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It is a Saturday evening, at the end of August, sometime in the 1960s. All day, the Central States Thresher-men's Reunion has been going full bore. Under clear skies and a hot sun, the spinning gears and wheels of huge steam traction engines, steam models, antique tractors and gas engines have paraded and powered threshing machines, balers, sawmills, fans, and the Prony brake. The cider press and buckwheat mill have done brisk business since morning. Walking from the south gate, you can see the separators lined up on the right hand side of the roadway, with their big drive belts rolled, covered, and off the ground. Bearing left at the loading ramp, the gas engines and models are on the right. Parked in a row of oak trees is the main line of large steam engines, then the big sawmill, and finally, the portable mill, built by Henry Lucksinger. Another ten large steam engines are sprinkled around the rest of the shaded grounds. The smell of good cooking emanates from several of the church group food concessions. In the hobby building, the ladies are closing their many handicraft displays. Mr. Mann's anvil has quit ringing in the blacksmith shop. The antique crowd has thinned, except for exhibitors, and a new audience is arriving for this evening's Society Horse Show. Straw stacks from the day's threshing are being taken over by yet another group of excited children. Whistle cords are tied back on most of the steam engines, so as not to tempt the younger generation after dark. From the large sawmill comes the quiet, repetitive chink and rasp of the sawyer's tools, as he swages and files his blade, for tomorrow's run of oak and walnut logs. Behind the main engine line, activity has also slowed. The McCaskey brothers have put their return-flue Minneapolis to bed and headed home. Tom Burke, who looks after Art Erikson's Woods Brothers engine, is having a talk with Art, who has just been entertaining a crowd around his old Twin City tractor, idling the engine until you could hear the mag click, then opening her up until blue flame was licking a foot outside the open manifold. Paul Alsip has gone for supper, leaving Bob Smith with the hard working Case 40 (and a young boy, who for cleaning the flues, hauling wood, ashes, and doing early morning firing, now gets his reward, using the last of the steam, quietly playing with the engine).
George Richey and the Hampsmires have banked the fires in the Hampsmire's Aultman-Taylor and the mighty 23-90 Baker. The Lindenmier Reeves cools slowly, with a three-quarters full glass, done for the day. As soon as he had bedded down Wilbur Collin's Kitten, Ray Dye's wife has come and collected him for suppertime. Bill Oltman is filling the grease cups on his Case 40, for tomorrow's run.
Farther down the line, Joe Weishaupt is clucking to himself as he wipes something (that only he can see) off his already spotless 19 HP Keck. Herb Beckemeyer's shining 21-75 Baker sits quietly, as Herb finishes preparations for tomorrow. Glen Thomas is giving the big 25-90 Nichols & Shepard her last drink of water for the day. Fred Haszler, Hubert Koopman, and Mr. Killing have had a last chat before exchanging the Port Huron, Nichols & Shepard, and Steam Runabout for supper plates and bed.
On the other side of a little dip in the ground, backed-up to the main line and facing the opposite direction, are Wilbur Jolley's Nichols & Shepard, Verne Harms' Russell, and Don Werth's Jumbo. Wib, Verne and Don have been messing with an injector on the Russell and finishing some belt lacing, before gathering around a cooler in the back of a pickup.
You can hear the grandstand public address system warming up, plus the odd bit of organ music, as the Horse Show organizers get ready for their big night. Then, as now, 'No Whistles Allowed At All,' with horses in the ring. The evening deepens and darkens. The air cools enough that you don't sweat. . . if you stand still. A lazy puff of good soft coal smoke and the smell of fresh cut oak scents the air.
Centered around a medium-sized oak stump, between the third and fourth engines in the line, a group of engineers slowly gathers. For the boy, the best part of the day is just beginning. He fades to the edge of this group of elders, as they collect around the 'Liar's Stump.' Paul and Ray come back from supper. Old Bob laboriously climbs down from the Case. Glen Thomas and Bill Oltman haven't left the line. Loren Hampsmire and George Richey also return, as Wib, Verne, Herb and Don drift across the dip. Bill Ruthledge and Joe Weishaupt, already bickering in a friendly way, join the group, which is complete when George Rector rolls up.
As the temperature drops further, you can feel the heat and smell the hot cylinder oil from the engines on both sides of the group. There is a periodic crackle, as water drips off a petcock and runs down the side of a hot boiler. The stories start off slowly, at first in smaller groups, then focused on one person at a time. Engines are 'found,' hauled, loaded, and unloaded. Bearings are poured and gear patterns made. Injectors and governors are discussed and compared. Fires are built and pulled. Hard and easy steamers, and the reasons why, are gone over in detail. Teeter boards, hill climbing, firing, and refluing are all revisited. Thousands and thousands of bushels of grain are rethreshed, in memory and story. Broken belts, plugged separators, engine setting, lining-up, plowing, saw milling, pile driving, rock crushing, runaway teams, and a bit of horse trading, all get their proper share of attention. The tone of the stories varies wildly, from clean-cut farm threshing scenes, to a disgruntled road crew who ran their Russell engine through the side of a frame office building, where they had just been turned away after requesting back pay.
The boy in the background is not the only person learning. Some of the men in the group have spent a good deal of their adult life running steam engines. Most of the rest are farmers who have worked around threshing or saw milling, but until middle age, have not had an engine of their own. They listen a lot, and only speak when they really know the subject, or have a question to ask. There is a lot of pride in this group, and it would be risky indeed to venture foolishness in the face of so much proven expertise.
Engine types and performance are compared, but this is gently done, even in jest, out of respect for the many makes of engines represented by the group, and the vast amount of restoration and maintenance work these men do every year, just because they care. The restoration and care of a steam engine can only be described as a labor of love. These men, though they probably do not say it aloud, feel a duty to history. They want to show another generation what these truly magnificent machines can do. To let others feel the power, smell the smells, and be fascinated by seeing the working parts of a machine that you can almost hear talking to you. Along with the friendships made and mechanical challenges met, this group is quietly proud of being first generation stewards for a living part of our past. They are being honest to both the future and their memories of times gone by.
Olaf Jacobson stops by on his rounds. Head of the Law Enforcement detail at the show, head sawyer, owner of our sawmill, and a director, Olaf puts in long days and nights before, during, and after the show, to ensure its continued success. Olaf moves on and Wilbur Collins, whose 65 Case is at the other end of the line, stops by to join the group. Gathering speed, the storytelling rapidly moves into the tall tale category. Joe Weishaupt invites George Rector to take a seat, as first man to actually sit on 'The Stump.' George declines the stump, but egged on a bit, shifts a vast chew of tobacco to the other side, and gurgles out, 'Well-1-1-1-1, I can remember down at Mossbeck's one time, when we was a thrashin' watermelons. . . .n' mighty sticky goin' it was too. The wind was blowin' right toward the engine, smelled like you was inside a melon. The flies got so bad, that people put gunny sacks over their heads. . . don't you know, with eye-holes cut. Run-nin' around with bags over their heads, it sure 'nuff looked like a whole new crew had just arrived from the moon to run that old rig.' George' s story is probably partly true, but is told in such an understated, tongue (or chaw) in-cheek technique, that men are turning away, convulsed with laughter and wiping their eyes, before he can finish the tale. Even Wilbur Collins has a smile on his face that threatens to split his ears.
After that introduction to the lighter part of the evening, there is a little mixed conversation, while Joe Weishaupt quietly, and without contest, gets himself comfortably seated on 'The Stump.' Joe is the very prince of deviltry, kindness, and practical jokes. . . .and a raconteur without peer. He crosses his legs, pulls up a pant leg, has a scratch, pushes his polka dot hat up, then down, looks into the distance, and seems to withdraw into himself, before beginning to weave his spell. Tonight he begins by tailing onto to George's watermelon story, with a quiet one of his own, 'Bout a preacher who got hold of the secretly doctored melon at a church picnic. Dead set against drinkin' he was, a temperance man. Had four pieces. Then them worried fellas, who had fixed the melon, watched him from the bushes, as he commenced slippin' seeds into his pocket!' Besides knowing endless stories, Joe has participated in, known about, or been the butt of every practical joke that had ever been perpetrated at the show. We hear about greased throttle levers, draft stopping burlap and sawdust in smokestacks (to complicate early morning firing), sawdust in sleeping rolls, TeePeed engines, 'misplaced' tools, collapsed tents (the bachelor engineers' 'boar's nest' quarters), water 'accidentally' used instead of kerosene to help fire-up, garter snakes found in unusual places, and on, and on. Joe could tell them all to make you cry, without ever letting on who had actually done the dirty work. In the middle of his discourse, he might call out to Bob Smith, old and poor and sick, on the edge of the group, saying, 'Bob, you old devil, between you and me, we've probably drank enough whiskey to float a battleship from here to Germany.' The group would split long enough for the two of them to exchange a grin, before the show rolled on. The comment did not have much to do with drinking whiskey, but had a lot to do with recognizing someone who was down, as an equal in shared experience, and as a man. Christian kindness comes in many guises.
John Schneider, who has stayed for the Horse Show, wanders up. After coming to terms with some fresh Redman, John entertains with a bit of 'poetic justice,' in the story of a long ago shivaree.
'The crowd was a bit rowdy and rough, and some the worse for drink. The fools had followed the kids to their new home on a couple of hayracks, you see, making noise and firing off shotguns. After giving the new couple a lot of unnecessary advice, and pushing them into the house, the party and noise-making continued in the yard outside. In the middle of the carrying-on, some genius amongst 'em fired a shotgun under the house. It just had some stone pillars, see, for a foundation, and some of the buckshot passed right under the house, to the other corner, you see, and then right into the rear of one of his friends. Someone went and fetched Old Doc Law, Doc Law's Dad. After he seen what happened, and how, he had em take the fella's drawers down, bend him over a stump in the yard, and then picked the shot out of his backside right there, makin' the genius who did the shootin' hold the lantern, so as he could get full benefit of all the howling and swearin'.' Near the end of the story, John's white mustache twitches a little at the corners. As he turns to leave, we get a glimpse of the full Schneider grin!
By now, Ray Dye and others in the group are taking turns with Joe on the stump. If the conversation occasionally get a bit 'racy,' the boy suddenly finds himself behind several large bodies, and out of earshot. A few more last stories, Bill Oltman's high laugh, Joe's cackle, Paul's deep haw-haw, and friends part for the night, always saving a bit, for another time, around the 'Liar's Stump.'