Antique threshing machines and tractors charm the old and the young

John Oncken
I always stood while plowing with the F20 Farmall. The Stoughton Stone hitch brought the tractor to an instant stop which, if seated, could mean a mouthful of steel steering wheel.

The sun was in and out of the clouds over the Labor Day holiday weekend and the temperature was never above the 80 degree mark. All in all, a perfect scene for the 65th annual Rock River Thresheree.

Thousands of folks made their way over to the one-time farm field along US 51 just south of Edgerton. They were there to relive the past or look with wonder at the machines that worked the land, powered factories and ran homes back in the days before computers, cell phones, TV, radio and even electricity.

Big and old, this Advance Rumley keeps on running.

It began in 1955 when Rock County farmer John Horton invited a few friends to his farm for an "old fashioned" threshing bee. Some 100 people showed up. Horton was busy farming in 1956 and didn't have time for a thresherman’s get-together but in 1957 and every year since, the Rock River Thresheree has been held. In 1959, the event was moved to Legion Park in Edgerton and in 1961 the current site between Edgerton and Janesville was purchased.

Hundreds of tractors on display at Rock River Thresheree show how farming technology changed.
The smoke rises as the steamer fires up.
The 2 pm parade at the Thresheree is always a highlight. Will those old tractors run? Of course they will.

Before those things we call combines

Yes, grain is still threshed with the old threshing machines each year at the Thresheree – a magnificent sight for the youngsters watching and for most of the adults who are too young to remember the days of threshing crews that ended in the early 1950s. Yes, I do remember the community threshing machine owned by neighbor John Diedrich pulling into our yard, parking next to the barn and setting up for the next day’s work. I’d guess about a dozen farms were in the threshing ring, each providing one man with a flat rack wagon or with a three-tine fork to pitch oat bundles onto the wagons.

Spectators at the Thresheree do enjoy watching the grain bundles going in one end of the machine and coming out the other as straw and grain. But, they’ll never endure the  hard work, heat, dust and chaff of actual threshing time. Today threshing grain is seen only at antique farm equipment shows where it's seen as a novelty.

The-80 foot-tall pile driver formerly drove pilings at the St. Lawrence Seaway in the early 1950s. It came to Thresheree in 1959 and is still used for demonstration.
A steamer passes a lineup of older tractors.

Smoke-puffing monsters

The same for the black, hulking, smoke puffing steam engines powered by straw, wood and coal that are always a center of attraction at antique farm equipment shows. It's hard to imagine that these behemoths pulled the plows that broke the Midwest soils which became the "breadbasket" of the world and now are the corn belt and soybean farms we see daily.

Interestingly, while the last of the steam friction engines was built over a hundred years ago, some are still running under the tender loving care of 90-year-old men and 9-year-old boys who are proud of their ability to turn a wrench, feed coal and accumulate a covering of black coal dust on their faces and overalls.

Lining up for the daily Parade of Power.
A 98-year-old Samson tractor made in Janesville in the parade. When it went out of business in 1923, GMC began making trucks, then cars in the factory. It, too, is now closed and being demolished.

Hundreds of historic tractors

The Thresheree has hundreds of farm tractors on display, most lovingly restored and owned by that strange group of people with “tractor collector's disease.” Collecting rusty old relics, reconstructing and refinishing them and hauling them around the country to exhibit at such events is hard work but makes history live.

This year again, on the 65th anniversary of the reunion of the Rock River Thresheree, thousands of spectators and exhibitors relived the days of the steam engines, Olivers, Minneapolis Molines, Allis Chalmers and the dozens of tractors that have long since passed from the farming scene and were long out of service and never actually seen working in a field by the now-owner.

The steam traction machines would never pass today’s clean air rules.
Taking a ride on the railroad.

There are dozens of antique tractor and farm equipment shows held across the Midwest from May to October, but the Rock River Thresheree is most certainly one of the biggest and oldest and its Labor Day weekend dates make it convenient for farming history lovers. You can see how farming and living was done in the days before social and industrial technology came on the scene. A harder life, but just as much fun and happiness.

Reach John F. Oncken at 608-837-7406, or e-mail him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.