How two retired pastors and an engineer got an old mission-station engine fired up again.
Published on: 09-29-2020
When retired pastor Bill Blundell first set eyes on the old diesel engine, it wasn’t in great shape.
In its heyday, it had powered a Seventh-day Adventist mission station at Batuna, Solomon Islands. But for nearly 40 years, it had sat in the yard outside the South Sea Islands Museum at Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia. Rust had set in, parts were missing and broken, and it hadn’t operated for decades. Most people would have considered it a rusty relic of yesteryear, but for Bill it was a rare treasure waiting to be restored.
Bill was delighted when he got the green light to work on the nearly 100-year-old engine. His goal was to not only remove the rust and give the engine a coat of paint but to get it to fire up again. In his younger years, Bill had developed a passion for tinkering with machinery on his family’s sheep farm. He soon realized, however, that this project was beyond his mechanical skills, so he turned to an old friend for help — Alan Saunders, also a retired pastor. Alan had served with Bill in the North New South Wales Conference, but before entering ministry he had worked as a motor mechanic for around 20 years.
Before long, Alan realized that they would need some engineering expertise as well. He sought guidance from retired design engineer David Sisson, who had worked at the Sanitarium factory in Cooranbong for 41 years. David soon became immersed in the project as well. His large workshop, stocked with a vast array of tools and materials, became a central work hub for the men.
“Between the three of us, we got it pulled apart and manufactured what we needed to,” Alan says. “Sanitarium were a big help to us. Whatever parts we wanted to buy, they would buy them for us. . . . They machined things for us at no cost.”
After many challenges and nearly three years of restoration work, the big day finally arrived — firing up the engine for the first time. It’s a day that the trio, all in their 70s, will never forget. “We had a little dance around and threw our hands in the air and had a cheer,” David recalls.
“We have now worked out the simplest and quickest way to get it fired up and to see it running and just puffing away — it’s quite an experience. The fact that it stood out in the weather up here for so long, I think it’s amazing that it’s back in reasonably good running order.”
Manufactured in the United Kingdom in 1923, the Gardner diesel engine arrived in Sydney in 1924. It was soon sent to Batuna, where it generated electricity for the mission station and for a sawmill, where timber was cut for many mission buildings. Just before World War II, a shortage of diesel fuel restricted work at the mill, and a mixture of diesel oil and melted coconut oil kept the engine running. After three years of Japanese occupation, the area was liberated by the United States forces, and the U.S. army used the engine and sawmill for a time before it was returned to mission use. The engine continued to power the mill until it was replaced in 1982 and brought back to Australia.
John Skrzypaszek, recently retired director of the Ellen G. White Research Centre at Avondale University College, said the engine played a significant role in the expansion of mission in the Solomons. “Its story moves beyond the mundane cutting of logs,” he says. “Instead, it connects with stories of the missionary spirit, exemplifying attitudes of bravery and commitment.”