting on his laurels.
“I need a project,” he said. “I’ll have something before winter.”