Union Thresheree revives rural Wisconsin history for new generations

Dan Hansen
Threshing equipment from the early days of the 20th Century was in operation at the Union Thresheree.

SYMCO, Wis. – Thousands of people from all across Wisconsin, throughout the Midwest and beyond were on hand for the annual event known as the Symco Thresheree, which has been a favorite summer activity for old farm machinery collectors and rural history buffs for more than five decades. 

Hundreds of vintage tractors and other farm implements commonly used during the first half of the 20th Century were on display – and in operation – July 23-25 in this central Waupaca County community.

The event has come a long way since Aug. 6, 1967, when a group of farmers and antique engine buffs met at the nearby Lloyd Riske farm, and hooked up Lloyd Young’s 25-40 Oil Pull to Harold Werth’s threshing machine, for the first Union Thresheree. 

Each year added new attractions to the show and attendance grew. The first National antique Tractor Pull contest was held in 1973, and in 1975 annual Thresheree was move its permanent location named Unionville, along State Highway 22 north of Manawa.

The show is produced each year by the members of Union Thresherman Inc, a volunteer organization of men and women dedicated to preserving Wisconsin’s rich rural history of the early 20th Century. 

A history of volunteerism

Gary Knuth, who lives near Hortonville, and has been a member of the club for more than 40 years, and has served as president for more than a dozen years, says it’s a total effort by club volunteers that makes the Thresheree successful, noting that it takes 200 volunteers to put on the three-day show each year.

Union Threshermen President Gary Knuth displayed the 1931 John Deere that originally was owned by his father.

“We have around 250 members, with a good mix of age groups, including several in their late teens and early 20s,” he noted. “Along with men and women from throughout Wisconsin, we have members who live in Iowa that come every year, and we have members who come all the way from New Hampshire every year. We also have people who aren’t members volunteer to help.”

The club also pays tribute to the members who have passed away. “We have a mock cemetery beside the church with 105 crosses displaying the names of the members who have passed away during the past 54 years,” Knuth said.

“We always recognize those former members at each show, and family members receive a plaque honoring their loved ones. If it wasn’t for those past members, and what they accomplished, we wouldn’t be here today,” he said.

Unionville buildings and grounds

A handsome red barn serves as the main entrance to the Thresheree grounds, which also features dozens of buildings representative of those found in typical rural Wisconsin communities during previous generations.

“We have a working blacksmith shop, general store, train depot, barber shop, bank, post office, tractor repair shop, print shop, police and fire station, and saloon but we also have a school and a church where services are held on Sunday morning during the show,” Knuth said.

Large storage buildings also house a wide variety of vintage tractors and other items used by past generations of farmers. “Very few building here were built from scratch, he said. “There might have been a guy had a chicken coop where the roof was still good, so we’d take the roof and build a building under it. The roof and concrete blocks for the jail and fire station were from an old barn.”

The grist mill, with working waterwheel, was one of the popular attractions at this year’s Thresheree.

Knuth noted that the saloon was the former Union town hall, which was originally across the road from the Thresheree grounds. “The bridge that once spanned the Little Wolf River on Highway 22 is also on the grounds,” he added.

The water-powered grist mill is also a popular attraction. There’s also a separate flea market area with more than 200 vendors displaying their wares.

Demonstrations and displays

Among hundreds of vintage tractors and other equipment, each show features one tractor brand. Some of the tractors and other machines date back to the first two decades of the 20th Century. “There are a couple of old Cases in the teens,” Knuth noted. 

This year Case tractors and machinery and Stover gas engines were featured. The 2022 show (July 29-31) will feature John Deere tractors and Waterloo gas engines. International Harvester will be featured in 2023. 

Selecting the featured equipment several years in advance brings more equipment to the show, according to Knuth. “That helps people plan because some might have a tractor they want to restore and they can get it done and show it that year when it’s nice and fresh,” he said.

This antique Case tractor was brought from Osseo to be displayed at show.

Having a different brand featured each year also contributes to the camaraderie among machinery buffs. “You have people who like Case, International, John Deere, Minneapolis or other brands,” said Knuth. “They can show their tractors, have a beverage later and brag about who has the best tractors.”

Knuth is also an avid collector of John Deere tractors and implements. “I have a 1931 GP that was my dad’s tractor. I have a couple of D’s from the 1940s and a ’38 W1-11 power unit that was made by John Deere from a model D engine,” he said.

Knuth’s daughter, Heidi, also likes vintage tractors and is actively involved in the club. “She puts together a souvenir club calendar every year with pictures from the show that we sell,” he said.

Contests and entertainment

A highlight of Saturday activities was the National Antique Tractor Pull for tractors in several antique and standard classes. The weekend also featured garden tractor and pedal tractor pulls and antique chain sawing contests.

Equipment demonstrations included the big Fairbanks-Morse Engines, steam engines, oil pulls, vintage gas tractors, threshing, shingle mill, saw mills, rock crusher, silo filling plowing and baling. There were also demonstrations of blacksmithing, wool spinning and rug weaving.

The Unionville Memorial Cemetery features crosses displaying the names of the 105 former members who have passed away.

A parade through the grounds is a Sunday highlight. Live music was provided Friday and Saturday nights. Several food and refreshment stands were conveniently located throughout the grounds.

Members of the Union Threshermen will soon begin working on the 2022 show, which will be held July 29-31. "We’ll get comments from the members, and see where we can make improvements,” said Knuth.

More information on the Union Thresheree and other club events is available online at: symcoutc.com or follow the club on Facebook (facebook.com/symcoweekender/).