Frank was a master mechanic, but you'd never guess it by his truck
Mychal Wilmes remembers the bachelor who filled his yard with cars and his barn with parts. He could fix just about anything thrown at him.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column was originally published in winter 2008 and is reprinted here due to a series of doctor appointments at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
The roar from the muffler-less pickup’s engine could be heard a long time before Frank backed his vehicle to our milk house door. He came at least once a week to fill three milk cans with cold water from our well. His own well had gone bad years before, and there wasn’t enough money or will to repair it.
Although you couldn’t tell from his pickup truck’s condition, Frank was the best mechanic in the neighborhood. He ground valves with ease, rebuilt engines, and fixed transmissions. He had attended a Kansas City, Mo., mechanics school to learn more than the basics. If a part wasn’t available, he could produce one on a metal lathe, which he kept in our shop. He also enjoyed teaching skills so that they could work on their own equipment.
Neighbors with tractors gone bad brought them to him for a couple of reasons. He didn’t charge much, and they could watch and help. Frank often worked in the shop late into the night, the air heavy with smoke from the cigar perched in his toothless mouth.
Frank may have been a person who it is said was born old and never seemed to age and was a character in the best sense of the word.
To read more of Mychal Wilmes' Farm Boy Memories, click here.
A bachelor, Frank’s small farm was filled with old threshing machines and junked cars of every make and model that muscle-bound Detroit churned out. His favorite seemed to be tank-like Hudsons, built heavy and stylish before American Motors came into being.
We kept hay in his barn’s loft. Below, Frank’s collected treasures were stored in boxes and hung on nails. Fan belts, car tire chains, hoses and countless batteries were piled high.
Old books, owner’s manuals, oil cans, boxes of nuts and bolts, boat engines and a wood boat left barely enough room to walk to the hay chute. He collected because such things always came in handy — be it next month or a decade ahead.
Frank’s prize possession was a Stearns-Knight car, which he kept in a lean-to that had seen better days. The Stearns-Knight was a luxury car built in Cleveland from around 1900 until 1925 when the company was sold to John Willys.
The last Stearns-Knight was sold in 1929. People had offered Frank a new vehicle in trade, but he wasn’t interested in anything new.
Frank owned the only working threshing machine and the tractor that powered it in our neighborhood. The old Allis-Chalmers steel-wheeled tractor’s engine had a cracked block, but he somehow kept it going with a mechanic’s skill.
Frank also was thought to be a master blaster, which came in handy when it was time to blow stumps out of pasture ground being converted to row crops. Some people thought he was more foolish than talented, but he set and detonated charges without seriously hurting anyone.
My brothers learned a great deal from him. For my part, I listened to stories told about the old days.
His estate sale caused quite a stir. Everyone was curious to see what the Stearns-Knight would bring at auction. The car attracted collectors from across the country, but by then the car was in such bad shape it was considered good only for parts.
The wood boat sold for less than $100 and numerous boxes of junk fetched $1 or less. I purchased a pitchfork, a scythe, and an old-fashioned garden tiller.
The cars and threshing machines are gone and the new property owner has spruced up Frank’s old place.
Sometimes I think Frank wouldn’t be comfortable with all the changes. Chances are he would still be content driving his battered pickup truck down to our barn to fetch some water. I’m sure he’d be working well past midnight fixing the transmission on some overworked tractor.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.