By Patrick Winderl
When it was resurrected from the bottom of the Milk River after half a century under water, the Stickney 20-horsepower engine was anything but beautiful. Missing pieces and covered in rust and mud, the 8,000-pound monstrosity looked befitted for a junk yard.
Four years later, that same machine is worthy of national acclaim. It has been featured at prestigious trade shows and in a national magazine. A pair of men from Minnesota once traveled 1,000 miles just to see it.
The Stickney 20-horsepower has been completely overhauled and restored to its original condition. Painted a deep midnight blue tempered by gold pinstripes and brass piping, the finished product represents 2,000 hours of painstaking labor for the Hi-Line man who owns it.
The engine is one of three 20-horsepower Stickneys known to be in existence.
"My wife will tell you I was just about obsessed with it," said 62-year-old Charlie Inman, who dedicated every spare moment over a three-year period to restoring the machine.
Inman, who farms northwest of Havre, pulled the Stickney out of the Milk River in the spring of 2000. The engine had fallen in the river 49 years earlier when a sudden flood collapsed the river bank the engine was standing on.
Part of the engine was visible under the water until it slowly succumbed to the mud, Inman said.
"It was laying partially on its side. Part of the flywheel and the water hopper were sticking out. It slowly disappeared."
Inman was 9 years old when the engine was lost to the Milk River, and spent the next 50 years dreaming about restoring it to its former glory.
"When it fell in, they tried to pull it out, but back in those days there weren't any machines to pull it out," he said. "I used to dream about restoring that when I was growing up. It was a big deal to me. Restoring that engine was a real big deal to me."
Finally, in 2000, Inman received permission from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to pull the Stickney out of the Milk River.
Today, the engine serves as the culmination of his lifelong dream and a source of awe and curiosity for engine enthusiasts and antique collectors.
The engine is one of a series of gasoline- and kerosene-powered engines produced in the early 1900s that were used primarily as farm equipment. The stationary engines used pulleys and belts to drive various farm implements before electricity became widely available.
"Back in those days, they didn't have very many luxuries," Inman said. "Most of these engines were considered to be farm engines. They were used to run elevators, grind feed, things like that."
Inman, who believes his particular engine was sold in 1916, said it was used on the Hi-Line during the construction of Fresno Dam.
"The story goes that when the contractors pulled out from the Fresno Dam project, they left a lot of junk behind," Inman said. " A neighbor hooked onto it and pulled it home. In 1951, when the flood came through, it took out the bank it was sitting on, and it fell into the river."
Stickney engines are especially prized by collectors because of their rarity and their unique design, Inman said.
"The Stickney is a high-dollar engine. They have a real distinctive design," he said. "You can recognize a Stickney from a long ways off. Stickney didn't believe in a radiator; it believed in using a big water hopper. Its real claim to fame was an outside igniter. All the other companies had an internal igniter.
"You couldn't see what was going on (with the other engines). You only knew if it was running or it wasn't. With these on the Stickney, you can take the igniter apart in 10 seconds and watch it fire if you want."
Inman said he has always been fascinated by the sound produced by a Stickney engine running at full speed.
"They're called hit-and-miss motors. There is no carburetor. The governor controls the speed of the motor. They're really unique sounding," he said.
Once Inman acquired the 20- horsepower engine, he was "bit with the Stickney bug" and was soon working to acquire other engines from the same line. Today, he owns five of the eight engines produced by Stickney: 3-, 5-, 7-, 10-, and 20-horsepower models. He needs the 1-, 13-, and 16-horsepower models to complete the collection.
So far, the 20-horsepower is the only one he has restored. That renovation required completely disassembling the engine, cleaning and sanding it, finding replacements for parts that were missing, and then painting and rebuilding it.
"This is the most difficult, challenging thing I have ever done," Inman said. "It was the most overwhelming thing I've done in my entire life."
Inman's efforts earned him a spot in what he calls the "Stickney clan," a close-knit group of collectors of antique Stickney engines. Inman said he was impressed with the willingness of other collectors to let him recast copies of certain parts that he needed.
"The thing about this is that the people are so involved and helpful," he said. "It's unbelievable. They'd just send the parts so I could send them off and get them recast. I've been involved with restoring antiques my whole life and I've never found a group of people more willing to help out."
When Inman finally finished restoring the engine last March, two Stickney enthusiasts from Minnesota who'd followed his progress drove to Inman's farm to see it fired up for the first time in 50 years. In August, Inman hauled the engine to the 38th annual Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Association Show in Portland, Ind. The five-day show, the largest of its type in the world, featured more than 2,000 engines.
The 20-horsepower Stickney was well-received.
"They said it stole the show," Inman said, adding that many people returned every day to see the engine fired up.
Getting the engine started requires manually turning one of the 6-foot flywheels until the motor catches. During the show in Portland, that responsibility fell to Inman's 13-year-old grandson, Marcus.
"He started that engine every half-hour for five days. At the end of the show, he was so stiff and sore he could hardly move," Inman said.
The warm reception in Portland landed the 20-horsepower Stickney a photograph in the November issue of Gas Engine Magazine.
On Tuesday, Inman allowed a pair of visitors to watch him fire up the engine, which he had hauled to his home from its usual storage place at the Havre-Hill County Airport. After tweaking with the throttle, Inman leaned into the flywheel and the Stickney caught life after several months of silence.
"It started on the first try," Inman said. "She runs like a clock."