It’s the memories and making new ones

John Oncken

The weather was perfect: No rain, no sticky humidity — just four days of balmy temperatures perfect for walking, looking, talking, ice-cream eating and lots of picture taking. There were acres and acres tractors, steam traction engines and farm and road construction equipment, all of it old, older and really old.

The writer poses on a Farmall Standard like the one that he learned on, except his dad’s was a red color and had different wheels.  He is standing on the platform as he did when plowing to prevent “eating the steering wheel” if the plow hit a rock.

Of course I‘m describing the Rock River Thresheree held every Labor Day weekend at Thresherman’s Park just south of Edgerton. Would you believe this was the 60th “reunion” (as exhibitors call it) of an event that had a humble start on the Rock County farm of John Horton on Friday, July 27, 1956, when about a 100 people got together to watch a steam engine-powered threshing demonstration?

The show

Nowadays, there are dozens of antique tractor and farm equipment shows held across the Midwest on weekends 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 memorable and convenient for farming history lovers.

As always, the parking lots (actually hayfields) seemed packed, but the attendants seem to always find room for one, a dozen or a hundred more cars, and the continuous flow of  tractor-drawn “people movers” get people the half mile or so to the action.

Perhaps action isn’t the right word because most of the 600 (or so) old farm tractors, the couple dozen steam traction engines, the threshing machines, corn shredders, stationery engines of all sizes and makes and the 80-foot tall pile driver are all pretty much unmoving.

Parade of power and pride

That is except for the daily 2 p.m. “Parade of Power” that goes downhill and then uphill through the heart of the machinery display and the flea market,  while the always big crowd watches from the bordering hillsides and under the trees as the tractors and steam engines (some well over 100 years of age) make their way one after another through the park.

The drivers are a proud group, whether teenagers or grandfathers, as they guide these old tractors on the about a mile long daily tour. Some of the tractors have been owned by the same family for generations; others were purchased from friends at auctions or found abandoned in woods, along fence lines or in junk yards,  But most have been lovingly restored and are maintained by family, hobbyists or self-proclaimed “old tractor nuts.”

Over the many years that I’ve attended the Rock River Thresheree and the newer but also huge Badger State Steam Show at Baraboo and talked with hundreds of old tractor lovers, I’ve come to some conclusions.

The daily Parade of Power  brings the old machines to life and be seen by the big crowd.

Who is here?

Mostly it seems that owners of old farm equipment are folks retired from some kind of metal working or machining business, retired farmers, farm equipment sales reps and sons of collectors. The common requirement seems to be the ability to fix things with a wrench and hand tools.

It's also possible that many tractor collectors were not farmers at all; rather, they are folks who always wanted to be farmers but for some reason never did so.  Chances are they spent a lot of time on farms when they were young: helping granddad during the summer school vacation and weekends or working  as a hired hand for a neighboring farmer.

Don’t for a moment think that all collectors are old — far from it. You'll see young children, generation X, Y and whatever from teenagers to working men and women. They are fixers, tinkerers, questioners and innovators who don't mind grease on their noses and dirt under their nails.

This year I noted a great many young families at the Thresheree, such as the four youngsters posing in front of an old Farmall tractor while mother took pictures and dad told them about the tractor.  “No, we’re not farmers, and this is our first visit, ” the young mother said. “We want our children to understand about rural life, food and farming. Things outside of computers, cellphones, TV and city life.  And, they are really excited to see the tractors and learn about farm history.”

Then there are young people who never farmed but are interested in farming from their experiences visiting family farms while growing up. They are now caught up in the hustle and bustle of today’s computer/high tech world and want to get back to the "old days” when things were slower but probably just as good and maybe more fulfilling.

Some get involved in restoring an old tractor with a friend and working with a wrench, getting dirty and greasy and sweating and eventually seeing what they were fixing work and run.  And they drive it in the parade!

Growing up with it

Admittedly, many of the visitors to the Thresheree are older folks and former farmers who actually  grew up  with the old equipment on display, like me.

How well I remember that used Farmall Regular tractor my dad had bought and used for heavy field work like plowing and discing.  While plowing, I always straddled the seat while standing up on the heavy plank platform in order to prevent getting  a mouthful of the heavy steel steering wheel when the stone hitch kicked in and brought the tractor to a sudden stop.

I also remember the pride in taking the flat rack wagon to haul grain bundles as part of the threshing crew for the first time. I know the adults tried to bury me in bundles as a test, but I “passed.”  I think I was 12 years old, my dad was ill with cancer (he recovered) and we had to be a part of the threshing crew, and it worked out.

I saw a “dump rake” like we used briefly to make hay when I was very young: a side delivery rake and hay loader; a John Deere manure spreader; a two-row corn planter and grain drill; and a grain binder — even a Farmall Regular  tractor with its original gray paint (ours had been repainted red), threshing machines and what all.


Do doctors remember their first stethoscope? Plumbers their first wrench? Carpenters their first saw? Space scientists their first computer?  Semi drivers their first truck?

Probably yes, maybe no, but I know that farmers of old remember every piece of machinery they ever owned, how it worked or didn’t work and how, in spite of everything being small and slow, the farming got done.

It's obvious many folks are interested in the history of farming and the equipment used to raise crops for grain and livestock. The noise, smoke, dust and walking at the Thresheree are not reasons to complain — they add to the experience.

A complaint often heard among some consumers and farmers is that farms have gotten too big and that the small ma and pa farms of years gone by, raised better food and are the way food should be raised. Us folks who actually farmed in the era before ag industrialization (prior to the 1960s) know better and would not want to go back to those hard-work days.  True, there are many who see farming and food raised “back in the day” as best, but they never lived during that era.

The Rock River Thresheree and the other antique equipment shows allow us to, however briefly, see, experience and maybe understand what was in the business of farming and how it led to what it is today.  Go see one — you’ll enjoy.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at