2015 Half Century of Progress Show

Mammoth Half Century of Progress Show puts old iron to work across more than 600 acres.


| January 2016



8 bottom plow

Bill Jennings’ custom-built 8-bottom plow.

Photo by Teri McManus

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.

Wheels make it work

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.