UNION CITY, INDIANA
Most of the time he's so quiet and unobtrusive you'd hardly know he was around. Yet there's hardly a Midwestern threshing reunion that he's not in there pitching, helping line up the big belt or at least standing by in the crowd to see if the job's done right. For be it threshing, sawmilling, plowing, hill-climbing or teeter-tottering he's completely absorbed by the sights thereof, like a farm lad getting his first glimpse of a mighty steam engine in operation.
And when the threshing reunion program wears a little thin, there booms out across the grounds the announcer's voice, 'Now folks we're going to show you how they make shingles.'
Then it is that Elmer Egbert's stride quickens for suddenly he has become the center of the big show, waving orders back and forth betwixt his special shingle -making machine at one end of the belt, and son Jack, or grandson Melvin on the vibrating engine deck at the opposite end. As the crowds converge in the center of the grounds, jaws drop and cuds shift from cheek to cheek while out pop the fresh new shingles from 'Uncle Elmer's' special machine. And every hand that can grab one is soon carting them off - souveniers long to be remembered of when steam was king and the building of farm houses from out the virgin timber was still a rural affair.
He's always been a sort of 'innovator' at the steam reunions, has 'Uncle Elmer' Egbert - fetching at various times either his ancient clover-huller, or web-stacker whenever he decides the onlookers need something different to keep the reunion pot boiling. And over the years, frequent sorties to the Egbert Farm near Anna in western Ohio, where Elmer lives on one side of Amsterdam Road and son Jack on the other, have afforded the onlookers the gamut of old time Americana from steam threshing and sawmilling to the making of sorghum and the fabrication of brooms.
I'll never forget my first ' invasion of the Egbert farm, armed with press cameras, flash bulbs and film, to write up one of Elmer's famous old-time threshing reunions, It was a different kind of reunion, more rural in flavor as the big Case Engine or Altmann-Taylor Gas Tractor barked and snapped at the belt in the old frame sawmill across the road while the sounds of threshing rigs vibrated and hummed in another field and the smell of slow-cooked country bean soup wafted temptingly from the big church tent at the far end of the grounds. What more delectable aroma exists for the human nostril than that of strong farm coffee blended with the delicacy of hot cylinder oil and wood smoke?
'When your story came out in the Dayton News, you called us the 'Miami Valley Threshers',' recalled Elmer Egbert to me recently. 'So, from then on we called ourselves the 'Miami Valley Threshers'. You were the one who gave us the name.'
(It was all a surprise to me, heretofore believing the only name I had changed was that of my wife's.)
After several years, The Miami Valley Steam Threshers, growing by leaps and bounds into ever bigger shows, the organization became so large that from it was born 'triplets' - the Miami Valley segment converging in the Mechanics-burg - Urbana, Ohio, area, the Darke County Steam Threshers organizing at Greenville, Ohio, while 'Uncle Elmer' Egbert kept right on holding his own special show, called The Buckeye Threshers, at his farm home near Anna.
Finally 'Uncle Elmer' got a little tired of the huge crowds which converged on his farms, later in the fall, but still wanting to hold a show, he now sends out special invitations to a few close cronies who come from far and wide to 'tend.
And to the lucky guy who gets a 'special invite', there remain all the old-time treats of a typical threshermen's reunion without the hubbub of moneymakers and carnival hawkers to distract from the more important operations of sawmilling and threshing and the folk-talk that always makes it such a venture, long to be remembered.
Too, it's always held on or near 'Uncle Elmer's' birthday - as a sort of double honor and celebration. And the honored guests, arriving unannounced from such far away places as Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky always fetch along some goodie to tickle the Egbert palate as food is piled high on the big, long threshermen's table in Jack Egbert's front yard. Here it is that the rare old-time aromas of country-cooked provender blend with the pungency of fresh sawn lumber, wood smoke and vats full of simmering sorghum, apple butter and fresh fall cider, with a sip for everyone. Later, the departing guests head homeward laden with jars of sorghum and trunks full of slab-wood for their kitchen ranges.
It's not a nerve-wracking type of reunion, friend visiting with friend and talking about the good old days, a jag of threshing with the hand-powered separator, a few timbers sawed in the shed across the way, or a stretch of plowing, with now and then a boy crawling up on the engine to yank the whistle cord -everyone doing just as he pleases till the dinner bell is rung and all jobs stop.
And at the big dinner table, there's the usual clowning, with 'Mickey' the pet Egbert pooch begging for morsels and getting them, or Percy Sherman hawking some of Elmer's fresh-made kitchen brooms to guests up and down the festive board while such visiting dignitaries as Jim Whitby or Harold Gay badger the men folk into buying membership cards with buckeyes attached - commemorating another unusual 'Buckeye Threshers' get-together.
After appetites have been appeased, the honored guests work off their 'bloating' by admiring 'Uncle Elmer's' latest venture into model-making-- a half-sized working separator, watch him run off a few brooms, or swap stories around the huge cast-iron Case eagle while sipping cider to stimulate digestion.
'We try to keep alive those wonderful days on the American, farm when we threshed and sawed by steam,' says 'Uncle Elmer' whose efforts have paid off in three generations, with son, Jack, and grandsons Melvin and Larry all taking up in the throttle-jerking footsteps of the Egbert patriarch.
Look for Elmer Egbert at the next midwestern threshermen's reunion. You won't hear him, but you'll see him, sparse of main should he tip his engineer's cap, clean-shaven of chin, except for the time he sported goat-whiskers for a special occasion.
To you, Elmer Egbert, you've done much to earn your eternal niche in ye Iron Man of the Month Hall of Fame. For you've kept the vigil, you've fanned the flames of early Americana for younger generations to see, and you've saved many a fine old steam engine, gas tractor and separator from the heartless blowtorch. May you Egberts of the three generations march on to new triumphs in your tireless efforts in behalf of posterity - that of saving and preserving our glorious Agricultural Americana.