Show Volunteers at Midwest Old Threshers

For the thousands who attend antique farm equipment shows each summer, it's all about fun. But for a show volunteer, it's a good deal closer to work.

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Horses and a vintage steamer are used alternately to power the sorghum press. The juice extracted from sweet sorghum cane is cooked down to a dark, thick syrup by the Heaton family.

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For the thousands who attend antique farm equipment shows each summer, it's all about fun. But for a show volunteer, it's a good deal closer to work.

The Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, is a classic example. A small army of volunteers take tickets, man equipment, operate transportation systems, direct traffic, answer questions, sell buttons and manage exhibits. Working in weather that can range from typhoon to inferno, volunteers put in long hours to make the show a success. For the workers, it's no small irony that the show ends on Labor Day. But there's also no mistaking that – for the dedicated volunteer – working at a show is a labor of love.

Living a legacy

Alice Rohrssen is a woman of diverse interests: woodworking, silversmithing, pottery – and antique stationary steam engines. At the 2005 Old Threshers Reunion, the Marengo, Iowa, woman worked a regular shift as an operator at the steam powerhouse. Keeping a watchful eye on a 1908 Vilter originally used to pump ammonia, she traced the route that brought her to Mt. Pleasant.

"My grandmother was the first woman to study mechanical engineering at Iowa State," she notes with pride. "My grandfather also studied engineering there, and my dad was involved in historic preservation. When I come here, I get to play with the engines, but I don't have to buy one and store it. At the same time, I feel like I'm helping keep a piece of Americana alive."

As a steam operator, Alice knows she' a bit unique at Mt. Pleasant ("There are other women volunteers, but they don't tend to work on machinery"), but she doesn't give it much thought. Mostly, she's busy answering visitors' questions and manning the engine. She participates in workdays before the reunion, welcomes opportunities to tear into a piece of equipment and relishes the relationships she's made. "I wouldn't miss this for the world," she says. "It's a great bunch of people here, and I get to play with big boy toys and get out of the house. It's just fun."

Running the quarry shovel

"What is today? Saturday?"

Wearing the momentary look of confusion that settles on every volunteer at some point during a show, Ted Hunter, Rio, Ill., struggles briefly for his bearings as he recounts recent events. As chief nurse, cook and bottle washer for a 1937 quarry shovel, Ted is the first to admit that his volunteer role can become a bit much. But he's equally quick to share tales of the fun he's had on the job.

"We run it six to eight hours a day during the reunion," he says, "and about Sunday afternoon, it can get kind of boring. But I enjoy watching people watch it, and the people really get a kick out of it. So many of them will say 'I used to run one of these.'"

The shovel – a Model 6 Northwest – was shipped from the factory in Green Bay, Wis., to Wyoming. During World War II, it was commandeered for use by the federal government. After the war, the shovel was returned to the factory, where it was rebuilt and then returned to its owner. It finished its career in Iowa, working in a coal mine in the winter, and in road construction in the summer.

After the rig was donated to the Old Threshers, a 25-year retirement followed. Several years ago, Ted got involved in restoration efforts. "When we started working on it," he recalls, "all the levers and linkages were locked up. It was a mess; all rusty. We painted the old girl, but basically, she's plum worn out. But it runs pretty easy now, and it's easy to operate."

Ted's worked on heavy equipment for years. "I've always been interested in this stuff," he says. "All my life, whenever I went by something digging, I had to stop and watch." Late each summer, he cleans, maintains and readies the shovel for another show. "It's work, doing this," he says, "but it's fun work. It's the kind of work you like to do."

Sweet memories

The Heaton family's involvement in the Old Threshers Reunion goes back 31 years. Each year, the Farmington, Iowa, clan cooks sorghum syrup at the show, starting with homegrown sweet sorghum cane. The 10- to 12-foot cane is hand-cut and stripped ("We tend to lose friends in this deal," says Bob Heaton) and then pressed, using vintage equipment powered by horses and steam engines.

"Our dad started cooking here 30 years ago," says Nancy Heaton, Bob's sister, "and we helped him every year. He died in 1993, and we've been doing it ever since." They are enthusiastic ambassadors of sorghum syrup. "You can bake with it, and cook with it," Nancy says. "We can't have baked beans without it." Instead of buying vitamins, she urges, "take a teaspoon of sorghum."

As show demonstrations go, this one is hot ... literally. Each batch of juice is cooked outside over a wood fire in a bathtub-size stove for six hours. Late August temperatures in Iowa routinely near the century mark: Cook syrup over a wood fire all day for five days, and the word "sweltering" takes on profound meaning. From planting to harvest to pressing to cooking, making sorghum syrup is just plain work. "It's kind of a lost art," Nancy admits. "Most people don't want to do it; it's pretty labor intensive."

"It gets tiresome after Thursday and Friday, but we keep going because of Dad," Bob admits. "We keep saying we're going to give it up," Nancy says with a smile, "but every year we're back again." What brings them back? The powerful draw of a unique place, a unique experience. "It's like a family reunion," Nancy says. "You see friends that you only see once a year, and you get to meet people from all over."

Riding the rails

Bob Gael, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is all business as he explains the nuts and bolts of the Midwest Electric Railway. A 30-year volunteer, he's been involved in virtually every aspect of the railway, which is operated not as a novelty but as a business. "We actually offer a transit system," he says. "It's a real accurate representation of a small country streetcar system."

The system's six cars run a 1.1-mile line, and nearly half of all riders (more than 35,000 during a typical five-day show) are commuters traveling from an adjacent 60-acre campground to the show, and back (the railway operates from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.). A highly professional and trained force of 100 volunteers ensures that it's a safe and pleasurable experience.

"We put a real focus on safety," Bob says. "There's zero tolerance for horseplay. Our volunteers have to shift gears from home and work: This is serious business. People's lives are at stake." Accordingly, volunteers wear uniforms, shelve their cell phones and work tightly scheduled 2- to 4-hour shifts. As part of what might be termed the railway's "senior management," Bob is basically "on call" throughout the five-day show. He wouldn't have it any other way.

A lifelong electric railroad enthusiast, Bob is living his dream at Mt. Pleasant. "My fondest dream was always to run a streetcar," he says. "Hobbies like collecting china, you can do that in your house. But when your hobby is running a streetcar, there's not many places you can do that."

In exchange for countless hours of volunteer work, Bob's had the chance to be a conductor, motorman, train master and supervisor of operations. The hours, particularly in the railway's early days, were often long. But he has no complaints. "It's been real rewarding," Bob notes. "Kids especially are fascinated by the railway, and most of them will never get a chance to see anything like it again. I don't think there's a person on it that doesn't feel it's a rewarding experience. When it's not fun anymore, I'll quit. So far, it's always been fun."  FC 

For more information: Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa; (319) 385-8937; www.oldthreshers.com