Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion

One granddaddy of a show at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion in Rollag, Minn.

| November 1999

The noise swells prior to 10 a.m. each day as the old tractors clear their throats, thumping and cracking, while steam tractors hiss and emanate the sweet smell of wood smoke over the eastern end of 240 acres belonging to the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers' Reunion at Rollag, Minn. It's time for another Reunion, this 1999 edition being the 46th. 

"There is so much to see," says WMSTR President Eric Nelson, "that we like to say you can't see it all in one day."

"If you've never been to Rollag, you haven't lived," Richard Birklid of rural Nome, N.D., told me a few years ago. Over the years, as I've interviewed people who own Quonsets full of the big old tractors, or steam engines, or even farm toys, they've all echoed Richard's thoughts.

This isn't my first year here, but as always, the first place to start at Rollag is with the Parade of Engines. In the half hour before the parade starts, you might think you're going to get overwhelmed by smoke as the steamers warm up. But it's a chance to get close to them, and see how they operate, and hear how softly most of them go about their business. Except for the backfiring of an old gas tractor nearby, you can hear talking from knots of people gathered around the old beasts.

Each year dozens of the featured tractors – in 1999 it was the Massey-Harris – begin their steady trek around the gravel track, two by two, and then creep slowly up the hill in front of the reviewing stand (the Information Building), where Earl Herbranson sits behind a second-story window, identifying each big beast as it passes. He indicates (without notes) the manufacturer, model, size of the tractor, and interesting information about the machine ("That 1913 40 hp Avery steam engine is one of only two known to exist today. The other one is in a museum in Canada." "The Port Huron steam engine might be the only one on display west of the Mississippi River."), as well as a few words about the owner of the tractor, and the engineer for the machine. It was a happy surprise to see many women driving tractors or operating the steam engines, and having fun around the machines. Despite rain that dampened this year's show, thousands of people (last year's International Harvester celebration brought the biggest crowd ever, 90,000) were on hand for the parade. The procession included hundreds of other tractors in addition to the featured lines. Many you've doubtless heard about, like Rumely OilPulls, Case, and John Deere. Those and many others mix with less-familiar names, like the Gaar-Scott Tiger Pull, the Little Bull, Heider and Gray. One of the more fun machines in this year's run was that Gaar-Scott Tiger Pull, because it's an unusual one, with an unusual name.

Next come the steam engines, bedecked in fine colors, the rivets in their boilers visible. The machines are guided by fully-qualified steam attendants (each is required to pass courses in the University of Rollag College of Steam Traction Engineering, held each June in the tiny town (population: 21). There they learn all the rudiments of steam power, as well as steam whistle signals ("Steam is up, one long; come to work, one long, one short; lunch or closing time, one long, held.").