Show Volunteers at Midwest Old Threshers

For the thousands who attend antique farm equipment shows each summer, it's all about fun. But for a show volunteer, it's a good deal closer to work.

| September 2006

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    Horses and a vintage steamer are used alternately to power the sorghum press. The juice extracted from sweet sorghum cane is cooked down to a dark, thick syrup by the Heaton family.
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    Ted Hunter has as much fun watching spectators as he does operating this 1937 Northwest quarry shovel.
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    Volunteers passing the torch to a new generation: Guided tractor rides are a hit with small fry.
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    For the Heaton family, cooking sorghum at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion is a longstanding family tradition. Left to right: Bob Heaton, his sister, Nancy Heaton; nephews Clint and Ryan Welch, and Bob and Nancy's sister, Betty Jo Kennedy. Bob began operating a steam engine at the show when he was 12; Nancy's first visit to Mt. Pleasant came when she was 5 days old.
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    Alice Rohrssen, an operator at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion steam power house, with a unit produced by Vilter Mfg. Co., Milwaukee. "This was used to pump ammonia," she says. "It ran continually from 1908 to the 1950s, when it was retired, and never failed once."
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    The Midwest Electric Railway at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, carries significant commuter traffic from campgrounds to the show, but also ferries visitors from the show to the Log Village, a rustic frontier exhibit at the far end of the show grounds.
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    Ted Hunter has near complete responsibility for a 1937 Northwest Quarry Shovel at Mt. Pleasant.
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    Bob Gael is one of 100 volunteers who keep the Midwest Electric Railway running. Volunteers in that program come from Maine, Massachusetts, Virginia, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Texas and Colorado. "It really is a reunion," Bob muses. "These people are a family."

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For the thousands who attend antique farm equipment shows each summer, it's all about fun. But for a show volunteer, it's a good deal closer to work.

The Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, is a classic example. A small army of volunteers take tickets, man equipment, operate transportation systems, direct traffic, answer questions, sell buttons and manage exhibits. Working in weather that can range from typhoon to inferno, volunteers put in long hours to make the show a success. For the workers, it's no small irony that the show ends on Labor Day. But there's also no mistaking that – for the dedicated volunteer – working at a show is a labor of love.

Living a legacy

Alice Rohrssen is a woman of diverse interests: woodworking, silversmithing, pottery – and antique stationary steam engines. At the 2005 Old Threshers Reunion, the Marengo, Iowa, woman worked a regular shift as an operator at the steam powerhouse. Keeping a watchful eye on a 1908 Vilter originally used to pump ammonia, she traced the route that brought her to Mt. Pleasant.

"My grandmother was the first woman to study mechanical engineering at Iowa State," she notes with pride. "My grandfather also studied engineering there, and my dad was involved in historic preservation. When I come here, I get to play with the engines, but I don't have to buy one and store it. At the same time, I feel like I'm helping keep a piece of Americana alive."



As a steam operator, Alice knows she' a bit unique at Mt. Pleasant ("There are other women volunteers, but they don't tend to work on machinery"), but she doesn't give it much thought. Mostly, she's busy answering visitors' questions and manning the engine. She participates in workdays before the reunion, welcomes opportunities to tear into a piece of equipment and relishes the relationships she's made. "I wouldn't miss this for the world," she says. "It's a great bunch of people here, and I get to play with big boy toys and get out of the house. It's just fun."

Running the quarry shovel

"What is today? Saturday?"