10022 Marnice Avenue Tujunga, California 91042
When a feller gets steam and valve oil in his veins, he almost always never gets it out, and like an old hound dog at possum huntin' time, his ears prick up and his breath comes in short pants when someone mentions steam engines. This is what happened to me this past August when my wife, Retta, said, 'Are you going to Mt. Pleasant this year?' Of course I could have given her a big hug and increased her allowance to fifty cents a month, but instead I acted rather reluctant and said, 'Oh, I dunno. Probably not.' Then she came up with the clincher. 'If you go, I would like to go, too.' Well, with an offer like that, who could refuse. Someone to carry the heavy luggage, to do all the driving, to act as navigator so I wouldn't get lost and to say, 'NO, NO, NO, that's too much money' when I would start to talk about buying a ten thousand dollar steam engine. So right away we started to make plans.
I wrote to Henry Oswald to tell him we were coming. You remember Henry as being the walking Chamber of Commerce for the Old Threshers and owning the 1983 Engine of the Year, an undermounted Avery. Also wrote to Stan Mathews of the Midwest Central Railroad and was about to write to Edna Wright to have her reserve us a room when I remembered Wes and Darlene Glidewell had told us that we might be able to stay with them in their motor home if they had room, so we called them at their home in Dixon and after promising Wes I wouldn't snore, they agreed to let us stay. With all this out of the way, we packed our duds, oiled the clockwork and wound the mainspring on the old Reo Speed-wagon and away we went, across the burning desert, the shining mountains and the lone prairie to that cloud of wood smoke in the air that marks Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, the home of the thirty sixth annual Old Settlers and Threshers Reunion.
Every year, about a week or so before Labor Day, Mt. Pleasant is transformed from a sleepy little country town to a roaring metropolis with the advent of the Old Threshers Reunion. People pour in from all over the country to get together to look over the antique farm machinery, see some of it in action, renew old acquaintances and maybe even swap a few tall tales. Just about every extra bed, cot and sleeping bag in town is filled, thanks to the efforts of Edna Wright. (I call her the Beddy Bye Lady of Mt. Pleasant.) Edna takes care of most all of the reservations for rooms in the town, and while she hasn't handled quite as many people as Conrad Hilton, she runs a close second. Without her and her card file, lots of people would be sleeping standing up. The RV section of the grounds is full, this year 3900 trailers, campers and motor homes came and stayed for a week or more, besides all the odd spots that people stayed, all makes for wall to wall people.
As we had been invited to stay with Wes and Darlene, as soon as we hit town on Thursday, we looked them up, got settled and went out to look things over. Wes and Darlene have been donating a lot of time to taking care of the big stationary engines in the very aptly named 'Steam Room', but this year Wes had brought with him his new (to him) one half scale freelance traction engine, so he didn't have to spend as much time in the 'steam room' as before, having fun instead, riding around the track in the big parade and showing off his latest toy to everyone.
Here's a steam pumper built in 1902, used for 36 years, retired until it was rescued by Gene Morris and restored to better than new condition as evidenced by this picture.
Darlene took it upon herself a few years ago to make a beautiful quilt for each show depicting the 'Engine of the Year'. Her first, I believe, was in 1983, showing Henry Oswald's Avery, the second was in 1984 showing Neil McClure's big Huber. This year, locomotive #6 of the Midwest Central Railroad, an 1891 Baldwin Mogul was advertised as the engine of the year and Darlene did a beautiful job on this one with old #6 under full steam and showing off in style. The quilt was on display for all to see in the museum, a tribute to Darlene's talent and labor of love.
However, a monkey wrench was dropped into the works when it became evident that the engine could not be finished in time for the show. It had been completely dismantled and reassembled from the ground up, or rails up, to be exact, and if finished, considering the modern technology and equipment at the shop's disposal, would have been in better condition than when it rolled out of the shop the day Mr. Baldwin tightened the last nut and built the first fire in the firebox back in 1891.
As I said, our first day was spent in walking around, getting reacquainted with some of the old gang. There was Leon Foree, Stan Mathews, Henry Oswald, young Bill Allen, Kim Graham and Everett Wright, to name a few. This was Retta's first time there, so introductions were in order all around with her. By the time we wandered around a bit it was dinner time, so we sort of shopped around and grabbed something here and something there and kept on walking. We decided to take in the Ricky Skaggs show and managed to get tickets for the second performance and enjoyed an hour and a half of wonderful entertainment from the Grandstand.
Up bright and early, Wes took me out for a sausage and egg breakfast, then we wandered over to the steam area and I watched the men fire up the iron monsters and bring them to life with hisses, clanks and then the unforgettable sound of a steam engine slowly turning over, idling along and just waiting for somebody to put it under a load so it can show the world what it can do. And lots of loads were there, too. Baker fans, saw and shingle mills, sorghum mills, threshers and hay balers. All to show off the old girl's power.
The antique car display seemed to be bigger than the last time I was there. The building housing the old cars is a two story affair and was completely filled with restored automobiles and trucks. Retta and I were especially interested in these, as we were both very familiar with the Model 'T's and Chevrolets during out childhood back in Kentucky, as few people had anything else. Her father happened to be an exception, however. He owned a 1923 Studebaker touring car, which was quite a piece of machinery in those days. So when she saw one almost identical to the one they had when she was a kid, she immediately fell in love with it and I think if the owner had been around, she might have tried to trade our Speed wagon for it. As it was, she liked it so well, I actually think that she waved good by to the car as we walked away.
Of course, two of the big events of the day are the noontime whistle blow and the big parade past the grandstand, and by the time these events rolled around, the morning haze had burned off, the sun was out and everyone was ready for action. At twelve o'clock the announcer would give the word and every steam whistle on the grounds would turn loose. The resulting racket was something few people have heard before, over a hundred steam whistles, each with a slightly different tone, all blowing at once. Just about the purtiest sound a feller ever hears.
Then it's all out for the big parade. All of the horse drawn vehicles, antique automobiles, gas and diesel tractors and steam traction engines capable of moving took off for the track and made the complete circuit, the whole thing taking about an hour. Quite a spectacle when viewed from the grandstand and more exciting when viewed from the back of the steam engine, which was what we had the opportunity to do. Henry Oswald, with his usual generosity, invited Retta and me to ride on the old Avery with him and his son-in-law, Max Biddle. So here we go, around the track in the greatest of style, hissing and clanking along with Leon Foree right on our tail, running the other Avery which belongs to Midwest Old Threshers. Old Leon must have been a Hot Rodder in his younger days, because he was pushing us around the track all the way. I believe if we had moved over a couple of inches, he would have passed us. He's a good old boy, tho' and is just another one of those wonderful people who make this event possible.
In 1983 when Henry's engine was the 'engine of the Year', I brought him a whistle that at one time was used on one of the big articulated locomotives on the Southern Pacific Railroad. This large chime whistle, when mounted on his engine, was quite an attraction and made a pretty good sound when the old whistle cord was yanked. This year when the Midwest Central #6 was to be put back in service, Henry offered to loan Stan Mathews the whistle for the duration. However, as #6 didn't get backed on the track, so to speak, he still had the whistle on his engine. So when we got in front of the judges' stand, there was a little announcement made as to the engine and a short history of the whistle, then we pulled the rope and everyone gave us a big hand. Makes it all sort of worthwhile, seemed like.
This year, for the first time, a picture was taken of all engines and operators by a local photographer, using a type of camera which I had never seen, but had read about. I think it works on the same principle as some aerial cameras, in that the film moves as the camera sweeps around. Anyway, all the engines were lined up, forming a semicircle at least an eight of a mile long, then the photographer made a sweep with the camera, and presto, the entire group in one picture. The proofs came out that afternoon with a picture about four feet long. Quite an operation and the rush was on to order prints. This man did something to be real proud of.
I had mentioned earlier the so-called 'Steam Room', which is actually one end of one of the museum buildings. In this section is housed all of the collection of large and small steam engines that have been collected from municipal power and water plants, factories, etc. These huge chunks of iron have all been disassembled, cleaned, worn parts replaced and reassembled to look and run like new. They are all powered by a group of automatic boilers, sitting there slowly turning over, reliving the past when steam was the prime mover of the country and the internal combustion engine and Henry's 'infernal contraption' was something not yet dreamed of. These huge ponderous beasts sit there, year after year, performing their allotted tasks, grinding away with only a keeper to see that they were properly oiled and groomed, only to be swept under the rug and in most cases reduced to scrap to feed the Gods of War and replaced with either the gas or diesel engine or the humming electric motor which got their power from air polluting sources. But luckily a few of them survived the cutting torch and the ones running in the steam room are beautiful examples of the state of the art at that time.
For a number of years Wes and Darlene Glidewell had served their time in the steam room, taking care of these machines, but this year there were some new faces around as Wes spent more of his time out on the grounds with his traction engine. Among the new faces was a likeable young man named Mark Sevde. Mark spends a week or two here at the reunion, then goes home to Toledo, Iowa where he fools around the rest of the year installing fire extinguishers. Mark showed us around a bit, demonstrating a couple of new engines that had been installed this year and making us feel that he will no doubt be able to fill Wes' shoes and keep the bigs ones moving along, smoothly and silently, for the next few years to come.
When we speak of Mark and his fire extinguishers, another name comes to mind that of Gene Morris of Alexis, Illinois. Now Gene is really into putting out the fires, as he is the owner of Alexis Fire Equipment Co., and when Gene isn't building new engines, he is restoring old ones. Last time I was here in 1983 he had on display a beautiful pumper from around 1900 that looked better than when it came out of the factory. This year he had another pumper on display, built in 1902 by a company in New York state and saw service for thirty six years before retirement. Another beautiful bit of restoration and something for Gene to be proud of.
As we have said before, it is the older men who started all this reunion bit, but as the years pass and they gradually thin out, younger men are needed to take their place, and that seems to be happening at Mt. Pleasant. There's Stan Mathews, Bill Allen and Kim Graham, to name a few. However the youngest addition to the fraternity seems to be a young man named Jay Sigafoose from up Haysville way. The first time I ran into Jay was two years ago when he slipped into a picture I shot of a few of the old timers, but on this trip I found him with an oil can in one hand and a monkey wrench in the other, taking care of the big ones. His Mom and Dad are active in the antique car field, having part of their collection on display in the car museum, but Jay had been won over to steam and was spending his time in the company of the Corliss' and the Skinners. Not quite old enough yet, he's only fifteen, not quite old enough to be a qualified engineer, but wait 'til next year when he turns sixteen. Gonna make his mom and dad mighty proud of him, I'll bet.
Darlene Glidewell spent many hours doing this quilt, depicting Midwest Central's #6. However, as #6 was not back in service this year, she has a head start on the reunion next year.
On our last evening there, we decided to take in the square dancing over at the 'Barn'. The place was jumping and the music was good, but after listening to the caller, we decided that it was a little unfamiliar to us and maybe we had better sit this one out and not do any rug cutting that night. Anyway, that's what we told each other, but just between us and the gate post, I think we both figured our days of fast and furious square dancing are pretty much past and we feel a lot safer just sitting on the sidelines enjoying if from there.
In our visit to the antique car museum the previous day, we discovered something which I never knew existed, a four wheel drive model 'T' Ford. Next day I ran across Dave Suhling who had a beautiful exhibit of miniature farm equipment, all carved from wood. I was telling him about the four wheel 'T' and he said a friend had some literature on it and he would be around Dave's exhibit later. I was going back to pick it up, but time slipped up on me and I didn't make it. So I'll have to write Old Dave over in Bunker Hill, Illinois and have him send me a copy. Might just put one on the Reo Speed Wagon.
So, anyway, things were swinging along and we were getting tired with a long run ahead, so we packed up, bid everyone good by, wound up the mainspring, put the old heap in forward motion, opened the throttle and were off down the interstate and headed for home. It was a wonderful experience to see all these fine people and visit with them for a little while. It would be nice if we lived a little closer and were able to make it every year, but this cannot be. So we can only hope that if and when we do return to Mt. Pleasant, we will see our old friends again and add a few new ones besides, so until next time, may you have friends to your fireside, peace to your pathway and good health to all.