Steam, heavy metal, tractors aren’t the only attractions at famous Labor Day event; as out-of-the-way features explored
By Paul Gubrud, Special Correspondent
The Labor Day weekend weather was perfect for attending the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion (WMSTR).
An estimated 45,000 visitors traveled to Rollag for the annual event this year.
WMSTR has changed a great deal since the last time I was there several years ago. The grounds are much more extensive, and many exhibits have been added. The west entrance is new and is incorporated into the Steiger Building housing the original Steiger 4-wheel-drive tractor built in 1958.
Upon exiting the Steiger Building, I was confronted with row after row of antique farm equipment ranging from steam engines and vintage tractors of the early 20th century to the more modern tractors of the 1950s and 60s. They were all preparing for the parade.
Although the antique mechanical horsepower is the focus of WMSTR, there are many other things of interest, including stationary industrial engines, miniature steam engines and threshing machines, and of course the WMSTR Railroad.
Reliving rural America’s main street of bygone era
Other items from our past that caught my attention included the Rollag Foundry and Machine Shop where the equipment is powered by a steam engine then delivered mechanically to each piece of equipment through a maze of overhead pulleys and belts.
I found Main Street very nostalgic. It is like walking into the past, complete with a horse-drawn streetcar, a mercantile store, the District #115 country school, the Downer Presbyterian church, and the WMSTR Printing office.
In my meanderings throughout the grounds, I came across a Pelican Rapids exhibitor. Jim Johnson exhibits his vintage shingle mill next to Earl’s Sawmill in the central area of the grounds. Jim has been an exhibitor at WMSTR for 38 years, first with his steam engine, and with his shingle mill since 2001.
Wooden shingles were highly desirable to the pioneers as they provided more protection and lasted longer than thatch or sod roofs. Originally they were hand-split from bolts of wood and then dressed with a drawknife. This type of roof covering was referred to as a shake.
When circle saws became available, it was faster and more economical to cut them. These are referred to as shingles and are typically cut from cedar. Cedar shingles covered most roofs until the mid-20th century when wooden shingles were replaced by asphalt shingles.
Jim’s belt powered shingle mill is a 34-inch saw blade mounted horizontally rather than vertically as in a typical sawmill. Using 16-inch sections of cedar logs called bolts, he demonstrates it by sliding them across the saw blade in a cradle. With each pass, a lever is pulled, and the cradle tilts in the opposite direction creating a small wedge-shaped board.
After the shingles have piled up at his feet, he stamps them with a WMSTR branding iron and gives them away as souvenirs. They are very popular with youngsters.
“Awestruck” by the many sights, sounds
For transportation, and to get off my feet, I rode the tractor-pulled buses and the train from one side of the grounds to the other. It was a great way to overview the area and visit with people; many who had never been to WMSTR before and were awestruck by everything there is to see.
There are three sawmills spread throughout the grounds, plus another working sawmill in miniature land, all of them sawing logs into boards under steam power. There are also two blacksmith shops with blacksmiths demonstrating iron smithing.
To exhibit the vintage earthmoving equipment, the “Sandbox” has been added so visitors can watch the old machinery doing what they were built for, move the earth. For the kids, there is also a gigantic sandbox near the snack shack, which serves standard worker’s lunches, sandwiches made with two slices of white bread.
Farm history event spans more than a quarter of land
WMSTR covers over 200 acres and requires a fair amount of walking, so I didn’t plan to see it all in one visit; and even in two days, there are many things I missed.
Whether you are an annual visitor, an occasional visitor like me, or you’ve never been there before, you will find many things of interest at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion.
Maybe I will see you there next year.