Flywheeler Gene DeCamp

Photo by Helga Freund

DeCAMP stands beside a 10 HP Foos engine dating back to 1916. It has a good sized flywheel and glass drip lubricators to regulate the flow of oil.

He still has the largest collection in the Verde Valley and his hobby takes up the entire ground floor of his hillside home, even spilling out into the yard, where it takes on the aspect of oversize garden sculpture, strategically placed among the cacti in the desert landscaping.

He calls the flywheel the farmer’s helper; it did everything that electricity runs today, from pumping irrigation water to running farm engines and conveyor belts to lighting the house. A smaller model on wheels was favored by the women in the household for their chores. They used it to power sewing machines, cream separators and corn huskers and to pump water from the well.

Gene can’t remember a time when he wasn’t fascinated by flywheels. As a boy growing up in Jamaica, Long Island, both he and his brother used to tinker with them. He bought his first one-lunger back in 1943, a 5 HP Simplicity for the grand sum of $8, and set about to restore it to working order. It’s been “hit and misses” for him ever since.

Gene met his wife, Betty, a nurse, shortly after World War II, back in northern New Jersey. Tiring of the hustle and bustle and the weather in the metropolitan New York area, they moved to Flagstaff in the early 1960s. There, Gene was offered a faculty position in the Metals Department of what was then Northern Arizona State College, and Betty worked at the Flagstaff Hospital. In 1967 on a whim, they bought a 10-acre cattle ranch in Cornville. Finding ranching more of a challenge than they had bargained for, and, with Gene continuing to commute to his teaching post in Flagstaff, after four years they sold the ranch and returned to Flagstaff.

When Gene retired after 21 years at NAU, the DeCamps purchased a lot in Cottonwood in 1984. Designing and building their own house, they moved in a year later and have been residing in Cottonwood ever since.

Gene scours the country for flywheels and parts, sometimes finding them in old barns, at auctions and flywheeler shows. He puts ads around the country for specific parts, and when they can’t be found, or are in such poor condition that they’re no longer usable, designs his own and sends them to a foundry in Minnesota for casting.

Asking Gene about his favorite engine is like asking a parent about a favorite child. But when pressed, he named a 1910, 10 HP Columbus with a unique design – its cam shaft mechanism stops when it’s not firing, which means fewer moving parts and less engine wear. That model was used most often to hoist weights and power blowers in mining operations.

And, wanting something different that nobody else had, he designed and built a hot air engine, with the heat supplied by propane. Completed three years ago, it took two years to build.

Spending so much time with his flywheels doesn’t mean that Gene is anti-social. Hardly a day passes without a fellow flywheeler dropping in to compare notes. It’s a hobby that brings fellowship, fun and travel, as well as fulfilling the urge to tinker, restore and create.

Both Gene and Betty (she has shown her support by making custom- designed gortex covers for Gene’s one-lungers) are longtime members of the Arizona Fly Wheelers, which has about 200 members. Verde Valley membership alone numbers approximately 35, with about 100 flywheels among them. Gene and his wife love to travel to the many shows held both in-state and around the country, hauling a few of the flywheels around on a trailer. They usually do eight to ten shows a year, having recently returned from Shoshone, Wyoming. Earlier in the year they traveled to Phoenix, Tucson and Colorado and they’ll soon be heading off again to four different engine shows in the Midwest.

There’s no doubt about the attraction of the engine’s distinctive tuk-a-ta-tuk, watching all the moving parts mesh together, seeing the wheels painted in bright primary colors or gleaming black and the shiny brass of fittings. For those of us who just want to throw a switch or push a button, the flywheel is, thankfully, a thing of the past. But for those who love to tinker, who get a kick out of seeing what makes things tick (or tuk-a-ta), the flywheel holds a particular romance, a reminder of a time when life was a little less hurried, but there were still machines to help with the heavy work, and an admiration for man’s ingenuity in designing and building them.

For those who may be interested in learning more about flywheels, or may have the urge to join this dedicated group of enthusiasts, the Arizona Flywheelers meet the first Wednesday of the month for breakfast at Denny’s in Cottonwood, 7 a.m.


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