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

  • James built the 8-16’s gas tank. For the wheels, he had the rounds made, then brought them home and welded in spokes and hubs.
    James built the 8-16’s gas tank. For the wheels, he had the rounds made, then brought them home and welded in spokes and hubs.
  • James and Dagny Sylling with his scale Case 65 hp engine. James’ son, Don, now owns the machine.
    James and Dagny Sylling with his scale Case 65 hp engine. James’ son, Don, now owns the machine.
    Photo courtesy Deanna Henderson
  • James operating his scale Case 65 hp steam traction engine
    James operating his scale Case 65 hp steam traction engine. “When that Case 65 is shown, the person showing it has to have a steam license, just like the big machines,” says Deanna Henderson, James’ granddaughter. 
    Photo courtesy Dagny Sylling
  • One of James Sylling’s creations: a Rumely OilPull, perhaps 1/3- to 1/4-scale. James never cited the specific scale of his models.
    One of James Sylling’s creations: a Rumely OilPull, perhaps 1/3- to 1/4-scale. James never cited the specific scale of his models.
  • A rear view showing the model’s seat and shift lever, which is from a Volkswagen. The hitch could be used to pull light items. The radiator is crafted from a Kohler light plant.
    A rear view showing the model’s seat and shift lever, which is from a Volkswagen. The hitch could be used to pull light items. The radiator is crafted from a Kohler light plant.
  • Vince Schultz at the wheel of the IH 8-16, giving a sense of the tractor’s size. The tractor appears to be a 1/3-scale.
    Vince Schultz at the wheel of the IH 8-16, giving a sense of the tractor’s size. The tractor appears to be a 1/3-scale.
  • A front view of the IH 8-16 shows the IHC decal, the crank for starting it and the rig’s steel wheels.
    A front view of the IH 8-16 shows the IHC decal, the crank for starting it and the rig’s steel wheels.
  • A side view of James’ International Harvester 8-16 scale tractor at the LeSueur (Minn.) Pioneer Power Show.
    A side view of James’ International Harvester 8-16 scale tractor at the LeSueur (Minn.) Pioneer Power Show. “He loved the odd and unique,” Deanna Henderson says, “which is probably why he built it.”
  • A close-up of the Kohler light plant’s engine that propels the International Harvester 8-16.
    A close-up of the Kohler light plant’s engine that propels the International Harvester 8-16.
  • The multi-talented James Sylling built this airplane. He used it at fly-ins and transported his children to school in it when roads were impassable.
    The multi-talented James Sylling built this airplane. He used it at fly-ins and transported his children to school in it when roads were impassable.
  • After James Sylling picked up a Kohler light plant at an auction, he promptly converted it into the driving power for his IH 8-16 scale model tractor.
    After James Sylling picked up a Kohler light plant at an auction, he promptly converted it into the driving power for his IH 8-16 scale model tractor.
    Photo courtesy Dagny Sylling
  • James' IH 8-16 on display
    James' IH 8-16 on display.

  • James built the 8-16’s gas tank. For the wheels, he had the rounds made, then brought them home and welded in spokes and hubs.
  • James and Dagny Sylling with his scale Case 65 hp engine. James’ son, Don, now owns the machine.
  • James operating his scale Case 65 hp steam traction engine
  • One of James Sylling’s creations: a Rumely OilPull, perhaps 1/3- to 1/4-scale. James never cited the specific scale of his models.
  • A rear view showing the model’s seat and shift lever, which is from a Volkswagen. The hitch could be used to pull light items. The radiator is crafted from a Kohler light plant.
  • Vince Schultz at the wheel of the IH 8-16, giving a sense of the tractor’s size. The tractor appears to be a 1/3-scale.
  • A front view of the IH 8-16 shows the IHC decal, the crank for starting it and the rig’s steel wheels.
  • A side view of James’ International Harvester 8-16 scale tractor at the LeSueur (Minn.) Pioneer Power Show.
  • A close-up of the Kohler light plant’s engine that propels the International Harvester 8-16.
  • The multi-talented James Sylling built this airplane. He used it at fly-ins and transported his children to school in it when roads were impassable.
  • After James Sylling picked up a Kohler light plant at an auction, he promptly converted it into the driving power for his IH 8-16 scale model tractor.
  • James' IH 8-16 on display

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.



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