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       Western Minnesota Steam Thresher's Reunion

Essay and 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 Blakesley.

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.

  Some guys did more than tinker with old engines. Some of them built scale models -- half size, quarter size, and even smaller.  The 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 them.

  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 come in

  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 to hamburgers.

  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 tail.

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 involved.