Here is an event no longer held annually in the Hamptons that I wish they would bring back. But they never will. You’ll soon see why.
It was called the Bridgehampton Antique Engine Run, and it used to take place on the front lawn of the Bridgehampton Historical Society grounds once a summer on a particular Saturday afternoon. Nobody knew which Saturday it would be. Farmer Russell Simon would wait for a good one. Then, suddenly, everyone, having been told this was the day, would show up. And Russell would be ready for them.
All morning on that day—this took place from about 1955 to 2007—he and one of his farmhands would open the door of the Historical Society barn and wheel out six or seven 50-pound Rube Goldberg iron contraptions bolted together and smelling of oil. You’d see gears, wheels, leather straps, spark plugs, wires and glass containers filled with gasoline. The heart of it would be a metal jacket inside of which a single piston driven by a drive shaft could push up and down. A small smoke stack attached to part of it stuck up two or three feet. You’d be looking at a primitive, late 19th century gas-powered engine designed to ease the heavy work on local farms—threshing, log cutting, pumping water, lathe work—that until that time had been done by muscle power. Almost every farmer had such a contraption. And each was unique, different slightly one from the other. Motorists on Main Street there would slow down to catch a glimpse of Russell Simon setting up these contraptions there on the lawn.
At about noon on one special Saturday in 1980, when my kids were little, we were standing at the front counter of the Candy Kitchen luncheonette, eating ice cream cones. Suddenly, out the window I heard a big bang, and I looked across the street to see this big crowd of people let out a cheer, which was then followed by a puff of smoke and another bang. Then a puff of more smoke and another bang. What was going on?
Carrying the ice cream cones, we ran out onto the sidewalk and across the street under the gaze of a policemen holding up traffic. We pushed through the crowd to get close.
There on the lawn stood these seven contraptions, facing a crowd behind a rope not 10 feet away on three sides, with the barn the fourth side. And there was Russell Simon. He was a small, serious-looking farmer fellow, maybe 60 years old. He and his assistant were the only people behind the rope. One of the seven contraptions was banging away, and the two men were kneeling down next to a second one. They made some adjustments with knobs, gauges and levers. Then they stood up and began turning a heavy iron wheel attached to an axle two feet up, hand over hand, faster then faster.
Nothing happened on this second contraption when they got it spinning at first, but then, at the end of the third revolution, the spark plug created the expected explosion inside the cylinder with a huge BANG, white smoke billowed out the stack, the crowd cheered, and the wheel pushed forward by itself. A second revolution caused a second BANG, and now the BANGS were once every second, with the wheel turning entirely on its own, so the men looked at each other, nodded, and let it go, to head over to the next contraption. That was as fast as it could turn over. Two down, firing almost in unison, and five to go.
This was very similar to the way people a hundred years ago turned cranks to start a car, and how mechanics turned the propeller on the front of a bi-planes to get that started. It looked very dangerous to do this. You could lose an arm or finger if you put it in the wrong place.
It took Simon another five minutes or so to get the rest of these contraptions underway. Now they were all banging away. The lawn smelled of gasoline. The men, covered with grease, waved away the white smoke billowing out everywhere. What an enormous, smelly racket.
Onlookers held their hands over their ears, but they loved it. Children were laughing and jumping up and down or screaming and crying and hiding behind their parents. And Simon and his mate were done. With the symphony roaring and roaring, they just stood there awkwardly, satisfied with the work, looking as if they might take a bow but never actually doing so. They also looked concerned. One or another of the people in the crowd might step forward. This was a dangerous business.
There wasn’t much gasoline in those glass bottles attached above the spinning wheels, though. After 20 minutes of clanging, banging and clatter, the first of the contraptions ran out of fuel, shut down, backfired once or twice, and came to a halt. Then, one at a time, the other six followed.
And that was it. The whole business of the Antique Engine Run was at an end. Simon was now actively shooing people away from the machinery, now hot to the touch. They’d stand guard, then, after a while, wheel all the contraptions back into the barn.
What we had observed, it seemed to me, were the ancestors of today’s gas-powered generators that, inside their casings, hum along smartly at 1000 strokes a minute, creating portable power.
I wondered how all these old engines got to wind up in the Historical Society’s barn. My guess was that Russell Simon at an earlier time had driven around in his pickup truck and persuaded the farmers to donate them from where they were rusting away in the back of farmhouse barns and into the Society barn.
Walking across the street through the slowly dissipating smoke, having ditched the ice cream, I asked the policeman what he thought of this event.
“It’s once a year. A half an hour every year. We think it’s worth doing.”
Everyone had been rooted to the spot where they were standing for that half-hour. So, all the officer had to do was usher through the cars on Main Street. Now he was waving the pedestrians through.
We got to our car and drove off, the sound of the engines still ringing in our ears. I’m told the antique engines are
now owned by the estate of the late Cliff Foster. But nearly all of them are still in the barn.
What say we do this again?
Okay, the EPA has been heard from, the insurance people, the school safety people, the police and firemen, the gunpowder law enforcers, the Dark Skies people, the noise-control people, the neighbors and the motorists and, oh well. I suppose the director of the Historical Society has the barn doors open once in a while, so you might get to walk in and look around.
But don’t touch.
The Antique Engine Run It was a God-fearing event. The children loved it. And it was dangerous as hell.