The Louis Armstrong tune, “Up a lazy river by the old mill stream, the lazy, hazy river where we both can dream…” aptly describes the Kokosing River for most of any year as it slowly meanders through the central part of Ohio. The Bair family owned a corrugated sheet-metal cabin on the riverside between Howard and Millwood, Ohio. It was a special place to spend the summers; swimming, rowing a rowboat, and canoeing in a canvas covered Old Town canoe. The fishing was a plus. There was an abundance of fish-food at hand; night crawler worms, hellgrammites under every rock in the riffles, and minnows to be seined. A long cane pole equipped with strong fish line and a cork bobber was all that was needed for hours of feeding the carp, the river catfish, croppies (sun fish), and the occasional smallmouth bass. Sometimes the young Bair brothers actually caught something. Yes, “the lazy, hazy,” placid Kokosing did foster “dreams” for all the family.
But the river was not always sluggish. Following a trademark Ohio cloudburst or during a heavy spring thaw, the river became a raging torrent, reading a dangerous flood stage quickly. It is such a flood stage that furnishes the background for the saga of the Bairs’ “Penny in the Outboard Motor”.
On a particular mid-march Sunday afternoon, in the year 1934 or 1935, Dad Bair suggested that a look-see of the cabin was in order. The family, Mom Bair, Dad Bair, brothers Richard and Ross, along with a boyhood friend, Billy Purdy, got in the family sedan and took the 12 mile ride from Mt. Vernon, Ohio. They found the river was near flood stage, but not yet overflowing. The floating boat dock was secure as was the heavy wooden rowboat. Dad Bair said , “Let’s take a ride up the river.” He had purchased a Caille two-cylinder, long shank outboard motor and was confident that the motor to the transom, started it up, told the group to hop in the boat, cast off, and enjoy the ride. The sturdy boat was big enough for all five adventurers.
Although the river was at flood stage, the water was smooth for a mile or so upstream. But as they came to a bend in the river they hit an area of rapids. Dad Bair steered the boat into the quietest part of the rushing torrent, advanced the throttle of the motor, and they proceeded on their way. They didn’t get far. The propeller of the motor struck a boulder or a submerged log which sheared the pin that enables them motor to spin the propeller. Without the propeller they lost the control of the boat. The swift river tossed the but up on a submerged log near the the bank of the river and all five passengers were thrown into the muddy frigid water. The heavy clothes they wore because of the chill of the mid-March day quickly became a hindrance to swimming safely. Mom and Dad Blair wore overcoats, the three young boys wore heavy jackets. Brother Richard wore gum boots that filled with water and pulled him under. Billy, who was older and stronger than the young brothers, with muscles hardened by farm work, was able to get to the muddy bank by himself. Mom Bair managed to get bBrother Ross and herself to shore. Dad Bair literally picked up Brother Richard, boots and all, and threw him up on the riverbank. Dad Bair instructed the soaked group to run across a newly plowed corn field to a farm house a quarter mile away. He stayed in the water, assuring the group that he would swim back to the cabin, get the car, and find them at the farm house. He away with the swift current, caught up with the capsized boat and got himself and the boat back to the dock at the cabin.
Oh, how muddy that corn field was, ankle deep. The three boys ran faster than Mom Bair. When they got to the farm house they knocked on the door. They called loudly for anyone who might be home. But it was in vain. Mom Bair arrived. She didn’t hesitate a second. She opened the unlocked door and told the boys to get out of their wet and frigid clothes. The owner of the farm, who lived alone, became aware he had people in his place, saw the bedraggled group, stoked the pot-bellied stove, and fetched towels and blankets. The group discovered that the kind man had not heard them when they first arrived on his porch because he was terribly hard of hearing. But like a good Samaritan, he welcomed them, mud and all. A couple hours later Dad Blair drove up to get them.
How fortunate they were! Not one of the group suffered so much as a sniffle from their frigid floodwater dunking experience. The only loss was the Caille long-shank, two cylinder outboard motor. It had broken off the transom of the boat and was gone.
But that is not the end of the story. A couple years later, Brothers Richard and Ross were exploring the section of river where the boat capsized. They saw something in the shallow water shining brightly the summer sun. Lo and behold, it was the gas tank of the lost Caille motor. The brothers dug away the sand and gravel of the river bed and discovered the whole motor. They put the motor in their boat and excitedly took it to the cabin to show Mom and Dad. Dad Blair had, of course, purchased another outboard motor, an Evinrude Elto, one the boys could handle by themselves. But he was curious about the long submerged Caille motor to try to get it running again. He nailed a two by four across two walnut trees, attached the Caille and proceeded to take the motor apart, inspecting and cleaning every part as he went. The only part missing was a freeze plug in a cylinder head. By trial and error, he discovered that a copper penny was just the right size for the hole. Brother Ross remembers watching dad Blair gently tamp a copper penny into the hole. Yes, the Caille motor did run again, but since it had been replaced by another motor, the young brothers lost track of what happened to it.
Now, let us realize 78 (or so) years have passed. Again it was mid-March, but in 2012. Helen and Ross Blair were browsing through one of their favorite mercantile establishments located in Murphy, North Carolina, The Moose Hollow Trading Company. One feature of the store’s inventory is a variety of restored antique outboard motors. As Helen and Ross slowly moved from display room to display room, Ross saw a restored Caille, two-cylinder, long-shank outboard motor, in all its shiny brass splendor, displayed on a wall. He said to Helen, “We had a motor like just like that when I was a boy.” Ross related the circumstances as mentioned above. He ended the story with the observation, “In my mind;s eye, I can still see my Dad tamping a penny into the cylinder head right here.” With that said, he saw and touched “the penny in the outboard motor”. What a shock! Ross wondered, “ Could it be the same motor? Was the placement of a penny in the freeze plug hole the accepted repair of Caille mechanics 78 years ago? The date of the penny would have to be before 1937, that’s for sure.” With all that in their minds Helen and Ross left the store, nonplussed at what had to be a coincidence.
But this “coincidence” (if that is what it is) was too good to keep. Ross spoke with his daughter Debbie, about it. Unbeknownst to Ross, Debbie called David, the owner of the store and asked about the motor. Ross’ birthday is in mid-March and Debbie thought it would be nice to present the motor as a gift. He took some time inspecting the motor, looking to find the penny, but couldn’t.
In addition to Debbie Ross and Helen shared this”coincidence” with friends. They expressed an interest insignia the motor. They went back to the store together about a week after first spying the motor. As they entered the store, David greeted them. Ross told him they were there to see the motor hanging on the wall. David mentioned he had spoken with daughter Debbie but could not find the penny mentioned. Ross said, “Let me show you.” They all went to the display and Ross showed David and the others the penny in the motor. Ross said, “I don;t know if this is the same motor.. Where did the restorer get the motor? We lived in Ohio so it probably would have come from that area.” David pulled out his cell phone and called the restorer. Te man said he bought the motor in Indiana, a location not more than 200 miles from the Blair’s Ohio home location. Ross said, “The penny has to be no later than 1937.” David got some magnifier glasses and found the date of the penny, 1936.
A couple days later our daughter, Claudia, talked with Helen. The subject of the motor came up. Claudia said, “Dad never told me about that!” She then called David to say that the three daughters wanted to buy the motor as a birthday gift. David was pleased to hear that, yet he hesitated to sell it because it was a personal favorite item to him. But the saga was so poignant that he found he desired that the only surviving member of the five who experienced the Kokosing River dunking to have it. David told the three Bair daughters that he wanted to be included in the birthday gift giving. The daughters agreed. David phoned Ross and said, “You can come by and pick up your Caille outboard motor anytime.” The motor is now included in the décor of Ross’ and Helen’s home on Lake Chatuge near Hayesville, NC, a pleasant heart-warming reminder of the “days of yore” of a young boy.