Farm Collector

Old Threshers at 36

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.

  • Published on Jan 1, 1986
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