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Things to Do at Denton FarmPark

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Left: The Handy Dandy Railroad’s locomotive gets “spit and polish” treatment every day during the Denton FarmPark show. It runs over a track 1.6 miles long.

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Variety spices the mix at Denton show

The Southeast Old Threshers' Reunion, Denton, N.C., has a history unique among thresher and tractor shows in the U.S. It started as a fly-in, where proceeds from airplane rides benefited local charities. That was 35 years ago, and as with the rest of the world, a lot has changed.

Brown Loflin and Howard Latham, fly-in organizers, soon saw the need for activities to keep waiting passengers entertained. Local collectors mustered up an assortment of antique farm equipment. Before long, responding to popular demand, the organizers abandoned the fly-in in favor of vastly less sophisticated equipment. Now in its 35th year, the show has expanded to five days with activities spread over more than 100 acres. During the annual July show (held this year July 1-5), volunteers from the Southeast Antique Machinery Society operate and demonstrate equipment at the Denton FarmPark, and tens of thousands of visitors from all over the country swarm the grounds. Their challenge? To see it all!

Ride the rails

Lots of shows have "trains" … charming remnants of amusement parks, designed to delight the small fry. At Denton FarmPark, the workhorse of the Handy Dandy Railroad is the real McCoy. "This is a Porter saddle-tank engine manufactured in 1942 for Bethlehem Steel, where it was used as a switch engine," explains Engineer John Barden during a trial run one morning. After Howard Latham bought the engine in 1979, he built a tender to add an authentic touch, and added restored passenger cars and a caboose.

Originally oil-fired, the 70-ton locomotive now runs on a steady diet of coal. "This is what I call job security," says John's fireman, Tim Hill, as he pitches another shovel full into the firebox. "It's always hungry." In perpetual motion during the show, the engine requires constant attention, and careful maintenance. "When we're not running it," John says with an affectionate tone, "we're working on it."

Ramble through the enchanted forest

Travel off the beaten path at Denton, and things are not always as they seem. Take the Tucker 1-1/2 hp Type R gas engine displayed in the woods, for instance. Chances are very good you've never seen one like it … the Tucker is, after all, a one-of-a-kind engine built by Randy Tucker, Charlotte, N.C.

Randy didn't set out to invent an engine. But after a two-year parts search for a restoration project proved fruitless, Randy gave up. "I just decided to take that engine (a pushrod Ideal) and make it into a sideshaft engine," he says. The conversion required lots of new parts, which Randy happily built. "I made everything myself," he says, "sideshaft parts, governor parts, carburetor, fuel pump, hopper, cart … it took about a month. But it runs really good; it surprised me." He even taught himself how to produce etched brass tags; the Tucker sports his first effort. "I'm going to start doing more of that," he says.

This hardly comes as a surprise to his wife, Kim. "The engines are his first love," she declares in a tone of mock resignation. "I've accepted it."

The Tucker is but one of the delights of the woods. Meander through, and you'll encounter a moonshine still (working, but producing nothing more spirited than distilled water), a swap meet, countless engine exhibits, and assorted oddities like a handmade, motorized five-foot tricycle or a winged contraption powered by an old gas engine.

Make a clean sweep

Drop in on Mark Hernig at the show's tramping barn for a close look at a heritage trade. Mark, who lives at Waxhaw, N.C., gives an entertaining demonstration of the art of broom making, using technology devised by the Shakers 200 years ago.

From the treadle-powered "kicker" to the stitching vise, Mark's equipment is man-powered. The "kicker" holds the broom handle, allowing additions of broomcorn; the vise flattens the completed round broom for handstitching. "In on the bottom, out on the top," Mark recites as he whips a long needle through the stalks of broomcorn. "This is my favorite part of making a broom," he deadpans, "because you always come out on top."

When Mark saw his first broom-making machine, it was something akin to love at first sight. "When I found it, I said to myself, 'This may be your only chance to buy something like this.'" A Mennonite broom maker taught him how to make brooms. For three years, Mark made brooms full-time.

The historically authentic demonstration lacked the horsepower of a tractor or complexity of an antique thresher, but held visitors spellbound. "What's more common than a broom," Mark mused, "but less understood?"

Roll up your sleeves at the machine shop

New this year at the Denton FarmPark: a new machine shop with restored metal-working machinery, all connected to a working line shaft, the kind of arrangement that a century ago would have been powered by a single steam engine. Typical of line shafts and belt systems used to power factories before electricity was commonly available, the operation consists of about 30 operable machines. Look for a shop hoist, automatic screw machine, riveter, plow sharpener, pedestal grinder, horizontal drilling machine, vertical drilling machine, cylindrical grinder, horizontal milling machine, vertical milling machine, planer, lathe, shaper, transverse shaper, radial drill and upright drill, among others.

Pick the best of the litter

A unique feature at a tractor show, border collie demonstrations are a regular attraction at Denton FarmPark. Donald and Dorothy Thomas, Jackson, N.C. put their dogs through their paces, herding sheep and cattle to showgoers' delight. A blend of skilled training and patriotism, breed history and more is offered a couple times each day. Fair warning to the tenderhearted: A litter of border collie pups is onsite and each is guaranteed to tug hard at your heartstrings.

Other unique features at Denton not to be missed: Remember Alvin York of World War I fame? His Allis-Chalmers D14 (SN10104) is on permanent display in the Exhibit Building (also home to the last car owned by Mayberry RFD's Aunt Bea) … an authentic "tramping" barn, where horses thresh grain with their hooves … the Sligo Seven-In-One Woodworking machine (featuring a combination table saw, band saw, planer, shaper, jointer, mortise tool and tendon cutter, belted to a 4 hp Cushman binder engine) … and a 125-ton cotton compress more than 100 years old, used to compress cotton bales to a size manageable for transport. The steam-powered monstrosity remains under restoration but 30-foot timbers and a 10-foot piston cylinder make clear the size of the device. Its impact, too, was huge: The compress was said to nearly equal the cotton gin in importance to the Southern economy during Reconstruction. Using 4 million pounds of force, the compress literally doubled the volume of cotton that could be transported by trains and ships.

See how it's done

Visit Denton FarmPark, and you'll think you're in Missouri, the "Show Me" state. Start with field demonstrations (plowing, binding wheat and combining). Move on to threshing and baling, then the sawmill and veneer mill, wood splitter and rock crusher, steam shovel and crane, shingle mill, grist mill, corn shelling and cotton gin, powered by everything from horses to steam to tractors.

Hunt up some horsepower

Hundreds of antique tractors are displayed at the Denton FarmPark, and each has a story behind it. Take the exhibit shown by the Bledsoe family of Glen Allen, Va. A gleaming Farmall Model B is flanked by a Super Duper C … a custom-built lawn tractor for the Bledsoe kids (Stuart, 13; Kaytlynn, 12; and Drew, 8).

The 1947 Model B was given to Marshall Bledsoe. "It was a rust bucket," he recalls. "It was terrible." It was his introduction into tractor restoration. "It was all about proving a point," he says. "I decided I was going to restore that if it was the last thing I ever did."

Restoration took the better part of a year. "I had every part off of it, but I wanted to have it ready for the Rockville, Va., show," Marshall says. He met his goal … just barely. "We put the decals on two days before the show," he says.

If the Model B was the chicken, the Super Duper C was the egg. "I told the kids I'd fix a mower for them to pull with, and I had all the old rough parts from the B," Marshall says. A friend gave him a 1968 Toro, and he was off and running. "I cut down the fenders and used the grille from the B," he says. The fenders, notes his wife, Becky, were the result of a majority vote. "He wasn't going to put the fenders on it, but we talked him into it," she says. Custom decals completed the package.

A few other projects await his attention. "We have an Allis-Chalmers C at home, and a John Deere wide-front 60, and a 1979 Chevy pickup," Marshall says. One thing's for sure: The whole clan will be involved. "We enjoy it," Becky says. "It's our family thing."

Read all about it

Communication today is instantaneous and informal: cell phones and e-mail rule. At the FarmPark, go back a century … take in a bulletin hot off a 104-year-old printing press, in operation daily at the Exhibit Building. The Chandler & Price press is powered by steam and demonstrated throughout the show, with printed sheets literally sailing out of the press. It's just part of a varied display within the Exhibit Building.

Start a collection

Antiques and collectibles are offered for sale at a few buildings at Denton FarmPark, including the Service Station. Shelves inside the station groan beneath the weight of collectible petroleum items, original and reproduction porcelain signs, and other service station collectibles spanning a period from about 1930 to 1960. "When I was young, I always liked this stuff," says station proprietor Mike Hinson, Oakboro, N.C. "And I still do. Most people around here remember these things, and they like it; it makes them think of the past."

Porcelain signs, he says, are the hottest collectible in his category - and the most expensive. "You can't hardly get them now; people are wishing they'd gotten into it 20 years ago." New collectors must be careful, he adds. "There's a lot of repro stuff these days," he says. "It can be hard to tell. Bootleggers will scratch a new sign, or bend it or dent it, just to make it look old." His advice? "You've got to be patient, and look close, and ask a lot of questions. There are still lots of friendly and honest people around."

Not shopping? Pull in anyway, and nab a cold Coca Cola (in the old short glass bottle) from the cooler: It's a guaranteed trip back in time.

Grab a bite

If you go hungry while at the Denton FarmPark, it's your own darned fault. The show's massive, shaded midway is home to a panoply of regional delights: fried pies, roasted corn, down home barbecue, rib eye sandwiches, fried seafood, fried okra, corn dogs and burgers, ethnic foods, roasted peanuts, ice cream of every flavor, snow cones and more. Take a sitdown at one of the ample picnic tables, soak up the local flavor and watch the hungry hordes pass by. Sure bets: fresh-squeezed lemonade, barbecue with the "eastern" sauce (a tangy, vinegar-based sauce), and ice cream cranked by - what else? - an old gas engine.

- For more information: Southeast Old Threshers' Reunion, 1366 Jim Elliott Road, Denton, NC 27239; (336) 859-2755; e-mail: manager@threshers.com www.eventdirectory.com www.threshers.com