The noise swells prior to 10 a.m. each day as the old tractors clear their throats, thumping and cracking, while steam tractors hiss and emanate the sweet smell of wood smoke over the eastern end of 240 acres belonging to the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers' Reunion at Rollag, Minn. It's time for another Reunion, this 1999 edition being the 46th.
"There is so much to see," says WMSTR President Eric Nelson, "that we like to say you can't see it all in one day."
"If you've never been to Rollag, you haven't lived," Richard Birklid of rural Nome, N.D., told me a few years ago. Over the years, as I've interviewed people who own Quonsets full of the big old tractors, or steam engines, or even farm toys, they've all echoed Richard's thoughts.
This isn't my first year here, but as always, the first place to start at Rollag is with the Parade of Engines. In the half hour before the parade starts, you might think you're going to get overwhelmed by smoke as the steamers warm up. But it's a chance to get close to them, and see how they operate, and hear how softly most of them go about their business. Except for the backfiring of an old gas tractor nearby, you can hear talking from knots of people gathered around the old beasts.
Each year dozens of the featured tractors – in 1999 it was the Massey-Harris – begin their steady trek around the gravel track, two by two, and then creep slowly up the hill in front of the reviewing stand (the Information Building), where Earl Herbranson sits behind a second-story window, identifying each big beast as it passes. He indicates (without notes) the manufacturer, model, size of the tractor, and interesting information about the machine ("That 1913 40 hp Avery steam engine is one of only two known to exist today. The other one is in a museum in Canada." "The Port Huron steam engine might be the only one on display west of the Mississippi River."), as well as a few words about the owner of the tractor, and the engineer for the machine. It was a happy surprise to see many women driving tractors or operating the steam engines, and having fun around the machines. Despite rain that dampened this year's show, thousands of people (last year's International Harvester celebration brought the biggest crowd ever, 90,000) were on hand for the parade. The procession included hundreds of other tractors in addition to the featured lines. Many you've doubtless heard about, like Rumely OilPulls, Case, and John Deere. Those and many others mix with less-familiar names, like the Gaar-Scott Tiger Pull, the Little Bull, Heider and Gray. One of the more fun machines in this year's run was that Gaar-Scott Tiger Pull, because it's an unusual one, with an unusual name.
Next come the steam engines, bedecked in fine colors, the rivets in their boilers visible. The machines are guided by fully-qualified steam attendants (each is required to pass courses in the University of Rollag College of Steam Traction Engineering, held each June in the tiny town (population: 21). There they learn all the rudiments of steam power, as well as steam whistle signals ("Steam is up, one long; come to work, one long, one short; lunch or closing time, one long, held.").
Some of the names – Avery, Case, Minneapolis and Rumely – are familiar. Others – Port Huron, Sawyer-Massey, Birdsall – are less well known, owing in part to geography. Steam engines and tractors made on the East Coast tended to stay in the east, and vice versa.
For steam engines, a fun and unusual one making its first appearance at WMSTR was the Bryan steam tractor. Only two exist. The Bryan is an unusual-looking tractor because it looks more like a regular tractor than a steamer. Part of the reason for that is that it was manufactured in the mid-1920s, at a time when steam had lost its luster.
But the Rollag shindig is more than tractors. Miniature Land is one of my favorite places (the ice cream booth is nearby, too), featuring miniature steam engines that actually run, a 1/8 scale model of a Sageng thresher that works, along with miniature trains (one is even big enough to give you and dozens of others a ride). There's a building full of handmade toy tractors and other toys, like the creations of Kenneth Sunderland of Waverly, Minn., and Kermit Ehrenberg's stainless steel 1/4-size tractors, each requiring more than 1,500 hours of work. He made one for each of his sons (a 1937 F20 Farmall, a 1938 John Deere G, and a 1934 Allis-Chalmers), but he can't do that precision work anymore unless he has operations on both hands, he says.
WMSTR also has a wide variety of small gasoline engines next to Miniature Land. These range from the tiny – old Deere and Harvester farm engines – to larger ones like the Kohler Light Plant. My favorite, the granddaddy of them all, with a single piston bore of 26 inches, three inches wider than a 55-gallon drum, is the 1903 De La Vergne 125 hp engine. This engine was shown at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. It is believed to be the largest single-cylinder, two-flywheel, open crankshaft fourcycle internal combustion engine running in the world. Each flywheel is more than 9 feet tall and 12.5 inches wide, and combined with the crankshaft, they weigh 15 tons (the entire engine tips the scales at 40 tons). It is housed in an open-sided building with an eight-sided roof above. This monstrosity was used in the W.F. Norman Sheet Metal Works in Nevada, Mo., for 50 years beginning in 1904. It was belted to a lineshaft and powered sheet metal forming machines. Until 1999, when a starting engine was added, starting the tractor required heating it with a propane torch, and belting it to a tractor. There are steam engines not affixed to tractors to drive a saw in the sawmill, a children's playground with a carousel, an active water wheel and old-time farm set-up (Rushfeldt Farmstead), boilers, and a steam railroad pulling a dozen specially-equipped cars that will take you anywhere you want to go around the entire showgrounds. There are also buses to take you from your car -parked distantly - to the entrance, as well as a shuttle (tractor-pulled hayracks, again, specially built) to ferry people from place to place inside the grounds.
Another favorite for me is the old car and truck area, where they had vehicles like the 1916 Paige-Detroit auto, and a 1932 International truck which Don Shroeder has been driving since 1944.
At the show's bookshop, you can buy the WMSTR yearbook, Memories of Bygone Years, each year chock full of information and pictures about the people and machines that inhabit WMSTR lore. This year's edition includes the hackle-raising story of Herb Stomberg, Pelican Rapids, Minn., who was 10 years old in 1925 when he was asked by his father, during noon hour, to crawl inside their Wood Brothers 21-36 thresher to tighten the straw walkers, which he said were hammering a bit. "Well, I crawled inside the machine between the straw walkers and sieves up to the front boxes," Herb says in the 1999 edition of Memories of Bygone Years. "I had watched dad do this before, so I knew what to do. I was just finished bending the tin on the nuts when I heard the magneto click on the tractor."
That signaled the starting of the threshing machine. "I was heading for the door when the tractor started. The separator started going, and the straw walkers started their up-and-down rotation. I had to watch out for them while sliding back and forth on the sieves. There was not much to hold on to when everything was moving. Finally, after about five long minutes, I got a hold of the edge of the door ... My dad was standing by a wagon, talking to a fellow and he had forgotten all about me. When he saw me, he turned as white as a sheet. He didn't have anything to say, and I just went home for dinner."
There is also an entire area at Rollag designated for "women's activities," and booths that sell souvenirs, belt buckles and newspapers. There are woodcarvers, an old-time blacksmith shop, a laundry, print shop, an entire building given over to Otto gas engines, horse activities, radios, buildings with music and square dancing, and a kids' playground: in short, it's a fun place to see all the farm collectibles you'd like (but probably can't afford), to talk about old tractors and engines, and for a family to go to for a good time over a Labor Day weekend. FC
Bill Vossler writes on a variety of collectible farm equipment, and is the author of Toy Farm Tractors, published last year.