The little engine that could ... attract bid of $200,000


TOUCHET — Last weekend, an engine more than a century old that originally sold for $700 was applauded and even cried over when the 1896 Golden Gate, seven-horse-power, vertical, single-cylinder, gasoline engine was bought for a bid of $200,000 at the Ted Small estate auction.

“When it went for $200,000 and we got it, they all started clapping. And they started hugging us,” Vickie Merry said, describing the scene when her husband, John, bought the Golden Gate. “This one guy, he hugged me so hard. And he started crying. And I started crying.”

Why would anyone cry over an old engine or spend $200,000 for it?

For John Merry, the purchase penciled out long ago, even before he or his uncle, Gilbert Merry, ever laid eyes on the engine.

“The Golden Gate engine is probably the rarest and most desirable engine made on the West Coast from San Francisco,” Merry said, adding that he doubts there’s another antique, vertical engine of equal quality and size in existence.

The engine stands several feet high and is flanked by two solid iron flywheels, each weighing hundreds of pounds and a key part of maintaining the inertia to drive a belt that powered a pump that drew water for the Ferguson farm on Cottonwood Creek.

As far as collectible engines go, there is no doubt the Golden Gate is a treasure, and probably even more valuable than the description given at the Ted Small Estate Auction on June 22. It was listed as the seven-horse-power model.

Merry suspects it’s older than 1896 and is probably the nine-horse-power model, which would put its weight at 2,000 pounds and original cost at $900.

Made in the pre-earthquake foundries of the Bay Area, the Golden Gate was ahead of its time, sporting an overhead cam, fuel injection and a four-stroke gasoline engine that still operates today.

Merry pointed out that the Golden Gate isn’t the highest selling antique gasoline engine to sell recently. Six months ago in Kempton, Pa., an 1888 Crossley-Otto slide-valve engine sold for $320,000 at auction.

But Merry considers the Golden Gate more valuable because it is a vertical engine, it has a history in the Valley and it was highly treasured by his uncle Gilbert, the man who taught him about old engines.

“I traveled every weekend with him. He was a bachelor and I was his sidekick,” Merry said, noting that his uncle used the younger man’s eyes to help him scan barns and farmsteads for signs of the engines. “ I would keep an eye out for the flywheel. And we came back with hundreds of engines.”

But they never came back with the Golden Gate. That went to the other engine collector in the Valley, Ted Small, a good friend and competitor to his uncle.

Merry remembers talking with Small on a number of occasions about the day he pulled the Golden Gate from the Ferguson farm. Before heading home, Merry said Small told him he made a trip to his uncle’s house to show it off.

“Ted said he pulled up to the house. And he saw Gilbert come out, and there was a tear in his eye. And Gilbert was not one to cry,” Merry said.

Over the years, Gilbert Merry’s collection of old engines became known across the Pacific Northwest. And once a year, health permitting, he would open his farm to engine collectors, who came by the hundreds to admire decades-old engines that ran pulleys that pretty much did everything needed around the farm — bailing hay, washing clothes and even making ice cream.

But as impressive as his collection was, Gilbert Merry had always lamented the day he missed out on the Golden Gate.

Merry said his uncle had been contacted by members of the Ferguson family who wanted to sell him a smaller more common engine for about $80. His uncle declined.

Merry went on to describe how Small took the offer, and that is how his uncle’s competitor came to learn of the Golden Gate.

Over the years, John Merry would visit Small. Before those visits, his uncle would occasionally give him a message to relay to Small: he wanted to buy the Golden Gate and Small only needed to name the price. But Small was not ready to sell.

As the years passed, the two collectors grew older, their treasures increased, their health declined. Small died in 2008. His estate included numerous collectible engines, tractors, earth movers, automobiles, motorcycles and the Golden Gate. Total sales for the estate auction came to well over a million dollars. And the Golden Gate was the prize.

“It was one of only two that I know of. There was one that sold near Modesto, Calif. That sold for $155K,” auction company owner Doug Macon said. “This was a record price ... it was probably one of about only 10 that were made.”

Prior to the Small estate auction, Merry said his uncle talked about buying the Golden Gate. But 10 days before the auction, Gilbert Merry died.

The nephew now faced a decision. The engine would probably go for around $150,000. And while his uncle planned on bidding, he never made it his last wish to add it to the collection. But there was no doubt if he had lived, he would have bid on it.

Merry considered the fact the Golden Gate could be taken from the Valley. And then there were all those years and all those memories of hunting for treasures with his uncle.

“These are probably the rarest engines that were found in area farms for at least a couple 100 miles, and he hunted like a wolf to find them ...

“To a collector, this is big. This is like Indiana Jones finding the Ark of the Covenant ...”

It would take a sign to make up the nephew’s mind. That sign came when Merry was visiting his uncle, who later died at Odd Fellows on June 12. As he and his wife sat in the room, a nurse walked in to ask if they needed anything.

John saw it. Then he turned to Vickie to ask if she saw the nurses name tag, but she had missed it. So he told her to pay close attention to her name when she returned.

The nurse returned and Vickie saw that the last name of the nurse was Schilling. That was the name of the company that built and sold the Golden Gate: Adam Schilling & Sons, 211 and 213 Main St., San Francisco.

“It’s like it all fit right then,” Merry said.

So he pencilled out $153,000 that he could spend. But would it be enough?

Then adding to the affirmation received days before, without being asked, two different local farmers approached Merry and said they would back him up for and additional $50,000.

After the bidding started on the Golden Gate, it didn’t take long to pass the $153,000 mark, Merry recalled. At that point, the only bidders left were him and an unknown bidder on the phone.

“Then the phone bidder and me started bidding, and it went up really quick. At $200,000 I was at the end of my rope, and I wasn’t going to go that far. But there were a couple local farmers that backed me. And they told me to get it,” Merry said.

Merry had the bid at $200,000; it was the phone bidder’s turn.

Once. Twice. Sold.

“I knew it was going to go high, but I didn’t know it was going to go that high. But I had to get it for various reasons,” Merry said.

There was clapping, there were hugs and there were tears.

Then the Golden Gate was hauled a few miles away to join the collection of Gilbert and John Merry.

“It was Walla Walla’s hidden treasure. It’s a treasure now, and hopefully more people can come and see it.”

Alfred Diaz can be reached at or 526-8325.


Log in to comment