Mammoth Half Century of Progress Show puts old iron to work across more than 600 acres.
Bill Jennings’ custom-built 8-bottom plow.
It only took half an hour to find the golf cart. As I roamed through what felt like an acre of randomly parked golf carts, all of which looked more or less identical to the one I had parked an hour earlier, I had plenty of time to ponder the enormity of the Half Century of Progress show held in late August at the Rantoul, Illinois, National Aviation Center Airport.
Held every other year on the site of a decommissioned U.S. Air Force base, the show sprawls over 600 acres. Runways serve as super-highways for golf carts and all-terrain vehicles. Crops and demonstration areas cover nearly 500 acres. “Lots of shows have 40 or 50 acres,” says Vice Chairman John Fredrickson, “but there’s nothing else on this magnitude.”
The 2015 show was the seventh Half Century show. Launched in 2003 as a salute to the 50th anniversary of the Farm Progress Show, the Half Century event has evolved into one of the biggest working shows of antique farm equipment in the world. With almost 200 acres of hay ground, 230 acres in corn and 80 in beans, the site offers an unusual opportunity to put old iron through its paces. “It’s nice for people to get a chance to do some actual farming with antique equipment,” says Chairman Darius Harms.
The four-day show features a packed schedule of field demonstrations: field tillage (powered by everything from horses to steam engines to prairie tractors), corn shelling, and combining beans and corn. Smaller demonstrations (hand-cornhusking, broom making and shingle mill operation) are scattered throughout. The daily parade is held on a runway lined with spectators. In the evening, a steam engine spark show and horse and tractor pulls draw big crowds.
If you can run the mile in 4 minutes, you won’t need a golf cart or ATV to view this show. Otherwise, you’d better line up some wheels. Even if you’re not averse to walking your feet off, the distance between events is significant. Pedestrians have to hustle to get from one demonstration to the next without missing some of the action.
Show officials estimate that at least 2,000 motorized vehicles were on the move at any point during the 2015 show. That mobile mass of humanity nearly becomes an event unto itself. When a demonstration ends, an enormous tide of vehicles floods toward the next event. The herd mentality is actually quite useful. You don’t have to maintain a schedule and plot coordinates on the map: You can just follow the pack – unless, of course, you lose your cart.
Show officials have found a way to manage what might elsewhere be termed chaos with a minimum of bureaucracy. Constant reminders from the loudspeaker urge drivers to slow down. Electronic signs display drivers’ speeds as they approach. Signs urging caution are posted everywhere.
That emphasis on safety extends to the demonstration areas. “When it comes to safety, everybody’s responsible,” Darius says. Every equipment operator is required to attend a safety meeting before going to the field. Volunteers stationed at demonstrations are friendly but effective enforcers. “We try to treat people the way we’d like to be treated,” Darius says. “We know that people just want to come and enjoy the show.”
The show has no paid staff, but a small army of experienced volunteers is an invaluable asset. “Basically, people just do their jobs. Once you’re a volunteer, you have your job for life,” John says, only half kidding.
For Louie Weishaupt, Mackinaw, Illinois, the Half Century of Progress is a show and a tractor drive rolled into one big package: Louie, his brother and a couple of friends drive their exhibits to the show. “It’s 82 miles one way,” he says. “It’s a 5-1/2-hour drive, but we take breaks and that stretches it to 7 hours.” Louie’s brother drives a John Deere Model G. “That’s the slowest tractor in our group,” Louie says, “so we all run about 15 mph.”
Louie’s tractor is a 1948 Farmall Model M outfitted with a Massey-Harris picker. “I’m the only one in the group with a mounted picker,” he says. “My brother has a tractor and two wagons, one of the other guys has an International 350 Utility, and the other one has a Super H with a 1-row pull-type picker.”
The Farmall has been part of his collection since the 1970s. When he found the picker in 2007, Louie suddenly had a working display. “The picker had always been shedded,” he says. “It runs well.”
The rig takes Louie back to his youth. “Dad had an M and a picker similar to this one,” he says. “I was 12 when he quit using it, and I was pretty disappointed that I never got to run it. When I heard that they’d let anyone do demonstrations here, it was a 42-year itch that finally got scratched.”
Some people shake their heads at the distance the group covers getting to the show, but Louie takes it all in stride. “Driving it is the only way I had to get it here,” he says with a smile, but one suspects he doesn’t begrudge the trip one bit. Once he returns home, he removes the picker, which weighs 3,000 pounds. “I only use it at this show,” he says. “It tends to wear the tires down.”
Karl Jansen, Sigel, Illinois, looked a bit like the pied piper as he motored through the grounds on his 1915 Big Bull tractor. Everywhere he went, crowds gathered to ogle the rare tractor. “There are probably fewer than 50 of these left,” he says.
A hundred years earlier, though, the manufacturer – Bull Tractor Co., Minneapolis – might understandably have had high hopes for the future. In 1915, Bull was the largest selling tractor company in the U.S. But in the earliest days of tractor manufacture, competition was fierce, and by 1920, Bull had gone out of business.
Karl and Kent Jansen bought the 7-20 Big Bull at an auction. “I’d always wanted a Little Bull,” he says, “but then I found this.” Built during the model’s first year of production, the tractor had an older restoration, but was in decent running condition. “I don’t think there were many hours on it,” he says. “There wasn’t much wear on the gearing and the engine was good. Overall, it runs pretty good for a 2-cylinder opposed engine. It pulled 23 hp and held on the dynamometer.”
Big Bulls produced in 1915 were equipped with engines built by Gile Engine Co., Luddington, Michigan. Karl spent about six months restoring the tractor. “As crude as it is, it really was simple to work on,” he says.
When Paul Harms goes on vacation, he packs his favorite combine. For the second time in three years, the Benson, Illinois, man spent a week at the Half Century of Progress show, where he demonstrates his 1956 John Deere Model 45 combine. “I’ve lived on a farm all my life and I’m a mechanic,” he says. “This is my vacation.”
It’s also the closest thing to time travel he can find. “My dad owned a combine just like this when I was born,” he says. “I farmed several thousand acres, riding on the step with my dad. I rode with him for years.”
Paul (who lives near Benson, Illinois) traces his hobby back to the first Half Century show. “I was bit by antique fever at that show,” he says. Three years ago, he put out the word that he was looking for a Model 45. Within two weeks, his local John Deere dealer had found one. “I was very surprised,” he says.
Then came his demonstration debut. “There’s no trick to running the combine, but I was nervous the first time,” he admits, “with all those people around. You have to pay attention. But it was really a thrill to see the smiles on people’s faces and see spectators giving me the ‘thumbs up’ sign. People are just excited to see something that old still working.”
Bill Jennings, Elm City, North Carolina, wanted to build a plow that he could take to a show – but not just any plow. “I wanted to be able to put it in on the truck and haul it,” he says, “legally, in one piece, with minimal disassembly.”
Roughly a year later, his custom project – an 8-bottom plow – was complete. “I’ve got 300 hours in it,” he says, “not counting parts sourcing.” Using International parts, Bill started with a 6-bottom plow and added bottoms to each end. He even conceived a model designation for the piece: JXP584M (Jennings experimental 500-series plow, 8 bottoms, 14-inch cut, moldboard plow). It is, naturally, serial no. 1.
The plow made its debut in January 2015, when Bill used it in a field demonstration. “It works well,” he says. “It blows people’s minds. It’s impressive to see a straight arm plow rise right up out of the ground.”
It takes half a day to break down the plow for transport, he says. On the truck, the plow forms an arc rather than a straight line. With props and stands, Bill uses 10 chains and straps to secure the load.
He pairs the plow with a 1979 International 3588 2+2 articulated tractor. “I got the tractor in Norfolk, Nebraska, in 2009,” he says. “I was there getting some other equipment. What I really wanted was a 1456 Farmall, but then I saw this. It’s different and so am I. I bought it and I’ve had no regrets.”
The model represents International’s earliest work in articulated tractors. “They were trying to get into the four-wheel drive market,” Bill says. International built about 5,500 of the model; his is a row crop version.
When it comes to prairie tractors, it’s hard to imagine a show with a bigger display of giants than the pack on parade at the 2015 Half Century show. How many were there? Hard to say, because they were in constant motion. The group included super-sized Avery, Aultman & Taylor, Case, Hart-Parr, Holt, Minneapolis, Pioneer, Rumely and Twin City tractors.
Jim Russell’s 1917 Aultman & Taylor 30-60 tractor is not particularly rare. “It’s one of the more common prairie tractors,” he says. “There are three here this weekend.” But his is the second-oldest known A&T 30-60 in the U.S., he says. Built from 1910 to 1924, the 30-60 was a very popular model for the line.
Jim’s tractor (serial no. 106) has a tubular radiator with induction fans, a departure from the square radiator used in earlier A&T models. Weighing in at nearly 25,000 pounds, the tractor was first used in Nebraska, then North Dakota. “It spent most of its life out west,” Jim says. “It has considerable wear on the wheels and gears, so we think it might have been used in road construction, pulling an elevating grader.”
The model was popular with municipalities, where it was commonly used to pull scrapers. But when crawler tractors like the Caterpillar 60 came on the scene in the mid-1920s that was the end of the line for the big prairie tractors. “People were moving to smaller tractors,” he says.
Jim, who lives in Oblong, Illinois, has used the Aultman & Taylor on sawmills at other shows. At the Half Century show, though, he used it to pull a 5-bottom Minneapolis-Moline trip plow. “It worked really well,” he says. “This ground is incredibly hard; it really worked the engine hard.”
A 1911 Case 110 hp steam engine more than held its own among the prairie behemoths. Owned by Bill Jansen, Dieterich, Illinois, the engine was sold new in Alberta, Canada, where it broke virgin prairie using a 16-bottom plow. “When the plowing was finished, it was used in a big sawmill,” Bill says.
The Case got a workout at Rantoul, where Bill used it in demonstrations with a 12-bottom John Deere gangplow. “I really enjoy showing people how farmers made a living back in the day,” he says. “It was an incredible amount of work.”
The engine is rare on a couple of counts. “Just 910 of this model were built,” Bill says. “And this was a factory engine that stayed as a complete unit.” It had an older restoration when Bill got it about eight years ago. Three years ago, he added new gears and axles. “It was in good shape when we got it,” he says. “We’ve really just done general maintenance.”
Bill is a dutiful caretaker of the century-plus relic. “We just feel very fortunate, very privileged to own it,” he says. “My grandfather Jansen had a steam engine when I was a little kid, so I had been around steam engines. When my dad took me to shows, I thought they were just the coolest things.”
Maybe it was the John Deere 112 garden tractor “operated” by a mannequin wearing a John Deere ball cap and a Half Century of Progress T-shirt. Maybe it was the life-size black rubber rats climbing up the side of a metal corncrib. Either way, onlookers figured out pretty quickly that the display managed by Shawn Ashby represented a sharp detour from business as usual.
A John Deere elevator powered by a 3 hp John Deere Model E gas engine dumped ear corn into a metal corncrib. From the other end of the crib, a Minneapolis-Moline elevator fed ears into a MM sheller (powered by a John Deere 730 Diesel tractor) stationed nearby. Closing the loop, a John Deere garden tractor was belted to a John Deere round-tube elevator used to load shelled corn into a wagon. “You’ve got to do things a little different here to get people to stop and look,” says Shawn, who lives in Camden, Indiana.
The display has evolved over the years, and all of it is road-ready in one way or another. The metal corncrib, for instance, is outfitted with a self-cleaning, sloped bottom – and brakes, stop and turn lights. “It’s not your normal corncrib,” Shawn allows. On the semitrailer, not an inch is wasted. “We get the round tube on there, two garden tractors, the gas engine, the speed jack and the Ranger,” he says. FC
For more information, Half Century of Progress 2017, Rantoul National Aviation Center Airport, Rantoul, Illinois. Contact Darius Harms, (217) 202-0970;
Leslie C. McManus – who lost and found her golf cart not once, but twice, at the Half Century of Progress show – is the senior editor of Farm Collector. Contact her by email.