Historic Photos Give Traction Steam Engines New Life

Collection of historic photos at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion highlight the importance of traction steam engines to American agriculture

Photographs in the new steam display at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion recall an infectious sense of pride.

Photographs in the new steam display at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion recall an infectious sense of pride. “When these photos were taken, it was a way of recording history,” Lennis Moore says. “But it also allowed these farmers to send postcards to their friends and relatives and say ‘Look how good we’re doing!’”

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Historic photos bring new life to steam power traditions in a fascinating exhibit at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Dozens of historic photos, enlarged and massed along a 100-foot wall, form the heart of the 4,000-square foot display – Traction Steam Engines: The Golden Age of Threshing in Iowa – in the Heritage Museum on the Old Threshers’ grounds. 

“Old photographs have such strong voices,” says Lennis Moore, Midwest Old Settlers & Threshers Assn. chief executive officer, who designed the exhibit. “Those photographs really make the exhibit. You stand there and look at the people in those photos from 100 years ago, and you have an increased appreciation for the men who used that equipment. You look at the men lined up by those machines and you don’t see a lot of soft people. You see people who were up before the sun every day and worked hard all day long. Those were people who made American agriculture what it is today.”

The exhibit traces the development of steam and its use on the farm and in related industries, and explains how steam traction engines work, through use of cutaways and hands-on displays. Vintage photos are from MOSTA collections and the personal collection of John F. Spalding, who generously allowed their use.

It’s a clear signal of growing interest in steam at Mt. Pleasant. “The exhibit really underscores the fact that this show began in 1950 on a steam tradition and it’s still the core of what we are,” Lennis says. Nearly 100 steam engines were displayed at the Old Threshers’ 2010 reunion.

“We’re seeing redevelopment of a vital area,” Lennis explains. “In the steam section, the average exhibitor’s age is much younger than it used to be, reflecting a new generation of men and women who own engines and display them here. This event has become a true reunion for these people.”

The exhibit also includes three full-size steam engines, a full-size separator, four scale-model steam engines, a 15-ft. Case eagle statue rumored to have once stood at a Burlington, Iowa, Case plant, and reproductions of vintage literature from the heyday of the steam era. “It all becomes a teaching tool,” Lennis says, “telling about the past and how that impacts what we are today.” FC 

For more information: The Steam Tractor Encyclopedia: Glory Days of the Invention that Changed Farming Forever, John F. Spalding and Dr. Robert T. Rhode, Voyageur Press, 2008.