UNION CITY, INDIANA. Of DAYTON DAILY NEWS AND RADIO'S 'JOES JOURNAL'
When the National Threshers Association convenes for its Silver Anniversary this year at Wauseon, Ohio, June 26th through the 29th an eighty year old engineer-farmer, whose name resounds from coast to coast as founder of the revival of steam engine threshing throughout the nation, will for the last time be wielding the presidential gavel.
For LeRoy W. Blaker it will be the culmination of a life-long dream far beyond the wildest imaginations of a small Nebraska farm lad whose earliest impressions of a growing America were sparked by the Westward-Ho of covered wagons across the wind-swept plains back in the !80's.
And then came the threshing machine wending its way slowly like a juggernaut over the dusty, deep-rutted wagon trails, thence up the long, winding lane to the bleak Nebraska homestead, come harvest time to separate the chaff from the golden grain. Sneaking a ride on the feed-table, whenever possible, the little lad, LeRoy, watched wide-eyed in wonderment, the smoke-belching iron monster hissing steam and blowing its whistle as if bragging that is was indeed the most powerful thing on the broad, western plains. And the man who was running it certainly he was the most powerful, most envied man in all the world!
It was with the first few pennies he earned, helping the threshers in his tender years, that young LeRoy Blaker sent for a much-coveted copy of 'The Young Engineer's Guide', in order to learn the secrets that made steam run an engine as if by magic. But the text was too complicated for so young an engineer to comprehend and LeRoy laid the book aside in utter despair.
Conjuring up a more youthful approach to his dilemma, young LeRoy's busy imagination ferreted out an old empty one-gallon tin can from the family cast-offs which he envisioned might well serve as a boiler. To this he fastened an old faucet which a school chum had swapped him and an empty rifle cartridge which he used as a whistle. Fashioning a simple crank-shaft from the treadle of an old foot-powered sewing-machine, and a cylinder from a tin can, LeRoy was soon engineer of his first steam engine, using his mother's cook stove as firebox and an improvised old nail-keg as separator.
Yes, it was a simple beginning, like many another boy might well have experienced except for LeRoy Blaker, the interest in steam threshing engines would never abate, but keep right on growing the rest of his years.
It wasn't until boyhood had given way to young manhood that LeRoy Blaker, then seventeen, began to do something really serious about steam. Purchasing a small two-horsepower steam boiler, he at once set about building a single-acting steam engine with which he ran his little wood lathe in his woodshed workshop.
However, all of these were but stepping-stones to the big day, some fifty years ago, when young Blaker stepped up onto the deck of his first man-sized engine and began running it. Finally he had become the engineer he'd always dreamed about. And over the ensuing years, having owned a total of some fourteen steam traction engines, seven simples and seven compounds not counting the acquisition of such accoutrements as eight grain threshers, four clover hullers, three corn-husker-shredders, a silo-filler and a large sawmill he still operates it can well be said that LeRoy Blaker has well earned the combined titular honors of steam engineer, steam farmer and steam saw miller.
With a vivid memory belying his years, LeRoy Blaker only too well recalls many of the Herculean achievements in the halcyon days of steam threshing in rural America. During the year 1924 he threshed over 125,000 bushels of oats besides other small grains. And some years he hulled as much as a thousand bushels of clover seed with but a single huller.
For a while, after the modern combines had invaded the wheat fields of our nation, it looked like steam, indeed, was dead. But those who already prophesied its deminse had yet to figure with one LeRoy W. Blaker. And to this day, both LeRoy W. Blaker and steam are still doing fine.
However, the resurrection of the steam corpse didn't really get underway until Blaker attended the world-renowned wheat tithing experiment which one Perry Hayden was conducting at Tecumseh, Michigan, in the year 1944. Here it was that but a few grains of wheat, planted and harvested from the good earth, a tenth of each succeeding crop given to the Lord, and the rest planted and harvested again and again, resulted in such thriving yields that the sponsors of the project could no longer handle it. But it had proved its lesson namely that, after giving the one-tenth to God, the nine-tenths remaining has a way of multiplying far beyond the plans of man.
Not only that, but the wheat-tithing project had once again sparked a renewed interest in steam threshing among LeRoy W. Blaker and his friends.
'It was on June 30, 1945 that a group of us fellows got our engines together and held the first thresher's reunion at my farm, near Alvordton, Ohio,' says 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.'
'So many kept coming each year that we decided, in 1948, that we'd better organize,' explains Blaker. 'So we decided to call ourselves The National Threshers Association, Incorporated.'
There was organizing to be done, among the imposing register of charter members listing such names as Merl Newkirk, Dan Zehr, Forrest Williamson, Clyde Felger, Mac Kellar, Forrest Newberry and Ernie Hoffer. Dignity and heritage with the glorious past were lent by such outstanding giants as Abner D. Baker, manufacturer of the Baker Engine, who brought along the No. one Baker Engine and the Prony testing brake from his plant at Swanton, Ohio. Operations such as threshing and sawmilling under the supervision of such veterans as John Limmer, LeRoy Blaker and Percy Sherman brought hundreds, then thousands over the years to bask in the memories and nostalgia thereof. While from such throttle artists as Ashbaugh, Sherman, Blaker and Gilbert Enders came the old-time thrills as each vied against the other at getting the most horsepower out of the Prony Brake tests. Too, there were the historians of agricultural Americana, such as Ormann Keyser and Harry DeArmond to lend background and fibre to the growing organization. For entertainment there were the Blume Brothers. And not to be overlooked was a certain impressive, rather righteous-looking Pennsylvania Dutchman, solid of stature and somewhat balding, who came year after year to pitch his little tent and hawk a leaflet entitled THE FARM ALBUM. Leaving his pastorial robes behind him, but carrying his convictions with him, the Rev. Elmer L. Ritzman, editor of that little magazine, the organization's first news letter, now the thriving IRON-MEN ALBUM, was called upon to deliver the first sermon and ask God's blessing in the first prayer. And he's been preaching to, and praying for the National Threshers ever since.
Thus the dynamic revival of the steam engine, under the leadership of LeRoy Blaker, his many friends and associates was at hand an accomplished fact that over the years has been growing to such proportions that folks from every state in the union have sometime or other attended. Having expanded beyond the accommodations of the Blaker farm, the 8th reunion in 1952 found the National Threshers beginning a new era at the beautiful and sprawling fairgrounds at Montpelier, Ohio. Here it was that such international dignitaries as the famous Edgar Bergen of Charlie McCarthy fame, came to stay a few days, run some of the engines and give a few performances of his well-known ventriloqual characters. It was during this era, too, that ex-President Truman planned to pay a visit and bask in the memories of his youth at The National Threshers, but at the time more important business with the new-bom United Nations held priority on his schedule.
Not only from the Midwest states, but from such Atlantic coast areas as New York, Washington, D. C. and the state of Georgia came such regular and noteworthy members of The National Threshers as Lynn Langworthy, Frank McGuffin and George Newnan, while the Pacific far west contributed such notable worthies as L. K. Wood of Mendon, Utah and Ralph Lindsay of Beverly Hills, California.
But the greatest reward of all to founder LeRoy Blaker were the hundreds, even thousands of average visitors the Holps, the Limmers, the Egberts, the Knapps, Kleopfers and Curtisses and many, many others who participated in the grand old American custom of stoking fireboxes, belting up to separators and sawmills, yanking throttles and whistle cords in a mighty reincarnation of the era of steam.
The latter years have witnessed the National Threshers bringing their big engines and regalia of old-time agricultural Americana, as well as the crowds, to the spacious Wauseon, Ohio, fairgrounds where the accommodations where more adequate. And it is here that the president of the National Threshers, LeRoy Blaker, will be wielding his gavel for the final time as he presides over the Silver Jubilee of the Revival of the American steam engine.
For him it is the culmination of a boyhood dream, made possible by the tireless cooperation of the lovely and capable Mrs. Lucille Blaker. For her, the humble beginnings of the National Threshers on the Blaker farm, where the first reunion organizational plans and publicity were formulated 'round the kitchen table the annual task of addressing thousands of memberships and mailing them, including leadership in the National Thresherwomen has been staggering indeed. Keeping both engineers and their wives, as well as everyone else who annually attends the National Threshers, happy and contented each year would, for a lesser soul, have been an impossible task.
Indeed, without a good wife for secretary, President Blaker's dream might never have come true. For Lucille Blaker not only helped organize the National Threshers, but over the years she's cooked for LeRoy, patched his overall britches, darned his socks, greased his chest, tucked him into bed at nights and, oh yes, kept all the records straight for the past quarter-century. (A man may run an engine, but it takes a woman to run the man!)
'Since this will be the last year that LeRoy and I will serve as President and Secretary, we do want all our friends to come to Wauseon,' says Lucille.
To which, replies Elmer Ritzman, 'Amen come hail or high water, I'll be there!'
For those of us who didn't help at the planting of the tiny acorn, but have enjoyed the shade of the mighty oak we'll come too and help celebrate a threshermen's dream Long Live Steam!