2012-06-21 / Life in Leelanau

Centerville Twp. man’s talents off the charts

By Patti Brandt
Of The Enterprise staff


JOHNNY RUTHERFORD, a well-known musician around Leelanau County, has several inventions to his credit — none of which have made him rich. JOHNNY RUTHERFORD, a well-known musician around Leelanau County, has several inventions to his credit — none of which have made him rich. Local musician, inventor and allaround tinkerer Johnny Rutherford has had a lot of big ideas.

Some were ahead of their time, like the solar water heater and the windmill powered Ecolight. Some were not so practical, like the methane gas producer made from cow manure. And some were just for fun, like the lathe that could compensate for an out-of center hole.

While none of the 74-year-old’s ideas have made him rich, they have kept him busy and enjoying life.

A retired self-employed electrician, Rutherford got started in the business repairing wiring in electric motors. Back then it was hi-tech work, he said, but now it’s considered dinosaur stuff. After moving to Centerville Township in 1965, he did whatever it took to pay the bills — roofing, plumbing, electrical repairs and farming.

But it was his projects that gave his creative side an outlet.

One of those was Rutherford’s solar water heater, consisting of a device in which water circulated through copper tubing. He used it to heat all the water at his house for one full summer, but come fall he misjudged the weather and the heater froze and broke before he could get it winterized.

Another project was one that used solar heat to turn cow manure into methane gas. Made with pipes from Bunek’s Hardware and using manure from his neighbor’s farm, the contraption could produce about 30 gallons of methane gas per day, enough to run a small engine for about 30 minutes — as long as you didn’t rev it up too far.

Rutherford said he can’t take credit for thinking up the idea. He said he had read about a man in Africa who had a pig farm that he ran with methane gas from his pigs’ manure.

“He kind of started me on the thought that the products that we throw away could be the solution to all of our energy problems,” he said.

Rutherford wanted to do a larger project and tried to get a government grant to fund it. But, like many of his projects that start with great gusto, it just fizzled out, he said.

Another project that used a windmill to recharge enough battery power to run a small light — the Ecolite — had one company willing to invest.

“K-Mart was interested in it, which was scary,” he said. “They were talking some big numbers. That fizzled out, too ... I’m a good starter but I’m a poor finisher.”

Many in the area probably know Rutherford best as a guitarist, though he also plays the piano, saxophone, flute and clarinet. He can be seen every Friday at the Leland Lodge, every Wednesday at Dick’s Pour House, most Sunday’s at church, and frequently at events such as the recent Music Fest held in Lake Leelanau. The name of his eight-piece band, Reginald Harris and the White Sidewall Review Featuring the Fantastic Curb Feelers, often gets shortened to The Reggie Show, unless the band is playing a place with a big marquee, he jokes.

He got hooked on the guitar years ago after helping to buy one for a friend’s birthday. He kept the instrument at his own house until the friend’s birthday rolled around and just couldn’t resist picking it up and playing with it. He was hooked.

His wife, Joan, later bought him his own guitar and amp from a pawn shop in Detroit.

“I wish I still had that guitar and that amp,” he said.

He later got a Fender Stratocaster that he sold in 1966 for $75, buying an acoustic guitar with the money. That Stratocaster is now worth $30,000, he said. But he still has the acoustic, and he still plays it.

He’s written some songs too, though he calls them “crazy tunes that will go nowhere.” Some, he said, can’t be sung in mixed company.

Rutherford and Joan moved to Leelanau County after he saw his present home listed in a real-estate publication.

“My dad said we were going to starve up here,” Rutherford said. “So I told him my neighbor’s got six kids and they look like they’re doing all right. I’m going to watch him and whatever he’s doing, I’m going to do.”

He still has the place. The couple, married 53 years, managed to raise three kids to adulthood, though Joan sometimes worried where the next mortgage payment would come from. But neither of them is materialistic, she said.

“So that’s a good thing to have in common,” Joan said.

On any given day Rutherford might be spotted riding around his yard on the rechargeable Elec-Trak electric tractor that he rebuilt about five years ago. He uses the 1970-model gem to cut his lawn.

“You gotta be different,” he says.

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