A Hoosiev Town and Her Engines

| November/December 1994

  • Models
    With models by Don Irvin, Dr. Robert T. Rhode built this diorama, ''First Morning of a Hoosier Harvest,'' to accompany his article on the steam-power era in Pine Village, Indiana. Photographed by Terry L. Bond, Jr.

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Northern Kentucky University Nunn Drive Highland Heights, KY 41099

Pine Village huddles on the prairie land of Warren County in the north-west corner of Indiana near the Illinois border. Author Jane Smiley could have been describing the terrain there: '... the earth was unquestionably flat, the sky unquestionably domed ... as flat and fertile, black, friable, and exposed as any piece of land on the face of the earth..' The town of two-hundred citizens has changed little since the early twentieth century- State routes 26 and 55 now wear a coat of blacktop; the railroad has vanished, leaving only a hump in the road; bams once full of livestock stand empty; cars and trucks tear along the highways; otherwise, the hamlet could pass for an older version of itself. An indifferent person might conclude that Pine Village is merely another among hundreds of small towns in middle America the kind that slow one down to thirty-five miles-per-hour while one is on a fast trip the kind one barely notices. More discerning people, though, recognize that such towns as Pine Village have enviable legacies. These villages hosted the predominantly rural way of life during the era of steam power and merit acclaim for establishing on a strong agricultural foundation America's greatness.

To detect this honorable heritage requires slowing down. It requires concentration and imagination. It requires listening to those who remember.

Slowing down this means not moving so quickly in one's speedy car or in one's mind, incessantly hunting the pleasures of today; rather, this means stopping long enough to catch the faint fragrance of yesterday. One concentrates on a square foot of water in a ditch in spring and begins to notice a fascinating universe of life, including frogs' eggs and larvae. One next concentrates on the immensity of the black soil stretching like a table in all directions to a hazy line of treeless horizon. One concentrates on a barn, perhaps the only object above the level surface of the land. One imagines that, not so long ago in world history, near that bam, a steam engine and separator threshed wheat. Listening this means paying attention to that stray anecdote woven into the mundane conversation of a farmer who recalls that threshing rig. The past cannot resist such disciplined effort and will come out of hiding. Then the bleak landscape flashes into the brilliant color of yesteryear. The mind is peopled with an energetic community helping one another with the tremendous task of harvesting hundreds of acres.

Pine Village provided the center of life, hard work, and promise for its citizens in the early 1900s. Before television had robbed people of their hours spent talking together on a porch, before ease of travel had de-emphasized the importance of visiting with nearest neighbors, before the 'fast-food' mentality of 'I want and deserve everything now' had replaced the wisdom of patience, and before thoughts of self had vanquished concern for others, townspeople cooperated for mutual well being, especially at threshing time. In Wheels of Farm Progress, Marvin McKinley states, ''It was a period that demanded total involvement. . . help was exchanged throughout the neighborhood, as farmers worked together to keep the huge rig running at full capacity.'' While a plucky sense of self-reliance characterized the individual farmer, the harvest witnessed a committed inter-dependence a sharing, a giving greater than anyone had the right to expect. To dedicate one's labor to the grand gathering-in of the grain surpassed mere calculations of financial reward; the understated, homespun phrase 'to help out' speaks volumes about integrity, dignity, and respect for others. The magnificence of the threshing dinners, alone, is testimony sufficient to prove the point that collaboration united rural people.

Dr. Reynold M. Wik reports that, according to Department of Agriculture figures for 1910, '100,000 engineers were operating self-propelled steam engines for threshing, plowing, grading roads, grinding feed, hauling freight and moving buildings.'


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