|Cottonwood’s Gene DeCamp, now 86, was one of the organizers of the Arizona Flywheelers, which brings its 29th annual show to the Verde Valley Fairgrouns this weekend. VVN/Jon Hutchinson|
COTTONWOOD -- This is the 29th year that the Arizona Flywheelers are displaying their often-monstrous iron beasts, and also more delicate tiny machines. Despite their size or how they are fueled, all the engines make work easier. An engine is a machine designed to convert energy into useful mechanical motion.
Kids, who today may know how to assemble a computer or write programming code, may find these fine old engines a bit of a mystery. But, unlike the next generation of machines, the beauty of these wonderful engines is that you can see how they work.
Steam and gas engines, Stirling, engines, external and internal combustion engines; there are engines of all types at the Flywheelers show, but especially those huge impressive flywheels which store energy, when batteries were not available.
It is something of a flashback into history to see the wonderful gear.
They are all on display, and often running, this weekend at the Verde Valley Fairgrounds. $5 will get you through the gate for all three days. There is no charge for those 12 and under. There will be small-engine displays, tractor pulling, garden tractor pulling, model engine display, model train display, swap meet, silent auction and book sale
Gene DeCamp, now 86, remembers the very first show, held on farmland somewhere near Franquero Lane in Cottonwood. The traffic for the show, the rumble of all those engines, and the rumbling of the neighbors, caused organizers to find a different location. And the show has been at the fairgrounds ever since. DeCamp was among the group's organizers.
There are only five clubs in Arizona like the Arizona Flywheelers, but big iron advocates come from throughout the West to the Cottonwood show, both to see what is on hand as well as to show.
Gene estimates that he has had 100 such engines during his lifetime. He is a very hands-on guy who built his own home in Cottonwood after teaching students at Northern Arizona University for 20 years. Down a circular staircase off the living room is Gene's realm: it is the size and shape of a four-vehicle garage. There are no cars there though. That is where he does all his work. Fellow engine buffs will tell tales of how DeCamp rebuilds engines, often creating replacement parts or even entire engines from scratch. He likes to form replacement parts from brass, giving his work, a two-metal appearance.
He has begun to sell off many old engines. He once had 42 engines on shelves around the shop space. But there are still many projects underway in the shop. Some are tiny and others are huge.
Outside, under a separate roof, stands a massive two-ton engine. He tells me, he sold a seven-ton engine to buy it.
What appeals to Gene DeCamp about the engines?
"It is the complexity, the engineering, that went into it and the fact that they can just run on a small amount of gas or natural gas. Everything that electricity does today, those engines did years ago. It is fascinating to see the engineering and the uniqueness of them. Made engines large and small."
He is disappointed that the interest in the old iron engines seems to be waning. Electronics appeal to the younger generation. "Things cost so much more, today. They were not bought up with this old machinery. Even older folks, they will come to a show and they will look at it and ask, 'What do these things do?'"
He admits that many of the members grew up on farms, where independent engines to do work and locally produced power was needed. He was not a farm boy.
"I was brought up in the city. I bought my first engine when I was 17 in 1943 and paid $12 for an 8-horsepower Simplicity. I have been in this stuff a good many years. I will be 87 next month."
While cities and towns were already electrified, everyone had big engines before the Rural Electrification connected them with wire.
"Before that, there were probably thousands of Fairbanks-Morris 1 ½ horsepower, four-cycle engine with a 2500 kilowatt generator. If they didn't have a Fairbanks, they had a Delco or an Onan plant. All the old farmers and their wives had those in the barn and there was a wire from the barn into the house. Of course, when Rural Electric came in, they scrapped them all."
In Alaska, there are still a lot of Whitte plants, where the electricity hasn't caught up with them yet."
"They had a lead-in cable, that was called the Farmers Helper or the Wives Helper. They would put it on the sewing machine or the kitchen or the water pump, they would take it the corn sheller. They would roll them around on a pair of wheels. There were the 'little guys' and the 'bigger guys', the 2 and 3-horsepower ones. Some were coupled up solid to the windmill. Or to the buzz saw to cut up firewood. They were all over the world like that."
Gene DeCamp says, despite his years, he still see things never before seen. "There is a sale going on in Parks and there is an engine for sale that I never heard of before. In a magazine, a guy in California is selling an engine I never heard of. It is the only one in existence. I probably heard of hundreds if not thousands of them.
You will see many of those common and unusual engines on display Friday Saturday and Sunday until noon at the Verde Valley Fairgrounds.
If you go:
What: Arizona Flywheelers 29th Annual Show
When: March 15, 16, 17 9-4p.m., 9-noon Sunday
Where: Verde Valley Fairgrounds
How Much: $5 donation (covers 3 days), Under-12 Free