Pioneer Power - Vintage Tractors, Threshing Demonstrations and Living History Keep Rural Heritage Alive at Menno, SD

By Curt Arens

Living Here Magazine, Yankton, SD

Fall 2005


David Mensch brought a really big gift home to his wife in honor of her 30th birthday. Knowing her husband well, Glenda "Bubbles" Mensch shouldn't have been surprised when she saw a vintage 1916 65-hp Case steam tractor in the yard of their farmstead near Menno, SD.


David purchased the old tractor near Irene, fulfilling a long-time dream. "That's what we do for birthdays," said Mensch. "I get something I want for her birthday and she does the same for my birthday."


The antique farm machinery bug probably bit Mensch when he attended the threshing demonstrations at Prairie Village near Madison. Carrying on a lifelong passion for old farm machinery, David wanted to pass on the traditions of old-time agriculture to another generation. So he put the Case 65 to work that same year threshing grain that had been shocked and put up in bundles from 15 acres of cropland.


The Mensch's hosted their neighbors and friends for an old-fashioned threshing bee starring the Case steamer that powered the threshing machine. So Menno's nineteen-year-old Pioneer Power Show actually started out because of a unique birthday gift for Bubbles.


Threshing - pitching bundles of small grain, ripened heads first, into a machine that separates the grain from stems and chaff - was a tradition on Great Plains farms. Grain had to be cut and shocked, bound into bundles and loaded by hand onto wagons in preparation for threshing.


Crews of neighbors generally went from farm to farm during threshing season, helping pitch bundles into the machine and haul grain. Threshing was usually accomplished during the steamy heat of summer and veteran threshers from the old days recall with disdain the scratchy grain dust that accumulated around their shirt collars and in their eyes.


But these same men and women fondly recall the fellowship of neighbors gathering to bring in the harvest and everyone remembers the big home-cooked meals that were always a part of threshing days. Maybe that's why so many of them work so hard to recreate those time-honored experiences at threshers' reunions.


Menno Pioneer Heritage Association chairman and local implement dealer, Gerold Mettler, vividly recalls threshing oats, barley, rye and flax on the farm too, but he did it the old fashioned way - with horses. "Oats and rye weren't too bad," said Mettler. "But barley was really itchy."


Now Mettler, Mensch and about 300 other volunteers around Menno do their best each fall to pass on the legacy of what farming used to be. Mensch's Case tractor ran into boiler problems the year after their first on-farm threshing demonstration, but the threshing continued. They moved the event to the Menno City Park for a July 4 threshing bee in 1987.


Mensch's daughter, Dawn Walz, said that threshing has always been central to the event. Her father hoped that one day the Menno bee would take place on land that could be transformed into an early 20th century farm town, with threshing and farming demonstrations taking place in fields around the village.


With help from hundreds of volunteers, that dream has been carried out by many. It's celebrated during the last weekend in September each year on land aptly named, Pioneer Acres.


Pioneer Acres is set up like a real town, with storefront buildings, a town square, schoolhouse and even an historic church perched on the hill, moved there from Clayton, SD.


Threshing is really a lost art. When the first affordable combines rolled into the fields and farms of the region, they were able to accomplish the work of the threshing machine and crew in one pass.


Suddenly a job that gathered neighbors together annually for work and play became essentially a lonely, but efficient, one-person job.


That's when threshing reunions began. Farm folks eager to recall fond bygone days gathered to honor tradition. One of the very early shows was held at the Bill Mayberry farm beginning in the early 1950's near Niobrara, Nebraska.


Mayberry and his family maintained nine steam tractors and hosted up to 10,000 visitors over a three-day event. The last reunion was held at their farm in 1976.


When steam tractors like the Mensch's Case were popular in the very early part of the last century, agriculture was having a heyday. There were more farms and a vibrant, growing rural population living and working the land. So old time farm machinery and many of the old ways are looked on by enthusiasts with romance.


The romance hasn't been lost only on men. The Mensch's had four daughters, but Dawn says that David's daughters loved the old machinery as much as their parents. "There was a joke going around that if someone was dating one of the Mensch girls, they had better like old machinery or they didn't stand a chance," Walz said.


Her husband Darren fits the bill. He's an electrician by trade, but he moonlights as a farmer all the time. And he too loves old machinery. Both Dawn and Darren have been vitally involved in the Menno show over the years.


Walz is carrying her passion to their three-year-old triplets, Katelyn, Dustin and Andrea. She said it was a great thrill for the entire family when little Dustin pulled the rope on the steam whistle following the 2003 dedication of the show's steam building.


Building and equipping a steam demonstration building took five years of planning, fund raising, construction and equipment restoration, according Mensch.


The centerpiece of the building is a Murray Iron Works reciprocation horizontal steam engine of the Corliss valve design, complete with a 12-foot flywheel weighing 12,000 lbs. It was originally the electrical power plant for Walnut, Iowa in 1907. It was sold to a seed corn company as a power source and then donated to a steam and gas show in Eliot, Iowa.


Mensch purchased the engine at a liquidation sale, when the show closed. He and other volunteers removed the roof from the building where the big engine was stored near Eliot. A crane plucked it out of its former home. "It took three or four days to disassemble all the little pieces from the engine," said Mensch. It was loaded on a semi flatbed and moved to the Mensch farm, where it was stored until plans were completed for the steam building.


Because of their experiences, Mensch and several volunteers at the Menno show have become steam experts. He initiated much of the steam equipment in the building, including a fine gray painted Skinner engine.


Mensch's old Case is still around, but it isn't operational. He recently purchased a different boiler for the tractor, but he said the machine is in pieces right now. It will be another year or two before it carries on duties at the power show.


In the meantime, a fine 1912 Avery 40-120 steam tractor, owned by Dick and Lee Burd of Canton, holds up steam responsibilities at the show. The enormous tractor has rear wheels so large, that you could stand next to the tractor, but you still can't touch the bottom of the rim.


"It was purchased new by the Ringling Brothers (of circus fame) for use on their ranch near Ringling, Montana," Mettler said. "There it was used to break sod to create fields to grow the feed needed for their circus animals."


Mettler said, "While most steam traction engines have the engine mounted on top of the boiler, this design places the engine under the boiler." It has two cylinders rather than the single cylinder popular at the time. "This made a smooth running engine and prevented the engine from ever being on 'dead center'," he said.


It has two gears, with top road speed at a scorching 2.5 mph. The entire tractor weighs around 48,000 lbs. At the Menno show, the impressive Avery is always the highlight of the daily tractor and vehicle parade. It is also used for threshing, plowing with an eight-bottom plow and for other demonstrations.


Each year, a different brand of tractor, engine and car and truck is honored by the show. Last year's show spotlighted prairie gold and bright red Minneapolis Moline machinery. Lloyd Rave of Dell Rapids even brought his Five Star Standard Diesel, one of the rarest of Minneapolis Moline tractors ever made.


This year's show will celebrate Rumley-Allis Chalmers tractors, the old Maytag engines and vintage Buick cars and trucks. The Menno show has grown into one of the largest in the region, attracting near 3000 visitors for the two-day affair.


Volunteers are key to the show. "We don't have anyone who gets paid," said show vice-chairman, Earl Keller. "That's the only way we could do the things we do."


Keller is a retired farmer interested in preserving farming traditions. "The work keeps me in shape and it gives me something to do," he said. "My wife says that I'm busier now than when we were on the farm."


The volunteers with the heritage association have been busier this summer than they would have liked. A terrible storm ripped through Menno around 5:30 am on Sunday, Apr. 10. "I first toured the town to see all the trees that were down," said Mettler. The storm had damaged the grain elevator too.


"I then went to Pioneer Acres to see the damage," he said. "It was plenty bad, but my first thought was that it could have been much worse."


A log house and the old Utica railroad depot that greets everyone near the entrance of the grounds were damaged the most. Volunteers like Keller, Darren and Dawn Walz and Gary Walz instinctively arrived at the grounds and started to pick up items that needed to get out of the rain.


So the crew has spent much of the summer moving the depot back in place and repairing other buildings around Pioneer Acres. They also want to build a new structure to house the old Hutchinson County jail that was acquired last year.


Just as hot weather triggers memories of threshing, weather events also mark the memories of those running the Menno show. "Of course all the shows have memories," said Mettler, "but I can remember the first one held at Pioneer Acres in 1996. Being the first show on the grounds, we were not really ready."


It had rained all week before that show, so visitors struggled with the mud because there were no sidewalks and they hadn't yet completed their landscaping plans. "Today we can easily handle rain of that kind," Mettler said.


While threshing is the center of activities at the Pioneer Power Show, visitors can also view steam plowing, sawmilling demonstrations, wheat grinding, corn shelling, cutting, binding, chopping and shredding. There is an antique tractor pull, mini-rod pull and children's pedal pull.


The big red barn houses the annual toy and hobby show as well as concessions and the town square is a flurry of activity with buildings dedicated to old-time household activities, displays and exhibits as well as stationary engine demonstrations. Keller is proud of all the activities they've developed for children, including a ferris wheel, barrel train and petting zoo.


David and Bubbles Mensch now live in Sioux Falls, but they return on weekends to their farm near Menno. And they continue to invest time and passion in the Menno show and that 1916 Case steamer.


For Dawn Walz, the show is important because it helps fulfill her father's dream. Threshing reunions are not cold, dry history, stuffed and mounted. There's something about experiencing our proud rural heritage firsthand by walking through it, hearing the old-time sounds of those vintage machines and seeing them in action up close.


"It is living history and it's important to keep that knowledge and tradition alive," Walz said. "I want that for my children."