A sizeable show
In recent years, the annual event has included as many as 156 tractors and several dozen stationary-engine exhibits—some engines small enough to fit easily on a pickup bed, and a few behemoths that weigh as much as 25 tons.
At the heart of the event is the involvement of those early enthusiasts, including Wiens and Voth, who formed the Wheat Heritage Engine and Threshing Co.—WHEAT for short—in 1973.
Today, the organization, which has around 100 members, owns the 20 acres that has become home to the show. Over the years, members have constructed five buildings as part of the complex—including two on adjacent ground owned by the Mennonite Heritage & Agricultural Museum, which was in its infancy when Country Threshing Days became an annual event in 1976.
The museum complex, which has grown to around 10 acres over the years and added several historical buildings to its campus, has become a participating partner in the Country Threshing Days weekend.
A love for old engines
Wiens and Voth said the annual show is an important event on the WHEAT calendar, but it’s the love of old-time engines that has fueled the participation of members over the years.
Several of the biggest stationary engines at Country Threshing Days are owned by the club itself. Stories abound about those engines were rescued and restored to full working order.
“The most interesting thing about these projects is that they’re unusual,” Voth said of the engines. “A lot of people have old tractors that they’ve restored. But these big stationary engines are more unusual and more interesting to me because of that—especially when we get an engine that’s missing some parts, and end up having to fabricate them.”
The first club acquisition was a 40-horsepower De La Vergne engine that weighed more than 16,000 pounds.
“When we first looked at it was horrible, like, ‘How can we do that?’” Voth recalled. “But we managed to get that one. Then came the next one, and it was a bigger challenge—and they kept growing for awhile.”
Club members take pride in using their low-tech ingenuity to get the projects completed.
“Many of our machinery here, the big stuff, has been moved with old-technology ways—not hiring cranes and stuff,” Wiens said.
Acquiring the club’s heaviest De La Vergne engine—weighing well over 50,000 pounds—was a trophy to their low-tech ingenuity.
Aside from its sheer size, a key part of the challenge was to remove the engine from inside an old cow barn.
Wiens said a younger engine club had investigated the project first, then passed on it because of the expense involved. The club had priced the project to include the construction of a new barn, assuming the old one had to be torn down, as well hiring a large crane to lift the heavy pieces of the engine onto a truck.
“We came over there with soapy boards, jack hammers, hand-operated hydraulic jacks, and we dragged that thing out from under the edge of the roof…and we never missed up his building,” Wiens said with a chuckle.
Added Voth, “It’s been interesting to me that almost all of the resources for moving and hauling and setting this stuff up (over the years) has come from within the membership. It’s a ‘use what’s available’ type of thing.”
Looking to the future
The 35th Country Threshing Days opens at noon Friday and extends through Sunday afternoon. Wiens and Voth said the event has come a long way since its debut in 1976, but they wonder if interest in old engines has peaked in some ways.
“In 1970s, and even the 1960s, you had Grandpa, who had his old stationary engine that he used to grind feed or shell corn,” Wiens said. “Now, there isn’t hardly anybody alive who has used those (engines).”
As the people who appreciated the old stationary engines have died off, the look of Country Threshing Days has changed.
“Through the years, the stationary-engine interest has decreased considerably while tractor interest has gone up from almost zero to large,” Wiens said.
The transition has to do in part with the age and experiences of current exhibitors, Voth said.
“They’re bringing what they grew up with,” he said.
WHEAT itself has evolved with the passage of time, Wiens said.
“The organization has had its ups and downs,” he said. “It’s been bigger, it’s been smaller.
“The show is probably getting smaller—due to competition, due to age of people,” he added. “There’s not a lot of young folks in it. Most of the real old folks that started the thing are now long gone.”
In the meantime, the faithful keep firing on all cylinders.