10022 Mornice Avenue, Tujunga, California 91042
They say that a criminal always returns to the scene of his crime, and I had that feeling as I pulled into Mt. Pleasant, Iowa last August for the big steam and gas engine reunion. Of course the last time I was there I didn't rob a bank or get put in jail for kicking the town marshall's dog, so I didn't qualify for the criminal part. But I just couldn't resist coming back again to look things over.
This whole thing started three years ago when I was back East on vacation. Having a few days to spare I journeyed up to Mt. Pleasant to take in the show. It was a wonderful experience in every way and I enjoyed myself to the fullest. Saw a lot of equipment that was used on the farms when I was a kid and met many of the people who were exhibiting their machinery. One of the most colorful characters there was Henry Oswald of Monmouth, Illinois. Henry, who has an under-mounted Avery, would make a good addition to any Chamber of Commerce welcoming committee. He took me under his wing and made my visit more enjoyable than ever, showing me around the place and introducing me to many of the men and their engines.
So last spring, the time of the year when a feller normally gets itchy feet, I decided to come back and see the 34th running of the Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers reunion. I wrote to Henry, telling him of my plans and he was quick to answer back, giving me the good news that his Avery had been chosen the 'Engine of the Year' and suggested that I come back a few days early and see the operation of getting the engines serviced and shined up for the big show. So packing my gear in the old Jalopy, I left California and headed for Mt. Pleasant.
Before I left home I contacted Edna Wright regarding a place to stay. Edna handles the placing of visitors to the reunion who want rooms in town, so she was my logical contact. She answered back that she could put me up in her house as she had eight or more beds available, thereby solving my sleeping problem. She has a card file of all the sleeping rooms available in Mt. Pleasant and can put as many as four hundred people to bed every night. Her husband, Everett, runs the steam flea market out at the show, so between them they contribute an awful lot to the success of the meet. I found this to be true with most of the people I met in Mt. Pleasant. Ready to do their part to keep the reunion alive and flourishing, thereby preserving an operating history of farming as it was many years ago.
I arrived on Sunday morning and on going out to the grounds, found things pretty much as I remembered it from three years ago. Steam engines lined up, the gas tractor section rapidly filling and the gasoline section jumping with activity along with a lot of popping and banging as the old one-lungers were being coaxed back to life. All in all it looked as though a lot was about to happen.
I found Henry standing with his thumbs in his bib overalls admiring the old Avery. Seems he had enlisted the aid of a very personable young man, Bill Allen, to be his understudy and Bill was doing his best to prove that he was 'gonna be an engineer some day'. He had his paint brush out and was giving the old girl a fresh coat of black paint, painting one side one day and the other side the next. His excuse for not painting the whole engine all at once was that the sun wasn't right, but I think the fact that there was a pretty girl or two strolling by might have also influenced his thinking.
Henry was glad to see me, giving me a first hand tour of the area and introducing me to a bunch of the old steam men. Some weren't there this time, the ranks do thin from year to year, but most of the old gang that I had met three years ago were still around.
Henry had gotten something in his eye the day before and he was complaining of it hurting a bit. So Monday he was prevailed upon to go to a doctor and have a patch put on it as a precaution against infection. So during the show Henry had a bit of status as the only one-eyed engineer in the business.
After three days of preparations, including minor repairs, hydrostatic testing of the boilers, painting and general polishing of brass, everything was ready to go. I had brought with me from California a rather large whistle which had been salvaged from a scrapped locomotive. Henry said, 'Let's put her on and see if it will blow on 100 pounds of steam.' So Bill got out his biggest wrenches and we mounted it on top of the boiler, tied a rope to the monkey tail, gave a yank and woke up the whole neighborhood. Sounded real good and Henry was tickled pink and blew it every chance he got.
These steam engines must, of course, operate under the rules of the state regarding inspections and the amount of pressure to be carried. With a lap seam boiler, which is what the Avery has, pressure is limited to 100 pounds, while some of the other engines have a butt strap type boiler and they can carry a higher pressure, 125 to 150 pounds, I believe. Safety is the watchword here, the same as anywhere else where steam boilers are used and these engines are subjected to the most rigid inspection before they are allowed to be steamed up and certain restrictions must be placed on them because of design, construction, age, etc. And rightly so, for the safety of everyone concerned.
Model of an under-mounted Avery, built by the late Jack Earles and exhibited by his nephew, Bill Keating of Wheeling, Illinois.
Thursday morning the gates were thrown open and the crowd started streaming in. I am told that a total of over 200,000 people attended this event in the five days it ran. Coming from all over the country, they arrive by car, train (Amtrak goes thru town), airplane and I even saw some coming in on bicycles. A few horses and buggies and even a spring wagon or two. Parking facilities were provided for 3900 trailers, campers and motor homes and they were completely filled. It is amazing the interest that is shown in a reunion of this type.
Every day at noon the 'Whistle blow' takes place over in the steam section. On signal from the director, every engineer pulls the whistle cord and a very discordant but beautiful sound fills the air. And when I say it fills the air, it does just that. Remember how the blast of the threshing machine whistle used to make you jump out of your britches. Well, multiply that by fifty or sixty and you get an idea of what the whistle blow sounds like. Just about as pretty a sound as you ever heard.
After the whistle blow is the Cavalcade of Power. This consists of a parade around the track past the grandstand of anything that will move, starting with the horse-drawn vehicles, the old cars, then the tractors, then miniature engines, and lastly, the full size engines. I was fortunate in hitching a ride on the big 40 horse Avery with Leon Force at the controls on one of the parades and it was quite an experience. To say it was noisy is putting it rather mildly. A mallet locomotive going thru Moffat tunnel wouldn't make more racket. I think Leon did it on purpose just for my benefit.
Meeting and talking to the people there was almost as interesting as seeing all the machinery. There was E. G. Dugan, for instance. Mr. Dugan is 86 years old, owns a return flue Avery, and has been here every year for 34 years. He has seen the reunion grow from the first get together under a shade tree with six men and two engines to its present size. Then there are Wes and Darlene Glidewell, of whom we will have a bit more to say later. And we mustn't forget Billy Byrd, the L & N Railroad engineer, who came along with his friend, Sid Lovings, from Madisonville, Kentucky just to be part of the show. Billy owns a Nichols and Shepard traction engine and has already gained a bit of fame by appearing on a TV show a couple of months ago. Henry had told me that Billy had promised to be there so we kept looking for him and sure enough about Wednesday or Thursday he and Sid showed up, raring to go. Milo Mathews had a Nichols and Shepard on the line so he pleaded with Billy to run his engine. With characteristic Kentucky humility, Billy twisted and turned, digging his toe into the ground, but after a suitable interval of time, he agreed to take the engine. You'd better believe old Billy wouldn't have had it any other way. A fine man on a fine engine.
Of course most of the men there with engines were older men, but also there were a number of younger guys who are learning the ropes and doing a fine job of it. I have already mentioned Henry's helper, Bill Allen, and so I think I should say a word or two about another fine young man named Kim Graham. Kim is from West Branch, Iowa and is the proud owner of a homemade engine, built with a Case boiler and some sort of a 40 horse engine under-mounted and the whole thing on rubber. Looks like a plumber's nightmare, but it runs and Kim is mighty proud of it. Kim has one other love that I know of and that is steam calliopes. He has built several and can play them as good as he builds them. Sure gave the show an old time flavor to hear the calliope music drifting across the grounds.
A bunch of 'The good old Boys' in the shade of the old Avery. Top row, left to right: Bill Allen, Henry Oswald, Sid Loving, Billy Byrd, Gene Morris. Bottom row, left to right: Henry's son-in-law and daughter Max and Barbara Biddle, Jay Sigafoose.
Kim also showed his prowess as an engineer one evening. Bill Allen had been running the old Avery around the grounds and having some fun and as he brought her back to her stall he let the fire die down and the steam pressure drop. But miscalculated a bit and by the time he got to the stall, he found he didn't have enough pressure to back up a slight grade. He was about to give up when Kim happened along and said, 'Let me have her, I'll put her in'. He pulled forward a few feet, threw her in reverse and poured the coal to her. The old Avery gave a jump backwards, up the little grade she went and into the stall, right on target. Bill shook his head, closed his mouth and walked away, figuring, I guess, that he learned something today.
And last but by no means least there was Lyle Hoffmaster and his two lovely daughters, Ann and Joyce with their 16 HP Reeves. The engine is a beauty and is shined up like a new one, and was made doubly attractive by one or both girls operating it. They are truly wonderful girls, both are in college and are studying to be pharmacists. Lyle may very well be proud of them. I made it a point to get all three of them, plus the engine, in a nice picture, but unfortunately my camera balked and I drew a blank. Perhaps it was Lyle that broke the camera, but I think I just ran out of film.
One day Henry said he had a surprise to show me. He took me over to a beautiful motor home and introduced me to a wonderful couple, Wes and Darlene Glidewell of Dixon, Iowa. Wes is a model builder and has an exhibit of steam models in one of the museum buildings while Darlene had made a beautiful quilt especially for the meet with a picture of Henry's engine embroidered on it. This was a real thrill for Henry and rightly so because it was truly a wonderful piece of work. Darlene has committed herself to making one of these masterpieces every year, honoring the engine of the year. Another example of the selfless dedication of those wonderful people to the betterment of the show.
As a final tribute to Henry and his engine, Bill Keating of Wheeling, Illinois brought over and displayed a model of an under-mounted Avery similar to Henry's engine. This model was built in 1978 by Bill's uncle Jack Earles, who was a steam man and a model builder all his life but passed away last February at the age of 84 years. He has left us, but his handiwork lives on to give pleasure to those who take time to care.
Finally, Saturday night came and it was time to go. I would have stayed the remaining two days but I had made previous commitments in Kentucky where I had grown up, and had promised to be there for a couple of reunions of my own. So with great reluctance I bade good by to the old gang, wound up the clock spring on the old jalopy, and headed out of town, secure in the knowledge that no matter what, we're gonna have a reunion again next year, and the next, and the next. With guys like Milo Mathews, Neil McClure, Gene Morris, Billy Byrd, Bill Allen and Henry, you just can't miss.