Huffman: Country engineers

A young Jim Sanders drives his little brother, Louis, in a go-kart their father, Henry, made using a gasoline-powered engine from a Maytag washing machine in the mid-1950s.

Wood scraps and 1-by-6 boards — check. Bolts and angle iron — check. Steering wheel, two red wagon wheels and two more wheels off an old-timey push mower — check.

Gas-powered engine from an old Maytag washing machine — check.

Looks like we got everything we need. Now grab the toolbox.

It’s time to get creative.

Of course, there’s no need to tell that twice to a seasoned country engineer — someone who’s never stepped foot inside a fancy college but can fix, rig or build practically anything. Creativity comes natural to them, in exactly the same way it comes to genius mad scientists, driving their bizarre ambitions.

Only difference is a country engineer’s lab is normally a garage or backyard shed.

This was the case for my great-grandfather, Henry Sanders, who made a go-kart for his children in the mid-1950s. Many years ago, Maytag washing machines ran off gasoline, offering a nifty solution to my grandfather’s need for a power source for his contraption.

Put together the other pieces of the puzzle and voilà! You’re ready to take off in a homemade hot rod, one fully equipped to putter around the yard at a blinding speed of 3 mph, the engine roaring with ferocious intensity:


Just like an antique John Deere tractor.

Yessiree. All you needed was an adult or someone heavy enough to kickstart the thing and off you’d go, easing to a halt only when you pulled the special lever by the steering wheel.

The lever acted as a clutch, and pulling it caused the whole engine to slide backward a few slots, or a couple inches, toward the rear axle, shortening the distance between the pulleys on the engine and axle and relaxing the fan belt.

That’s technical country engineering gibberish that basically means the go-kart would brake until you released the lever. And the only way to turn the thing off was by snatchin’ the wire off the spark plug.

Of course, this was an impossible maneuver for a 4-to-5-year-old Pawpaw Jim and his little brother, Louis, neither of whom could reach back far enough. Plus, if you failed to grab the insulated part of the wire, you’d be guaranteed some serious shock treatment.

That’s why Pawpaw Jim and Uncle Louis would drive around their family’s house in circles, yelling for someone to hurry up and come to their assistance:


It was either that or wait for their ride to run out of gas.

Although it could hold about a pint, the hot rod gave excellent mileage. It was practically indestructible as well, enduring things ranging from the time Pawpaw Jim collided with the chicken coop out back, to the time my great-grandfather drove it up a massive hill to test the engine.

He figured the thing would eventually give out. But all the way up the little ride went… and kept on goin’.


Now, if you’re riding around with that kind of power, might as well figure out a way to give it a little more speed.

That’s exactly what my great-grandfather tried to do one day while his wife and kids were gone to church. But by the time my grandmother, Pawpaw Jim and Uncle Louis came home, they saw my poor grandfather had a splint wrapped around a finger.

He’d broken it after reaching back to turn the hot rod off, brushing his finger against the flywheel.

Now, another pro country engineer is Mawmaw Sue Sanders, who’s no stranger to enduring the blistering summer heat while taking apart and reassembling a dryer on the fritz. This usually happened when the heating coil in her old dryer from decades ago would go out.

Pawpaw Jim would be out of town for his job. But Mawmaw Sue didn’t need no man, and her keen obsessive-compulsion to get her daily chores done wasn’t about to let some trivial thing like a lack of finances to make a repair call get in her way.

Driven by her instinctive bull-headed grit, Mawmaw Sue learned how to resurrect the dryer anytime it died. Or, rather, tried to die. Eventually, when the thing went out once more, she’d just get it to goin’ again.

No machine was a match for her.

But I reckon Mawmaw Sue’s finest moment was when she tied the carburetor back on the engine of a push mower with a shoestring. If she’d had the right bolts, she’d have used them. Instead, she tapped into her country engineering instinct and did what she does best.


Of course, Pawpaw Jim ain’t a shabby country engineer himself. Several years ago, after I inherited an antique 1930s Royal typewriter, I discovered the drawband, or string that allows the carriage to move when something’s being typed, had dry-rotted.

These days, folks can simply Google a remedy. Back then, however, my best bet was to show the thing to Pawpaw Jim and hope for the best.

He recommended replacing the old string with some fishing line, then helped install it. Today, the typewriter still works perfectly.

All thanks to some good ol’ country engineering.

Keith Huffman can be reached at

Keith Huffman can be reached at

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