Steam Thresher's Reunion
commentary by Mike Blakesley, January 2007
Pictures by Mike Blakesley, Lynn Blakesley and Paul Carter,
Labor Day Weekend 2006.
Picture of Glen Blakesley taken at Rollag in 1973 by Mike
When I was a kid, my grandpa and grandma, Glen and Dorothy Blakesley,
would disappear every Labor Day weekend for a few days and would
go to Minnesota. At the time I didn't know why they went
there; all I knew was they was gone for a few days and then
they'd come back, and that'd be it.
Later I found out that the trip had something to do with steam engines.
Grandpa was into steam engines, specifically Case steam tractors and
related equipment. He owned a small Case tractor, a "30," or to
real knowledgeable Case guys, a "10-30," which
he exhibited every year at the Rosebud County Fair. He liked
Case equipment enough that he even built working scale models of
a Case tractor and threshing machine.
It turned out that the attraction in Minnesota that so intrigued Grandpa
was the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion, which is held
every Labor Day weekend in the tiny town of Rollag (population
about 10 or 15). There are lots of these shows, often called
"threshing bees," in the farming areas of the country.
The Rollag reunion (or "WMSTR," as it's usually referred to) started in
1950 with one family, the Norman Nelson clan. The Nelsons
decided to drag out their old steam threshing rig, which had
been in the family since it was brand new, and thresh their
grain crop the old fashioned way, just for fun. Of course
the neighbors heard about it and came to help out.
They had such a good time that they decided to make it a yearly event,
with other neighbors and friends getting their own old equipment
out of storage and showing it off. The show grew
rapidly as more and more farmers around the region pulled their own
old equipment out of mothballs, and before long an official
organization was formed to put the show on every year.
The event soon outgrew the Nelson property, so the group
purchased some land next to Rollag. Over the years, more and
more equipment, owned by people from a wider and wider area, was dusted off to join the party.
Before long the show grew to include plowing, blacksmithing, flour
milling...in fact just about anything they "used to do" on a
farm. Setting even bigger sights, the club
started acquiring large industrial engines from defunct
factories around the country, including one steam engine with a 16-foot flywheel and
12-foot connecting rod. All brought to Rollag and put together
by volunteer workers.
When it looked like they'd acquired about every possible piece of
equipment there was, they found an old steam locomotive. After bringing it to Rollag,
going over it piece by piece and then laying a mile of track,
they began giving rides around the grouns, pulling passenger cars
fashioned from old cattle boxcars. Thousands of people got to ride behind a steam
engine for the first time in their lives.
guys did more than tinker with old engines. Some of them built
scale models -- half size, quarter size, and even smaller.
amount of time
and effort that goes into these models is staggering. There
came to be so many models that a special place for them, called Miniatureland, was finally created.
The ladies got involved too. Tired of simply running the food stands,
they created a Main Street with stores, and they started a show
within a show, featuring spinning, weaving, soap-making, and anything else
they could think of. Even gas-powered washing machines
found a home at Rollag.
Everything is done to the tune of old-time music, played by
musicians who sometimes have never met each other...but everyone
knows the songs.
The rest, as they say, is history. The WMSTR organization today relies on
over 2,000 members who gather every Labor Day
weekend to put the show on. They're all still volunteers; nobody gets
paid. Members who live in the area spend countless hours
year-round on "Steamer Hill" polishing the equipment, making
repairs, and building new projects and the structures to house
The work pays off: The reunion now attracts upwards of 50,000 people to
Rollag, Minnesota (population, as you might remember, about 10
or 15) every Labor Day weekend.
Here's where I
In 1967, when I was ten, Grandpa had told me about Minnesota enough times
that I begged to go along. He and Grandma finally agreed to take me on
that year's trip. We packed up the "little engine," the
scale model Case he had built, and we went to the show.
We set up our model in Miniatureland, and we spent the
four-day weekend running the engine for the throngs of people,
and watching the daily parades, and wandering around
through the endless exhibits, and sometimes sitting under any
old shelter waiting out the occasional rainstorm.
Well, needless to say I was instantly hooked. There were more kinds
of steam engines and gas tractors than I ever imagined existed
-- all sizes and shapes. Beyond the tractors... hundreds of
small gas engines popping and snorting, huge industrial engines,
cool old cars, miniature models, rattling threshing machines. And the noise!
Whistles, chugs, clanks and clangs galore from machines that
often seemed to defy all logic by even working. What young boy
wouldn't be in heaven? And as icing on the cake, plenty of food
stands serving everything from fried chicken to chocolate milk
After the first year, Grandma was more than happy to stay home and let Grandpa and I
have all the fun. We went to Rollag every year until sometime after I was out of high school,
and then Grandpa's health began to prevent him from making the trip.
He died in 1988. The 30 Case tractor today belongs to Gary
Bradley, son of Grandpa's best friend, Don Bradley -- another
frequent Rollag veteran.
I've been back to Rollag a few times since. I convinced my parents to go
along in 1995, and I got married in 2000 and took my wife
Lynn to the show a year later. In 2006 I went again with a
friend of mine, Paul Carter, who got his affinity for old
tractors from his dad. Lynn and I went again in 2010.
Going back now is not really the same, of course. After all, you're only
a kid once. But WMSTR is still one of the greatest shows on
earth and it still creates the same warm feeling in me that I
had in 1967 when I first stepped onto Steamer Hill. And I
always feel like Grandpa is smiling when I'm there. He
always seemed most at home when he was in Rollag. That's
probably why I always want to go back.
To see pictures from our 2006 trip to Rollag, click the
link at the right. >
Mike and Paul ready to head out on
the big Rollag trip...556 miles each way.
A stop at "Salem Sue," the World's
Largest Holstein Cow, at New Salem, North Dakota. That's me under the cow's
At WMSTR, shuttle wagons pulled by tractors
haul people in from the parking lot. In the background, Engine
353 cruises past.
Paul (in the hat) visits with a
man who built a 1/3-scale model of a Case steam engine.
...which was running this
miniature hay baler. The display was covered in Case memorabilia.
A half-scale threshing rig
operating at Rollag in 2006.
Don Bradley (Grandpa's best friend
and fellow steam enthusiast) drives our Case 30 in the daily
parade at Rollag.
A couple of 1/3 scale engines at
Miniatureland. The one in the background is a Huber built by
Norman Nelson, one of the founders of the Rollag show.
Each engine has its own crew of volunteers who keep things
running smoothly. That's the best thing about Rollag...virtually
everything is running.
The Rollag show will go on, as plenty of young kids get