Iron Man Of The Month

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Elmer doffs his hat to the Kitten Engine ''what a beauty!'' he says depending on what he's looking at. Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390.
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Elmer shown with N. T. A. secretary, Lucille Blaker, after his last sermon delivered before the grandstand on Sunday, 1969. Ever since the inception of the National Thresher, Elmer Ritzman was its chaplain, Lucille its secretary. Together they conducted t
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Elmer proudly shows me a wooden model of threshing rig which he just bought on grounds of N. T. A. in 1966. Rumor has it that Joe Ernst, Grand Truck engineer, made it for the Korn Krib. Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390.
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Editor to writer Elmer points out a thing or two in latest issue of IRON-MEN ALBUM to me. Really we should be arguing but we weren't. Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390.
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The first time I saw Elmer, he was taking subscriptions for THE FARM ALBUM, at the Blaker Farm National Threshers Reunion, Alvordton, Ohio, back in the forties. Photo by Leo Clark, Washington, Illinois. Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana
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Elmer grabs a few moments of ''shut-eye'' prior to delivering Sunday morning sermon at 1966 N. T. A. I sneaked past, saw him there, couldn't resist snapping picture. Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390.
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Elmer said the most fitting words, dedicating the big bronze plaque and engine wheel, mounted in front of the Blaker farm home, to commemorate the first organized steam threshermen's reunion in America. I. to r. Elmer Ritzman, Merl Newkirk, LeRoy Blaker,
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Elmer's favorite engine at N.T.A. was the Kitten. Here he gets the ''feel'' of the Kitten throttle to see if it can purrrr. Behind him is Walter Knapp, Monroe, Michigan, owner of the Kitten. Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390.
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Many friends drop by to chat with Elmer Joe Ernst, Grand Trunk engineer, gives Elmer his old locomotive oil-can to put in his KORN KRIB MUSEUM. Ernst has also made some threshing rigs out of wood for the museum. Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Ind
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Some of Elmer's happiest moments, were relaxing under signs of his children THE IRON-MEN ALBUM and GAS ENGINE MAGAZINE chatting with N. T. A. president, Leroy Blaker. They both were in on the birth of THE FARM ALBUM, forerunner of I. M. A. Courtesy of Joe

UNION CITY, INDIANSA.

Every now and then, but quite rarely, a man struts across the
stage of life, changing all he comes in contact with. And, after
his passing, things aren’t the same again.

Some called him, ‘The Editor’, others, ‘The
Preacher’, or ‘The Reverend still others preferred
‘Uncle ‘But by far the most knew him as ‘Elmer’.
And ‘Elmer’ he was to most of us just plain
‘Elmer’. For, unlike the brotherhood of the holy
ordainedmen of the cloth who strut in their priestly robes to the
Reverend Elmer Ritzman farm overalls were the holiest of garb. A
firebox poker was his ‘sheperd’s stave’ for the leading
of his flock. He never preached on the unquenchable fires of hell,
for to him the hot coals and roaring flames inside an engine
firebox were the greatest sermons of all. With his eye on the steam
gauge, and his hand on the throttle, his pulpit was the swaying
deck of a steam engine at workhis congregation the teeming
thousands that came to ‘tend the threshermen’s reunions
which his faith nurtured from humble beginnings by his praying and
preaching. Though the Reverend Elmer Ritzman may once have been
ordained of God a Methodist pastor, to serve his village and town,
the hand of the Lord led him into vaster fields to pasture flocks
numbered among the stars. All were blessed by his presence and all
mourn at his passing.

To those who have held onto the illusion that all preachers are
a separate breedstuffed shirts, aloof and uninteresting let me say
they have just never met the Reverend Ritzman. Somehow they have
been denied one of life’s richest experiences sitting beside
him, elbow to elbow, sharing his rich loquations on every day
philosophy, delicately interwoven with Divine Theology. To him the
hard facts of life were never divorced from the gentle humor of the
Pennsylvania-Dutch idiom. Though his sermons were without jokes,
one could often detect sermons in his jokes. And whenever it came
to the telling of jokes, Elmer always had a big bagful from which
to draw and select, depending on whether his listening audience,
happening to be within ear-shot, demanded the feminine or masculine
touch.

It was at the National Threshers Reunion, held on the Blaker
Farm at Alvordton, Ohio, back in ’48, that I first met the
Reverend Elmer Ritzman or Elmer. He had invited me earlier, by
letter, to come and ‘learn a little about steam engines’
which I did (a little). And, of course, the first person I sought
out on the crowded, busy grounds, as I made my way amongst the
sweating men and steaming engines, was Elmer who had pitched his
little tent just over by LeRoy Blaker’s steam engine workshop
and far enough away from the maddening throng to out-shout the
melee and hawk his little FARM ALBUM pamphlet across a thin and
wobbly board which served both as counter and something to lean
on.

‘Are you Reverend Ritzman?’ I yelled his hands reaching
for pencil and subscription pad in the hopes I was a customer.

‘Yes, I am,’ he replied, shouting back over the stack
stacatti of Gilbert Enders’ Case, belted to the Prony Brake.
‘I don’t believe we’ve met before.’

‘I’m the fellow from Union City, Indiana, who sent you
the engine record,’ I screamed back. ‘You told me I’d
better come up here and learn a little more about steam
engines.’

‘Yes I like that record of the old Aultman-Taylor. And the
argument on the other side between the Edger boys and their father
about which is best gas tractors or steam,’ he retorted in a
stentorian voice betraying his pulpitized demeanor, as if to
out-shout a devil’s din of screaming steam engines whistling in
the background.

‘Now, if you want to record engines and learn about them, go
over to that man standing beside the Port Huron by the water
tank,’ he confided. ‘He’ll tell you all you need to
know and help you get set up.’

‘I’m so busy I can’t talk now,’ said the man
LeRoy Blaker, who appeared the very center of the hubbub and fury
of the day’s activities. ‘Ask that man over there. He’s
Ormann Keyserhe can tell you anything you want to know about the
engines.’

Thus it was that my acquaintanceship with the Reverend Elmer
Ritzman, President LeRoy Blaker and Professor Ormann Keyserall
three came about and I was sort of enrolled in the ‘college of
steam engine knowledge’ in but a single day. But, let me say,
though my engine knowledge has remained more ‘college’ than
knowledge, over the years I’ve been matriculating, my
shortcomings can in no wise relate to any lack in this eminent
triumvirate. For truly we had all the ‘makin’s’ of a
steam engine collegea professor to lecture, a president to
administrate and a preacher to preach at the bacculaureate, should
I, the ‘student body’, ever graduate.

It was all a jumble of unknown engines to me, a ‘town
boy’ at my first year ever to attend a threshermen’s
reunion that summer at the Blaker farm. But I always returned to
the little FARM ALBUM stand for a few words of comfort from the
Reverend Elmer who lent encouragement by saying, ‘You’ll
get acquainted with the men and their engines and soon know your
way around.’ And that I did, learning to associate the names of
certain engineers with the names of their favorite engines Blaker
with Port Huron, Enders with Case, Forrest Williamson with Baker,
Ashbaugh with Minneapolis, Charlie Harrison with Reeves, Emory
Brindle with Rumely, and of course the astute A. D. Baker with old
No. 1.

I was learningthe Reverend Elmer Ritzman’s prophecy was
coming true. And I began liking a threshing reunion so well that I
returned the next yearagain to rub elbows with the preacher, the
professor and the N. T. A. president.

Each year the National Threshers grew, under the guidance and
leadership of these eminent men, along with the imposing list of
founding charter members, until the following year it was moved to
the Williams County fairgrounds at Montpelier, Ohio, to accommodate
the crowds and exhibits. And each year that the Reverend Elmer
Ritzman opened the official N. T. A. proceedings by his
benedictions and closed them by his sermons, an increasingly
impressive list of imposing figures throughout the general area and
the nation were attending. I’ll never forget the year that
Edgar Bergen, of Charlie McCarthy fame, arrived from Beverly Hills,
California, in the company of Ralph Lindsey. How Bergen appeared to
be having the time of his life, running the Lindsey Case, and the
Blaker Port Huron while, at a specially called session in the
assembly hall, he gave an impromptu program of Charlie McCarthy,
Mortimer Snerd and Aunt Effy, to the delight of all.

During the more than twenty years I have attended The National
Threshers, I don’t recall ever missing one of the opening
exercises. First of all I was greatly impressed how Reverend
Ritzman could plead with the Lord in so diversified a manner, year
after year, for the blessings of all who attended as well as their
safety, without duplication in verbage. One particular morning I
listened intently to his words of benediction, wondering just how
he was going to invoke the Lord’s guidance that day for the
crowds that had come, without at least some repetition held over
from the years before. But alas, there was no duplication. His
prayer was, as usual, straight from the heart ‘Oh Lord, we
thank Thee for this beautiful weather and these wonderful people
who have congregated here. Grant us a day of much joy and benefit
to all. Protect us from dangers, both seen and unseen, that we may
give Thee the praise. In Jesus’ name we ask it Amen.

Of all the preachers, evangelists and pulpit-pounders I’ve
heard in my lifetime, no one could say ‘Amen’ with the
utter significance and finality as the Reverend Elmer Ritzman-your
chaplain and my chaplain over these many years. Somehow the rest of
the reunion days always seemed more productive and the conviviality
sweeter, after Elmer had pronounced God’s official blessing and
asked His protection then enunciated his own particular pastorial
‘Amen’. That was the final word like the crack of a gun at
the start of a race, sending everyone scrambling in willy-nilly
directions all over the National Threshers’ Reunion
grounds.

But, when evening of the first day came, immediately following
the business meeting, there were the memorial services with the
Reverend Elmer Ritzman presiding. Following the list of the
departed, which seemed to get longer each year, Mrs. Blaker would
tearfully ask the chaplain to say a few fitting words in memory of
those who had gone on. Rising to the task, as he always did,
Reverend Ritzman said, ‘Life is like a busy air terminal. Some
friends depart for distant lands, while others are arriving to take
up their abode with us.’ Then, with a befitting plea, which
seemed to express the innermost feeling of everyone in the
audience, he prayed, ‘Oh Lord, somehow tell our departed
friends that we still very much love them. Amen.’

Then there were the dedicatory services, commemorating the
bronze plaque, mounted on an engine drive wheel, erected in front
of the Blaker farm home near Alvordton, Ohio, marking it as the
birthplace of the first organized steam threshermen’s reunion
in America. The Reverend had ridden to the farm with my wife and
me, to participate in the dedication. The visiting dignitaries had
made their eloquent addresses. Then the Reverend Ritzman said a few
very appropriate words, after which he closed the services with a
prayer, ‘Oh Lord, we are gathered here to mark an important and
significant milestone in our organization and we ask Thy divine
blessing on these services and everyone here that we shall somehow
be inspired to greater efforts and goals in furthering the noble
endeavor that had its humble beginnings here. Amen.’

I was reminded of the Gettysburg Address, when Lincoln waited on
a hot summer’s day till the main addresses were delivered, only
to end the services in but a few appropriate words that would live
forever in the hearts of men. But Elmer Ritzman was not a sad man
by nature only when the occasion demanded sadness and reflecting.
His was a bubbling spirit, infusing the rarest of Pennsylvania
Dutch humor into whatever the conversation of the moment inspired.
There was the hot summer day that the Wauseon show was just
grinding to a close. I rushed over to Elmer’s stand, out by the
fairgrounds race track, and said, ‘Reverend, I think it would
be a good idea if you wrote a column, entitled, ‘Iron Man of
the Month’ in your magazine.

I was rather taken aback, when he demanded instantly, ‘You
take over that column yourself.’ Then came the arrival of
Elmer’s entourage the following year, to set his Iron-Man stand
up in the shade beneath the grandstand, right beside mine. Before I
knew it, he came over and said, ‘I could kiss you for those
stories you are writing.’ And then, eyeing my wife, he
continued, ‘But, if I began kissing youI might keep right on
going and, before I stopped, it’s hard to predict where I might
wind up in the family.’ I laughed outwardly, while Elmer
laughed inwardly, keeping a straight face throughout.

Then there was the time at Wauseon, when we were sitting
‘neath the grandstand at the N. T. A. and my wife complained to
Elmer about some nittygritty that she wished I would quit doing.
And Elmer, speaking loud enough for me to overhear, said, ‘Tell
that so-and-so husband of yours to straighten up or I’ll tell
him so.’

One meeting with the Reverend Elmer Ritzman, however, I’ll
never forget. It was the summer that my crippled friend, Homer
Halladay, who went to many of the early reunions with me, wanted to
attend a steam engine reunion in another state.

‘Let’s go to the reunion at Pontiac, I’ll.,’ he
insisted. ‘I’ll furnish the car, if you’ll drive, Joe.
Well see how the people in Illinois run things.’

So off we headed, across Hoosierland, and into Illinois to where
Dan Zehr reigned forth as king over the steam engines at Pontiac. I
had only known Reverend Ritzman a short time, but as soon as I
stepped out of the car and got my friend Homer in his wheel chair,
the first person we ran into was Elmer. Putting forth my hand
toward the Reverend, in a grand and sweeping gesture of friendship
and conviviality, my brand new thick-soled rubber gym shoes caused
my one ankle to turn as I made the first step in the soft mudmy
entire torso taking an immense flip-flop, first to the right,
thence rebounding over to the left and before it all ended I wound
up on all fours in the ooze. Righting myself and trying to keep my
propriety while Elmer kept a solemn visage as if he didn’t see
my utter humiliation and red face, he shoved his mitt toward me and
we negotiated the handshake. I made sudden and profuse apologies
for making an ass of myself in his august presence, but, always the
diplomat, the Reverend acted as if he didn’t notice my clownish
and unrehearsed acrobatics at all. I was the image of abject
humiliationhe the epitome of composure when really he should have
laughed at my plight. For it well would have been within the
confines of perfect etiquette had he hee-hawed like a jackass.

There was the one summer I decided to take along my mother, to
attend the Montpelier N. T. A. show. Being reared of Pennsylvania
Dutch parentage, I especially wanted her to meet the Reverend
Ritzman. And so the time arrived, for the introduction, just after
Elmer had said his official ‘Amen’ at the close of the
opening ceremonies that first morning.

‘Reverend Ritzman, I want you to meet my mother,’ said
I, beaming with pride. Elmer extended his right hand in Pa.-Dutch
fellowship. My mother began recalling the names of Pennsylvania
relatives Dunkelbergers, Heffelfingers and the like.

‘Mrs. Fahnestock, I know plenty of Dunkelbergers and
Heffelfingers back home,’ replied the Reverend in a stentorian
voice. ‘I’m very happy to meet you. Now I feel just at home
with you.’

I’ll never, no never, forget the summer that Elmer brought
his new bride, Earlene, to one of the reunions. Introducing me to
his blushing bride, Elmer suddenly turned away and whispered to mea
bachelor at the time, ‘Young fellow, you don’t know what
you’re missing. Why don’t you get married and begin
living?’

Even at the thoughts of death, Elmer had his bag of jokes ready
to pull one out to fit the occasion. The last reunion he attended
of the N. T. A. at Wauseon. Ohio, a strapping young fellow came
forward through the crowd that had gathered to take out
subscriptions at Elmer’s stand.

‘You remember me, Elmer? I’m Mr. Plasterer. You are
looking good,’ the young man said, putting his hand forward and
bending low to hear Elmer’s answer.

‘Yes, I guess I look all right. The Old Man with the Scythe
is just taking his time, figuring out that when he does get me he
aims to make a good job of it,’ mused Elmer.

To another robust thresherman who had just come up to Elmer and
made the brag that he had finished off a wonderful, four-course
thresherman’s dinner, with all the trimmin’s, replied
Elmer, ‘Well, you might feel happier than I, but you won’t
live long, eating so much.’

When Elmer got a little tired, his last summer at Wauseon, he
borrowed our folding cot, to catch a little snooze under the trees
beside our trailer. Some man woke him up and began telling him all
about himself. After the long-winded gentleman finally left, Elmer
said to me, ‘You know everyone thinks I should patiently listen
to their life’s story. But they never let me tell mine.’
Then he laid down again and went back to sleep.

I have often thought that, had there been no W. C. Fields, and
had Elmer Ritzman followed the vaudeville circuit instead of the
sawdust trail, we might still be sitting up late at nights,
watching the late, late shows of his re-runs, just so we could
laugh once again. For, as truly as his sermons nudged ‘us poor
sinners’ into the wisdom of living a better life, so his dry
humor could change

He could sum up the most profound statements and human feelings
into the fewest of words. Like at the threshermen’s reunion at
Allegan, Michigan, which we attended, because it was the first of
the summer. And Elmer and Tom Smith were both there, though neither
were taking any subscriptions for want of a crowd. Folding his tent
up, and prior to stealing away like the Arabs, Elmer snapped,
‘I’ve had it.’ It would have taken me five pages to say
the same thing. How often I’ve envied Elmer’s masterful way
of saying so much with so little. Many times I have tried, in vain,
to fall into a similar pattern of sparse verbiage, to match him
(and save typing paper), only to wind up with the long, drawn-out
patter.

To paraphrase Elmer, we can say, ‘Lord, let him know we are
better and the world is better, and many steam engine’s souls
have been saved, as have our own simply because Elmer has lived
among us.’

As one admirer was heard to utter, as he walked away from Elmer
at the last reunion he attended at Wauseon ‘Reverend Ritzman
has done more for reviving the steam engine in the minds of the
people of America than any other person.’

To the Head Iron-Man of them all, Editor, Preacher, Reverend or
Uncle ‘Elmer, your little child, The Iron-Man Album, has grown
to manhood and outlived you. And because of it, you live also among
us so long as there’s a steam engine whistle to blow. And for
you, Elmer, I’ll say this one-‘A-M-E-N.’

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