Legacy of genius: Scale model tractors, steam engine and steam show reminder of James Sylling’s life
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.”
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.”
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.
“I never got to ride in that airplane because my brother got sick,” Deanna says. “Grandpa had his own hangar and airstrip on his farm, and one day Grandpa was giving rides. My brother got to go up first, but he didn’t enjoy it very much and got ill, so they figured if he had gotten sick, I would have, too.”
Deanna’s mother remembers days when they were snowed in on their farm. Her dad would fly the children into school and they’d stay with their grandparents until roads re-opened. “I think that shows the value that both of my grandparents placed on education,” Deanna says. “Grandma went to business school – not that she thought she would be able to use that working somewhere in those days – and Grandpa was a hardworking Norwegian who didn’t know anything else.”
James built at least four working scale models. The first was a 1/2-scale Case 65 hp steam engine. “He built that because he used to have one,” Deanna says. “But he liked working in his shop. He started out restoring tractors and gravitated to building things. Every year he’d travel through Minnesota and take models to the shows at Butterfield, Rollag and LeSueur.”
James built several other working scale model steam engines as well as a scale model Rumely OilPull, perhaps a nod to the 8 hp Rumely he once used on the farm. “He was always tinkering and cobbling things together and painting them up,” Deanna says. “For his era, he was quite the handy man.”
Deanna’s friend, Kevin Schultz, Waseca, Minn., is also involved with showing the International Harvester 8-16 model tractor. “My dad, Vince, and I restored gasoline engines,” he says, “so we had the same interests as James. I only knew him for six years before he died, but I wish I’d known him longer. He was an interesting man who didn’t talk much, but he was really talented. And being with Deanna, I ended up with the 8-16 James built here on the farm.” (The 8-16 belongs to Deanna’s mother, Judy Blomgren, Sauk Centre, Minn.)
The IH model (which appears to be about 1/3-size) was conceived in James’s shop, surrounded by a vast inventory of parts and pieces. “Everything was useful to him,” Deanna says. “He was that kind of guy. He had a milling machine, lathe and welding machine.”
In building the 8-16, James used a Kohler light plant and radiator for the engine, along with a Volkswagen rear end and transmission. Before the Rural Electrification Act delivered electricity to rural farmsteads, Kohler plants and similar units from other manufacturers were the primary source of electricity in rural areas.
The tractor’s hood and fenders were fabricated from sheet metal. “I don’t know if he had the sheet metal equipment, but in those days you could go to a hardware store and put the edging on it,” Kevin says. “When you look at the hood and fenders, you can see that they were probably run through a roller.”
The origin of the seat, cast iron steering wheel and air cleaner is unknown. “There’s an old picture showing the air cleaner colored red, before it was painted gray,” Kevin says, “so it probably came off a small IH machine of some kind. But the gas tank, I’m positive he made that.”
The 8-16’s wheels are also homemade. “A friend of his had a roller that rolled steel, so James rolled the wheels at his shop,” Kevin explains. “Later, at home, he welded the hub and spokes and made the wheels. He did a nice job on the whole machine. We’ve had a lot of fun with it.”
Fun aside, the 8-16 is a hard ride. “It’s on steel wheels and that makes it rough to ride,” Kevin says. “But it goes through the daily parade at shows very nice.” It even spurs a few conversations. “You’ll hear people launch into a story about how ‘my grandpa had an 8-16’ or ‘we had a Kohler light plant at home,’ or something like that,” Kevin says. “I think it’s pretty neat that a farmer could build something like that in his shop, all from his head. He was a man of extraordinary vision.”
During the final years of his life, James Sylling moved off the farm and used a three-stall garage as his workshop. “He couldn’t tackle the bigger projects as he had in earlier years, so he took to finishing kits of gasoline engines,” Kevin says. “He would buy the kits as castings and do all the machining himself, which was a lot of hard work. He did a Perkins and a Galloway, and his last project was restoring a 2-cylinder LeRoi engine.” FC
For more information: 60th annual Hesper-Mabel Steam Engine Days, Sept. 7-9, 2012, at the junction of highways 43 and 44 in southeastern Minnesota; contact Mabel City Hall, (507) 493-5299.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; e-mail: email@example.com.