Prairie Star

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During the annual threshing jamboree, the grounds at Prairie Village, a permanent show grounds just west of Madison, S.D., bustles with activity. A coal-fired locomotive hauls a stream of passenger cars around the site. A village of 40 authentic historic buildings pops at the seams with exhibits, artifacts and antiquities. Hundreds of tractors from every corner of the country are on display. Three parades are held each day, and each opens with 'The Star Spangled Banner.' But to at least one onlooker, it's not hard to remember when the site's pace was dictated by dairy cows.

'From 1948 to 1953,' recalls Myron Downs, Madison, 'my folks lived on this ground. They farmed it, and milked cows. I learned to plow on an old C Allis where the parking lot is now.'

Myron, a board member and former president of the Prairie Village group, says the original show was held 13 miles north of its current site. 'It's been here for 40 years. We have plenty of room at this site; you're not crowded in.'

Prairie Village truly is a village, complete with historic buildings. 'These are buildings actually brought in from neighboring towns,' says Tammy Fods, Prairie Village manager. 'They've been restored; they're not replicas.' Visitors wander through a fully representative town made up of schools, churches, train depots, telephone office, stores and businesses, a hotel, jail, library, museums, sod house, claim shanty, livery barn, and a fully restored and operating vintage carousel. Housed inside the buildings: every collection you can conceive of, and some you might not have ... antique mousetraps, early household appliances, clothes hangers, wedding gowns and early dentist's and undertaker's equipment. The crown jewel, as in any community a century ago, is the opera house.

Built by the Socialist Party in 1912 in Oldham, S.D., the opera house boasts a full stage, balcony seating and plenty of history. Band leader Lawrence Welk, for instance, made his stage debut in the opera house in 1924. When Prairie Village acquired the structure in 1970 (hiring a professional house mover to haul it 22 miles), the marquee read 'Socialist Hall.' Club members uncomfortable with that nomenclature edited it to read 'Social Hall.' In 1991, the building went through yet another evolution, being formally renamed the 'Lawrence Welk Opera House.'

Also setting Prairie Village apart: It's open all summer, from early May to early September. During that period, the grounds are humming with a consignment auction and swap meet, Railroad Days, Car Show, Miss Prairie Princess and Miss Prairie Village Pageant, and finally, the annual Steam Threshing Jamboree in late August. In May, school tours bring as many as 5,000 students. Visitors are welcome all summer, even when there are no scheduled events.

Bricks and mortar, though, aren't what truly make Prairie Village unique, Myron says. 'It's the people that make this show special,' he says. 'If you run into these folks later, they'll remember you.'

The Jamboree, held Aug. 27-29 this year, attracts a surprisingly young crowd. Toddlers, teenagers and young families are everywhere. 'It's a family thing. There's something for everybody. The buildings are a big draw, and at a show, you've got to have something like that for the ladies,' Myron notes with the air of a man experienced in such matters. 'Ain't momma happy, ain't nobody happy.'

Grandparents bring grandchildren, to be sure, but in some cases, four generations of a family are present, says Tammy Fods. With an increasing number of young people involved, the exhibits tend to take on a different look, Myron adds. 'We're getting newer tractors. People are restoring the tractors they grew up on. And garden tractors are coming on strong. They're easier to haul, and more affordable than some of the full-size tractors.' A boy buzzed by on a garden tractor as Myron nods with approval. 'Give a boy something he can handle, something he can get involved with,' he says, 'and next thing you know, he's a regular here.'

The National Hart-Parr Oliver show was held in conjunction with this year's Jamboree, packing the show with green tractors. 'We had about 280 with the Oliver show, and at least 500 others,' Tammy says. 'The number of tractors was just phenomenal.'

Other relics of early-day agriculture were in equally abundant supply. Gas engines, walking plows, and exhibits of everything from oil cans to cream separators to tools filled the grounds and buildings. Brad Franken, a school custodian from nearby Madison, has attended the Jamboree for 35 years. Three years ago, inspired by a Prairie Village exhibit, he picked up his first stationary engine. Since then, his collection has swelled to 15, and he's started displaying his favorites at the Jamboree. 'This is one of the big shows in the area, and it's hometown for me,' he says. 'Plus, people on the board really take care of exhibitors.'

Brad's added equipment to make his exhibit more interesting. 'I started going to shows and saw engines running. If they were belted up to something, they got a lot more attention,' he says. As a result, his inventory includes 'Little Nate,' a motorized rocking horse; an old ice cream freezer; corn grinder; and burr mill. His exhibit earns its keep: His wife and mother-in-law regularly bake bread with home-ground wheat.

Shows are about more than equipment, and Brad's exhibit demonstrates that. Scattered among his collectibles are engines and equipment belonging to friends Dave Lebahn and Todd Jensen, both of Ramona, S.D. The friends generate a steady patter of good-natured ribbing. 'Just call him the wizard,' Dave says of Brad.

At its heart, the Jamboree is a threshing show. Plowing and threshing demonstrations were powered by horses provided by three visiting wagon trains. This year, a working smith gave demonstrations as well. 'We were very excited to have a blacksmith working onsite,' Tammy says. 'We're always trying to find people who are willing to be a part of our show.' Because volunteers are increasingly hard to get, Prairie Village has adopted a pragmatic approach. 'We have started to work with church groups and others to work our gates,' she says, 'and then we make a donation in exchange for their labor.'

Operations like the sawmill, though, are still run by club members well-familiar with the equipment. At this year's Jamboree, volunteers manned the sawmill, edger and planer, as well as the tractors and engines providing power for the operation. Byron Henry, Madison, oversees the operation. 'We're cutting cedar poles today,' he says, 'and we'll use that lumber for construction on the show grounds.' The sawmill, manufactured in 1918 by R.R. Howell & Co., Minneapolis, Minn., is a bit crotchety, but with a 48-inch blade with chrome teeth, it gets the job done. 'It's tough to make it saw straight,' Byron says. 'It's not sheltered; it sits out all winter.'

Three generations work side-by-side at the mill: Byron is joined by his son-in-law, Chad Cole, and grandson, Eric Cole, 12. Wearing work gloves too big for his hands and covered with wood shavings, Eric was a productive member of the team, offloading planks from the planer and stacking them nearby. The work is steady, rhythmic; Eric sticks with it. One day he'll look back fondly on the afternoon. At that moment, though, the sawmill is not at the top of his list.

'How'd you like it?'
'It's okay,' he allows.
'As much fun as video games?'
'No.'

What really makes a show meaningful is when visitors begin to see links between equipment and job, machines and daily life. Take Dick Halstead's 1929 Caterpillar 60. 'I started working in construction when I was a kid,' Dick says. 'As the years went by, I got interested in the history of road building. In the 1930s and 1940s, most township roads were built with a Cat 60 and an elevating grader, or a pull-type. A lot of these were used for snow removal, and a lot of them had canopies.'

'Everybody who lived on a farm back then remembers these,' he says. 'I was here a few years ago, and I was interviewed for a local news channel. A guy from way down in Nebraska saw the news that night, grabbed his wife and said 'I remember those! We're going to go see that!' And the next day, he was here.'

For more information:

Prairie Village is located 2 miles west of Madison, S.D., on Highway 34 and 81. Mailing address: Box 256, Madison, SD 57042; (800) 693-3644; e-mail:prairiev@rapidnet.com www.prairievillage.org

43rd Annual Steam Threshing Jamboree, Aug. 26-28, 2005. Next year's feature: International Harvester, South Dakota Chapter.