Steam Became A Family Affair


The Brodbeck family poses in front of their 32 HP Reeves. Right to left, Shirley, Roland, Barb, Beth, Ken, and Marvin.

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Treas. National Threshers Assoc. 7873 Yankee Road Ottawa Lake, Michigan 49267

Steam engine fires were allowed to die but the spark of an idea to have hometown threshing bees stayed alive with many people who attended that first threshing meet on the LeRoy Blaker farm in Alvordton, Ohio, in June of 1945. Do you, or your show, have roots in the oldest organized steam show in the United States, The National Threshers Association? Then come on home to the 50th Reunion June 22-26, 1994, and tell your story. In the meantime, I'd like to tell you my story and why I'll be looking for you.

Do all children like trains? Mine listened for the whistle of the switch train at the local grain elevator, played with toy trains, and now they've run a steam train at the county fair and have grown up on the Port Huron steam traction engine from the sawmill of LeRoy Blaker, founder of The National Threshers Association, Inc. Today, Roland is a director, Beth is secretary, Ken and Barb visit and help out, husband Marvin is president, and I'm the treasurer of that same organization.

Being farmers, we were always supplementing our farm income with off-farm trucking. Somehow Percy Sherman of Palmyra, Michigan, knew of our lowboy trailer (he also sawed lumber for Marvin's father's house), and when Hugh Driggs stopped hauling his and Percy's Russell engines to the NTA, Percy asked if we'd do it. Well, anything for a buck, and we began many loads of steam engines and such. It was hard work getting planks lined just right and blocked strong enough for those heavy engines to climb. Quite a skill to drive up and drive off, without falling off.

John Limmer of Perrysburg gave us many pointers on proper loading and tie-down of each precious cargo. It wasn't long before we were hauling six to eight engines to NTA's annual June Reunion. We had a converted school bus camper, and the children, aged 6, 8, 10, and 12, soon learned how much fun a steam show was. They took to hanging out on Percy's Russell with the flags and bull on the front. They listened respectfully to old timers tell stories of the threshing rings and just what made each engine tick. We even bought a collection of back issues of The Iron Men Album magazine and read them from cover to cover. Little did we suspect that one day we would sit on our very own engine.

In 1976 we had a special lowboy trailer made to haul our trenching machine. It turned out to be the cat's meow for hauling engines, and our list of engines grew to include pickups in seven midwestern states.

We celebrated the 25th reunion with the NTA at Wauseon, Ohio, as LeRoy Blaker and wife, Lucille, stepped down as president and secretary-treasurer, and Ernest and Ilva Hoffer of Toledo, Ohio, came to bat. When LeRoy died, Marvin trucked some equipment from Wauseon back to the family farm in Alvordton for the estate sale of the founder of the oldest organized steam show. He also attended the sale to visit with steamer friends (I thought), while the children and I stayed home to farm.

When Marvin returned, he smugly suggested he'd purchased a few burning barrels and had to return the next day to pick them up. He took Ken and Beth with him and still pretended he was picking up the 24-75 Port Huron for someone else. Lo and behold, it was brought to our house, and there were four happy children, one peacock father, and a mighty agitated mother wondering WHAT are we doing with a steam engine. Who knows how to run it? Marvin's father and uncle had a clover huller, separator and corn shredder. Another uncle had the Baker engine. What did we know about steam? Marvin said he operated the straw blower as a child.

Never underestimate a farmer. If he doesn't know, he'll find out, and when he needs parts Shirley can get in the car or truck and go fetch. A retired steam boiler operator from the local cement plant was a former fireman on a train and assisted at our first firing. The 24-75 was in fine shape and only needed a paint job. Then came my first trial of finding the proper color. Needless to say, OSHA blue wasn't original, but helped us pick our Port Huron out of the lineup.

We showed the Port Huron for the first time in June of 1976 at Wauseon, and then hit three USA Bicentennial parades in one day on July 4 with flags flying and whistle trilling. We were big and little kids with a new toy. The Port Huron was hooked up to a modern disc and given a real workout on wheat stubble. City neighbors to the south would come by to see what all the smoke and whistles were about. Each child took a turn at the steering position.

Boys and girls alike (Ken, Barb, Beth and Roland), they learned to haul coal, fire, steer, shine brass bands, load and unload, watch the water glass, build a fire with a draft, clean flues, belt up and put on a spark show. How many times does it take to crank around the corner? They even learned to play softball on engines (thanks to Mason, Michigan, friends), flatten the balls when running bases, and just like a 'hole in one,' sometimes the errant ball went down the smokestackan automatic out. They're not above hijinks of their own with late night toilet papering of certain engines at shows or where did those feathers come from when a Rumely Oil-Pull started?

None of us realized how important steam would become to our family in the following years. President Ernest Hoffer died and Ilva finished the term doing the biggest share of show organizing with VP Dan Heid's help. THEN! I don't know how it happened, but Marvin and Shirley Brodbeck were the new president and secretary-treasurer. What did we know about running the oldest organized steam show in the U.S.?

With the help of Ilva and wonderful member volunteers, patient flea market and concessionaires, we were helped along and the NTA has grown in size and members, to the Golden 50th Reunion which will be held June 22-26, 1994. Eight years on farm at Alvordton, twelve at fairgrounds in Montpelier, Ohio, and then on to Wauseon where it remains today. Wonderful people have made our work fun. It is a reunion of like-minded people and we enjoy working and playing together. Why, I've even shocked wheat. NTA Chaplain Daniel Bare surprised me by officiating at a renewal of our wedding vows on our 25th wedding anniversary at a potluck and square dance in our barn arranged by our children and Marvin. Another surprise was being treated to a bouquet of flowers and a rousing blast of whistles from the engineers at the Central States Threshermens' Reunion on our 35th anniversary.

The National Threshers currently has over 2500 members in 32 states, Canada, and at various times, had members in Singapore, England, Japan, Germany and Holland. We've gone to shows in Canada and England, and spotted engines in Yugoslavia, France, and on a tote bag in Malaysia. Friends have seen them in Chile and in Australia. They're everywhere if you just look.

Yes, that old steam cylinder oil gets in your blood and never seems to fade. We've made new friends and lost some, but their spirit lives on in our children who have learned to love and care for the old steam engines. The John Deere has a nice pop and hum, but can it ever beat the steady chug of a well fired steamer on the separator or sawmill? Regardless of our favorites, gas or steam, it's the people who keep us coming back for more.

Our engines (did I say Marvin and Roland, with lots of help from Frank Miller of Kewanna, Indiana, restored the 32 HP Reeves purchased from the estate of Charlie Harrison of Fredericktown, Ohio?) have been in parades, won Best Restored Engine at NTA in Wauseon, powered a sawmill on the state capitol lawn in Lansing, Michigan, pulled school floats, steamed sweetcorn, played Softball, competed in slow races and tug of wars, plowed, disced, melted ice, climbed hills, steamed tankers, threshed, sawed lumber and watermelons, put on spark shows, and at a local county fair, pulled the pulling sled right out the door after tractor pulling night (a tradition that Walter Knapp and Percy Sherman started). Unfortunately, the fair has decided to move on, and this will be the first time in over 40 years that a steam traction engine won't be active on the grounds. The first engine we ever hauled, belonging to Harry Rau, is on exhibit at the fair.

Roland Brodbeck on the Brodbeck family's 32 HP Reeves Canadian Special. The entire family, all of whom are very active members of the National Threshers Association, Inc., are excitedly preparing for the Association's 50th annual show, which will be held June 22-26, 1994 in Wauseon, Ohio. For the whole story, look inside for 'Steam Became a Family Affair,' by Shirley Brodbeck.

Oh my, I'm beginning to sound like one of those Old Timers. I could go on and on. Suffice to say, this is one happy lady (tired, maybe) looking forward to the 50th when we'll have 50 working engines on the infield at the Fulton County Fair Grounds in Wauseon, Ohio. The wheat has been cut, the coal order placed, musical entertainment lined up. Is your vacation set? You won't want to miss being a part of this great show. Come tell your story on June 22-26, 1994. Meet old friends and make some new ones. I'll be looking for you.