The Chris Busch Threshing Bee

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Ypsilanti, Michigan

It would seem rather trite to describe the Chris Busch Threshing Bee as something special and unique since there are so many other thresher reunions of a somewhat special nature that are held throughout the summer months in other parts of the country. However, there is a refreshing difference in the format and the environmental locale of the Busch Reunion that gives it, among other things, the quality of a big family reunion. This basic difference is primarily due, I think, to the wholesome country-home atmosphere and the warm friendly spirit that abounds so predominantly at the Busch ranch.

The great majority of the other reunions are held on a county fair grounds or in large city parks, and, due to such unnatural and offbeat locations, they tend to imitate professional show business by featuring a variety of stunts, some silly if not completely ridiculous, which require a type of rigorous and unnatural performance that is entirely foreign and unrelated to grain threshing. And worse of all, by performing such foolish antics the present time old equipment is subjected to stresses and strains that were never anticipated by the designers and manufacturers of threshing machinery.

The basic idea and main purpose motivating the Busch Reunion is to recreate and duplicate, as nearly as practicable, without any item of the inconsistent show 'whoopala' being involved, the threshing operation that was current in the Northwest before the combine came into general use to displace the steam threshing rigs.

The Busch Threshing Bee is held in the heart of the great wheat-producing area of the Northwest, locally known as the 'Palouse Country'. While this section is mostly confined in the southeastern part of Washington, some of it does stretch over into parts of Idaho. The Busch Ranch is in Whitman County which is, according to government statistics, the greatest wheat-producing county in the U.S.

The Busch barn yard, and its immediate surroundings, is a veritable museum for some thirty, or more, old steam traction engines in various stages of repair. However, a few of these old steam engines are in a practicable operational condition. They may need a shim here and there to take up lost motion; a few nuts to betightened;possibly a new gasket or two; stuffing boxes freshly packed and made steam tight; and, with the required water level in the boiler assured and all moving parts properly oiled, these old engines are again in prime running order to belch smoke from their stacks and be in active service as soon as the steam pressure mounts up to the working pressure.

The Busch Reunion actually starts in a rather unofficial manner about two, or more, days before the main event. A couple or more house trailers will move in and set up living quarters in the back yard, while others will come with bed rolls to establish sleeping quarters in the barn. This is the 'advance guard' that arrives to 'slick-up' and condition the old engines that are to operate; to get the grain separators in proper working order; and to get the cook wagon cleaned and in a perfect sanitary condition, together with all the other accessories that are to function during the main event. During these preparatory days many interested visitors will stop to stroll among the old engines, and to reminisce about the 'good old days when Steam was King.'

The first real official act of the Busch Threshing Bee takes place on a Saturday evening, preceding the main event. This is one of the regular meetings of the Western Steam Fiends Association and is, at this time, held in the spacious gymnasium of the Colton High School. At this meeting the first item on the agenda is an elaborate banquet sponsored by a group of local high school pupils. Following, there is a talk by a speaker, or moving pictures are shown, and finally there is an election of officers including a discussion and disposal of all other pertinent business matters. The Western Steam Fiends Association is unique in that it is the only association of its kind, I know of whereby each member receives a printed roster of the membership, together with addresses in addition to the usual membership card and button. In all the other thresher associations one can feel very much alone, for he has no way of knowing the name and addresses of his fellow members.

The next day, the big eventful day, activity starts early at the Busch home. The engine men are also 'on the job' early and have their engines 'all tinkered up' to be in a smooth running order for the curious inspection and appraisement of the eager crowd that is soon to appear.

Hardly before faint wisps of steam becomes visible around the engines, the earliest visitors start converging at the entrance from opposite directions. At the same time there is also some evident and unmistakable first signs of activity taking place in the cook wagon.

By ten o'clock cars are arriving from both directions in such numbers that they 'bunch up' to form a solid phalanx at the entrance. A sheriff and two deputy sheriffs are overly busy keeping the dense traffic unscrambled while it is being funneled, single file, into the driveway and on into the parking lots. By now several steam engines become activated and, during the spasmodic 'limbering-up' trials, they belch forth intermittent clouds of smoke and steam as a convincing evidence of their ability to be 'up and going' again. At this time one side of the cook wagon opens up and a line of hungry patrons form to be served tasty plate lunches. In a short time the 'lunch line' becomes quite long, but the efficient cook-wagon crew work hard to 'melt the long line down' to normal size by serving lunches with an efficient performance comparable to an assembly-line precision and speed.

About twelve o'clock a major lineup of all the operational equipment takes place to form a grand parade to the wheat stacks in the near-by field. Chris with his favorite Minneapolis engine, hitched to a Case separator, heads the parade which is followed by a stocky team of horses pulling a Case portable engine. Also in the line-up is an undermounted Avery engineered by Ray Campbell and an old return-flue Buffalo-Pitts engineered by Ernie Burnett, Sr. (Ernie, Jr. could not be present), and while the entire line-up moves slowly out to the stacks of grain, an eager and lively crowd follows closely in the rear to make up the tail end of the parade. It must be noted while threshing, the engines are fired with straw which requires a special technique on the part of the fireman if he is going to maintain a proper head of steam. There was also in the field, in addition to the 1912 Minneapolis straw burner, a six horsepower portable Case engine which was belted to a second old-time Case separator, an outfit that also did a bit of threshing.

A steady line of cars continued to arrive until quite late in the afternoon and it was estimated that something like 5,000 spectators were more than anxious and extremely interested to see an old time threshing demonstration enacted in an realistic fashion. As the day drew to a close it marked the end of a climatic event the fourteenth annual Busch Threshing Bee that has again exhibited of what was, at one time, a typical method of threshing grain wherever grain was raised, and now a method of threshing that has long since become obsolete as a necessary link in grain production. May future Busch Threshing Bees continue to keep alive the glorious memories of those days when the steam traction engine and the grain separator were a dominant factor in the harvest activity.