Settled between 1834 and 1835, Rockford, Illinois, is located midway between Chicago, on Lake Michigan, and Galena, Illinois, a few miles from the Mississippi River.
The city was the home of several early manufacturers of farm machinery and tools such as Thompson & Co., producer of the Manny reaper, and Emerson-Brantingham, which built a variety of farm implements.
One of the city’s prime attractions – Midway Village Museum – is a vibrant link to that heritage. Midway Village Museum consists of a 148-acre campus including a 13-acre village depicting life in northern Illinois from 1890 to the 1920s. The village is home to 26 historical buildings, including a restored timber frame barn, a school, fire and police stations, homes and offices, a mill with a waterwheel, and a blacksmith shop.
Midway Village staff and volunteers in period-appropriate dress give tours of the village, and are stationed in various buildings during special events. About a dozen volunteers, all members of the museum’s blacksmith club, work in the village blacksmith shop, putting on demonstrations for visitors. And it is there that this story begins.
About 10 years ago, a handful of the Midway Village blacksmiths discovered a 1926 Case threshing machine in one of the museum’s back storage sheds. After evicting a family of raccoons, several of the smiths began a restoration project, making replacement parts and pieces in the blacksmith shop and at one member’s well-appointed woodworking shop.
One thing led to another. As the project neared completion, an arrangement was made with a local farmer for a trailer-load of standing winter wheat. Not having a grain harvester at that time, the crew cut the standing wheat by hand using a gas-powered hedge trimmer and hand-tied the cut grain into bundles. The bundles were loaded on a car-hauler trailer that was pulled to the museum grounds and parked by the restored thresher.
On the day of the museum’s Scarecrow Harvest Festival, the thresher was ready to go to work. A restored 1936 John Deere Model B was belted to the thresher and several members of the blacksmith club pitched bundles and bagged wheat.
Museum officials were pleased with the threshing demonstration. To encourage more of the same, they offered the group several acres of ground for “farming.” At that point, this unofficial offshoot of the blacksmith group began acquiring, repairing and restoring additional antique implements like a ground-powered corn binder unearthed in a back building at the museum. Other implements were donated by local farmers, and a few were scooped up from online sites.
A wire-tie hay press built by Sandwich Mfg. Co., Sandwich, Illinois, dating to about 1900 was restored to bale the straw produced by the threshing machine at the next harvest festival. A John Deere Model A and a Farmall 340, both owned by members of the group, were also brought back to life. Subsequent acquisitions include a ground-powered sickle bar mower, grain binder, Fairbanks-Morse and Sandwich hit-and-miss engines, plows, disks, drags, planter, gristmill and two wagons.
The blacksmith-turned-farmers conducted the restoration work themselves, sometimes making parts in the blacksmith shop. Sometimes they’d scour the Internet for information on their projects; other times they figured out how they are supposed to work through observation and hands-on examination. Agricultural engineering of the past remains a marvel.
Take the Appleby knotter on the group’s grain binder. “It’s an amazing mechanical device that loops the twine around the bundle of wheat, ties a knot and kicks out the bundle,” one member says. “With the binder stationary and no wheat in the machine, the knotter can be manually cycled in slow motion and it is amazing to watch. You can see the needle come up from below, see the twine holder grab the twine from the needle. Then the knotter hook takes the twine from the twine holder and spins around and makes a knot.”
Although the members of the farmers group remain an informal offshoot of the Midway Village Blacksmiths, today all are full-fledged Midway Village volunteers. The group of about a dozen operates without officers or formal meetings. Attuned to the rhythms of the agricultural year, the farmers stay in touch through email. Topics range from “should we plow the corn field next Saturday?” or “is the ground still too wet?” to “we better bind the wheat this weekend as a storm is forecast for Monday.”
The farmers are active throughout the year. There’s plowing in spring and fall, planting, harvest, threshing and baling. With the schedule dictated by prevailing weather conditions, those events are not held as public demonstrations. But because their field is bordered on one side by the busy Perryville Road, occasional spectators turn up. The group currently harvests corn, wheat and pumpkins. Some of these activities are done as demonstrations during museum events; most are just for fun, with no audience.
The Scarecrow Harvest Festival, when the farmers’ corn shocks and pumpkins add a seasonal touch throughout the village, remains the big event of the year. Then the thresher goes to work, flanked by antique tractors and wagons. After threshing, the grain is ground into flour. Some finds its way into a bread machine used to produce a loaf of fresh-baked bread that the farmers enjoy at the end of the festival.
The group has a perse membership. Retired architectural engineer Norm Meyer, who is a “real” farmer, acts as the group’s unofficial adviser. Hal Beitlich, owner of the Farmall 340, was a Wisconsin dairy farm kid before attending the University of Wisconsin. Today he’s retired from a career as a contract administrator for United Technologies Corp. Leon Kitzmiller, another UTC retiree, traces his passion for farm machinery and tractors to his childhood on a farm in northern Illinois.
Others in the group have no real farming background, just affection for traditional farming techniques and rusty farm implements. Among them: Doug Pripps (the author’s son), an aircraft fuel system engineer for Woodward Governor and the owner of the John Deere A; Joe Sacoia, a recently retired engineer; and Jim Will, a retired pharmacist.
A combination of nostalgia, a passion for history and an appreciation for all things mechanical comes together in this hobby. “If we’re not having fun,” the farmers are fond of saying, “we must be doing something wrong.” FC
For more information: Midway Village Museum, 6799 Guilford Rd., Rockford, IL 61107; (815) 397-9112; online at www.midwayvillage.com. The 2018 Scarecrow Harvest Museum is set for Oct. 6.
After 36 years in the aircraft industry, Bob Pripps returned to his first love and began writing about tractors. He has authored some 30 books on the subject and several magazine articles. Pripps has a maple syrup farm near Park Falls, Wisconsin. In harvesting the maple sap, he relies on a Ford Jubilee and a Massey Ferguson 85.