Home on the Range: Meriden Summer Show

Meriden Antique Engine and Threshers Assn. showground expansion brings old-time Kansas village to life.

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The general store at the Meriden Antique Engine & Threshers Assn. grounds. The club’s monthly meetings are held in the general store. During the winter, an antique wood stove heats the space.

Photo by Leslie C. McManus

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One of the fastest growing summer family destinations in the Midwest. When Kevin Kirkwood used that phrase to describe the Meriden (Kansas) Antique Engine & Threshers Assn. (MAETA) summer show, I struggled to keep my eyebrows in place. But after spending a day at the show, there was no doubt in my mind that Kevin nailed it: The Meriden show delivered on every count.

Fastest growing – and still growing

Founded in 1977, the Meriden club started out on 8-1/2 acres along K-4 Highway, about 1 mile northeast of Meriden (and about 10 miles northeast of Kansas’ capital city of Topeka).

For decades, show displays, demonstrations, a re-created village, tractor pulls, parking, concessions, vendors and basic facilities were set up cheek to jowl in a very small space. And everybody made it work. But when opportunity knocked in 2014, the club was ready.

“We were at the point where we knew we needed to do something,” says MAETA President Jess Noll. When 32 adjacent acres became available, the club and the community rallied. “Money was a big factor,” he admits, “but we came up with a phenomenal down payment.” In short, club members and supporters provided about $35,000 toward the $100,000 purchase price.

It’s not a big operation – the Meriden club has 80 to 90 paying members – but it’s a strong one. “Attendance at our monthly meetings is increasing,” says Jess, MAETA president since 2011. The average age is deep into the 60s and there aren’t many members in their 40s, but come show time, everything falls neatly in place. “Some of our older members are extremely dedicated to making this succeed,” Kevin adds. “And that dedication keeps us all going.”

Using every bit of it

At the summer show in July, cottonwood seeds drifted lazily on a wisp of a breeze. That was the only laziness on display. Threshing and baling demonstrations took place daily, lumber was being cut at the Thick and Thin Sawmill, a fully operational flourmill was open for business, a smithy or two were clanging away in the blacksmith shop, and displays of engines and tractors sprouted around the grounds.

And that isn’t all. Parades, tractor pulls (pedal tractors, garden tractors and full-size tractors), prony brake, two barn dances, live music three nights, antique car and truck show, slow tractor race, flea market, crafts and Sunday church service filled the agenda. All that for $6 for all three days – unless you’re a veteran or under 12: Then you’re home free.

Add 32 acres to your show grounds, and a lot of things start happening. The club grows its own wheat (for threshing demonstrations and milling) and sorghum (the crop is cut, pressed and cooked into syrup during the fall show, when volunteers also make apple butter and cider). “Everything is right here,” Jess says with a barely perceptible trace of relief. “There’s no more hauling bundle wagons.”

The grounds are home to 34 camping spots (some with hookups), a new kitchen and bathrooms (complete with hot water and showers). And then there’s Cottonwood Station, a village populated by a working general store, the Bloomfield Church, print shop, blacksmith shop, flourmill, sawmill, a historic log cabin and Sims Garage. “We bring an old village back to life,” Kevin adds. “Not many clubs can say that.”

Key to the Meriden show

The Thick and Thin Sawmill is perhaps the heart of the Meriden show. During shows, it’s a prime attraction. “What really holds a crowd is a 4-foot log,” says sawyer Jim Noll, Jess’ dad. “People will sit here half a day to see if you’re ever going to get it all.”

But the mill is more than just a crowd pleaser. “Ninety percent of the wood in these buildings – except the church and log cabin, which were moved in – was sawed in this sawmill,” Jess notes. “We do not buy dimensional lumber.”

The American No. 1 sawmill dates to the very early 1900s. Originally equipped with a 48-inch blade, the mill now has a 52-inch blade with 40 teeth and turns at 450rpm. “It was the first thing set on the ground here 39 years ago,” Jim says. “Then we commenced to build buildings.”

In addition to MAETA projects, the sawmill is used for custom sawing. “And in the winter, people will donate logs,” Jim says. “One year we got 161 logs. We’ve cut cottonwood, pecan, walnut, cherry, cedar, hackberry and oak. We’ve had logs as big as 4 feet on there.” The sawmill is also used to produce plaques awarded at club shows and events.

A carpenter by trade, Jim has a deep, natural understanding of wood and sawmills. “I’ve been around saws since I was a boy,” he says. “When you’re on the mill, you’ve got to listen to the log, watch the log and the belt. You’ve got to develop a feel for the pressure.”

Family builds enduring memorial

With a membership roster of 90, the Meriden club does not have the luxury of establishing multiple committees to oversee show functions. But the ranks swell dramatically when members draft family members. “It kind of goes through family lines,” Jess says. “Entire families will take over things like the baling demonstration or the gas engine area.”

Clark’s Blacksmith Shop is one of those family-run operations. Established by Keith Jackson as a memorial to his late son, Clark, the shop is a hive of activity during shows. “My brother was just starting to learn blacksmithing here when he was killed in a wreck in 1982,” Kirk Jackson explains. “He was really getting into it.”

Today the shop is a fascinating display showcasing the blacksmith’s craft. A working line shaft powers a drill press, wire wheel grinder and hacksaw, wood lathe, whet stone, metal lathe and milling machine and trip hammer. It’s set up to run off an antique gas engine or, in case of mechanical difficulty, electricity. “We’ve been told it’s the largest, most complete blacksmith shop in the Midwest,” says Jody Kirkwood, MAETA vice president.

The interior of the blacksmith shop is dark and cluttered, packed with massive, century-old shop equipment, tools, signs and mementoes. A familiar painting of a blacksmith working outside his shop hangs on one wall; framed photos of past Meriden blacksmiths hang near the ceiling.

Just outside the front and back doors, deep pools of shade are cast by chestnut trees Keith planted years ago. “An old school teacher told Dad he had to have to have a chestnut tree at his blacksmith shop,” Kirk says, harking back to the classic American Longfellow poem that opens, “Under a spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands …”

Hot metal bonds generations

At the July show, Eli Henry, McLouth, Kansas, worked at the forge, finessing a piece of red hot metal into twists and bends. “My great-grandfather was a blacksmith,” he says. “I took it up four or five years ago, learning from a book.” He’s gotten his great-grandfather’s forge running, but it’s not yet fully operational. Once it is, he’d like to use it to make hardware for a barn he’s restoring.

Because he is familiar with the tools in its hardie holes, Brian Ottaway, Centropolis, Kansas, hauls his own anvil to the Meriden show. He built the forge he uses at home, where he has a post drill, hacksaw, a few anvils and post vices.

“I started going to the McLouth (Kansas) show as a kid,” he recalls, “and I always watched the blacksmith there. Then my dad gave me my great-granddad’s anvil.” He’s taken lessons and worked with other smiths at shows throughout the area. “It’s really neat to be able to take metal and make something out of it,” he says. “You can make cool, useful things, but there’s nothing quick about it.”

A four-generation crew

“When I was 10, my dad had a baler like this,” recalls Dennis Knudsen, Perry, Kansas. “My job was to tie. My brother was younger, so he’d hand up the wires.”

Seven decades later, Dennis is still baling with an old McCormick-Deering baler, but it’s all in the name of fun these days. Joined by 16 family members from age 6 on up, he spearheads baling demonstrations at Meriden and McLouth, during summer shows and fall festivals.

“We’ve been doing this for close to 40 years,” he says. “The kids are really enthused about it. Two of them come from Iowa to help; a lot of them take vacation time to do this.” And then he pauses for effect before continuing.

“We even have a native New Yorker who married into the family,” he says, “with the understanding that he’d have to help.” Jeffrey Agosto, who looks born to wield a pitchfork, is quick to admit that the experience takes him about as far from his roots as he could get. “Being from Brooklyn,” he allows, “it is kind of culture shock, but it’s a lot of fun.”

During the demonstration, the four-generation crew works fast and efficiently. It is, after all, a hot day in July, and no one is looking to linger in the sun. They split into two teams, working with a restored McCormick-Deering baler like Dennis’ dad’s, and one owned by MAETA that is so old no one can tell what it is. When the last bale is stacked, the clan retreats to a shady spot. “At the end of the day,” Dennis says, “we collapse and see how much water we can drink.”

A family of collectors

Gary Naylor rides herd over the show’s gas engine area, but it looks more like a labor of love than anything resembling a job. “I’ve been coming to this show for 35 years, starting when I was 17,” he says. “My first engine was a Maytag I got from a ‘free’ ad. It was still on the washer when I got it, but I put it on a factory mower.”

The variety of the engine display constantly surprises him. “I always see stuff here that I’ve never seen before,” he says, no small statement from a collector whose wife and three daughters also own gas engines. “They were at tractor shows when they were still in infant carriers,” Gary’s wife, Susan, says of the couple’s daughters. “I warmed their bottles in engine hoppers.”

Gary’s collection includes British-built engines like Wolseleys and Listers he learned about while stationed in the U.K., as well as a New Holland he brought back to Kansas from New Jersey.

Nearly 80 engines were pre-registered for the July show. “We’re growing the display every year,” Gary says. “It’s doubled, maybe tripled in the past three years.” The permanent display includes a 22 hp Fairbanks-Morse engine that once provided power for a grain elevator in Reading, Kansas.

Yes, Dorothy, you’re still in Kansas

A new building is home to a set of engines rarely seen in the Midwest: oil field engines. “It’s unusual to see oil field engines here,” says Gary Bowen, a charter member of the Meriden club, “but I’m pretty sure the Superiors are from Kansas.” He and Derek Stapel own the set, which includes a 25 hp Superior predating 1926, a 1911 22 hp Bessemer, a 20 hp Superior and an 1899 20 hp Reid.

The Reid came from a Bloomington, Illinois, collector, and the 25 hp Superior came from a local collection. The 20 hp Superior turned up on an auction nearby. “There was so little interest in an engine of that size,” Gary says. “It’s just so hard to move. We didn’t want to see it scrapped, so we made an offer that was slightly better than scrap price, and we got it.”

Bessemer crude oil engines operate on a hot tube ignition, burning crude oil, fuel oil, solar oil and low-gravity distillates, Gary explains. They require no magneto, sparker or batteries and operate smoothly and continuously without depositing carbon in the combustion chamber. Because the Bowen/Stapel Bessemer was missing its hot tube ignition system, the two substituted a spark type ignition.

Neighborly relationship

In addition to the summer show, the club produces an annual Fall Festival and Swap Meet. Students from local schools attend one afternoon of the fall festival, rotating through seven living history demonstrations. Events like those bring the group’s younger members out in force. “They really work at the shows,” Kevin Kirkwood says. “Social media is a huge benefit for us; that’s where the younger generation is.”

There’s also an astonishing cross-pollination between the Meriden group and their counterparts at the McLouth Threshing Bee, roughly 20 miles east. Just about anybody who does anything at Meriden lends a hand at McLouth, and vice versa. “The McLouth club helps us,” Jess says, “and we help them. We all get along. We like to think we’re pretty friendly.” FC


For more information: Meriden Antique Engine & Tractor Assn.: Jess Noll, president, (785) 633-9706; and on Facebook at Meriden Antique Engine and Threshers Association. Fall Festival and Swap Meet, Sept. 23-24, 2017; Bloomfield Church soup supper and bazaar, Nov. 4, 2017; 42nd annual Threshing Show, July 20-22, 2018.

60th annual McLouth Threshing Bee, Sept. 15-17, Austin Chapman, (785) 691-6749; contactus@mclouththreshingbee.com; online at McLouth Threshing Bee.

Leslie C. McManus is the senior editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.