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By Staff | Sep 10, 2010

Not too many fathers get a phone call that goes like this: “Hey, Dad,” said our oldest son, Paul. “Want to go to a steam threshing show?”

It’s our own fault. When Paul was but a tyke we took him to the steam threshing jamboree at Prairie Village.

He was fascinated by the steam engines and threshing machines and all things steam-related. He was also mesmerized by the hit-and-miss engines, an internal combustion cousin of the steamers.

Shortly after his first Prairie Village visit, Paul excitedly showed us a steam engine he had built from Legos. We didn’t realize it yet, but my wife and I had created a steam engine enthusiast. An antique machinery maven.

This is even more remarkable given the fact that Paul has a career in the high-tech industry. He’s just as fervent about computer chips as he is about Corliss engines.

Which explains why Paul and I recently visited the tiny hamlet of Rollag, Minn. Perched on the rim of the Red River Valley, Rollag has a population that could best be described as “low.” The town’s populace balloons by tens of thousands during the annual Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion, held there each Labor Day weekend since 1954.

My wife dropped us off at the gate and Paul and I immediately began to seek out the action. This wasn’t difficult to do as a steady stream of smoke rose from the aptly named Steamer Hill.

One of our first stops was at a shed that housed a colossal Snow engine. Built in 1914 for the purpose of compressing natural gas, the Snow can develop 600 horsepower. It has a 24-ton flywheel that measures 18 feet across.

The entire conglomeration tips the scales at 280,000 pounds.

“Holy bleep!” I thought. “We’re in a land of giants!”

This impression was reinforced numerous times throughout the day. The profusion of gigantic steam tractors made us feel like insignificant insects whenever we paused to contemplate the towering masses of steam and steel.

Another shed housed a fully-operational steam-powered sawmill. The interior of the shed was a cacophony of squealing belts, spinning pulleys and whirling blades. And in the midst of it all, dangerously close to the danger was – Geraldo Rivera.

No, actually, the sawmill was populated by men. Manly men doing such studly things as turning huge logs into wood studs. A pair of sawyers rode on a trolley that held the log in place, a huge circular saw blade screaming through the wood mere inches from their toes. A buzz saw that would snort derisively at steel-toed boots.

Yes, the sawmill was a totally manly place – except for the women working in it.

There were actually a good number of female volunteers manning (womaning?) some very large pieces of machinery at the Reunion.

It also warmed my heart to see numerous youngsters training as apprentice steamers.

At one point we paused to watch a Reeves steam tractor test its mettle and its metal on a belt-driven dynamometer.

As the load increased the mighty tractor belched a wondrous plume of smoke, an exhaust stream that was blacker than the inside of an Angus cow at midnight.

Suddenly, the huge flat belt fell off. There was no drama involved; the belt simply plopped onto the ground like a gigantic noodle.

Its load gone, the steam tractor’s safety valves soon popped open. You’ve heard the expression “blowing off steam,” but nothing compares with drama of actually witnessing it.

We visited an area that featured a bevy of hit-and-miss engines, many of them running with their trademark “pop, whoosh, whoosh, is that Geraldo?” I saw one model that must have weighed a couple of tons and had an output of 15 horsepower – roughly that of a modern lawnmower.

Imagine trudging across the yard while pushing that cast iron behemoth.

We paused to watch a gargantuan steam hammer operate, the ground jumping beneath our feet as the mighty hammer slammed home. A boiler the size of a warehouse stood nearby; a whistle atop its soaring smokestack blew, emitting a decibel level capable of shattering bones.

The best part came last. Over the top of a distant hill, huge puffs of steam and smoke boiled steadily skyward. As we walked toward that area, we came across a sign that read “The Sand Box.”

A trio of ancient steam shovels were taking huge bites of earth from the side of the hill. I felt as if we had stumbled across a herd of iron dinosaurs that had an insatiable appetite for dirt.

We stood there for some moments, watching in awed silence. After a bit Paul said, “I want one!”

That pretty much sums up what I had been thinking the entire day.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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