Jeff Manes: Engines, tractors key to collector’s heart
December 28, 2012 12:02PM
George Armstrong, 76, lives with his wife Norma on a farm in Hebron, Ind., where George was raised. His hobby is collecting old oil-field engines and tractors, which he often shows at local power and steam shows. | Photo provided
At a glance
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Updated: January 31, 2013 6:16AM
“I’m a Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech, a hell of an engineer ... ”
— Author unknown
George Armstrong, 76, isn’t a Georgia Tech alum, but he did study engineering at Purdue before joining the Marine Corps. After serving his country, Armstrong eventually earned an engineering degree at Valparaiso University.
For the past 22 years, George and Norma Armstrong have lived on the farm where George grew up. They reside on the Lake County side of County Line Road, but have a Hebron address.
When the Armstrongs lived in Valparaiso, George was a Democratic city councilman.
George collects old oil-field engines and tractors.
How long have you two lovebirds been married?
“One-hundred-and-two years,” Norma joked.
“Fifty-two years,” George said.
George, have you lived in Hebron all your life?
“No, I was born in Hammond, but when I was just a couple years old, my folks bought a place in Highland. When I was in the fifth grade, in 1945, my dad bought this farm.
“I went to Center Grade School, which no longer exists. I graduated from Hebron High School.”
You served in the Marine Corps.
“Is there any other branch of service? Yes, I was in the Corps from ’56 to ’59. I just missed Korea and Vietnam. I had every opportunity to re-up, but decided to come back home to Indiana.
“They tried to get me to stay in the Reserves; if I would have, I’d have ended up in Vietnam because of what I did in the Marine Corps.”
What was that?
“Intelligence; I’m surprised you’d ask. Isn’t it obvious that I’d be in intelligence?”
Sure it is, George. How foolish of me.
“I was in the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. They got the devil kicked out of them in Vietnam, and they’ve taken some bad hits in Afghanistan, too. But it was the most decorated regiment in the world.
“The Marines build a real spirited Corps. It’s just a very cohesive unit. If you want to learn something to help you find a job once you get out of the service, don’t join the Marine Corps. But if you want to fight, go into the Marine Corps. If you want someone to protect your (rear) while your fighting, go into the Marine Corps.”
Tell me about your working career.
“I worked construction engineering for Eichleay Corp. It’s a family-owned business out of Pittsburgh. At that time, there were like three big industrial contractors — J.M. Foster, Hunter Corp., and Eichleay. Those outfits did most of the work in the steel mills of this area.”
“I also worked in the Engineering Department at U.S. Steel in Gary for five years. And, I worked at Inland Steel Co. as a consultant for about six years. I was at No. 2 BOF (basic oxygen furnace) in the early ’90s when they had that big fire just across the railroad tracks from the byproducts section of No. 2 Coke Plant.”
George, the Coke Plant was my department.
“There were fatalities involved in that fire.”
Yes, there were. Let’s talk about your hobby.
“My brother-in-law had just gotten involved with these big oil-field engines, so, we bought the first one. It’s like peanuts or potato chips; you can’t have just one, right? We just started buying them and, pretty soon, you have more than you can take care of.”
Do you ever sell them?
“No, that’s the whole thing. The guy down the road just asked me the same thing the other day; I’d just bought a little tractor from him. I told him, ‘No, it’s gonna be up to my sons to sell them when I die.’
“My boys have a lot of stuff, too. The youngest boy lives in Valparaiso; the oldest boy lives adjacent to Aberdeen, near Lake Eliza.”
If you don’t mind me asking, what’s the most you’ve paid for one of these engines?
“We have a very large one on a large foundation that cost us about $5,500.”
Do you try to keep them in working condition?
“Try; some of them weigh about 6,000 pounds. You start them by turning the flywheels. All of our oil-field engines run on the second-oldest type of ignition. They have a hot tube, which means there’s a tube that goes into the combustion chamber. The gas-air mixture is shoved up in there. The tube is kept hot by a little torch.”
George, don’t take offense, but, why? What do you do with these behemoths?
“There are a lot of power and steam shows we take them to — places like Crown Point, Valparaiso, Winamac ... .”
How many old tractors do you own?
“About a dozen.”
“Massey-Harris, Allis-Chalmer, Oliver, John Deere, International, Minneapolis-Moline, Case ... .”
What is the newest tractor in your collection?
“My 1957 John Deere 30-10.”
I read a few years ago that more than half of the old Ford 8-Ns made back in the ’40s are still in operating condition.
“The advantage of the Ford tractors was the three-point hitch and all the tools the farmers could use with it. It was great. The Scottish-born Harry Ferguson invented it. He went into partnership with Henry Ford.”
“Ford tried to play fast and loose with Ferguson, so they split up. After the split, Ford continued using Ferguson’s idea on his tractors. Ferguson was a shrewd Scotsman; he said: ‘No you won’t.’ There was a big lawsuit. Henry had to pay Harry some money.”
You’re a pretty shrewd Scot yourself.
“In the 12th or 13th century, the Armstrongs were about the largest clan in Scotland. They were a border clan, not a highland clan. They controlled the border between Scotland and England. At that time, the Armstrongs could put 3,000 riders in the field. They were an army in themselves.
“If the Armstrongs thought it was fitting, they fought with the Scots. If they thought it was more beneficial, they fought with the English. If they couldn’t fight one of those countries, they fought among themselves.
“There have been a few ballads written about the Armstrongs. The English ended up sending many of them to Ireland because they were such troublemakers.”
George, you get it from both sides, don’t you? Care to talk about the legendary and notorious Granger side of the family?
“My mom’s family — the Grangers — settled around DeMotte. The Grangers were real ‘river rats.’ Hank Granger’s house still stands on some high ground, a little south of Indiana 2, between Hebron and Lowell. John Bryant owns the property. Hank had a couple of hunting camps through the years.”
I’ve read one of the camps was about three miles upstream from the river bridge near the Grand Kankakee Marsh County Park. That’s where there’s a bend in the Kankakee River and where the Hodge Ditch flows into the river. The other one was near Marti’s Place, outside of Hebron.
“Spooney Granger would always carry a pair of ice skates with him while running his trap line; if a game warden tried to apprehend him, he’d slip into those ice skates and they could never catch him.”
I read where Andy Granger once killed 33 geese in 40 minutes.
“When a fed tried to entrap Hank by acting as if he wanted him to serve as his fishing guide, the old moonshiner saw right through it. The undercover agent kept hounding Hank about saving them a lot of time and trouble by simply dynamiting the fish. Finally, Hank lit a stick and tossed it to the fed, telling him, ‘Do it yourself.’ ”
Yeah, Hank’s obit appeared in the New York Times. It mentioned something about a nationwide car-theft operation.
“You can pick your friends, but not your relatives.”
I heard that.
Of all the “working” equipment on his property, George Armstrong’s personal favorite is his beloved mule named John.