SYCAMORE – The steam bug bit Liam Dancey before he could tie his shoes. Or, as some would say, it tackled him.
Dancey, an 18-year-old Sycamore resident, has run a 1923 steam shovel at the Northern Illinois’ Steam Power Club’s Steam Show and Threshing Bee in Sycamore for eight years. There, he’s part of a proud crowd keeping the agricultural tradition alive.
“I think of this as industrial archeology,” Dancey said. “This is a huge part of our heritage. It’s a huge part of Americana. It was born here.”
And he’ll show off his knowledge of the steam shovel again at the annual event, which runs from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday at the Taylor Marshall Farm at 27707 Lukens Road, outside Sycamore. Buildings open at 8:30 a.m. Admission costs $7 and children 12 and younger get in free.
Dancey operates the controls of the steam shovel, which is akin to a modern-day excavator. Before the swiveling, scooping artifact and its resounding whistle became an attraction in Sycamore, it worked loading a rock crusher at a quarry outside Rochelle until the 1960s. The coal-fired machine can scoop 300 cubic yards a day, a fraction of what modern machines can do.
“You can fit this entire machine into the scoop of some of the ones made today,” Dancey said.
About 25 steam-powered engines at the show will burn through 10 tons of coal this weekend. Meanwhile, visitors can also peruse threshing machines, balers, wheat grinders and more than 275 gas engines. A bevy of food and other vendors fill the rest of the show.
This year marks 58 years for the show, and the first appearance for a 1916 steam engine made by the Illinois Thresher Company in Sycamore. Of the 63 that were manufactured, only six still exist and three still run, said Dave Stevens, one of the show’s directors.
Club members bought the 20 horsepower traction engine in 2003 for about $20,000. Stevens, 54, of Sycamore, spent at least 12 hours a week for the past two years restoring the engine with custom parts before it was ready for its show debut.
It leads the parade pf chugging engines, purring tractors and echoing whistles that takes place at 1:30 p.m. each day.
People are still putting the finishing touches while show-goers marvel at the nearly century old machine. At midnight Wednesday, a painter carefully applied thin yellow pinstripes by candlelight.
Altogether, the club spent more than $20,000 to restore the machine.
Club member Jason Capra, 34, of Geneva, believes anyone who’s fascinated by things mechanical will enjoy walking through rows of steam engines and threshing machines. He grew up in Chicago without any connection to agriculture, but the machine caught his attention around 2005 when he started working at Stevens’ mechanics shop.
“After you see it, you can’t help but be drawn to it,” Capra said. “It’s a giant tea kettle that makes more torque than a top-level dragster.”
Les Petersen, 70, of Hampshire, displays a threshing machine that was used to separate wheat or oats in 1928. Unlike other machines that require the owner or operator recite an oral history for the curious, Petersen can point to a record written on the machine.
The original owner, Charles Coon, scrawled on a compartment to the rear that he purchased the machine for $2,180. After Coon sold the machine in 1966, he came back every year to autograph it. He wrote “last” in 1971 thinking he wouldn’t return, although his signatures appeared until 1973.
“It’s a way of farming that isn’t done anymore,” Petersen said. “It’s something that hasn’t commonly been done in 70 years. This is a venue for us to show some people they way things were.”
If you go:
What: The Sycamore Steam Show and Threshing Bee
When: 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday
Where: Taylor Marshall Farm, 27707 Lukens Road, Sycamore
Cost: Adults $7; children 12 and younger get in free