When David Timmerman, director of the Midwest Old Threshers, proposed a tractor driving event at the 2001 reunion, he got little support, but he forged ahead carefully. The event proved so successful, he's doubled the number of tractors to be used at this year's show.
'We plan to expand this operation from the two tractors used in 2001 to four,' David says. 'I hope we can get some other tractor owners to come forward and help us out.'
The drive-a-tractor suggestion came up a year ago when David was chatting with a group of women about what would make the reunion 'perfect.' One said, 'I would like to drive a tractor,' and David thought that was a good idea.
It proved a tough one to sell, though. 'No one around me thought it could be done safely,' David says. He consulted an insurance company about the proposal and says officials there had no objections, provided he selected a safe gear and set the throttle at a safe speed.
With the help of an old friend, Hawkeye Whirrett of Dallas, David went ahead with his plans in a low-key way.
'I had never heard of any show that provides tractors for the general public to use,' David says, 'but I believe for a show to continue, it must reach out and touch the visiting public, and make them feel a part of things. Plus, a show must make obvious, positive changes while remaining mostly the same.'
David and Hawkeye laid out a triangular course about 500 feet in distance with a hairpin turn and selected two unstyled John Deere B's as driving tractors. 'When I was young, several neighbors had 'B' John Deeres for their own kids to use,' David says. 'They are small and maneuverable, but most important, they have a convenient hand clutch.'
Steps were needed on both sides of the tractors; the left one for a parent or other adult to ride on and the right one for the tractor safety person, so that person could reach the clutch and one brake should the need arise.
'We also soon found out that the safety person needed a balance handle, such as an old cultivator lever. Without the handle, the safety person must hold onto the driver and that can hinder the driving experience.'
The tractor ride was free, and no age limits or ability restrictions were set. Participants ranged in age from 3 to 70. Women outnumbered men; boys out numbered girls. No teenagers drove.
Each man had charge of one tractor: he engaged the clutch for the driver and then let that person drive the four-minute course. Several times during the five days, a tractor had to be stopped quickly with someone in the seat. It would have been hard to push the foot clutch down in time, but David had installed inexpensive kill switches to flip on such occasions. He used a 110-volt household light switch, and 'instead of drilling a hole in the magneto, we ran the kill wire up a drain hole in the Bakelite cover and twisted it to miss the rotor inside.' The metal faceplate was painted orange, which was easy for the public to see and for the tractor safety person to use; David says the highly visible kill switch also served to reassure the public that safety was a top concern.
The driving ran non-stop for six hours each day, halting only while David did his daily hay baling demonstration.
In the end, the tractor driving fitted nicely with David's idea of a successful Reunion event:
'My own personal guideline at Old Threshers is covered in just three statements: show the public how hard our ancestors worked, how smart our ancestors were and how hard our ancestors tried to reduce hard work,' he says. 'This is the basis for the heritage they handed down to us.'
This year, the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion will be Aug. 29 to Sept. 2 at McMillan Park at the Old Threshers Show Grounds, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. For more information, contact Midwest Old Threshers, 405 E. Threshers Rd., Mt. Pleasant, IA 52641, (319) 385-8937; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. The group also has a Web site: www.oldthreshers.org.