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Discover Mid-America —August 2004

Dozens of shows highlight the early days of farming. By Ken Weyand.
D.J. Grath and Andy Noll operate a two-hole cornsheller powered by three mules.

To view a calendar of upcoming threshing shows, click here.

Late summer in Mid-America means harvest time.

Early in the 1900s — with agriculture just entering the machine age — crews worked the fields, cutting wheat, oats, barley and other grains. Horse teams raked, then pulled wagonloads of the golden harvest to waiting threshing crews, where large “separators,” belt-driven from steam engines, separated the grain from the straw.

It was hot, sweaty work. Always in the sun, the workers struggled to keep ahead of the thunderheads that threatened to flatten the fields with hard rain, turning dusty roads to mud and a good crop year to failure.

Threshing was an exciting time when the humdrum routine of farm life exploded in a frenzy of noisy activity. Monster engines and machinery huffed and roared. Threshing crews came to the house at high noon, washed sweat and grain dust from sunburned arms and faces, and settled in at tables heavy with bowls, plates and platters of home cooking. Hungry workers consumed fried chicken, roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, fresh-picked green beans and tomatoes, stacks of fresh-baked bread and home-churned butter, gallons of iced tea, then fresh-baked pie for dessert. Women from neighboring farms would assist. Youngsters would be pressed into service as water carriers, with buckets for the steam engines and gallon jugs with corncob stoppers for the thirsty threshers.

The occasion would merit an item in the weekly newspaper: “The John Miller family hosted a threshing crew on Thursday.” The next day the crew would move on and the Miller farm would return to a more normal routine.

A generation later the steam engines gave way to tractors with nameplates that included John Deere, Farmall, Allis-Chalmers, Massey-Harris, Case and others. I was at least a generation removed from steam-powered threshing but learned a lot about tractors at an early age on the farm. Youngsters were supposed to do what they could, and a 10-year-old boy could always drive a tractor with little or no prompting, hauling grain to the threshers. I remember hauling silage to a silo crew and driving a neighbor’s old John Deere tractor with a hand clutch.

For a few years, the old separators chugged along, soon replaced by tractor-pulled “combines” that cut and separated the grain in one operation, and finally with self-propelled models. The old steam engines and separators were relegated to the back of barns and along fencerows, where most of them rusted into the ground.

VAC case scale model
During the 41st annual Platte County Steam and Gas Engine Show, two-year-old Montana Leonard sits on a VAC Case scale model. (photo by Darla Hunt.)

One family's restoration project

In 1970, Wilbur Fleming from Parkville, MO, bought a 65-hp Case traction engine in Omega, KS. The Case, built in 1923, had been used to power a sawmill. Wilbur and his son, Gary, were able to start the engine and drive it away from the sawmill under its own power.

“It was located in a kind of valley,” Gary remembered. “And it took some effort to get it out of there. Later, Dad would soak it down with kerosene and we scraped the oil, dirt and gunk off, and repainted it.”

When restoration was complete, the old Case was put on display at the annual Platte County Steam & Gas Engine Show in Tracy, MO, where it was put to work each summer demonstrating steam-powered saw milling.

Wilbur died in 1990, but Gary and his family have kept the engine in working order. “Several years ago my son and I repainted it a second time and put new rings in the engine,” Gary said.

Not many of the engine parts can be purchased over the counter. The original rings were cast iron and had to be machined.

This year, Gary Fleming will again fire up the old Case and demonstrate old-time steam-powered saw milling Aug. 13-15 at the 42nd annual show in Tracy.

Celebrating old-time threshing in Kansas

Herman “Slim” Watson and his wife, Myrta, who lived on a farm near McLouth, KS, always had a warm spot in their hearts for old steam engines and threshing machines. Nearly a half-century ago they invited collectors and enthusiasts of the old equipment to meet at their farm. On a warm summer weekend in 1957, the Steam Engine Show and Threshing Bee was born.

The event remained a summer gathering at the Watson home until 1965, when it came under the auspices of the Heart of America Steam Engine and Model Assn., and moved to its present location near highways 92 and 16. This year’s event, slated for Aug. 6-8, marks the 47th annual reunion of the Threshing Bee.

Country Meadows Antique Mall

As in previous years, a daily Parade of Power highlights the show, featuring ancient steam engines and antique tractors. Steam-power demonstrations include threshing, log sawing and straw bailing. An operating blacksmith shop offers a glimpse into the “good old days.” A flea market and craft show provide hours of rummaging and bargain shopping. Kids entertain themselves and the crowd with a pedal pull. But the biggest attraction is the large variety of antique gas engines and tractors, along with antique cars and trucks.

A few miles to the west, the Meriden Antique Engine and Threshers Association (MAETA), organized in 1977, sponsors annual shows in Meriden, KS, located just north of Topeka on Hwy. 4. The grounds feature several restored buildings, including a general store, post office, print shop, 1854 log cabin, windmill, blacksmith shop, garage, flour mill, sawmill, livery barn and church.

Three events this year include Horsepower Days in June, a Steam & Threshing Show in July and a Fall Festival Sept. 25-26.

Reunion in Mount Pleasant

Now in its 54th year, the Old Threshers Reunion in Mount Pleasant, IA, is considered a “mecca” for threshing enthusiasts in Mid-America. Every facet of threshing shows is represented — gas and steam engine exhibits, tractors, early-day farming demonstrations, old cars and trucks, antiques, crafts and more.

Two year-round museums and other events attract visitors worldwide. Collectors and enthusiasts make annual pilgrimages to the Reunion, held each year the five days before (and including) Labor Day.

Sponsored by the Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers Association (MOSTA), founded in 1950, the first Reunion was held in 1950 at the fairgrounds. A total of 15 steam engines and eight separators were exhibited, with attendance estimated at 10,000.

More than a half-century later, the Reunion has become recognized as the largest event of its kind in the country, spread out over 180 acres.

Lennis Moore, chief executive officer of Midwest Threshers, has a staff of nine plus hundreds of volunteers. The not-profit Old Threshers Foundation, founded in 1986, supports the Midwest Old Threshers and accepts tax-deductible donations.

Public Relations Director Terry McWilliams said the 2004 Reunion should be the biggest yet with new attractions. “We’re putting together an area for kids,” he said. “Performers will do marionette shows, and a rural cooperative will supply coloring materials and other items.”

Although many shows throughout the Midwest have experienced lagging attendance the past few years due to economic conditions, Internet competition and other factors, the Threshers Reunion has maintained steady growth. (This year’s Reunion is Sept. 2-6.)

“Aside from weather problems that hurt attendance occasionally, we consistently draw from 110,000 to 120,000 visitors each year,” McWilliams said. “In addition, several events take place throughout the year on the grounds, especially between Memorial Day and Labor Day.”

Still providing a display venue for restored steam and gas engines, the Reunion is also a giant antique show. Dealers from miles around bring jewelry, dishes, antique toys, advertising memorabilia and other items.

More than 100 crafters bring handmade furniture, jewelry, pottery, clothing and much more. Their work is on exhibit at many locations throughout the grounds.

Antique cars and trucks can be seen cruising the grounds and on display in the car building. The 2004 featured car is a 1909 Brush Runabout, owned by Wendell Peterson of Mount Pleasant. The 2004 featured truck is a 1936 International Dump Truck owned by John Lamke of Union, MO. In one popular demonstration, a Model T Ford car will be assembled from parts and driven away, in front of a grandstand full of cheering spectators.

1947 B John Deere
Bob Hunt and his grandson on a 1947 B John Deere he restored. (photo by Darla Hunt.)

Antique tractors make up a big part of the Reunion. As many as 475 tractors will be seen, participating in parades, tractor pulls, threshing and baling demonstrations. The 2004 featured tractor is a 1930 Oliver Hart-Parr 18-27, owned by Fred Carlson of Wheaton, IL. A “Drive-A-Tractor” attraction allows visitors to take a short drive around the barnyard on an antique John Deere B.

More than 800 antique gas engines, from collectors and restorers all over the U.S., will be viewed in the Gas Engine exhibit area. Featured this year will be Olds engines.

Demonstrations of farming practices in the early days include a horse-powered treadmill, horse-powered threshing and harnessing. In the Traction area, old steam engines perform a balancing act on a teeterboard. There is a scale model sawmill, operating shingle mill and a display of a boiler and steam cylinder. Rock crushing and corn grinding are demonstrated in the Gas Engine area. Horse farming demonstrations and a Labor Day horse pull also are featured.

Threshing meals, reminiscent of days gone by, will be served by churches and civic groups in numerous food tents. Reunion-goers also can choose from such delicacies as elk burgers, turkey drumsticks, funnel cakes, pizza, ice cream and more.

A fully restored antique carousel, driven by a century-old steam engine, is housed in a special pavilion. Carousel riders enjoy the music of the Military Band organ.

The Heritage Museum, located on the grounds, gives visitors a hands-on look at American farm life a century ago. Many traction engines are on display, including a monstrous 110-hp Case. The Family Farm House is filled with artifacts from a 1915 farm family. A nearby exhibit demonstrates the role of women on early-day farms. Another section shows an implement dealership in 1939, along with horse-drawn and early tractor implements.

A mill, once located in Fayette, IA, shows how farmers processed wagonloads of corn and wheat. Another exhibit shows how electricity changed the lives of farmers in the 1930s and ‘40s. There’s an exhibit showing how farms manage water problems. Finally, a large doll exhibit, donated by a California family and managed by the Hawkeye Doll Club, shows dolls that were cherished by farm families.

Elsewhere on the Reunion grounds, a Log Village features several buildings from the 1800s. Costumed interpreters demonstrate open fire cooking, blacksmithing, candle dipping, pioneer games and more. A “Miss Sweet 16” contest brings young ladies to the Reunion. Dressed in 1800s summer finery, they serve as guides and official hostesses.

Reunion visitors can ride historic cars on the Midwest Electric Railway. Included are several streetcars and interurban cars, a 1927 railroad car from Italy, plus a flat car from the Keokuk Dam. McWilliams said that visitors who haven’t been to the Reunion lately would find the Railway to be the biggest change on the grounds.

“The route has stops in the campground area, enabling campers and others to use the railway as a shuttle,” he said. “Riders can buy individual tickets or multiple punch-passes.”

Snipe Run Village, recreating the Old West, features a school, church, bank, blacksmith shop, post office, jail and fire station. Entertainment will be provided by the Saloon Singers.

The Power House of Stationary Steam Engines demonstrates the historic role of steam in America’s workshops. Engines in the display were used in locker plants, blacksmith shops, distilleries and hospitals.

More than 75 traction steam engines are expected at the Reunion, to be found throughout the grounds. The 2004 featured steam engine is a 1965 3-inch scale of a Model 65 Case, owned by Dan Carruthers of Lenox, IA.

The Theatre Museum of Repertoire Americana features artifacts and memorabilia from traveling troupes of the 1850s. Begun with collections from Neil and Caroline Schaffner in 1973 and enlarged with additional donations, the museum is one of the largest of its kind in the U.S. Stage props, old photos, playbills, newspaper clippings, costumes and scenery make up much of the collection. Items from Chautauquas, showboats and minstrel shows also are included.

For additional information:

The Heart of America Antique Steam Engine & Model Assn., Gary Royer, president, 913-796-6836. For show details, call Melinda Farr at 785-863-2524,

The Meriden Antique Engine and Threshers Association, Keith Jackson, president, 785-945-3504 or go to www.meridenthreshers.org.

In Mount Pleasant, IA, the Heritage Museum is open daily from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and on weekends from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Memorial Day through Labor Day. From January to Memorial Day and Labor Day to December, the hours are 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. The Theatre Museum is open daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Tuesday through Sunday, 1-4 p.m. and other times by appointment. Admission is $3 for adults. Children 14 and under are free with adults.

For more information about the Old Threshers Reunion, call 319-385-8937 or go to www.oldthreshers.org.


To view a calendar of upcoming threshing shows, click here.


Have a remembrance or comment about threshing shows or early-day farming? Send it to Publisher, Discover Mid-America, 104 E. 5th St., Suite 201, Kansas City, MO 64106 or email publisher@discoverypub.com.


Discover Mid-America founder and Senior Contributing Editor Ken Weyand files regular reports on notable Midwest destinations. He can be reached at kweyand@gbronline.com.


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