Fun in the Sun: The 2007 Florida Flywheeler's Show

Florida Flywheelers show delivers pure pleasure with extensive grounds, great collections and a spirit of fun.

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Hang around Fred’s Garage long enough, and you’ll expect to hear the bell when a car pulls in and see a uniformed teenager run out to pump gas, wash the windshield and check the oil.

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Regulars on the show circuit know the lingo. You've got your parking lot shows, with exhibits neatly confined in a chalked grid on a large parking lot. You've got your working shows, with all manner of machines in perpetual motion, plowing, threshing, baling, sawing. And then down at the Florida Flywheelers Antique Engine Club, you've got your playing show, where everyone is as happy as kids at summer camp.

The locale has something to do with it. What's not to be happy about in central Florida in February, when the club holds its annual antique engine and tractor show? But there's more to it than that. The Flywheelers have created a unique environment that fosters fun, and it begins in the antique village.

The club's 240-acre show grounds midway between Ft. Meade and Avon Park is carved into two sections: the antique village and the show field. The show field is home to buildings housing private collections, a pulling track, antique construction equipment demonstration area and a mammoth swap meet. The antique village is a boom town of about 70 buildings reflecting the varied interests of club members. There's a grist mill and a blacksmith, hardware and sawmill, livery stable and slaughterhouse … and much, much more.

"We're constantly looking for ways to improve," says Florida Flywheelers President Dick Ambler. "We try to get people to display different things every year. This year, we added two days of horse pulls and opened up a lot more vendor area. We had our biggest day ever in February, with attendance estimated at 7,000. When we started out 15 years ago, nowhere in our wildest dreams did we expect this."

The village is built on a unique foundation. Each building is financed, built and furnished by club members, subject to club approval. Buildings belong to the club, but can be passed to a family member or sold to another club member. Most buildings are furnished with the builder's collection of farm-related items, and all are open to the public during shows.

Southern hospitality

Bill Eckhoff's red barn, for instance, is packed with everything from a Conestoga wagon to a 1921 John Deere Waterloo Boy tractor, vintage porcelain signs to shop tools, miniature tractors to an original 1911 Mullins boat. "I don't care who comes in here," Bill says with a smile. "They're going to find something they're going to like."

Bill, who retired to Punta Gorda, Fla., from Missouri, bought two established buildings at the antique village a couple of years ago. Since then, he's poured in time and money to make them even better. "Our goal is to have something where people can come and feel welcomed," he says. "We really stress the hospitality part of it, and people really seem to like that."

A retired highway contractor, Bill tears into projects like a bulldog. Aided by an apparently tireless crew, he's created elaborate displays celebrating another era, that of his youth. "My dad bought the first Farmall M in 1939 out of the Warrensburg, Mo., dealership," he recalls. "Mom about had a fit."

Decades later, dozens of pieces of vintage cookware like his mother once used dangle from the ceiling of the red barn, an improbable but artful cast iron chandelier. Visitors gape; Bill grins. It's business as usual at the red barn.

"This old Flywheeler Park is just a good place to come to," he says. "And we'll make it work. The main thing is to work together. It's just all fun to me."

In from the beginning

If Bill is a relative newcomer, Gene Harkins, Kissimmee, Fla., is practically a founding father. A club member when the Flywheelers bought the land, he has vivid memories of the early years. The site took all the hours volunteers could throw at it. "There were probably 50 really gung-ho members out here every other week at the beginning, clearing out palmettos. People don't realize what went into making all this," Gene says. "We bought the land on April Fool's Day in 1996, and there were a lot of jokes about that. But it's been a success and it just keeps growing."

Today, the antique village is at capacity. Like any thriving community, it faces challenges. Fire hydrants and sprinklers may be in the offing, and a new well will be needed before long. There's a waiting list for buildings elsewhere on the grounds, all of which are subject to club approval.

The Flywheelers boast membership of 1,600. That includes many snowbirds, some of who camp on the grounds during the winter. They exchange labor - mowing, mechanical repairs, roadwork, paint, pressure washing - for campground fees. An army of volunteers ensures the grounds are neat, orderly and well-maintained year 'round.

Gene is part of that effort, both as a volunteer and a builder. He's created a replica of an Amish tobacco barn housing an eclectic collection: a little Jim Dandy, Economy garden tractors, crawler tractors, seed separators and cleaners, silage cutters and more. Gene's barn also houses a collection built by longtime club member Maurice Biehn who died in 2004.

"I've never lived on a farm but I've always been mechanically inclined," Gene says. "I like to have this stuff out on display, and people come up and reminisce when they see it. Other people don't know what it is, so I explain it to them. What we're trying to do here is preserve the past for the future."

Down by the old mill

Just around the corner from the tobacco barn, Canadian Carl Kitchen proudly introduces himself as "the first foreigner to apply for a building in the village." He hustles around the replica feed mill (complete with water wheel) he and his wife, Patti, built over the course of three years. "We got help with the trusses, but otherwise we did it all ourselves," he says. Lumber for the building was cut on the club's sawmill, and beams were recovered from old dozer swamp pads.

A native of Schoemburg, Ontario, Carl is fascinated by 100-year-old water-operated equipment. His mill has a working line shaft, a nod to his boyhood. "When I was a kid, there was a line shaft in a factory in my hometown," he recalls. "We used to sneak in and put an apple in the exhaust pipe of a gas engine."

Carl's mill features Massey-Harris engines from Canada, a Hart-Emerson fanning mill made in Winnipeg, a Fairmont engine made in Toronto and a Sawyer-Massey seed cleaner operating on a turntable. A wooden 1908 Leader threshing machine donated to the club by the Rogers family of Summitville, Ohio, is also displayed at the mill. All of the equipment is run on the line shaft.

The mill has room for expansion, and Carl is considering a pump jack to pump water to a pond. He'd also like to put in a foundry. "My dad and granddad were blacksmiths," he says, "and I'd like to make some reproduction cast iron seats here."

Roaming afield

Not all of the action at Flywheeler Park takes place in the village. Displays, horse and tractor pulls, and construction equipment demonstrations have sprouted literally everywhere. Heller Davis, Loughman, Fla., rides herd over a corral of gas engines at a busy junction between the village and the show field. At the February show he displayed a 1911 2-1/2 hp Detroit Engine Works engine and a 1-1/2 hp Petter Junior vertical upright. He and his son, John, work as partners in collecting and restoring old engines.

Their single-cylinder, 2-cycle Detroit was used to pump water for the city of Lake Alfred, Fla., from 1911 until 1923. "It was one of the first fuel injection engines made," Heller says. By the time he found it, all the brass had been stripped off the engine. It took Heller three years to find replacement parts.

The 2-cycle Petter, one of the earliest of its line, was made in Yeoville, England. The fourth-lowest Petter serial number known, the engine was in terrible shape when found. "It sprayed oil everywhere, out of the main bearings, everything," Heller says. "It didn't have seals, so we put in modern seals. You can't see them, but they're there. We're always looking for a better way."

The Davises used electrolysis to get the Petter apart. "We had never done that before," Heller says, "but in 48 hours, the piston was loose. If we had forced it, we might have ruined it. You have to have patience."

Making do … with a Hoover

It may seem every visitor to Flywheeler Park is issued a golf cart. Melton Dearing, Helena, Ala., is evidence to the contrary. Mel tours the grounds from the seat of his Hoover tractor, a homemade tractor dating to the Great Depression. "They used it to pull a slip scrape and build ponds in Ohio," he says. "It was a way to make some money during the Depression."

The tractor is typical of those constructed by cash-strapped farmers in the 1930s. The farmer removed the body from an old car, repaired the motor and transmission, shortened the frame at the rear and added a second transmission and truck rear axle. "The resulting Hoover tractor (named in dishonor of President Herbert Hoover) did the job," Melton explains.

"The Ford planetary 2-speed and the Muncie 3-speed give the tractor seven forward speeds," he says. "The lowest (granny) gear uses both transmissions in reverse, and shifting both to high gear provides an overdrive (road) gear. Simplicity is its virtue: no oil pump, no fuel pump, no water pump; engine, clutch, transmission, magneto and brake all run in the same oil."

Brian Harris, Sanborn, N.Y., also knows a bit about homemade equipment. He motored through the grounds on his half-scale 20 hp Burrell steam engine with a 175 psi boiler. He spent five years producing the intricate and handsome scale model.

Trained as a boilermaker in the U.K., Brian immigrated to the U.S. in 1967. "Boiler making was almost done then," he says. "But I grew up around engines like these. In fact, my first job as an apprentice was cutting one up."

Scale models are coming on strong, he notes. "They're so much easier to haul. But you've got to pay more attention to them (than a full-size steamer) when they're running. It's a toy for adults, really."

And where better to trot out a one-of-a-kind toy than at a playing show? FC 

For more information: Florida Flywheelers Antique Engine Club, Flywheeler Park, 7000 Avon Park Cut-Off Road, Ft. Meade, FL 33841; (863) 285-9121; www.floridaflywheelers.org