David Weyand knows the steam engines and tractors used on farms a century ago are few and far between. So standing among some of them and their aficionados at the Fulton County Fairgrounds on Thursday gave him a wistful sense of satisfaction.
“It’s a disease,” he said of the hobby while admiring his own five-eighths scale steam engine built over a two-year period. “I was bitten when I was 11 years old, and I’ve been running them ever since.”
The New Centerville, Pa., resident was among dozens of people who converged to showcase their antique machines at the 73rd Annual Reunion of the National Threshers Association (NTA). Held June 22-25, it gave them the opportunity to display their renovated steam traction engines, tractors, and gas-fed engines from yesteryear to appreciative spectators.
The event also featured a flea market of antiques, food vendors, and log-cutting demonstrations.
Weyand, who was raised on a farm, said there are probably only about 250 of the antique steam engines in operation in Pennsylvania, and fewer in other areas of the country. He said probably less than one percent of the original machines survive.
“I like trying to keep the legacy going,” he said. “I like steam. I like the power of steam, the torque of steam. I’m very mechanically inclined, so I appreciate all that – the visibility of it.”
Doylestown, Pa., residents C.J. Holden and his father bring their modern rebuild of an 1892 Advance six-horse steam engine to several thresher events each year, including to Fulton County. Built from casting in 2014, theirs is one of the first full-sized steam engines constructed since the early 1940s.
“It’s a perfect replica. If you put an original engine next to this one you couldn’t tell the difference,” Holden said.
It was an expensive undertaking, but the cost of maintaining the hobby is reasonable, he said. His fascination with the antique farm equipment includes “what to do, how to maintain things, how to run them. It teaches news skills.”
Even in an ultra-technological world people are still drawn to the old mechanical systems, Holden said.
“You don’t see these a lot. You’ve got to travel quite a distance just to find one of these in some places. It’s different because it shows the purpose of what these things were made to do 100 years ago out in fields.”
Bryan native James Harrington, now of Seattle, Wash., was back visiting his old haunts and made a point to attend the threshers reunion. He wandered with interest amidst the roar of the engines, the blasts from their whistles, and the stacks belching smoke. He was born and raised on a farm, and has seen the antique farm implements his entire life.
“I just love old tractors and threshing machines, and machinery in general,” Harrington said. “It’s something a little bit before my time, so it’s machinery that I never used on the farm. But my dad did, so that’s what makes it interesting to me.”
A 2390 Baker engine from 1925 clanked and roared as owner Craig Clark of Benton, Ohio, stoked wood into its raging furnace. Clark bought it in 2009, and also owns a 1919 Baker engine originally purchased by his grandfather. Both were manufactured in Swanton.
“I got to grow up with Grandpa and that engine. And it’s nice just being around the other steam engine people,” he said. “It’s a very close-knit family hobby; there’s a lot of good people and it’s a lot of fun.”
And while the thresher shows don’t attract the the numbers they did 30 or 40 years ago, “they still pull in a pretty good crowd,” Clark said.
The purchase price of his Baker was steep; like other engine owners, Clark is reluctant to divulge the cost. “If you start having to work on them you’d better be real good friends with a machinist or be a machinist yourself,” he said with a laugh. “A lot of them make the boilers and do the riveting themselves.”
In his case, the engines are a family affair. Clark’s great-great-grandfather used one for farming – family members have the whistle from that engine – and Clark has studied steam engine manufacturers since he was a child.
“You get attached to them,” he said. “Both my engines, I care for them so much I’d never sell either one of them at an auction. When I’m old enough, I hope I can find somebody that I know would take care of them.”
The NTA has its origins with Leroy Baker, who lived in Montpelier and 73 years ago restored a Port Huron steam engine in an Alvordton, Ohio, barn. He founded the association with several friends and held shows at Montpelier’s fairgrounds for a few years before the threshers reunion found a permanent home in Fulton County.
Now the oldest, and one of the most active, threshers associations worldwide, the NTA boasts 2,200 members from as far away as Iowa, the Dakotas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and Maryland, among other states, and continues to grow.
“During the summer, these shows happen all over the country. You can go to a show each weekend and not travel over 150, 200 miles,” said Dennis Rupert, NTA first vice president and a 35-year member.
Tens of thousands of the engines were made originally but the advent of modern farming and the introduction of the gas tractor caused many to be scrapped during World War II. Rupert said only a few thousand still exist in the U.S. and Canada.
Not all are fully restored because that would be detrimental to their antiquity, he said. Scale models are built because they’re easier to transport to shows and still faithfully demonstrate the power of the originals.
Mike and Charlene McClintic traveled from Hillsdale, Mich., to take in the fairgrounds show. For her, it’s a matter of nostalgia; her father had a keen interest in old engines. For him, there’s a greater fascination, since his father worked on threshing machines while living in Colorado.
“I think it’s interesting, the mechanics of it,” he said.
The Somerville family of Mason, Mich., travels about 200 miles each year to bring their 1905 12-horse Advance engine to about half a dozen shows. The family owns 17 antique engines, a hobby that spans more than 40 years.
Tim Somerville said restoring an engine usually costs twice its purchase price. “Trying to just run one and trying to keep one up without going full-blown restoration – it is a project,” he said.
But for him, the camaraderie shared between the antique engine owners he meets through his travels is what makes ownership special.
“Really, it’s all about the friends and family that it brings together,” Somerville said. “It’s a very slow, even pace. While we’re firing up here in the morning we spend an hour and a half talking with each other. It’s really less about the steam engines than it is about the friendships that we’ve built all over the country.”
Even as original engines are at a premium, Rupert doesn’t foresee an end to the NTA’s thresher reunions any time soon.
“This is a very generational hobby. I see it continuing,” he said. “A big part of the show is the more modern gas tractors. There’s a whole host of people interested in that as well.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.