Steam Engine Show Proud Reminder of Midwestern Heritage

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The Case tractor that transported Patricia to back to her roots.

It was the first weekend in August, which also happened to be around the anniversary of my parents’ wedding. I knew what that meant. I would be asked if I wanted to attend the Pioneer Engineer Club’s annual Steam Engine Show in Rushville, Ind., with the family. I had been to the show nearly every year for the first 15 years of my life. I was slightly interested. But given the sweltering temperatures and the exhausting Indiana humidity, I was not excited about going this year.

I had planned to help a friend move into her house that weekend, and was looking forward to giving both my parents and myself a little break from each other (I had just returned to their nest after living in Los Angeles for seven years). However, I said I would try to meet them on Sunday before the show closed.

As I cruised up the exit ramp off I-74 in my Hyundai with California plates, I hadn’t decided if I was getting gas, or actually following the route to Rushville. That is, until I found myself explaining to the parking attendant “…I really don’t need to pay, because my father is a member he has a little antique Case tractor with red wheels he’s on the other side of the arena and he meant to leave me the pass but I couldn’t find it so I left the house without it because the parade was going to start and I didn’t want to miss it and I could bring it back to prove it if you would just let me in…” Then I realized this was not L.A. Everything was going to be ok.

“Go ahead. I believe you,” the parking attendant said, and he did.

I drove past the first attendant who hollered to the next one, who was taking tickets.

“She’s with a member,” he said. “She left her pass at home!”

The next gentleman, wearing a bright orange baseball cap and a friendly expression, chuckled.

“You’re supposed to use that story tomorrow,” he said.

Of course, the show would be gone tomorrow, and the entire premises would be bare, except for the field spotted with trash, and dusty trails where hundreds of cars had parked for the four-day weekend.

Parking. Big-city instincts came over me again. This meant war. I jerked my car into second gear, honing in on the ultimate spot that everyone had apparently overlooked. Ha, ha! Fools they are. Look out: I’m a professional parking spot finder. I felt triumph. This was too good to be true. Right up front, the parking game had hardly begun, and I had found the perfect spot. RESERVED. Uh oh. Sheepishly, I found reverse with a grind and begged my way back in the line of patient Hoosiers who undoubtedly uttered something about California drivers. But they were nice enough to let me in.

I set off to find my parents who, by the way, are members and do have a little gray and red Case tractor, and who were preparing to mount their little jewel for a ride in the big closing day parade. Just then, a loud bellow of “Hoooooooooh” nearly put me on the ground. “Chug a chug a chug a chug.” Warning! It sounds large and hot, and the earth was moving. Gotta find Dad.

I looked over my shoulder to find a train without tracks! Instant respect. But I didn’t have to look, really. I knew it was there. I could draw one without a picture. It was massive. Fifteen feet tall. Its long, round nose would be black as coal, maybe with a round red circle at the end where the fire was housed. They always had a tin roof over the flat part where the engineer stood beaming, waving and working the poles that stick up to make the steam work at the right speed. He could be seen just behind the spiked red, rear wheel, where an L.A. Laker could stand spread-eagle and just meet the wheel rim. It was magnificent. And it was a hundred years old.

I moved, approaching the top of the hill, remembering the spot where childhood friends and I had once had a taffy pull to pass the time. At times during the show, hundreds of spectators would sit on plank-and-cinder-block benches in the shade, guzzling fresh lemonade or lapping swirl cones between glimpses of the action. The aroma of soot drifted through the air, smelling somehow clean and wholesome, definitely not like smog.

In the arena below me, I saw several hundred spectators, and maybe 20 massive steam engines hissing and chugging. Young children were being hoisted up to get a ride from friendly engineers, just as I had been many times. In the middle, one steam engine was hooked up to a foot-wide, 40-foot-long belt attached to a threshing machine made decades ago to detach seed from straw. That seed would have been planted the next spring, and the straw used for animal feed and bedding.

Years ago, the sole source of energy on the farm was steam. Massive 12-ton engines were routinely hooked to the long belts to perform a variety of tasks. Now, show events demonstrate the massive power used to saw logs, bale hay, even cut a watermelon. All that could be seen from the top of the hill, or up close. I was feeling glad I had come.

To the left was a field the size of a parking lot, filled with antique tractors and machinery. A haze of heat rose from the tractors’ exhaust pipes. The various manufacturers were sectioned off with banners bearing the names of companies now mostly a memory. It was easy to spot the big orange Case banner where I would find my parents.

Dad had just fired up the tractor, and, with a puff of smoke, it showed a yearning to show off in the parade. Dad behind the wheel, also yearning; Mom with her straw hat, and me standing behind on the platform, ready to go. They were surprised and delighted that I had made it with such great timing. So was I.

We waited patiently for our turn on the parade route. Mom pointed to a water spigot at a well. She claimed the water tasted exactly like the water at her grandmother’s farmhouse, where she visited as a child. I had never tasted my great-grandmother’s well water, but I could imagine the cool, tinny taste. I could also imagine my great-grandmother – whom I don’t remember – being even more familiar than I with the lifestyle the show celebrated. You could say we missed her.

As we neared the grandstand where we would be announced over a loudspeaker, the excitement grew. Our hearts were pounding; a moment of fame, I suppose. After all the years I’ve ridden in that parade, I know I will never forget the feeling of pride. I’m not sure which is greater: the pride of my Midwestern heritage, my ancestors, or my father, for his stab at preserving the past for generations to come. FC

Patricia Crowell is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Crowell, Batesville, Ind. She now lives in Austin, Texas.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment