A day across Arkansas

Carl Blackwell with restored gasoline engines

Carl Blackwell of Wynne, Arkansas proudly stands beside some of his stable of restored gasoline engines at the 37th Annual Grand Prairie Rice Festival at Hazen, Arkansas on October 26, 2013. These engines were popular in the first half of the twentieth century in non-electrified rural areas where they were used to power generators, grist mills, pumps, and just about anything else that need rotary power to work. As electric service spread to rural areas, the engines fell from favor. Restoring these engines has become a popular niche avocation and Mr. Blackwell is one of the finest practitioners of the genre.

Carl Blackwell of Wynne, Arkansas is a master tinkerer, machinist, and restorer. I visited with Carl at the Grand Prairie Rice Festival in Hazen, Arkansas where he displayed several of his collection of old gasoline power units he has personally restored to working order.  It comes naturally to Carl. He is a retired machine shop supervisor and has a precision lathe and milling machine at his place in Wynne, Arkansas.

Restored and operating Star gasoline power unit

When Carl Blackwell starts an engine restoration project and can’t find the parts he needs, he goes to work and makes the parts. This restored Star engine is a prime example of Carl’s expertise. After he started the restoration process, he could not find parts for the cylinder head valve mechanism, (the round thing in front of the silver thing, and most of the parts around it), so he went to work and made the parts. As you can see the engine is fully functional.

St. Mary's Church at St. Vincent Arkansas

Click on the church to see how the story started.

We are chronicling a one-day trip through the heart of Arkansas. The story started on the Photo of the Week page at Corndancer dot-com at St. Vincent, Arkansas, where we took a look at fine country church. Take a look to get in on the start of the story.

This was our second visit to St. Vincent. On the first visit, we showed you a barn with an ecclesiastical message, which was down the road from LBJ’s Beer and Groceries. There is a nice distribution of cultural icons in St. Vincent where everyone seems to get along just fine, thank you very much,

Back to the trip

Carl Blackwell was toward the end of the trip, but he was so interesting, I decided to start this epistle with him. After we left St. Vincent, we saw barns and other sights and scenes as we headed toward the Grand Prairie Rice Festival at Hazen where we visited with Carl. Here’s what we saw on the way:

entrance to field with overhead flags

Here, we were trying to figure out if we arrived too early or too late. Those, it seems, were the only choices given that sense of abandonment.

Old horse barn

Not far from the flags, we saw this old barn, which we presume was a horse/mule barn due to the height. Normally the big doors on a horse barn were tall enough to accommodate a human on a horse. Note the abandoned disc harrow in the foreground.

Old rural utility building

After turning down a likely-looking gravel road we found this old utility building. It was probably a small barn that had something to do with livestock. We conjecture that due to the fencing on the property.

old rural utility bulding with blue sky background

More of the same with a different look. The still standing night-watcher light is disconnected.

old school bus with curtains

Here in the mid-south, it is not unusual to see old school busses converted to deer camp shelters or other use. This one has been curtained, and not moved for a while. The lettering on the bus says: “Licking Heights Local School District.” I Googled that name and discovered that Licking Heights Local School District is in Ohio. Folks, it’s quite a stretch between Mid-Ohio and Springfield, Arkansas. No telling how the bus arrived here.


As I was shooting the bus, one of the neighbor’s pups dropped by for a look. Looks like he has some greyhound in his background. He was friendly, but suspicious.

restored 1938 C Model Case Tractor

After the bus and dog, we transitioned to Hazen, Arkansas to barely arrive at the 37th Grand Prairie Rice Festival with a little time to spare before the event closed. We’ve been there before and it was fun. There were a lot of antique tractors including this 1938 Case C Model.

back side of case 1938 c model tractor

This is the back side of the Case C model. In the background, you can catch a glimpse of a gigantic 24-ton antique, fully operational 1919 Fairbanks-Morse Type Y Vertical Oil Engine. You can see the engine in operation at Corndancer dot-com.

case combine harvesting rice

Exhibitors were folding their tents as we left the festival. South of Hazen we found a rice harvest underway. There were three combines in this field. They were trying to beat an incoming storm. If you are into four-wheel drive vehicles, this is the ultimate high-horsepower get-in-the-big-middle-of-it-vehicle. Entry level exceeds 800 grand and you need a lot of level muddy ground.

We digress from the trip

After the combine we made it safely to the carport. We will fast forward from this trip of October 26, 2013 to November 1, 2013 when we saw a tree full of shoes at Sardis, Arkansas. While this is out of the purview of our original trip, due to the shock value of a tree full of shoes, we include the picture below. If you want to see more details, see our Sardis Shoe Tree gallery.

Somehow you simply do not expect to find a tree full of shoes. Except if you are in Sardis, Arkansas. Then, it is an everyday occurrence.

Somehow you simply do not expect to find a tree full of shoes. Except if you are in Sardis, Arkansas. Then, it is an everyday occurrence.

Thanks for joining the trip. We have observed scenes seen by few — and seen by many — but probably not in the same day. That’s the beauty of cyber traveling.

Thanks for dropping by,

Joe Dempsey
Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind



A really rice festival

antique farm tractor in parade

The 35th Annual Grand Prairie Rice Festival at Hazen, Arkansas, included a parade of finely restored farm tractors. The family-friendly event was well attended by an enthusiastic crowd.

 For 35 years, folks at Hazen, Arkansas have been celebrating a crop that grows well on the Grand Prairie of Arkansas, where they just happen to reside: rice. The Grand Prairie boasts fertile soils, is as flat as a pool table for the most part, and has an underlying clay strata which tends to hold surface moisture in place. If ever there were ideal conditions to cultivate rice, these are it. And cultivate it they do. Since the late 1800s. The good folks at Hazen consider these conditions to be a good foundation for celebration — and celebrate they do at the Grand Prairie Rice Festival. And we are there, so to speak.

Monster motor

fairbanks-morse pump engine

Click on the big engine to see more

Before we go too much further, let us point you to see where this story started at Corndancer dot-com, where you will see a well-restored, giant 92-year-old antique rice well pump engine operating at the festival. You will also meet the gentleman who did the restoration and shows the machine.

Though this neck of the woods was rife with these units at one time, this one is the only one left that we can find. Click here to see seven additional pictures of this unique piece of mechanical history.

Model T Ford sedan

Mason Sickel of Tollville leads the parade in his restored T-model Ford.

The festival is a is an exercise in and a fine example of living history. Eighteen well-restored tractors participated in the parade. Click here to see all 18 tractors. I was originally invited to attend the festival in 2009 by Mason Sickel of Tollville AR. I had photographed his pink 1963 R185 International Harvester tractor and had the good fortune to meet him after the shoot. He showed me some of his antique restored tractors and invited me to the festival. I’m glad I finally made it. (That weekend is when I accompany several of my hoodlum friends on a fishing trip. They fish. I shoot).

antique mecormick-deering rice threshing machine

Seth Skarda of Hazen set up and operated his restored forties-era rice threshing machine and demonstrated its operation. His good friend Mason Sickel is operating the pitchfork to feed the machine.

Seth Skarda’s fully operational forties-era rice threshing machine was a hit. Dozens of onlookers watched the ancient machine shake, rattle and roll as it separated rice from its stalks. The machine has no power source of its own and was driven from a large “flat-belt” running from the power-take off pulley of a 1949 Oliver Model 90 tractor. Click to see 11 pictures from a complete walk-around of the threshing machine operation, including the 1940 International truck full of rice and the Oliver tractor.

Anitque New Holland gasoline power unit

This completely restored New Holland power unit hit the streets in about 1912 according to Bob Sutton, the owner. These units were used wherever one had the need for rotary power. Water pumps, grist mills, and generators were among those uses.

 Not all of the machines on display were large. I found a small 1912 New Holland gasoline power unit with its fly wheel spinning and its cylinder hitting only often enough to keep the machine going. I struck up a conversation with the owner, Bruce Sutton of Mount Ida. About five minutes into the conversation I discovered he originally hailed from McGehee, Arkansas. After further interrogation, he freely admitted that he grew up with my friend and Ouachita Baptist College college classmate Jimmy Dale Peacock, formerly of McGehee. Further, he knew a number of other classmates from that area. Small world.

antique operating grist mill

Alan Sickel smiles as he prepares to hand me one of four bags of freshly ground corn meal. He refused payment from me and any one else who wanted some of his meal.

The antique grist mill above has been in the Sickel family since the 1800s. It is powered by an antique International Harvester gasoline power unit. Click here to see additional pictures of the grist mill.

great horned owl

Great Horned Owl from Raptor Rehab of Central Arkansas. The non-profit organization's home is at El Paso, Arkansas.

 Not all of the attractions were mechanical. Notably some were alive, well, and feathered. Rodney Paul and volunteer Kenley Money of Raptor Rehab of Central Arkansas brought some of their charges including the Great Horned Owl you see above, a barn owl, a barred owl, and a screech owl. They carried some of the birds with them as they strolled through the festival and explained some of the noble work the organization does. They also made a detailed presentation to an attentive and appreciative audience. Click here to see all nine of our owl pictures.

The good folks at Hazen know how to put on a great event. I give it five big ol’ stars. For history buffs, it’s like a trip to a history candy store. For gearheads, it is near Nirvana. For kids it will be an eye-opener. Do yourself a favor and put this one on your calendar.

Thanks for dropping by,

Joe Dempsey
Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind


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