An Insider's Look at Rollag's 2003 Oil Pull Plowing Demonstration
Every Labor Day weekend since 1953, the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion Show has been held at Rollag, Minn. 2003 was the show's 50th anniversary, and in celebration the club held a couple of special '50' activities.
The most notable activity was the impressive 50-bottom plowing demonstration, modeled after the famous 1911 plow test at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind. Three Rumely Model E 30-60 OilPulls pulled an Oliver 50-bottom plow in that memorable event, and it provided the M. Rumely Co. with more than a little publicity.
Two years before the show's golden anniversary, club members were sitting around discussing what they should do to mark the event. Jerry Mandt, Wahpeton, N.D., put forward the idea of recreating the famous 50-bottom plowing demonstration, and it took off from there.
Wanting the re-creation to be true to the original, club members decided to locate three Model E 30-60 Rumely Oil Pull tractors, as used in the original trial, for the pull. However, Oliver plows of the type used in the original trial are hard to find these days, so they opted to substitute John Deere gangplows, instead. The Oil Pulls used in the recreation belong to Dennis Powers, Ogden, Iowa; Murray Johnson, Langruth, Manitoba, Canada; and Kenney Kass, Dunkerton, Iowa.
The individual plows were chained to the main beam, which was made from 66 feet of 7-inch-square, 1/4-inch-thick steel. To keep it all working together 233 feet of chain was looped through 13 pulleys: two on each of the Oil Pulls and seven on the beam.
After two practice turns the plows were dropped in the ground. Note the signs on the Oil Pull canopies, duplicates of those used in the 1911 demonstration.
The 50-bottom plow rig was put together with plows supplied by Mark Knox, Fisher, Minn., 10-bottom; Mark Pedersen, Luverne, N.D., 14-bottom; Jim Briden, Sabin, Minn., 10-bottom (added to Jim's was a two-bottom extension from Kevin Anderson, Andover, S.D.); Kee Groshong, Columbia, Mo., six-bottom; and Peter Mandt, Wahpeton, N.D., eight-bottom.
I had heard they were going to test the whole outfit on the Wednesday before the Labor Day show. I figured that would be a good time to go and watch, as I knew I would be busy with my own engine on the Saturday of the official plow day. I called club member Jim Briden, the designated chairman responsible for overseeing the 50-plow hitch, to ask if I could come and watch. 'No, you can't come and watch,' he said. 'You can come and help!'
I left early Wednesday morning to make the two-hour drive, and to get there early enough to make sure I could help. As it was, they had plenty of help, and things didn't really get rolling until about 11 a.m., leaving me plenty of time to visit with folks.
It was great being there on Wednesday to take pictures, as there were only about 300 people on hand, whereas on Saturday at the official running it's estimated close to 10,000 people showed up to watch the demonstration.
Since the famous 'Hills of Rollag' wouldn't provide the needed flat land for the demonstration, the club chose a field 1/4-mile wide and about 3/4-mile long situated 8 miles north and west of the show grounds.
Because of the drought this area had been experiencing, the west half of the field was extremely dry and hard, but the east half had held moisture better and had good, mellow soil.
The original idea was to test-pull the plow rig using modern John Deere tractors so they could check the rigging. But once everything was readied, they hooked up the Oil Pulls for a true test. They also were going to unhook the plow and use a modern tractor to turn it at the end of the round. Once again they decided to stick with the Oil Pulls, and it's really good they did, because making the corners was part of the show. The way they made the first turn, it was like they had been doing it for 15 years.
Starting the first round, which was made with the plows up just to get everything in line, the crew stopped a half dozen times to adjust the chains and the tractor spacing. After making two complete turns they were back at the starting point. They stopped, everybody had a soda pop, and then they commenced to plow.
They went about 50 feet and started putting the plows in the ground. At first, the tractor operators were worried the 25 guys and gals riding the plows to run the levers would have to get off because of their additional weight, but this didn't prove to be a problem. The ground on the west side of the field was so hard some people rode the plow beams to get the plows to go in the ground, but once they hit the mellow ground on the east side the plows sucked themselves right in.
A 40 HP under mounted Avery fronts a line of steam engines at the 2003 show in Rollag, Minn. The Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion had 62 steam engines on hand to celebrate their 50th-annual show.
The three Oil Pulls sounded really good under load -every so often they would get in sync with each other, making a really sweet sound. I walked along-side a drive wheel as they pulled, and I noticed there was some wheel slippage, but it was minimal.
They cut a swath close to 60 feet wide each pass, but since they wanted to save the rest of the ground for Saturday they only plowed about 400 feet on Wednesday. I don't impress easily, but I have to say this was very impressive.
The original plan was to test-plow from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., but so many people showed up to see the rig in operation they ended up plowing until 5 p.m., just to give everybody on hand a chance to see the rig at work.
The second '50' activity the club decided on was to have 50 steam engines on the show grounds. This proved a success, as they ended up with 62 engines, including miniatures and scale models. Nick Olsen of Fargo, N.D., deserves credit for this part of the event, as he was in charge of obtaining the needed engines and handling the necessary freighting.
I brought two engines up, my 60 HP Case and Norman Grant's 65 HP Case. Both these engines are normally housed and active at our show at Rose City, Minn. I ran my engine and Nick ran Norman's Case. I think we fared really well on Saturday Nick threshed with Norman's and I got to put mine on one of the sawmills at the show. The mill, by the way, also has a 52-inch blade and a planer. I switched over to coal while sawing, and my little engine really worked well and sounded great. I was holding my own until they rolled a 4-foot diameter log on the carriage - once it was squared up it proved to be too much for me to handle. After about one hour on the mill I backed out and let John Jurry from Valley City, N.D., belt up with his 25 HP Gaar-Scott. It was fun while it lasted.
With 50 big engines on the grounds the guys running the water trucks were kept really busy. They did an excellent job, but by Sunday afternoon almost everybody was burning coal we really raised heck with their woodpile.
On Friday afternoon we took all the engines out to the west end of the show grounds on the terraces and took a group photo, and it was quite a line-up, as the pictures show.
For anyone interested, an 80-minute, narrated video of Saturday's plowing demonstration is available in VHS or DVD format. The recording focuses on the mechanical aspect as well as the actual plowing demonstration, and can be acquired by sending $18 to Tiger Productions, 25471 90 Ave. S., Hawly, MN 56549.
Steam enthusiast Joe C. Steinhagen is a regular contributor to Steam Traction. Contact him at: 11980 Kluver Addition Road S.E., Alexandria, MN 56308; (320) 762-2706.