Full Steam Ahead

South Dakota show features pioneer power


Dick and Lee Burd’s 120 hp Avery steam tractor had no trouble busting sod at the Menno Pioneer Power Show with David Mensch’s 8-bottom John Deere plow.

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"It all started when my dad (David Mensch) brought a 65 hp Case steam tractor home for my mom's birthday," Dawn Walz explains, recalling how the Menno (S.D.) Pioneer Power Show really got its start. Although the Mensch family used that tractor to thresh oats the first year they had it, it wasn't until David and Bubbles Mensch took it to Menno on the following Fourth of July that the show's wheels began to turn.

"I hooked the Case to the threshing machine and drove about 13 miles to town for the parade," David says. "Afterwards, I stopped in the city park where several others joined me and we had a little show." For the next few years, the steadily growing power show became the highlight of the Fourth of July in Menno. When it began to overshadow other Independence Day activities in the small South Dakota town, it was moved to September. Within just a few more years, the annual event outgrew Menno's city park.

"We had been filling up the park and spilling into the streets, which caused traffic problems and other safety concerns," David says. So the group organized as the Menno Pioneer Heritage Association (MPHA), and bought their own land on the north edge of town. The location, aptly named Pioneer Acres, is now permanent home to several historic buildings, steam engines, a sawmill and many other pieces of machinery, in addition to the show.

The 18th annual show, held Sept. 25-26, 2004 drew thousands of visitors, several hundred exhibitors, and offered displays, activities and demonstrations to pique everyone's interests. Minneapolis-Moline equipment, Gade Bros. engines and Chevrolet vehicles were featured. Toys, models and memorabilia were also in good supply. Spectators were treated to many exciting demonstrations, including steam plowing, tractor pulling, wheat milling and cake baking - the old-fashioned way. "We are proud of the show, because it offers so much variety," says Willard Zeeb, Menno resident and long-time show supporter. "Be sure to get a piece of chocolate cake at the summer kitchen."

History comes alive

"I think of myself as a historian, not a collector," David says, and the MPHA's bylaws continue to reflect his founding commitment to preserve and to educate. The group accomplishes that and more through a rich variety of living history demonstrations at the show. "It's one thing to look at things, and it's another to see how they were used," Dave adds.

Each year, the women of the MPHA create a living display relating to some aspect of early American home life. For example, in 2003, the Women's Building at Pioneer Acres bustled with demonstrations of old ways of washing clothes and included a soap-making demonstration. For 2004, the ladies created a summer kitchen that featured cooking techniques and tools of yesteryear. Marilee Hauck, Rita Hoff, Morna Anderson and Donna Zeeb outdid themselves with demonstrations of vintage egg-handling devices and displays of vintage gadgets, but the highlight of their exhibit was definitely the scratch-made chocolate cake baked to perfection in a Kerogas brand oven atop a three-burner kerosene stove made by Kenmore. Yum! Whole wheat bread was another treat that the women coaxed from their kerosene cooker. Now, just where does that flour come from?

The Pioneer Power show has had a flour-milling exhibit for many years; however, for 2004 the ancient stone-mill was moved indoors. "In the past we ground wheat outdoors," Gerold Mettler, MPHA chairman says with a chuckle. "Rain and flour milling don't mix very well though." MPHA members felt that the new structure was "kneaded" to help avoid a doughy mess in the future. The new Mill House, built by volunteers with salvaged lumber, was designed to look like an old storefront. The design also includes a small access door specifically for flat belt access, so the mill can be run by an engine or tractor from outside.

Up the hill from the flour grinder, volunteers milled wood for the first time inside the recently completed Sawmill House. This building, now home to the MPHA's Enterprise sawmill and edger, has space for a shingle mill, planer and even more wood processing tools, which they plan to add in the near future. "We try to add something each year, to give people a reason to come back," Gerold says.

Hundreds of enthusiasts streamed past the MPHA's three permanently-installed steam engines. David Mensch donated the largest of the engines, a 300 hp model built in 1908 by the Murray Iron Works of Burlington, Iowa. The beast features a 12,000-pound flywheel and a Corliss-designed valve mechanism. "The Murray came out of a light plant at Walnut, Iowa," Dave says. The 36,000-pound giant dwarfs the organization's two smaller engines - a Skinner Uniflow with Baker valve gear, and an Erie Iron Works low-pressure engine. The MPHA recently installed a soy-diesel-fired Kewanee Scottie Junior 59 hp boiler to power all three engines. Engineer Rick Barber kept the steamers running and cheerfully answered thousands of questions. "I have been interested in steam engines ever since I was a kid," the Luverne, Minn., man says. "I am thrilled to be able to operate these three."

David Mensch's 65 hp Case steam tractor was noticeably absent from the show last September. "We found the boiler to be marginal during its inspection, so we tore the engine down to replace the boiler," Dave explains. "It'll be a couple of years before we get it all cleaned up and back together." Dave's Case and 8-bottom John Deere sod-busting plow have been a big hit at past shows. Steam-plowing enthusiasts were not disappointed though.

Dick and Lee Burd, generous MPHA supporters from Canton, offered their 1912 120 hp Avery to stand in for the temporarily infirm Case. The huge Avery, once owned by the Ringling Brothers Circus, was designed to pull up to 14 14-inch plow bottoms through virgin prairie sod. Coupled to Dave's 8-bottom plow, the Avery had power to spare as it huffed back and forth across the bright green field, turning it black.

The Menno Pioneer Power show isn't only about living history though. The ever-popular event continues to attract quality exhibitors whose creative displays make for some interesting investigation.

Exquisite exhibits

Although they are quite rare, at least nine Gade Bros. stationary engines were on display at the show, and most of them were operational. Gade engines, built in Iowa in the early 1900s, were unusual at the time because of a unique air-cooling system that pumps outside air through the cylinder between power strokes. With the exhaust exiting at the base of the cylinder, Gades are often mistaken for early 2-cycle models. The Gade engine's innovative 4-stroke design never really caught on, but it kept them plenty cool.

Among the Gades in attendance, John Rigter's beautifully restored 2 1/2 hp model was a real standout. When John obtained the engine, it needed some serious work. "I gave it new bearings, rod bushings and pins and new piston rings," John says. When describing the cooling system, the Williams, Iowa, resident notes that when the engine isn't operating under a load, you can rest your hand on the fins without getting burned.

Dave and Kristi Martensen enjoy collecting burr mills, small shellers and stationary engines, and they combine them all into a fine working exhibit. For the Pioneer Power Show, the Leigh, Neb., couple belted their 1 1/2 hp Gade to a Stover burr mill for a flour-grinding demonstration. "We have about 16 restored engines, and a similar number of mills," Dave says. "We thought it would be neat to power one of them with our Gade since it is the featured engine."

Don Buehner of Canistota collects all kinds of things, but he selected an interesting group of hand tools and barn pulleys to exhibit at Menno. "I've been collecting for over 20 years and found a lot of this stuff in boxes that I got at sales," Don explains as he hands down one of his many riveters for closer inspection. Don's collection of beautifully refinished pulleys, shiny bit braces and freshly lacquered riveters provide clear insight into how things were done in the past.

Kermit and Marion Ehrenberg cleverly arranged scores of colorful drill and seed-box endplates in a display trailer that offered show-goers a close-up look. Some of the brightly painted iron pieces bore familiar names like Superior, Cockshutt, Minneapolis-Moline and John Deere, while others had the mark of lesser-known companies such as Bickford and Huffman, L.R. Knapp and Buckeye. A little investigation reveals that while Kermit enjoys the cast-iron caboodle, it's really Marion's interest. "The seed box stuff is really my wife's province," Kermit explains with a smile. "I enjoy building and showing scale models."

Kermit's models include quarter-scale 1937 International Harvester F-20, 1938 John Deere G and 1934 Allis-Chalmers tractors, along with a number of accessory items such as tools, anvils and hammers. Although the models are small, they are no lightweights. The F-20 tips the scales at more than 100 pounds, while the John Deere and Allis-Chalmers weigh in at about 60 and 45 respective pounds. "I got smarter about working the metal as I got more experienced," Kermit says of the weight variations. Kermit has also made tiny wrench sets, hammers and brand-marked anvils to accompany each of the tractors.

Speaking of models, Willard Zeeb again had part of his fine collection of patent models, display models and salesman's samples on display at Pioneer Acres. Willard's collection was featured in the July 2004 issue of Farm Collector, and he is happy to report that he has now obtained a salesman's sample baler. Willard enhances his display with strategically located mirrors for underside viewing and hidden motors that bring the models to life.

Back to the future

This year's Menno Pioneer Power Show will be held Sept. 24-25 at Pioneer Acres, just north of downtown Menno, S.D. The show will feature Allis-Chalmers tractors, Maytag engines and Buick cars and trucks. The MPHA intends to have several new exhibits at Pioneer Acres for 2005, and they hope to complete a reconstruction of the old Hutchinson County Jail building to enclose the cellblock, which has already been moved to the site.

For more information on the Menno Pioneer Power Show, or to learn how to join the Menno Pioneer Heritage Association, call Gerold Mettler at (605) 387-2323; or write MPHA, P.O. Box 452, Menno, SD 57045; or visit their website at www.pioneeracres.com 

- Oscar "Hank" Will III is an old-iron collector and freelance writer who retired from farming in 1999 and from academia in 1996. He splits his time between his home in Gettysburg, Penn., and his farm in East Andover, N.H. Write him at 243 W. Broadway, Gettysburg, PA 17325; or call (717) 337-6068; or e-mail: willo@gettysburg.edu