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Take a trip to 'Grandpa's Alley'

Engines that once powered farms come to life at vintage ag equipment display

COEUR d’ALENE — As one wanders at the North Idaho State Fair, there is an area where the faint sound of idling engines grows louder.

Sputtering. Popping. Chugging.

For people like Steve Johnson, Dennis Dingman, Roger Hahn and Merlin Berger, this is music. A mechanical symphony.

“Each has its own unique sound,” Johnson said.

These are some of the men behind “Grandpa’s Alley,” the given name for a display of vintage agricultural equipment at the Kootenai County Fairgrounds.

They are among the few that collect old farm machinery, fix it, restore it and showcase it at the North Idaho State Fair.

That most of these engines that date back to the early 1900s are running is a victory.

Some, though, sit still and silent.

Therein is the challenge. And the fun.

“That’s the whole entertainment value of this, is these guys trying to make these run,” said a smiling Merry Ruth Dingman as she and superintendents of the vintage ag equipment sit under a canopy on a sunny Wednesday afternoon.

Spread across the grassy field are engines and equipment. There are water pumps, mud pumps, Maytag washing machines and old tractors.

“In their day, this was high technology,” said Steve Johnson.

There’s a drill press hooked up to a hit-and-miss engine that was designed to fire “every so often, only when it needs to,” Hahn said.

“The idea with that is, it would save fuel. They were really inefficient by today’s standards, but back in the day, this was it,” he said.

They were also a bit easier to work on than today’s computerized world.

“Go get a bag of bolts, get your hands dirty and almost swear — not quite. And perseverance,” said a grinning Merlin Berger when asked how they find the parts to repair these early engines.

Johnson earlier was working on his 1914 Economy engine. He carried a a few tools, oil and gasoline.

When asked what the engine would have been used for in its day, Johnson shakes his head.

“That’s a little bit like saying what would you use electricity for,” he answers.

This was pre-electricity, when gasoline-powered engines were the lifeblood behind water pumps, feed grinders, wood cutters and vacuum pumps for milking.

“Anything you had to do on a farm,” said Dennis Dingman.

For today’s young people, these old-school tools of the trade are a bit of a mystery and they aren’t sure what to make of it all.

“I think I smell diesel,” says one boy.

But Johnson said “a lot of people, especially the older ones, grew up on farms with such equipment.

He and the others at Grandpa’s Alley troubleshoot problems and find solutions — often through ingenuity and elbow grease — not something explained on YouTube.

“It takes a little bit of work to keep them running,” Johnson said.

Old farm equipment can still be bought at estate sales or perhaps a lucky find behind a barn and the owner wiling to part ways with it.

Dennis Dingman has a 1908 engine running a drill press at the fair that he came across in Bonners Ferry. It was rolled over, down a hill, on its side.

He bought it, including the rusted bolts and missing parts, and gave it life.

“It took a couple years to put together,’ he said.

Dingman chuckles as he explains he doesn’t always make good deals.

“I had an engine that ran and I traded it for one that didn’t run. Not real smart,” he said.

Johnson enjoys the challenge of figuring out why an engine won’t run, and he loves explaining how they work.

“Of course, we encourage the younger kids, get them involved,” he said.

Hahn, who once worked as an auto mechanic, appreciates the engines of old with points, condensers and carburetors.

“This stuff I understand. It’s easy to work on,” he said.

Dingman agreed.

“You could actually see how it works and what it does. There’s no smog control or anything,” he added.

Hahn hopes fair goers make their way to Grandpa’s Alley.

“They can see how they used to do things on the farm in the old days, how things were accomplished without electricity," he said. "It was either this or horsepower.”


Take a trip to 'Grandpa's Alley'
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