The Sycamore Steam Show 2006

Illinois club celebrates 50th anniversary with a display of 51 steam engines, including one of four known Sycamore engines.

| January 2007

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.

Case center-crank lends rare perspective

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.