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, there were parts missing and broken, and it hadn’t operated for decades. Most people would have considered it a rusty relic of yesteryear—but for Blundell it was a rare treasure waiting to be restored.
Blundell 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 Blundell had developed a passion for tinkering with machinery on his family’s sheep farm. However, he soon realized that this project was beyond his mechanical skills, so he turned to an old friend for help—Alan Saunders, also a retired pastor. Saunders had served with Blundell in the North NSW Conference, but prior to entering ministry, he had worked as a motor mechanic for around 20 years.
Before long Saunders 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. Sisson 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,” Saunders says. “The Sanitarium was a big help to us. Whatever parts we wanted to buy they would buy them for us, and 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,” Sisson 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 UK in 1923, the Gardner diesel engine arrived in Sydney in 1924 and soon after was sent to Batuna where it generated electricity for the mission station and for a sawmill where timber was cut for many mission buildings. Just prior to 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 sawmill 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.”
The engine will be getting a new permanent home as the South Sea Islands Museum is in the process of being relocated to the old Sanitarium factory at Cooranbong. More details will be shared in due course.