Where the hay flies, people are living the past

JEFFERSON – You don’t get a steam tractor up and running by turning a key. There’s a list of things to do.

Ryker Carruthers, of Lenox, was working on the last of those Saturday at the Pleasant Prairie Threshing Bee near Jefferson: opening the drain valves on the cylinder to give the condensed water a slow way out.

It’s a critical stage. To do it otherwise could cause damage.

“It will blow the head off,” Carruther said.

Hours before, he’d filled the boiler, stoked the fire and waited until the boiler built to about 100 pounds of pressure.

Nick Swanz, of Zimmerman, Minn., is a steam veteran at 14. He’s been running engines since he was seven. His engine for the day was a modern scale reproduction that produces a single horsepower at the drawbar and three horse power on the pulley used to run machinery.

That translates into steam-powered rides for two wagons full of children.

Swanz enjoys being around machines and he particularly likes the scent of burning coal.

“I love it,” he said. “I get steam fever.”

Dennis Havran, of Milo, relived a bit of his youth Saturday by standing on a wagon full of freshly cut wheat and pitching it into a threshing machine.

Everything was going at less than maximum speed to prevent parts breakage, make the wheat last and give guests a longer opportunity to watch.

“I’m 73,” Havran said. “It’s just as well.”

Havran’s family threshed for the last time in 1952, he said. It was usually done with a cooperatively owned machine. Back then, once the work day ended, there would be a big potluck supper, accounts would be settled and someone would usually run to town to get ice cream.

Pranks were a part of the workday too.

“We would sneak over and tie down the bundles at lunch,” he said.

In addition, the odd snake would be hidden there as well.

The threshing bee is hosted by Nick and Annette Foster on their farm. They own the steam engines and some of the other equipment that’s used and displayed.

The event began as a gathering of steam engine enthusiasts, Nick Foster said. By inviting the public, he could offer them an educational experience.

Everyone volunteers their time.

In addition to offering a glimpse at the past, Foster said it offers lessons in cooperation and helping others, something that he said was quite common in the early days of agriculture when several farmers would own a machine together.

Alan Doran, of Boone, was spending his day making sure the threshing machine was running right.

“I’ve been around this all my life,” he said, “I have one exactly like this one at home.”

He remembers the cooperative threshing on the family farm and its abrupt ending.

“In ’47 or ’48 my dad had about seven customers,” he said. “The next year, there was nothing.”

The Pleasant Prairie Threshing Bee continues today with demonstrations from 1 to 3 p.m. At 4 p.m. four steam tractors will pull moboard plows. Admission is free. The site is at 1176 M Ave. northwest of Jefferson.