Steam Machines

American Artisans, Americana, Festivals, Odd Jobs, On the Road, People, This Week in History, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on June 9, 2011
A large-wheeled stream tractor rolls across the exposition site in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

Standing on the platform of her 1917 Port Huron steam engine, Beth Vanarsdall steers the chugging, smoke-belching machine across the Fulton County Fairgrounds at the National Threshers Association Reunion in Wauseon, Ohio (pop. 7,332).

“These big clunky things are so powerful,” says Vanarsdall, 47, with unabashed pride about the restored 14-ton workhorse, a predecessor to the modern tractor. “Our forefathers used these machines,” she marvels.

The steam engine is especially dear to Vanarsdall, of Ottawa Lake, Mich., and other association members because it once belonged to LeRoy Blaker, who founded the National Threshers Association Reunion six decades ago.

In 1944, Blaker invited his neighbors to his farm in Alvordton, Ohio, to watch the threshing of grain the old-fashioned way, using steam-powered machinery. Women dressed in their Sunday best with hats and gloves. Folks visited and picnicked and had such a grand time that Blaker decided to make the gathering an annual event.

Today, more than 10,000 people gather each June during the four-day National Threshers Association Reunion—the nation’s oldest threshing bee—for fun and fellowship and to see antique farm equipment pull plows and power threshing machines, straw balers and sawmills. Engineers stoke the fireboxes on their steam engines with wood or coal to heat water in the boilers and produce steam for pushing pistons and powering the machines.

Farming family reunion
Plumes of smoke billow throughout the fairgrounds and nearby fields as steam traction engines demonstrate farming as it was practiced from the 1850s to the 1920s. Daily, the “parade of power” lumbers past a grandstand of admirers. Now and then, a steam whistle—music to this crowd—punctuates the air.

“This reunion has been a huge legacy for my family and is truly a family reunion,” says Vanarsdall, association treasurer. Her father, Marvin Brodbeck, was a longtime association president and bought the founder’s steam engine in 1975 from Blaker’s estate auction.

“It was the best thing Dad ever bought,” Vanarsdall says. “That first year we four kids and mom and dad were gone 30 days to shows.” Today, she hauls the iron treasure, which has been restored by fellow steam enthusiasts, association president David Schramm, 64, of Luckey, Ohio, and Frank Johnson, 60, of Perrysburg, Ohio.

Schramm and Johnson have been firing up steam engines since they were kids growing up on neighboring farms in Perrsyburg. Their reward for doing farm chores was a chance to operate the steam engines owned by Johnson’s grandfather, John Limmer.

Many of the antique farm machines are steeped in family history and poignant memories, especially the 1914 Russell 30-horsepower steam engine owned by Frank’s son, Zach Johnson, 27.

Zach’s great-grandfather Limmer tried to buy the Russell in the 1950s to use at his sawmill, but during the two weeks it took to round up the money, the machine was sold.

“This engine is the one I’ve always wanted,” says Zach, who vowed some day to find and buy his great-grand-father’s dream machine. Working from a photograph, he spent years chasing leads, which took him in 2005 to a scrap yard in Argos, Ind. (pop. 1,691). From the top of a wooded ravine, Zach spotted the steam engine entangled in trees. He scrambled down to take a closer look and found the serial number matched the one on the machine that his great-grandfather longed to own.

“It sat in the woods for almost 70 years,” Frank says. “We had to cut trees down to get it out.” The Johnsons and Schramm disassembled and remachined the parts and built a new boiler.

Sharing stories about their treasures is much of the fun for reunion-goers. Bob Honsberger, 68, of Lime City, Ohio, was bequeathed his 1860s Westinghouse threshing machine by friend Bob Haas, who found it in the 1950s when he took cover in a stranger’s barn during a snowstorm while deer hunting.

“He crawled into the barn and there she sat,” says Honsberger, admiring the thresher at work, powered by a Minneapolis-Moline steam engine. His son, Russ Honsberger, 40, and other threshermen stand atop a hay wagon tossing pitchforks full of wheat onto the clattering conveyor of the machine, which separates the usable grain from the chaff.

Picking up steam
The National Theshers Association Reunion is one of more than a thousand threshing bees in the United States that honor the nation’s farming heritage. The events, which often include kiddie tractor pulls and antique car shows, are held year-round and are more popular than ever, says Robert Rhode, author of The Steam Tractor Encyclopedia: Glory Days of the Invention that Changed Farming Forever.

“There’s an interest today on rural values,” says Rhode, 55, of Springboro, Ohio (pop. 17,409). “People like to get out and see this vintage iron and see what this country was about. They love identifying with the land in these fragmented times.”

Despite the harsh sunup-to-sundown work during the steam-powered threshing era, people felt connected to the land and to their neighbors working alongside them, Rhode says. Thirty to 40 families often shared a steam engine, which traveled from farm to farm.

“There were lavish meals with ice cream and doughnuts,” Rhode says. “Threshing came to be called ‘Christmas in July.’”

Attendance increases every year at the Eastern Shore Threshermen and Collectors Association show in Federalsburg, Md. (pop. 2,739), says Brenda Stant, 52. Her late father, Jim Layton, started the show in 1961 on the family farm where it’s held each August and where Stant publishes Engines and Engineers magazine for fans of steam engines and antique tractors.

“A lot of people call this a hobby because you don’t make any money at it,” Stant says. “It’s more serious. It’s a mission to preserve the machines so people can learn. You can go to a museum and everything is just cold and sitting there. You go to a show, and the steam engines are alive and working. It’s living history.”

Stant’s daughter, Susan, 19, is majoring in mechanical engineering and plans to continue the family’s mission and inventory of 10 steam engines.

Perhaps the mecca of threshing bees is the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, scheduled the week of Labor Day on a sprawling 180-acre exposition site in Mount Pleasant, Iowa (pop. 8,668). The five-day event is the largest show of its kind in the nation, featuring nearly 100 steam engines and more than 600 antique tractors. On site is a permanent Heritage Museum with full-size and half-scale model steam engines.

“We give people a good glimpse into what their farming heritage was,” says director Lennis Moore, 60. A staff of six people and 500 volunteers keep the show rolling.

Wayne Kennedy, of Danville, Iowa (pop. 934), hasn’t missed a show since the reunion began in 1950, the same year he was born. The retired tool and dye maker owns a barn full of restored steam engines, including a rare 1902 New Giant, which he operated last year.

“You can’t turn back the pages of time,” Kennedy says, “but events like the old threshers’ reunions, that’s getting pretty close.”