Florida Flywheelers Village in South Polk County
Wherever you roam in Florida, nearly every building you see is stamped with a date of issue. A glance at St. Augustine’s Castillo de San Marcos can tell you volumes about its 16th century Spanish construction. Along Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive, stylish Art Deco hotels broadcast their 1930s heritage like a Technicolor billboard.
But things get a little trickier at the Florida Flywheeler's Village, located about 14 miles west of Frostproof in south Polk County. Stroll down the grassy lanes of what appears to be an 1890s pioneer village and you’ll pass weather-worn cabins, barns, a general store, schoolhouse, print shop, sawmill, fix-it shop, blacksmith, and even a country church.
In a twist worthy of the Twilight Zone, none of these historic structures is historic at all. Everything — the cabins, store, and even the church — were created from scratch just over a decade ago.
Why? Because the Florida Flywheelers Antique Engine Club wanted it that way. Its 1,300 members have a passion for that long-gone era when the world began evolving from man-powered and horse-drawn farming equipment to the advent of engines powered by steam, gas, or diesel. They marvel at those old machines that helped ease the backbreaking tasks of farmers and workers. They point out that the first passenger vehicles expanded the range of travelers and, in turn, helped expand America. They admire the innovation and ingenuity that created heavy machinery that turned days of labor into days of leisure.
So when you find yourself with some leisure time, drive your non-steam powered vehicle to a place where there’s magic in the synchronization of gears and pistons and valves and sparks.
Forward Into the Past
“It all started with about a half-dozen people in 1972,” said Chuck Gause, president of the Florida Flywheelers Antique Engine Club. “They’d have shows and meets in south and central Florida and then around 1997 they decided to purchase their own property.”
And so they did. Rather than keep their collections hidden from public view in private garages, by the following year the members got to work. They harvested the timber that came with their newly acquired 240 acres of pasture and forest and, using a steam-powered sawmill, began cutting wood and constructing what may be Florida’s newest historic district. From these rough-hewn boards they built an entire pioneer village from scratch. Now, enthusiasts had a place where they could swap stories and tinker with a variety of machines, including an antique fire truck, classic motorcycles and a steam-powered device that churns out homemade ice cream.
With the motto ‘Preserving the Past for the Future,’ members are pleased that their village has earned the attention of specialty magazines and has been featured on cable programs. But overall, the Florida Flywheelers’ approach to outreach and advertising is as old-fashioned as the machines they love. Word of mouth and flyers left at Florida rest stops are their primary marketing plan, yet it all seems suitable for a place that’s only open to visitors roughly a half-dozen times a year.
A Christmas Gift
Beyond the tractor pulls that fill the club’s summer schedule, November’s Fall Fuel Up is the first event of the season, a test drive so to speak for members returning to Florida for the winter.
Next comes December’s Christmas in the Village, when thousands of visitors will step back in time to be part of a Florida Cracker Christmas. As guests drop by shops and storefronts to sample hot cider, hot chocolate, and Christmas cookies, each is contributing toward an even more worthy cause.
“Christmas in the Village is purely a 100 percent fundraiser,” said caretaker Carl Switzer. “Guests bring in toys or canned goods or donate cash and all of the proceeds go to kids, the homeless, and local food banks in Fort Meade, Frostproof, Lake Wales, and Avon Park. We don’t keep a penny.”
Fired Up, Ready To Go
In January 2014, the Antique Engine & Tractor Swap Meeting will find vendors, club members, and dealers opening their doors and setting up shop to display, swap, buy, and sell everything from sprockets to tractors. In February, two events are on the calendar: The 9th Annual Tractor Drive Through the Groves and the 23rd Annual Antique Engine & Tractor Show; an event highlighted by a parade of antique cars and tractors.
Why do volunteers devote so much time to an era that peaked nearly a century ago? It’s likely that time has only increased their admiration for those anonymous machinists who, like the Flywheelers themselves, managed to create something from virtually nothing.
“Today you just plug things into a computer and build something,” said Gause. “A century ago they had to think about the entire process of creating each part and piece of a machine, and that’s what’s always fascinated me.”
Which means Gause is astounded when members fire up the Snow Engine. Despite the name, this machine that hails from New York State was actually designed in the early 1900s for the sole purpose of pumping natural gas. But somewhere along the way, a few Flywheelers decided it needed to spend its retirement in Florida and so they moved it to the village — no small task considering that this one machine is roughly 50 feet long, has a 12-ton flywheel a dozen feet high, and boasts parts that weigh as much as 30,000 pounds each.
And when this engine wheezes, coughs, sputters, and whooshes into action, it impresses guests with its own distinct sound, character, and personality.
“And this is just one engine,” Gause said. “We run it twice a day during the shows, and it’s a pretty involved process. You don’t just turn a key. You have to set this, set that, adjust the oilers… It usually takes 30 minutes just to get it started.
“Anyone who is into mechanical things,” said Gause, “anyone who wants to see how things worked years ago and marvel at the ingenuity they had to build something like this — should come to the Florida Flywheelers Village.”
If you go…
Florida Flywheelers Village
7000 Avon Park Cut Off Road
Fort Meade, 33841
Annual Fall Fuel Up
Christmas in the Village
Annual Antique Engine and Tractor Swap Meet
9th Annual Tractor Drive Through the Groves
Annual Antique Engine and Tractor Show
12 and under, free
To join the Florida Flywheelers ($25 annually), contact Karen Dodd