UNION CITY, INDIANA.
Whether it's supervising the degree of incline on the hill-climb, deciding the position of the Prony Brake Wheel, checking out last-minute inspections on the big sawmill, calling up the order of the afternoon grandstand parade or presiding at the evening conclave of the annual National Threshermen's Reunion the slight, be-spectacled man in the polka-dot cap must be 'Johnny on the spot' to add his final blessing.
For the agile, 78 year old non-drinking, non-smoking and God-fearing LeRoy Blaker, host to thousands each year at the big National Threshermen's Reunion at Wauseon, Ohio, the challenging job of being president means being everywhere, shaking hands with everyone, preaching boiler-safety, keeping engines smoking and engineers happy, as well as coaxing all the horsepower he can get out of that mighty Port Huron compound of his. Little wonder I understood all this, the day I arrived at my first threshing show at the LeRoy Blaker farm, near Alvordton, Ohio, back in 1948, and, thrusting my paw out to get acquainted, said, 'You're President LeRoy Blaker? Could I get you to explain one of these engines for a recording?' To which, replied he, mopping sweat and coal-smoke from his brow, 'I'm too busy to help you now. Get Ormann Keyser, over there. He can explain the engines.' Thus was my 'baptism of fire' into the busy life of one LeRoy Blaker who, with his capable wife and secretary, Lucille, has been president and guiding spirit of the National Threshermen, ever since its humble inception on the Blaker farm, back in 1945.
'I don't know why I became so interested in steam threshing outfits when I was about knee-high to a grasshopper,' says LeRoy Blaker. who has been hopping up and down on steam engine decks ever since. 'My father was a farmer and carpenter when our family lived near Minden, Nebraska, prior to the 1900's.'
But we're willing to wager that young LeRoy's eyes must have taken in the grand and glorious sight of someone's steam threshing rig in operation, sometime, somewhere, during those precious boyhood years out on the Nebraska plains.
For at a very tender age he was quite preoccupied in making a boiler out of a tin can, and a whistle from a brass rifle cartridge generating steam and tooting that whistle from an improved firebox atop Mom's kitchen range.
'A few years later, I bought a book, entitled, Young Engineer's Guide, reminisces LeRoy. 'But, after studying it, I felt that steam engineering was too complicated for me. as I was only a lad of thirteen back there in 1902.'
Four years later young Blaker bought a two-horsepower vertical boiler and made a single-acting steam engine to run his little wood lathe in his woodshed workshop. Proving quite a boon over his old foot-powered treadle, the youthful and budding steam engineer became thoroughly convinced of 'steam's esteem.'
'But the highlight of my steam carrier came when I ran my first steam traction engine just fifty years ago,' 'minds LeRoy Blaker. 'And I've been actively engaged in operating them, every year since.'
'All told, I have owned fourteen steam traction engines seven simples, and seven compounds in addition to eight grain threshers, four clover hullers, three corn-husker-shredders, a large silo-filler, and my present sawmill that I've owned and operated for the past forty years,' quote the astute president of N.T.A. 'During this time I've also owned nine gasoline tractors that I have used in my farming and threshing operations. And I'm still farming one-hundred and twenty acres, doing custom sawing with both gasoline and steam but I much prefer my Port Huron steam to all.'
During the year 1924 alone, LeRoy Blaker threshed over 125,000 bushels of oats besides lots of other small grain. And some years he hulled as much as 1,000 bushels of clover seed with but one huller.
'After the modern grain combines became popular, I thought the public would be pleased to see some of the old machines in operation again, so a group o f us fellows held the first thresher's reunion in the U.S.A. at my farm, June 30, 1945,' recalls Blaker. 'Although there had been a few threshing demonstrations elsewhere in the country, we felt this was the first attempt to bring together a big old-time threshing operation where good engineers gave good engines a good workout.'
Each year the reunions kept growing in attendance as more and more steam threshermen and the grand old men of the steam engineering era congregated to jerk throttle, spot engines, belt separators, pitch bundles, blow straw, listen to the barking stacks, pull the whistle cords and talk about the good old days 'round the ever-lengthening threshermen's festive board.
'Finally, in 1948, we decided we'd better organize,' explains LeRoy Blaker. And, with a host of steam farming engineers and visiting dignitaries from many states around, all deciding on a national charter, The National Threshers Association, Inc., was born. In such grand personages as Abner Baker, designer and maker of the famous Baker Engines, they had expert engineering guidance; in preacher-editor, Elmer Ritzman, they had spiritual guidance to give blessing, and publicity from the sparse pages of his brain-child, The Farm Album (Later Iron-Men Album); from such as Ormann Keyser was lent historical background while the old-time enthusiasm of the steam thresherman was personified in such figures as Percy Sherman, Gilbert Enders and a host of others. From such as Mac Kellar and Forrest New-berry came saw-milling know-how and a public address for the grounds. To Merl Newkirk and Dan Zehr there is credit for guiding the little nucleus into solid fiber, while to the indefatigable LeRoy and Lucille Blaker goes eternal credit of stoking the fires that make the steam that keeps the organization rolling.
It was a proud event when every member present (many of whom are still beating their 'charter member' chests) was asked to line up before the old Blaker sawmill to have their official 'pitcher took' by the official photographer, a picture which is among the most cherished in the holy archives of The National Threshers art gallery.
And, just as soon as the camera clicked, the engineers began scrambling back to their engines, cracking throttle, pulling whistle cords and belting up the power. I'll never forget those early days, at a Blaker farm reunion. One after another the engines belted up to the Prony Brake, each to outdo the other. And always in the finals was pitted the tousle-haired, stout-armed Gilbert Enders jerking throttle on his 50-Case against president LeRoy Blaker and his mighty Port Huron compound, all being duly observed under the watchful eye of the dignified figure of Abner Baker, seated comfortably under the canopy of one of his beloved Baker engines.
It was back on the pages of an old Ohio Farmer Magazine that I first read a little story about an Ohio farmer and his wife who were organizing what was called some kind of a threshermen's shindig. There was the tiny photo showing a Mr. LeRoy Blaker, and wife, Lucille, looking over pictures of old steam thresh engines, at their kitchen table. That was all. A correspondence from preacher-editor, Elmer Ritzman, urged me to attend one of these meetings to do some recording which I did, not knowing, as I first set the needle onto the disc, the difference between a Baker, a Case, a Port Huron or a jackass. But I soon learned brushing elbows and mopping coal-dust and sweat amongst such a gentry as was congregated there.
To LeRoy and Lucille Blaker (Iron Man of the Month, and spouse), we doff our hat, exposing our bald pate, to such as you and yours for having the faith and courage to envision and labor that lesser ones like me, along with thousands of others, can once again glory in the aura of steam engine farming. Without the noble efforts of such as you, where would those engines be today? And where would we go for our summer's fun?
A halo to you, and you and you and you. And from brother Elmer 'Amen!'
'When The Average man thinks of home he has in mind an old pipe, an old pair of slippers, an old chair, and Grandma.'