The City of Pontiac, Illinois, lies 100 miles southwest of Chicago and 200 miles northeast of St. Louis on route 66. Its population is about 9,000, though no one seems to be sure whether that figure does or does not include the population of the state penitentiary located in the city; the penitentiary's population is or was at last count1,475.
It's a nice town, Pontiac. It has a number of pleasant parks, well-kept residential sections, and the Vermilion River. The people are friendly. The town's problems are those faced by thousands of similar communities: schools are becoming overcrowded, the sewer systems need modernization, it's getting harder and harder to find a parking space near the courthouse square.
To farmers throughout the Midwest and the rest of the nation, Pontiac, Illinois, the seat of Livingston County, means one thing and one thing only: the annual Central States Threshermen's Reunion.
They pour in from all over, the old timers and their families, to see the huffing, clanking, puffing threshers and steam engines do their stuff. The citizens of Pontiac shake their heads in disbelief. They're glad the festival is popular, but they'd like someone to tell them why.
The fame and popularity of the event is particularly remarkable considering the lack of expensive, high pressure publicity in the past. The only paid advertising in other years the first reunion was in 1949 was the mailing out of approximately 300 handbills to regular members of the Threshermen's Association. This year 7,000 handbills were sent an over the United States, and ads were placed in farm magazines.
Each year the news then carries itself across the nation on the airwaves and pages of country weeklies, riding a wave of nostalgic enthusiasm for the old-time threshers' get-together.
That's the answer, of course: nostalgic, fond memories of the Good Old Days. And whether you approve of such nostalgia or deplore it is evidence of head-in-the-sand tendencies, you must reckon with it. It's a force, and the Threshermen's Reunion proves it.
Originator of the idea and president of the five reunions held to date is Dan Zehr, retired Pontiac implement dealer. Zehr doesn't exactly resent the stream-lined, quiet running combine, but he's sure it will never have the steam engine's firm grasp on human emotions. He himself owns 13 of the ancient prairie locomotives and two scale models he's built.
The reunion is by no means a one-man show. There are nine directors, and they are assisted by a great many people from the surrounding area. L. V. Kinzinger, of Carlock, Illinois, and Wilbur Collins, of Pontiac, two of the directors, devote virtually full time for the two weeks preceding the show to preparations for the event.
This year's reunion, the fifth, was held, as usual, at the Pontiac 4-H Park, about 4 miles west of the city. It got underway on Wednesday, September 2, and lasted through Labor Day, September 7. It was the first six-day festival in the history of the reunion. The event was held for five days in 1952 and 1951, four days in 1950 and two days in 1949.
By the time it was over, 17,660 people had paid their way in. Including children, members of the Threshermen's Association, and those who helped stage the reunion, the figure came to an estimated 35,000.
What did they come to see?
Well, there was on old hand-drawn steam fire pumper from Southern Illinois. A 15 hp. Case 10-ton steam road roller, owned by Justin Hingten of La Motte, Iowa, manufactured in Racine, Wisconsin in about 1920.
Zehr's 1874 model portable Canton Monitor, a 16 hp. machine, a portable 1861 model Monarch owned by Homer Dickson of Yorkville, Illinois, one of the reunion's oldest directors six hp engine built in Chicago; a 16 hp. Case center crank return flue straw burner from Mitchell, South Dakota, built in Racine, Wisconsin in the late 1860's and never fired with but straw.
Each day these and other big engines, more than 50 all told, paraded through the park several times. Two to four parades of scale model machines were held daily.
Father time Henry J. Lucksinger, 83, of McKittrick, Missouri, who wouldn't miss a reunion if he could possibly help it, and hasn't yet----- was on hand again, with his portable lumber factory. John Veiley, of Pontiac, demonstrated his portable sawmill.
During the six days, pageants were staged, depicting the eight historic developments in threshing, from the tramping of grain to the self-propelled combine.
Omar E. Cripe, of Cerro Gordo, Illinois, demonstrated his miniature, steam-run ferris wheel. F. W. Bloom and Guy Herrin, of Churubusco, Indiana, gave demonstrations on their model thresher, steam roller and hay baler.
Chicago radio station WLS broadcast its Dinner Bell program from the reunion on September 3.
Entertainment was presented every day. Performers included local talent and song and comedy stars, among them the famed Lulu Belle and Scotty.
A speech by the district's representative in Washington, Rep. Leslie C. Arends, the GOP whip in the House, was another highlight on the second day.
But it's not the speeches or entertainment or concession stands that bring the crowd. They come to see the machines, the smoky, smelly ugly, big, black machines. They love them, and they'll be back to see them next year.