It is an unusually cool day in July. The clouds form a protective cover from the hot sun. The once golden sea of wheat has been cut and shocked.
In the middle of an open field, a crowd gathers around a massive steam engine. The steam is up. The whistle blows and a wagon, overflowing with wheat, pulls up alongside the threshing machine. Men with pitchforks stand on top of the wagon, ready to load the separator (or threshing machine). The children are playing all around and men and women gather to talk and laugh. This is a threshing, a community of workmen. It is not 50 years ago, it is July, 1971. It is still going on, still preserved, by a special breed of men.
This was a special Saturday afternoon on Steinkuhl's farm on Outer St. Joseph Avenue near Pat's Party House. The 'Darmstadt Steamers' were getting ready to thresh wheat. This has become an annual event and people travel from miles around to watch a part of the American rural scene that would have been lost except for man like Pat Steinkuhl, Wally Stremming, Ed Korff, Roger Steinkuhl, John Steinkuhl, Louis Kissel, Jess Conner and Frank Hyde. Frank, who is 86 years young, still owns and maintains his own steam engine.
With a belch of black smoke, a toot-toot of the whistle, and the chooka-chooka of the old steam engine, the threshing began. John Steinkuhl and Wally Stremming brought their steam engines to use for this threshing. Lloyd Sander, an enthusiastic novice of the group, was in charge of loading the wagon with wheat for the separator. Roger Steinkuhl watched over complicated old senator. A mountain of straw piled up at the rear of the separator and the chaff from the grain created a miniature snowstorm as a truck now filled with grain.
A storm threatened to dampen the spirit of the threshers but the old steam engines kept plugging away and the threshing went on scheduled.
The 'Darmstadt Steamers' is not an official club but there is unity with these men in their care for the steam engines. Steamer men can be generally identified by their bibbed overalls, a faded blue denim shirt, a straw hat (of any style) and most of them like to chew tobacco as they work. This is not a rule because some of the men do wear other clothing but the overalls are standard equipment for many steam - engine owners.
Several visitors from other clubs were represented at the threshing. Two men from an Illinois Club, Dee Quick of Eldorado and Charles Healy of Norris City, traveled over to the event. Another visitor from Central City, Kentucky was represented at the threshing. The Boonville Antique Steam and Tractor Club has a large enthusiastic club and several of their members brought steam engines in miniature that are fun to watch.
A lady in the crowd said that she now lives in town in an apartment but she used to live on a farm. She came out that day to the threshing and was remembering good times with friends.
Someone said 'How come this work seems like play?' An old timer replied 'It never was work to us. Threshing times were always good times. People would gather together from all over, helping each other and sharing with each other. Women worked all day providing meals never to be forgotten for the hard-working farmers.'
Today, threshing with steam engines has become a hobby for some men in rural communities. There was a time when these engines were sold for only the junk price they would bring. The engines were considered worthless for a time when the combines replaced the old threshing procedures.
The whistles on the steam engines were not just for fun, they served a definite purpose. It was a signal for the men on the separator that the engine was about to start and they should stand clear of the machine. It was a call to men in the field to come and help start the loading. Some men developed signals that identified them as being at the controls of the engine.
About the only thing that was missed this Saturday was the hay ride for the children. The threatening storm finally took over the show and the crowd dispersed, wet but happy threshers.
If you've missed this part of the American way of life, there will be another demonstration of threshing at the Vanderburgh County Fair in August. The 'Darmstadt Steamers' will be there, along with a display of antique tractors and engines. They'll have a full head of steam for the fair.