Along with my interest in medical advances, I found the changes in farming just as progressive. Tractors were replacing the horse as well as the steam engine. Combining took over the threshing operations, and the methods of the past half-century were fast becoming history. It was a rare sight, indeed, to see a steam engine, either on the farm or on the railroad.
Mr. Joe Weishaupt's 18 hp Keck-Gonnerman at the Pontiac Reunion last Sept ember. Mr. Weishaupt lives at Mackinawlll. It was the engine with Walt Disney's characters painted on it. It was attractive and very noticeable. We have been greatly impressed with the performance of the K-G. Courtesy of Clark Hollywood Studios, 105 Harvey Street, Washington, Illinois.
An opportunity of recalling these early days was given to this community by Dan Zehr, an implement dealer of Pontiac, Illinois. He had been a threshermen for 35 years, and had kept alive his memory of the old traction steam engines. Thinking that the public, too, would be interested in these old engines and their era of accompanying machinery, Dan organized a threshermen's picnic in Livingston County, in 1949. His enthusiasm aroused a some what latent nostalgia in the old time threshermen, and to his great satisfaction, brought a crowd of 3000 people to that first picnic held in 1949 in Pontiac, Illinois.
The few exhibits, such as three old traction steam engines, a separator, an old cradle, a reaper, a saw mill, an oxen yoke, etc., provided means for recalling the almost forgotten early experiences, and started a lot of good visiting among the old timers.
Their enthusiasm grew and by 1950, these local picnickers were personally contributing from their own store of outmoded implements, furnishings, and last, but not least, machinery. Steam traction engines of the old days seemed to emerge from forgotten and neglected discards. With paint and grease, and lots of repairs, these old engines were put into running order. The picnic news spread and former residents of the community returned to join in the reunion of friends and times.
This added interest attracted civic as well as historic minded people, and a need for an incorporated organization was evident. With the cooperation of the Pontiac City of Commerce, the association became incorporated in 1951, with the title, Zehr's Central States Steam Engine and Thresher Historical Reunion, Inc.,' with Dan Zehr as the co-sponsor for the annual show.
In its third year (1951) the picnic had grown to exposition proportions of a 'Century of Progress,'' and the attendance to 60,000 visitors from both local and national representations, gave evidence of the keen enjoyment in this four-day reunion.
Educational leaders recognized the value of the exhibit as a means of portraying American life and enterprise. Consequently, many groups of school youngsters were having a good time seeing, riding, and learning. Exhibits' of various steam engines of the vintage of the mid-1800's through to the last models made, were the main features of these reunions. The majority of these old engines were fired and steam pressure was brought to within the margin of safety for each particular one. Approximately 35 steam traction engines with an equal number of respective 'live' miniature replicas made a show well worth seeing. A number of elderly threshermen had come from out of state, and expressed their pleasure as, 'Having the time of my life.'
'Riding the engine' was popular with old and young. One engineer of the 90's rode 35 times at the ticket price of 50 cents a ride. He said, 'It's my money, and that's a great way to enjoy spending it. Maybe it's the last chance I'll ever have to pull the throttle.'
These rides were on the nine big lumbering steam traction engines run by competent old timers. It seemed great fun to smell the smoke and grease, and even pull the whistle, as the old steam engine chugged over the stubble-field. 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' was really enjoyed here.
Many other exhibits of changes and progress in our daily living were represented, too. The housewife had a special display of clothing and household goods of the paslt century. Among these were the old bustles, the hoop skirts, the heavily plumed hats, the high button shoes. In the house furnishings section were such exhibits as a spinning wheel, a loom, a coffee grinder, a dasher-churn, etc, furnished by local homes.
To Dan Zehr goes much credit for establishing an educational and historical exposition which has become the forerunner of several similar ones over the nation. In these reunions the steam traction engine holds its own as the main feature of the exhibit.
More than three score years of my lifetime have passed. It was my good fortune to have been reared in a good American home. My parents, my one brother, my throe sisters, and I enjoyed the privileges, and accepted the responsibilities found in rural mid-western communities. Of our family, only my two sisters and I remain. They and their families have retired from active farm life and now live in Pontiac, Illinois.
My brother and oldest sister and our parents have passed on. Mother and Dad both spent their last days of their lingering illness in my home.
Along with the changes over the years, I have had a number of permanent relationships. That pretty stenographer whom I first met over forty years ago is still my secretary. Though her hair is more silver than brunette, and she added a few pounds, she can still sit on my lap and take dictation. My wife never reprimands me for this breach of etiquette. She still has her first husband that country doctor.
Since our home is located in a small town within easy driving distance to several large cities, we can enjoy the comforts and advantages of both country and city life.
Likewise we have always had the companionship of our respective families, located so that we can observe holidays in the traditional American family fellowship.
Our mutual affection for animals has given us' the constant interest and pleasure afforded by 'Man's best friend,' a faithful dog.
Recalling the days of the steam traction engine and the progress and changes made through the years, helps one to appreciate the many advantages of our Democracy. While 'embryo engineer to country doctor' was my particular path, others can find just as satisfying goals. If progress brings changes in our way of life, then (paraphrasing General McArthur) 'the place of the steam engine and of the country doctor just fades away.'
'So Mote It Be.' February 25, 1952 H. I,. Shafer, M.D. Cornell, Illinois
P. S. September 10, 1952 will be the date of the first day of the Fourth Annual Threshermen's Reunion, Pontiac, Illinois. I'll meet you at the First-Aid Tent, God willing.