65 Case engine

Anthony Carlson at controls of a 65 Case engine at the 1983 Steam & Gas Show in Roosevelt, Minnesota. Dale Nielson is assisting.

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Pictures from Carlos Grove

What's in Northern Minnesota besides timber, wolves, bears, moose, Indians and a few hardy Swedes and Norwegians trying to eke an existence out of a harsh frozen land? This is the question that most of the folks in the United States south of the Twin Cities ask the Minnesotans that they meet in other parts of the country.

Well, the folks from Roosevelt, Warroad, Roseau and Greenbush will tell you that there's the Lake of the Woods Steam and Gas Engine Show at Grove Farms a few miles north of Roosevelt, Minnesota on the first weekend in August every year.

If you have a feeling for farming, love nostalgia and remember how our parents and grandparents made their living from the land and earned their daily bread by the sweat of their brow, then this is the place to be. As we turn north from Highway 11 onto Route 17, we see fertile farm land interspersed with woodland. Wheat, oats, flax, corn, hay and sunflowers are awaiting the giant combines and balers. Birch, aspen, spruce, tamarack and ash shelter deer, other animals and birds. Farm houses, barns, grain bins surrounded by shelter breaks of trees seem to sit close to the land.

After a zig and a zag where the road follows the section lines, we are greeted by a large sign announcing the Lake of the Woods Steam and Gas Engine Show and we turn into the show grounds. We are warmly welcomed and shown to a nice shady spot where we parked our Prowler travel trailer. We meet Alice, Carlos, John and Leon Grove, Grace and Cliff Comstock, Jake Janzen, Jay and Jeanette Estling, Millard Jensen, the Shimpa family and many others who are busy getting the equipment, signs, food and supplies organized for the opening the next day. On the grounds is a large assortment of old steam traction engines, old gas and kerosene tractors, large and small, gasoline stationary engines, threshing machines or separators, hand and horse operated plows, a beautiful old cutter and other old farm machinery. Scale model threshing machines and a scale model sawmill are powered by a scale model steam engine operated by the Shimpas of Erskine, Mn. One of the most impressive exhibits is a huge old operating sawmill, complete with resaw and edger and slab cut off saw, all powered by a large steam traction engine via long, flat, flexible belts. This mill is owned by the Cliff Comstock family, who have used this very same mill and steam traction engine since the early 1900's to saw large tracts of timber in this vicinity of northern Minnesota. This mill produced one million board feet of lumber in its heyday under three generations of Comstocks. It is in perfect operating condition, and the Comstocks demonstrate the speed and efficiency of this beautiful old machinery that converts the waste slabs from the logs into steam that powers the mill operation. There is a shingle mill that converts fifteen inch blocks of cedar logs into fine tapered wonderful smelling natural cedar shingles that most of the early homes and barns were roofed with. There is a natural beauty to buildings of rough sawn lumber with cedar shingle roofs that seems to be just right in a wooded setting.

There are wagon loads of bundles of oats, cut and bound by an early McCormick binder, that made possible larger scale grain farming and freed men from the sycthe and cradle type of harvesting that had prevailed since Biblical times.

On the west side of the grounds an ancient steam traction engine was huffing and puffing amid clouds of steam and wood smoke, as it furnished belt power for an old threshing machine, into which bundles of oats were being fed by men in blue cotton shirts and bib overalls. Smoke and dust swirled around the men while a steady stream of oats flowed into a farm wagon, and straw was blown 30 to 50 feet into a pile. These straw piles were a fun place for children to play, a hideaway place for hens to hide their eggs and then emerge a few weeks later with a flock of baby chicks; rats and mice burrowed mazes of tunnels at which the dogs sniff and dig.

There are many large buildings that serve the purpose of covered storage for the many priceless, irreplaceable relics of a bygone era. On the southwest corner is an old log home built of logs hewn square with broadaxes, which is an art in itself. The early log homes were small, with low ceilings and small windows in order to conserve heat in the bitter, cold winters. This log house is furnished as it was in the early 1900's. A mini museum has displays of a wide variety of items found in pioneer homes.

This very land was pioneered by the Grove family in the early 1900's as they moved onto land that had been already timbered, and consisted mostly of stumps and rocks. These had to be pulled and removed by manpower and horsepower, in order to plant crops and raise a family.

These beautiful fields of hay and grain didn't just happen. They were the result of endless days of soul numbing, unbelievably hard physical work. This is the type of forge that tempers men's souls and spirits.

Another building is the kitchen and dining hall where the ladies served coffee, pancakes, homemade donuts, farm fresh eggs, and sausages to the workers every morning and food and drink to the public during the show. These mothers and grandmothers were as much at ease as they had been in earlier times feeding threshing crews in the summer and logging crews in the winter. For them, it was a time of visiting and catching up on local and family news and happenings. There was an open sided building where Jake Janzen and family had a large display of old stationary gas and kerosene engines that were used to pump water, grind grain, saw wood and shell grain on the farms. All of these were in good operating condition and we could see and hear chugging and popping which means so much more than viewing the same behind glass in a museum.

Another building that was used for machinery storage had a display of early hand tools for wood working, logging and farming, all displayed on the walls.

The highlight of the show was a twice daily parade of steam traction engines, antique gasoline and kerosene tractors, very old autos and trucks around the show grounds. Just to hear those steam whistles is enough to transport you back to the turn of the century.

Names that were household words and have long since vanished from the contemporary vocabulary, flashed before our eyes as vital and alive as if we were transported by a time machine back to the 1900's... Minneapolis, Rumley, Titan, Bates Iron Mule, Liberty, McCormick Deering, Twin City, John Deere, Farmers Union Co-op, Case, Advance, Hart Parr, Massey-Harris, Waterloo Boy, Mogul, Bessemer, Fairbanks Morse, Otto, Moline and others.

Even more remarkable were the actual living, breathing settlers that were willing to talk to us and tell us of their experiences in days gone by. There was Ed Grill, 97 years old, who started firing a steam traction engine for threshing and sawing when he was 13 years old...Anthony Carlson, 92 years old and Herbert Reese, 84 years old, who wrote a book, '75 Years of Blazing Trails', about building roads and highways in Minnesota, Canada and Alaska. He had dealerships for Whippet, Willys Knight, Buick and GMC autos and trucks; flew airplanes, operated sawmills and farmed.

Millard Jensen's family moved from North Dakota to Roseau, Minnesota in 1927 in a wagon pulled by a team of horses along the sand ridge that was the shore of the ancient Lake Agassiz, that is now Highway 11.

The Estlings moved from Green-bush to Roosevelt and now operate a large farm that supports and keeps busy four families.

We just didn't have enough time to hear all the tales of good times, hard times, the 'dirty thirties', the 'fabulous forties', of summer farming and winter logging in temperatures down to 40° below. But of the stories we did hear, we realized that no matter what the hardship, they continued to build and create.

We feel richer for having been to the Lake of the Woods Steam and Gas Engine Show. We were pleased to see this type of living history preserved for future generations of Americans.