Pawhuska city government was looking in February 2019 at the possibility of spending a large sum of money to replace a seven-decade-old generator engine at the municipal light and water plant. Some people in California said they wanted more than $1.6 million to sell the city some generators and have them transported here and installed.
The problem was that the 1949 submarine engine that served as Pawhuska’s “dark-start” generator was the piece of hardware on which the community would have to rely if the electricity went entirely down. And it wasn’t working anymore.
Councilman Rodger Milleson, who has an oilfield service company, and Councilman John Brazee, who runs a service station on Lynn Avenue, weren’t ready to write off the old generator. Their desire to see if the old engine would run again was a potentially ticklish matter — councilors are supposed to be administrative policymakers rather than participants in the day-to-day operations of the city. But the two councilors and several friends and associates ended up mounting an effort to save the generator that the city already owned.
Brazee explained in an interview that there was rust on the bottom of the engine but not on top, above the piston rings.
“Once we saw that and we knew it was a two-stroke, there wasn’t any doubt we believed we could get it up and running,” Brazee said. “That way, we could get the pistons out without breaking them.”
Brazee noted the pistons in the 10-cylinder engine are huge — 18 inches across. You have to climb a ladder to get up on top of the engine, it’s so big. There are three more large generator engines at the municipal light plant of comparable size. The dark start generator is the oldest of the four, dating back to 1949. The others were made in 1954, 1959 and 1966.
Brazee explained that the work necessary to resuscitate the old dark start generator took place during a period of a couple of months, on weekends. A group of men lent their efforts to the cause.
“I believe that motor’s gonna be running when the others aren’t,” Brazee said, voicing confidence the 1949 engine has a lot of life left. He also paid particular tribute to the knowledge of crew member Jim Conley.
“He knew the little tricks, and this and that,” Brazee said of Conley. Milleson also commented on the importance of Conley’s contribution.
In that same spirit of deflecting credit to the next fellow, Brazee said Milleson really spent more time with the project than he did.
“He still goes over and checks on it,” Brazee said, and, well, Milleson might have a special place in his heart for the water and light plant — Milleson’s uncle, Delbert, was Pawhuska’s water and light superintendent for more than four decades.
Milleson gave Brazee special credit for having a positive attitude about the whole thing.
“John was the positivity guy,” Milleson said with a chuckle. He acknowledged the city is still looking at the possibility of acquiring another generator, but said he thinks the 1949 engine “will get us by.”
“It’s not over-engineered — a lot like a Weedeater,” Milleson said. He clarified that the project had nothing to do with making anyone look bad. It was just a matter of trying to save the city some money.