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Tradition steams on
Families ensure engines remain star of parade
Steam WEB 1
Joel Webb gives his family’s steam engine a test drive recently in preparation for today’s Fourth of July steam engine parade. - photo by Autumn Vetter

Behind the scenes

* Steam engine operators talk about their hobby. Watch the video.

* Parade begins at 10 a.m.

Justin Castleberry busily tightened a bolt with grease-covered hands.

He had to stand up straight, almost on tiptoes, to reach the area on his family’s giant cast iron steam engine, which dates back to the mid-1920s.

“We’re repacking the throttle and patching up some leaks before the parade,” Castleberry said.

He was one of a number of members of the Forsyth County Steam Engine Association who gathered Saturday in a shed at the Cumming Fairgrounds that houses many of the early 20th century machines.

The group was preparing the engines for today’s Thomas-Mashburn Steam Engine Parade, which will lumber through downtown Cumming along Tribble Gap and Castleberry roads beginning at 10 a.m.

For the past 55 years, the parade has been a staple in Cumming and its namesake vehicles have been a hobby for many Forsyth County families for even longer.

For the association’s members, all Forsyth County residents who own and operate about 25 engines in total, the organization is a way to honor history and family tradition.

“I like everything about it,” said David Thomas, who has the names of his grandfather and father painted in bright yellow letters on the side of his steam engine.

“I like us all getting out here and helping each other. I like restoring [the engines]. I like talking with people and telling them about it, you know, the history. What they do, what they were used for.”

While the machines in north Georgia were most often used for work at sawmills and cotton gins, he noted his engine was built about 1908 for plowing in Wyoming.

“It was one of the more expensive engines of its day,” Thomas said, noting he bought it in 1992.

“It took us six years to restore it. My son was 4 and he’s 24 now.”

For the Steam Engine Association members, the machines are a perfect way to link generations, with younger family members learning how to care for them from their older relatives.

Joel, 22, and John Paul Webb, 16, have inherited the task of driving the family’s engine in the parade from their father, Richard Webb.

The brothers worked together Saturday under their father’s direction to make sure the machine — the first one that parade founder Glen Thomas, their great-great-grandfather, drove through town in 1958 — was ready.

“Everybody here, I mean, the whole [extended] family’s in on it,” said John Paul Webb. “Everybody here’s family, I reckon, so you just learn stuff from everybody.”

His brother said ensuring the century-old technology is running properly is an ongoing process.

“There’s always maintenance and upkeep,” Joel Webb said. “New bolts, new fittings. We did some welding this year. Just regular upkeep.”

That upkeep also includes regular state inspections.

“They started a couple of years ago doing pressure testing to make sure [the engines] can take the pressure and an ultrasound to see how thick the boiler is to see if there [are] any weak spots that need to be fixed,” Joel Webb said.

David Thomas added that despite their age, the machines remain impressive.  

“It’s amazing how much power and torque they generate,” he said. “I’m an engineer with Lockheed-Martin and the guys I bring up here to see them just can’t believe them.

“They marvel at the technology that they had at the turn of the century.”

Joel Webb added that maintaining the engines isn’t always pleasant, but it’s something he wouldn’t want to give up.

“It’s fun, it’s work though,” he said. “When it’s 106 degrees out here and you’re out here next to a fire, it’s not ideal … but it’s fun, it’s different, it’s not the usual.”

His brother said he loves “carrying on the tradition.”

“It’s fun stuff, plus not many people really know how to run one of these, so it’s kind of cool to say you can,” he said.

“It never gets old. I could do this for the rest of my life and it would still put a smile on my face.”