Scale Model Tractors Keep Builder’s Vision Alive

Legacy of genius: Scale model tractors, steam engine and steam show reminder of James Sylling’s life

| November 2011

Mix together a Kohler light plant, a Volkswagen, hand-made parts and ingenuity, and what do you get? If you were the late James Sylling, you got a scale model International Harvester 8-16 tractor.  

“His shop was always filled with treasures,” says his granddaughter, Deanna Henderson. “He had these old turkey barns where he stored things like steam engines. To a city girl – well, a girl from a small town – that was really fascinating. During holidays the kids went out to the turkey sheds and played on the steam engines and whatever else was there. At steam shows Grandpa had us ride along with him during the parade and around the grounds.”

Just a simple demonstration …

In the fall of 1953, James Sylling, Gerhard Clausen and Jesse McMillen got together in Hesper, Minn., to do a little demonstration with steam engines, threshing the way it was done in the old days. “They weren’t expecting any great interest,” Deanna says, “but people heard by word of mouth, and the men were greatly surprised when several hundred people came to see the exhibition.” What is now known as the Mabel show will mark its 60th anniversary in 2012.

For the first six years or so the show rotated among area farms, until it became the Hesper-Mabel (Minn.) Steam Engine Days and eventually morphed into Mabel Steam Engine Days, held each fall the first weekend after Labor Day. As the years passed, Deanna came to appreciate the impact of the annual event.

“Looking back, it was a big deal in our lives,” she says. “We went every year, because Grandpa was familiar with all the people and all the people knew him. They were all interested in those steam engines. That was his little corner of the world and it was fascinating to be around it. The engines were so huge and loud and lumbering. You can hardly imagine an era like that now. You don’t know what you have until you lose it.”

Man of many talents

James Sylling farmed all his life near Spring Grove, Minn., raising crops, livestock and turkeys. In his free time, he pursued interests like engines and airplanes. He built his own plane and took his wife, Dagny, to fly-ins.