The 1999 Old Threshers Reunion reflected a spirit of enthusiasm and cooperation as hundreds of volunteers came together in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, September 2-6, to demonstrate and celebrate the Midwest's agricultural history. The sights and sounds which make up the exhilarating atmosphere at Midwest Old Threshers mark a truly great steam show. Large crowds numbering around 120,000 people attended the five-day event.
For the uninitiated, it is wise to plan an extended visit to be able to experience all of the activities. One of the reasons people enjoy the Old Threshers Reunion so much is that they can become a part of the action.
"Today, there is a lot of focus on offering interactive experiences for people," reflected Lennis Moore, Midwest Old Threshers CEO. "What we have in the Old Threshers Reunion is truly interactive. All of the senses are involved. Visitors can ride the trolleys, trains and steam-powered carousel. They are seeing, hearing, and in some cases even assisting with, the actual early farming practices. People are interacting with the demonstrators and exhibitors asking questions and learning about the equipment and how it was used."
The year 2000 will bring the 50th anniversary of the Old Threshers Reunion. The event will be held August 31-September 4 with several special events and commemorative items planned.
The traction steam area is always a popular place for swapping stories about the iron engines or for learning something new. The Midwest Old Threshers Reunion is the largest steam show in the country.
The most recent visitor survey showed the Old Threshers Reunion's main attraction to be steam engines. The engines provide power for separators, the full-scale Sears sawmill, the cane press for sorghum-making, and shingle and veneer mills to name a few tasks.
Mike Parker's Minnesota Giant traction engine was the 1999 Engine of the Year. The return flue engine, dating back to approximately 1892, was in fairly rough condition when Parker, of Libertyville, Iowa, first brought it to the Reunion after buying it nearly 10 years ago. Since then Parker has completely torn down the engine and restored it. The '99 Featured Tractor was the 1935 IHC McCormick-Deering W-12, a small standard version tractor owned by Ralph Oliver of Cambridge, Iowa.
Showing their amazing horsepower, many of the exhibited traction engines and pre-1932 unstyled tractors take part in the tractor pull in front of the grandstand on Friday and Saturday mornings. Add threshing, plowing, discing and baling demonstrations plus stints on the Baker fan and Prony brake and you have more than enough activity to keep you occupied for a good long time.
As visitors stroll through the Steam Powerhouse in the Heritage Museums they see a variety of other demonstrations. Experienced stationary steam volunteers give talks on the Fairbanks-Morse Diesel generator and the Corliss engine, as well as a number of other smaller engines.
Nearby, the Midwest Central Railroad was keeping the narrow gauge rails hot by giving thousands of passengers rides to the Snipe Run village on the north end of the grounds. The engines used were the Henschel No. 16, which was run entirely on wood this year, and the Baldwin No. 6, a beautiful black and brass engine which was built in 1891 and completely overhauled and restored in the 1980s. The trains provide ready transportation around the Old Threshers grounds while putting smiles on the faces of their passengers. Occasionally, those smiles turn into startled expressions as riders both young and old get a surprise from the OT Smokin' Gunslingers who have hopped on board to rob the train.
Another fun ride is provided in the rhythmic swaying of the eight historic trolley cars of the Midwest Electric Railway. Their job is to shuttle guests from the Old Threshers campground and Log Village to the main grounds. The cars vary from three Presidents Conference Committee streetcars to a 1910 Albia Interurban line car to two open bench streetcars built in Brazil just after the turn of the century.
The horse demonstrations consistently attract large crowds of people who are drawn to the beauty and strength of their work. Horses power the 1881 grain separator, corn sheller and grinder. Horse-powered plowing is done with a single horse-drawn plow and teams of two and four horses. Standing room only crowds in the exhibit tent watch and listen as horse area volunteers also demonstrate how to shoe and harness the work horses.
A rare 1910 Burg owned by the Utsinger family of Dallas City, Illinois, was the 1999 Featured Car on display on the main level of the antique car building, which features two floors of beautifully-restored automobiles. The bright red, right-hand driving car was manufactured by the L. Burg Carriage Company. The company produced automobiles in the short time span of 1910-13 in the Utsingers' hometown of Dallas City.
The Harris brothers, Dean of Parson, Kansas, and David of Erie, Kansas, brought their line of beautifully-restored Rock Island Plow Company gasoline engines to the show where they were displayed as the featured line. The brothers exhibited engines from 1-7 HP. Old Threshers' expansive gasoline engine exhibit area is always filled with activity as the engines power washing machines, rock crushers, grinding mills and even a bubble machine. In the Heritage Museums, a colorful gasoline engine display, entitled 'Hired Hands,' was added this year.
An expanded exhibit at the '99 Old Threshers Reunion was the reconstructed Marvin Mill in the Heritage Museums. The two-story grain mill originally operated in Fayette County, Iowa, and milled corn, oats and wheat using gasoline engines. It was donated to Midwest Old Threshers and constructed with assistance from gas engine area volunteers. The exhibit was first erected for the 1998 Reunion and was enhanced for this past year's show. Ultimately the plan is to have demonstrations that will simulate the working mill.
A traveling exhibit, "Bridging the Generations The Lives and Contributions of Rural Iowa Women," created with support from Wallaces Farmer, was on display at the Theatre Museum for the Reunion. Added to the exhibit was a presentation by a panel of four women, two of whom are featured in the exhibit, who talked about the stories of their lives in rural Iowa.
So that the Old Threshers Board of Directors and staff could learn about the audience attending the event, a visitor's survey was conducted by a University of Iowa graduate class in 1998. Several activities received high marks from visitors over the two days the survey was conducted. Forty-seven and one-half percent of the visitors were male, a significant change from the early years of the show. The average age of Friday visitors was 52.7 years and Saturday's crowd was slightly younger at 46 years. Roughly one-third of the guests came from rural/farm areas and two-thirds lived in towns or cities. Reunion attendees said their favorite things about the event included steam engines, the food, crafts, trains and country music entertainment. Extremely positive news was that over 86 percent of the respondents said they would return to the Old Threshers Reunion again.
A trip to the Old Threshers Reunion isn't complete without a relaxing visit in the Log Village. Just a trolley ride away to the southern edge of the grounds is the Log Village, which is set in the 1850s. The members of Explorer Post 1846 and their families live and work in the village from morning until the sun sets, tending the garden, blacksmithing, cooking, attending the one-room school, making brooms, and operating the Cassity general store and the Public House.
And yet there are more activities to enjoy at the Old Threshers Reunion. Hop a ride on the 1894 steam-powered carousel up in the Snipe Run village. It's one of only six such carousels still operating in the United States. When you've finished a spin on the carousel, slip into the Antiques Building for some wonderful collectible treasures to add to your prized possessions. And perhaps the best part of the Reunion the homemade meals served thresher-style under tents by area churches and civic groups. Those things plus outstanding musical entertainment by the Statler Brothers, Lee Ann Womack, Diamond Rio and George Jones in the evenings made the 1999 Old Threshers Reunion the best yet.
Plan to attend the 2000 Old Threshers Reunion as we celebrate our 50th anniversary from August 31 through September 4 in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Meet some of the friendliest people in the country. For more information, call (319) 385-8937 and visit the Old Threshers web site at www.oldthreshers.org.