The “Good Disease” that is spreading

John Oncken
Dan Zimmerman pitches bundles into the thresher.

After a cough or two, the 1929 Rumely Oil Pull tractor slowly built up belt speed and the equally old Oliver Red River Special threshing machine began to shake and quake and come to life. The myriad of belts turned the pulleys that brought the machine up to speed and accept the bundles of wheat fed into it by Dan Zimmerman.

Onlookers were mesmerized by the steady whir and click of the machine as it blew straw out the long pipe on the far end of the machine and grain into the small metal pipe into the grain wagon. 

It’s old but works like new.

Looking back

Those old enough to remember long ago days when they actually worked threshing grain (like me) were taken back to the hard work, heat, dust and chaff of threshing time.  And how the machine moved from farm to farm — about a dozen in the threshing ring — each providing a man and a flat rack wagon or worked as designated “pitchers”  forking grain bundles from shock to wagon load top.

At the time threshing was an annual part of the farm scene - something you did because you needed the grain and straw for the dairy herd during the winter. Today threshing grain is seen only at antique farm equipment shows where it might be classified as entertainment.

The 1929 Rumely Oil Pull tractor was one of only 245 made that year, owner Dan Zimmerman says.

The first time

Last Saturday’s threshing took place at the Green County fairgrounds in Monroe where the newly formed Green County Antique Farm Heritage Club hosted its first public event.

The three lines of tractors, mostly John Deeres, with Olivers, Allis Chalmers, Farmalls, a Case or two and a few other brands filled several acres of grass just inside of what until a few years ago was the race track at the fairgrounds.

The show was the first public display of old farm equipment by members of the club and was held in conjunction with the annual "Pickers" Antique & Flea Market featuring antiques-yard art-primitives and the so-called "junk" that is someone else's treasure!

Dan Zimmerman (L) and Andrew Meier were instrumental in forming the  Green County Antique Farm Heritage Club and holding its first show.

Members of the Green County Antique Farm Heritage Club are avid collectors, restorers, savers and exhibitors of old farm equipment, mainly tractors and have been involved in other big events especially the annual Rock River Thresheree held over the Labor Day weekend at Edgerton.

Two tractor “nuts” Dan Zimmerman and Andrew Meier, both of Monroe and members of the Green County club, attended a small local antique farm equipment show at Brodhead last year and asked each other: Why don’t we have our own show in Monroe?

The answer was an easy yes followed by a question: If we did, where would we hold our show?

At the fairgrounds

Friend Dustin Williams, Agribusiness instructor at Blackhawk Technical College's Monroe Campus and member of the Green county fair board offered an answer by suggesting that the show might be held in conjunction with the annual flea market sponsored by the county fair board.

And that’s what happened last weekend.

A good representation of antique farm and garden tractors along with a host of other older equipment ranging from a potato digger to walking plows made for interesting viewing with the 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. treshing demonstration the real crowd pleaser.

The tractor restorer and saver crowd might be considered minimally strange and at worst absolutely “bananas.” Who else would buy an old rusted, wrecked and 50 year old piece of junk, spend months and maybe years restoring it to assembly line condition and then haul it around on a big trailer to antique farm equipment shows?                   

Spectators watch the threshing intently - many remembered their farm days and working with the threshing.

The answer is lots and lots of people who exhibit at the big shows: Rock River Thresheree (61 years old)  and Badger Steam and Gas Engine Club (54 years old) and dozens of smaller shows held across the state.

Who are the people who spend so much time, effort and money to collect old farm tractors? Some are farmers and a great many  are non-farmers who were/are factory workers, mechanics, engineers or otherwise worked with their hands and machines.

Duane Olson, from Rideout, Illinois, brought his 1948 Allis Chalmers Model G and his grandson Tucker Wichman to the show.

In my many conversations with them and stories about them over the years, they pretty much all conclude that they are victims of a self-inflicted “disease”  that doesn’t harm them or slow them down. Rather, it creates happiness and joy in their bodies and minds.

Dan Zimmerman and Andrew Meier, although but in their 30’s and 20’s are the key movers in the Green County Antique Farm Heritage Club. Zimmerman  owns several threshers, grain binders and about 30 tractors including the Rumely Oil Pull.

“One of every color,” he says.

After 16 years working as a mechanic in Madison, he moved to 25 acres near Monroe and runs Zimmerman Restoration & Repair LLC.

'My wife, Danielle also owns tractors,” he says.

Andrew Meier works at Sloan Implement in Monroe and owns about 25 antique tractors and some 70 garden tractors.

He mentioned his upcoming marriage in October and I commented that I hoped his new wife will put up with his old tractor hobby.

“Yes, she will,” he replied. “Her name is Courtney Foulker and her great granddad was a well known collector and she owns more tractors than I do.”

A success

Both Zimmerman and Meier were pleased with their efforts in presenting this first show and look forward to next year.  They are also looking to grow the Green County Antique Farm Heritage Club membership. To join the fun call Dan at 608-206-2995 or Andrew at 608-558-4224.

As for me, I first took a wagon to threshing at about age 12 when my father was undergoing what was then called radium treatments for cancer (he fully recovered). I well remember the older pitchers who did their best to bury me in oats bundles thereby causing me to build a bad load and lose it before getting to the thresher. (I didn’t.)

Kiam (left) and Cohen Amacher came to the show from Argyle with their mother Tracy.

I also remember the huge noon meals prepared by the host farmers wives: Meals made for hungry farmers who expected big plates of meat, potatoes and gravy and big slices of  pie.  Every noon meal was a competition among the farm wives to serve more and better meals than the other families. No prizes, just the pride.

All ages

No, farm antique tractor shows are not just for old people that used them. You’ll see hordes of youngsters of all ages: Little boys and girls spinning the steering wheel and imagining themselves going down the field; Teenagers with wrenches in hand and oily arms and faces and of course adults of every age working on their equipment or talking about finding, fixing, restoring and exhibiting their hard work.

As a visitor you should look close, seek out the owner and ask questions, lots of questions.

Good luck to Dan, Andrew and others who put together this first show, hope to see you next year at an even bigger event.

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