When the Northern Illinois Steam Power Club held its 50th annual show in Sycamore, Ill., in August 2006, the club celebrated with a bang. A full complement of steamers - one for every year of the show's existence, and one more for good measure - was on hand for the historic event, which was capped by a deafening noon whistle. If you missed the show, here's a sampling of the highlights.
Justin Click, Lake Station, Ind., is not one to brag. But when asked to pick the rarest steam engine at the 50th annual Sycamore threshing bee last August, he didn't have to look far: He pegged his own 1892 Case center-crank steam engine.
Justin says he knows of only one other Case center-crank still running. When he saw a chance to buy this unusual engine, he jumped at it. "This is one of only eight existing in the country that I know of," he says. He's not sure how many Case center-cranks were built. A polished brass plate on the smokestack reads "Engine No. 5725." "The engines were numbered sequentially, so that just means it was the 5,725th engine made by Case," he explains.
The Case is not a run-of-the-mill unit. The engine's driver's seat, for instance, is positioned just behind the front axle. "It was originally built as a horse-steered engine," says Ken Hough, Lake Station, Ind., a friend and fellow steam enthusiast who helped Justin work on the engine. "Because of laws in certain parts of the country back then, you could not have mechanical steering, so you used a team of horses to do it."
A teamster sat in the front seat and used a set of reins to direct the team to steer the machine, the same as one would a horse-drawn wagon. But unlike a wagon, the engine was self-propelled. "The rear wheels drive the engine, so all the horse had to do was steer it in the direction the driver told him," Ken says. "A lot of the engines in the early days were like that." At some point, the Case was retrofitted with a steering wheel - probably by the dealer - so the driver could steer it while operating the controls.
But what really sets Justin's Case apart is this: The crank (or drive unit) is mounted on the center of the engine, rather than on the side, as it is on most other engines. Center-crank engines, produced from 1890 to about 1896, were designed to deliver more power. Center-cranks were considered "heavy duty" engines and buyers paid a premium of as much as $400 to get one, Justin says.
"Case advertised the center-crank as a heavier, faster engine because it spins faster than a side-crank," Ken says. The center-crank engine spins at 275 rpm, Justin notes, while a side-crank is in the neighborhood of 200-225 rpm. The extra speed made it better for threshing or running a sawmill, he adds.
But the higher price scared off buyers. "A farmer could do the same amount of work with a cheaper (side-crank) engine, so that's what he would buy," Justin says. "The side-crank doesn't have much horsepower, but it does what it's supposed to do." With narrow wheels, the center-crank engine was not well suited to plowing. Instead, it was designed to run farm equipment, operate sawmills, pump water and provide power for threshing machines.
The 12 hp engine had been rebuilt several times over the years and was in running condition for the machine's centennial in 1992. It was then sold and added to a museum's collection. When the collection was put up for sale in 2005, Justin made his move. Since then, the Case has been restored and is now in good running order.
Justin became interested in gas tractors at an early age. "I was about 12 when I got my first tractor," he recalls. "I was in the city, so I just drove it up and down the road." Later, that interest extended to larger and older equipment: steam engines. When the steam bug bit, Justin says he wasn't going to settle for a common machine. He found the center-crank last November and knew it was the one.
"This was the one I wanted," he says, "and it's the only one I want to own." He takes the steamer to shows several times a year and puts it through its paces at home. "I have 10 acres at home where I can fire it up and play with it whenever I want," he says.
A collection of nine steam engines is not overly unusual among fans of these massive machines. But it's far from the norm for a 25-year-old city boy. John Malsch, Pell Lake, Wis., has amassed a collection that could be the envy of collectors more than twice his age. For John, it's nothing unusual. In fact, he thinks he probably cut his teeth on a steamer's gears.
"I was born in February 1981 and went to my first steam show that summer," he explains. "My parents have a photo of me being held by my mom, going through the parade at the Sycamore steam show that year." He hasn't missed one since. Steam is simply a big part of his family's life. His dad, Charles, is president of the Northern Illinois Steam Power Club, his mother, Pat, is the club's secretary and John is a board member.
Now, 25 years after that first parade, John is as well-known among steam hobbyists as some of the old-timers he's been learning from over the years. Like many his age, he's interested in today's vehicles. But vintage steamers are his passion. "I could buy a hot-rod car anytime," he says. "But steam engines are kind of hard to come by."
John's collection is housed in his dad's 60-by-120-foot pole barn complete with a boiler repair shop. Among his prized pieces: his first engine, a 1916 40 hp Case he bought as a high school junior. "I saved my pop can money and bought it in Racine, Wis., from a past director of the steam club," he says. "Since then, steam has been my thing."
After that first purchase, his additions have included a 20 hp Russell, a 1919 24 hp Port Huron, 1919 18 hp Advance Rumely (thought to be one of the last engines to be sold out of the Madison, Wis., Rumely branch when it closed in 1923), a 1920 40 hp Russell, a 1918 18 hp Advance Rumely, and his rarest steamer, a 24 hp Northwest he found in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Employed as a welder and steel fabricator, John is well-trained to work on pieces in his collection. He sees it as a lifelong hobby. "Someday I'll get married and have kids and that'll be the end of buying steam engines," he says. "But I won't get rid of what I have. Steam is in my blood."
A 1916 Sycamore steam engine was the belle of the ball at the Northern Illinois club's show. If the men who built the behemoth had been on hand, they would have stretched their elastic suspenders with pride.
The 20 hp steamer was fired up in August 2006 for its first appearance since being brought "home" more than two years ago. The machine is one of six known to exist out of the 63 built by the Illinois Thresher Co. in Sycamore, according to Dave Stevens, a club director and leader in the engine's restoration. This one, serial number 110, is likely the 10th one built, he says. "We know of only four Sycamores that are running," he says, "ours and ones in Nebraska, Michigan and Iowa." The club had a Sycamore engine several years ago, but it ended up in Nebraska. The membership was determined to get a replacement. "Because our headquarters are in Sycamore, we wanted another Sycamore engine," Dave says. When a club member learned that a La Crosse, Wis., farmer had one, a contingent of directors made a trip north. After a thorough inspection, they came home the proud owners of a rare steam engine.
The Illinois Thresher Co., which operated from 1904 to 1924, also made implements such as cultivators and threshing machines, but steam engines - the Sycamore line - were the company's primary product.
The Sycamore was operable when the club got it, but work was needed before the boiler could be certified. "The state boiler inspector said it needed new flues and other work, so we replaced 57 flues, the front sheet and smoke-box and repainted the machine," Dave says. The required work was completed just in time for the August "coming out party." Other projects - clutch repairs, new shims on the main bearings, connecting rods and two new tanks - still need to be completed.
During last August's show, Dave operated levers releasing steam to make the machine move while board member Bev Thompson stood alongside, peering through the smoke from the engine while frantically turning the steering wheel.
"It's work, but I'm in shape for it," she says. "I've driven a school bus for 30 years." But steering a bus, she notes with a smile, is quite different than maneuvering a multi-ton steamer.
For more information: Northern Illinois Steam Power Club, (262) 279-6102; www.threshingbee.org
Lyle Rolfe has been a newspaper reporter/photographer for more than 40 years. As a freelance writer and photographer, his work has been published in Classic Cars, Cars & Parts and Rural Heritage magazines, among others. Contact him at Lrerartr@comcast.net.