Man's tractor a driving force

Man's tractor a driving force

HOOPESTON — Stephen and Holly Eyrich are the only residents in Hoopeston with a steam engine parked in the driveway.

Locals know why: It's National Sweetcorn Festival week, and that means Stephen Eyrich will be firing up the 1915 Frick Steam Traction Engine about 8 a.m. Saturday morning for the drive across town to McFerren Park.

Steam from the century-old machine will keep water hot for cooking 26 tons of sweet corn over three days of the festival.

Three whistles, each with a different tone, sound off along the 2-mile journey that coincides with the festival parade.

"Everybody knows the whistle. Even people who come to town for the Sweetcorn Festival," said P.J. Clingenpeel, chairman of the committee in charge of the sweet corn at the festival, an event organized by the Hoopeston Jaycees. "When you hear the whistle, you can get corn."

First, Eyrich's got to get the 16-horsepower, 17,000-pound beast across town, and while the fire in its belly could blister you, its pace won't — about 2-1/4 miles per hour.

"With the throttle wide open," added Eyrich, who makes the 45-minute trip a family affair by hitching to the engine a wagon filled with Eyrichs in lawn chairs with a cooler in the middle.

In the more than 70 years of the festival, Eyrich's engine is only the third steam machine used for cooking the sweet corn.

Although he's driven his engine to the event nearly every year since he bought it in 2001, last year was its first cooking run. He credits his son, Jeremiah Eyrich, with getting him interested in steam engines and with having the talent to maintain it.

"I'm the owner, he's the chief engineer," Stephen Eyrich said.

Clingenpeel said the festival is a family affair for many in town. Last year, he and his two sons and his father all worked the corn-on-the-cob area, as it's known. Eyrich said about 50 volunteers will work that site over the course of the festival, and it takes roughly 15 volunteers at a time to run the operation.

The four-day festival, which runs through Labor Day, features the National Sweetheart Pageant, a carnival, a demolition derby, a car show, musical entertainment and more, but it all started with the corn.

Hoopeston businessmen organized the first festival in 1938 to promote business and celebrate the yearly harvest of sweet corn, which was grown in abundance locally back then. The town was home to major canning operations, including Stokleys, which donated all the local sweet corn for the festival until the company's closing. Since then, the Jaycees buy the corn wholesale.

Clingenpeel said this year's semitrailer-load of 1,008 crates of corn on the cob comes from a farm near Vincennes, Ind. It arrived Wednesday and will be refrigerated until Saturday. Clingenpeel said they divide it into three batches, and cook one batch each day until it's all gone.

"We charge at the gate to get in, but you get all the free, hot, buttered corn you want," he said.

About three hours before the first serving at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, a fire is built in the steam engine, which takes about an hour to get hot enough to produce steam for cooking. They used to burn chunk coal, but it's difficult to find now, Eyrich said, so they've switched to pieces of wood pallets.

While the engine's heating, the ears are transferred from their crates to a conveyor — run by a 1928 antique gasoline engine — that moves them onto a wagon where volunteers hand feed them into a double husker that was built at the former FMC plant in Hoopeston around 1942.

It shucks about 142 ears a minute, Eyrich said.

The shucks fall onto another conveyor that carries them to a dump truck for disposal, and the ears fall into a wash tank, where volunteers make sure they're clean before transferring them to metal tanks with water heated by the 350-degree steam piped in from the engine.

Eyrich said the water's about 180 degrees and cooks the ears in about three to four minutes.

Volunteers transfer the cooked ears to the salt- and-butter table, where "a generous amount" is applied, according to the Eyrichs, and the ears are then handed out to festival-goers.

"Then it's just hours of deliciousness," Clingenpeel said.

If you go

What: 71st National Sweetcorn Festival.

When: 5 p.m. today through 9 p.m. Monday.

Where: McFerren Park in Hoopeston.

Who: Organized by the Hoopeston Jaycees.

Detailed schedule: hoopestonjaycees.org.

Highlights

Friday: Gates to midway open at 5 p.m. Truck and tractor pull at 6 p.m.

Saturday: Gates open at 9 a.m. Parade downtown at 10:30 a.m. Car show at 9 a.m. Midway opens at noon. Free corn 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.; demolition derby at 6 p.m.

Sunday: Gates open at 9 a.m. Midway opens at noon. Free corn noon to 4 p.m. National Sweetheart Pageant Finals at 6:30 p.m.

Monday: Gates open at 9 a.m. Midway opens at noon. Free corn noon to 4 p.m.

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