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Don’t miss the next Bird City Tractor Show!

by Jerome Kuntz
Fort Collins, Colo.
Jerome KuntzThe Steam Tractor "Slow Race."

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“Come one, come all, in 2009 to the grandest steam engine and thresher show in the West!”

That’s how I felt driving back to Fort Collins after spending three days at the Antique Engine & Thresher Association Show in Bird City (extreme northwest corner of Kansas), seeing both steam and fuel-burning tractor demonstrations, eating home-cooked food, and visiting with friendly viewers and Association members alike.

This was the 55th annual show.It always begins the last Thursday of July and winds down with the tractor-pulling contest on Saturday evening, a three-day event. A Sunday morning religious service is held in a historic church on the grounds. Judging by the great interest shown by young people at this event, there will be many more shows to come.

The Thresher Queen was crowned Thursday afternoon, followed later by an old-fashioned Literary at the 1888 country schoolhouse. The Literary was a relaxed time of singing, story telling, and poetry. St. Francis, Kansas, entertainer Phil Crawford sang several original Western songs and recited his swell poems. “Grandpa’s Great Big Barn” and “This Old Hat” are two of my favorites. His art portrays hard-working Westerners making a living off the land.

The Association’s sod house is furnished in period furniture and appliances. This one has a wood roof, a step above the more common sod roofs, resulting in muddy leaks during storms. A rough life, I’d say.

Mary Dorsch gave an excellent tour of the sod house. “I spent my entire youth living in one just like this,” she said. She and her family passed the years 1917 to 1944 in a soddy north of St. Francis, and she related several experiences from those days.

A friendly World War II Army veteran I met drove heavy equipment building the Alcan Highway during 1942 before shipping out to frightening duty in the Philippines. Both are Association member volunteers. Looking back, I wish I had recorded their experiences they so generously shared with strangers from several Western states.

Particularly satisfying was to attend lectures on the operation of steam tractors (I counted 15 on the grounds), threshing machines, cornshellers, and sawmill. One family even brought their steam calliope and entertained the crowd with traditional tunes. Imagine, a coal-burning musical instrument! Have you seen a washing machine with a handy attachment for churning butter? In some cases, people explaining the equipment had actually used it, working alongside their parents to make a living.

Several events are repeated daily, so if you miss something, not to worry. There’s a parade of tractors ” many pulling implements ” and a long line of old cars that pass the bleachers. The men run a load of wheat shocks through a threshing machine, powered by a steam tractor. They also use it to pull an eight-bottom plow through the field. Volunteers hold a tug-o’-war for the kids, and the swap meet is always open.

The spinning belts and pulleys in the blacksmith shop wouldn’t meet today’s Federal OSHA standards, of course, but early skilled workers knew their job, and could operate equipment in that environment for years and remained unscathed.

My favorite is the trip-hammer. In my youth, I never tired of watching our local Minnesota blacksmith using one to shape red-hot plowshares. It would be hot, dim, and smoky in his shop, but as long as old Frank had his snoose and whiskey, he was happy and did fine work.

Friday evening, “Highway 385” put on a free concert at the downtown Legion Hall. Two in the audience arrived with instruments, and it appeared the jovial band allowed walk-ons to join them. A 12-year-old fiddle player handled two songs like a pro, impressing the crowd and band alike. They jokingly offered her a job in the band after she puts on a few more years. Those fellows were having so much fun they made us all wish we were musicians. CDs were available to take home.

The only drawback to auto museums (the Association has one of the best) is they don’t allow you to drive the cars. Oh, how I’d love to cruise their huge hayfield with that 1950 Crosley. Well, after all, it’s a hands-on event – you can ride the steam tractors and pitch bundles in the thresher, so maybe next year I’ll connect with the right person and go for a spin.

The show wound down Saturday evening with a tractor pull and barbecue. Anyone could get involved with the pulling competition. The sled held about 50, so there was plenty of space for people to jump on when the tractor had it easy. Meanwhile, an area Lions Club served a wonderful barbecue beef and sweet corn dinner. I chuckled watching boys stir shredded beef with garden rakes in a huge tub. It reminded me of the young fellows who lubricated Paul Bunyan’s quarter-mile-wide griddle so he could cook flapjacks for his loggers. Paul’s resourceful helpers applied grease by strapping bacon slabs to their soles and skating over the heating grills.

The Lions Club employed an ingenious method for preparing sweet corn. After parking a steam tractor next to the dining hall, they attached a rubber hose and perforated steel pipe to an outlet valve. Cooks immersed the pipe in a huge caldron of water. Released steam boiled the water hot enough for metal racks of corn. Minutes later, it was cooked for the hungry crowd.

I hope to see you next year at Bird City’s “Grandpappy of ’em All.”


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