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Midwest Old Threshers Reunion Report 2012

Well, now I can say I’m been to a large steam show – The Midwest Old Thresher’s Reunion in Mt Pleasant, Iowa, over Labor Day weekend was a blast, even as it was overwhelming in the scope and number of old iron attractions to be seen.  

I arrived in the middle of the wet – Hurricane Issac’s contribution to the weekend was a steady rain for much of Friday and Saturday, which meant that most collectors and exhibitors were keeping their engines, tractors and steam displays under tarps and tents, with few working demonstrations. But the rain wasn’t a complete dampener to the show festivities: There were a few collectors who braved the rain and were nice enough to tell me about their collections (thanks Brad!) – and the sporadic drizzle gave me a chance to explore the permanent displays during my forays from the Farm Collector tent. 

Midwest Old Threshers Reunion Report 2012 
Brad Churchill and his brother had a few engines on display despite the rain, including this Keller engine and pump setup (that's Brad in the background). 

My first stop was the stationary steam power museum, which contains a great display of large-scale stationary steam at work. The two most arresting displays (set on either side of the door), are huge engines, with flywheels at least double my 5-1/2-foot height. The first is an Allis-Chalmers steam-powered water pump commissioned by the City of Marshaltown, Iowa, to pump filtered, treated water from a million-gallon reservoir into the city water main. Engine speed depended on the pressure in the water main and could vary from 8 rpm to 36-1/2 rpm in a single day, with a maximum capacity of 6-3/4 million gallons per day at 150 psi water pressure. The original cost is listed at $37,700 dollars (about 516,400 in 2012). It was donated to Midwest Old Threshers in 1970 and first operated at the club grounds in 1973. 

Midwest Old Threshers Reunion Report 2012 
The Allis-Chalmers steam water pump. Members of Midwest Old Threshers spent over two years creating a foundation and getting the engine into full working order. 

The second engine is a Murray “Special” Corliss steam-powered generator manufactured for the Mt. Pleasant Mental Health Institute by Murray Iron Works, Burlington, Iowa, in 1920. The generator supplied all of the Institute’s electricity through World War II. 

Midwest Old Threshers Reunion Report 2012 
This steam engine powers a belt-driven Allis-Chalmers generator with a DC output of 125 volts. 


I also got a chance to explore a few of the displays in the Heritage Museum, including an exhibit called “Women: Partners on the Land” and a display of gas engines as part of an exhibit about electricity on the farm. My boyfriend was particularly interested in the windmills display, and I got some hints about meat preservation techniques on early homesteads. 

Midwest Old Threshers Reunion Report 2012 
This Hercules engine is part of a display concerning the impact of gas engines on farm power. 

Midwest Old Threshers Reunion Report 2012 
Before pressure canners, meat was sometimes preserved by layering with lard. 

By Sunday afternoon things were drying out enough that the Parade of Power started up again (I actually got caught on the wrong side of it after taking a tour of the printing hall and got to see some scale Gaar-Scott steam engines firing up), and I was lucky enough to catch a bit of the steam threshing demonstration while enjoying a lunch of classic fair food. (A turkey leg, homemade rootbeer and funnel cake was the order of the day.) 

Midwest Old Threshers Reunion Report 2012 
This display in the Printer's Hall shows a press designed for creating ruled paper like that found in spiral notebooks. 

Midwest Old Threshers Reunion Report 2012 
Part of the steam threshing demonstration. 

On Monday the weather was sunny and hot, with fired-up steam engines whistling on the hour and hit-and-miss engines popping away the morning. I spent some time talking to Larry Raid who, in addition to having some very cool vertical gas engines on display, showed off his 3-1/2-by-4-1/2 Sigwald press and taught me to play a card game called Spit (no spitting involved, unless you accidently trip over your tongue in your haste to win).  

Midwest Old Threshers Reunion Report 2012 
Using Larry's press to create a card with my name on it. 

As the morning warmed up I took some time to watch the steam train, try a dill pickle (pickle juice is a good, old fashioned electrolyte booster if you’re ever feeling dehydrated at a show – I don't know whether pickles themselves have similar uses, but it sure was delicious), and generally see more of the grounds. Our leave-taking  snuck up too soon, but I suppose there’s always next year – maybe then I’ll actually manage to take a tour of the Tractorland display and wander around all the steam traction engines too! 

Midwest Old Threshers Reunion Report 2012 
So long, until next year! 

Training Working Sheep Dogs

Training Working Sheep Dogs 
Border Collie and Kelpie sheep dogs mustering sheep in Queensland, Australia.
Image Courtesy Figaro/Wikimedia Commons 

The first time saw Josephine Roberts’ article about working sheep dogs in the June 2012 issue of Farm Collector, I was delighted. I’ve been interested in working dogs and the work they do since I was about eight or nine years old, the first time I met the working cattle dogs (Blue Heelers in this case) on my grandparents’ ranch. These were tough dogs, focused on the cows while working and not always open to being petted by small children when there weren’t any cows around (although one of them did deign to walk beside me, and ended up alerting me that I was about to step on a rattlesnake. Taz made sure to keep the snake in his sight and too frightened or busy to strike while I backed away to try and find an adult with a forked stick). It was clear that those dogs took their jobs seriously and were proud of their contribution to the work on the ranch, a sense of security and purpose that I hadn’t seen in the city dogs my neighbors kept.

Well-trained working dogs can make a significant contribution to the daily life of  a farm or ranch (read more about that in Associate Editor Beth Beavers’ blog on the subject), but the sheep dog article intrigued me. How do you train a working dog? Where do you start? And after that time and effort, what can a well-trained sheep dog do? Well, I found a few answers.

For the first question, there are many answers.  There are, of course, many ways to train a dog, and often the training method changes based on the dog’s personality and what you want them to do. But most dogs start young (sometimes at six to eight weeks), both with basic obedience commands and with their introduction to sheep (often at around four to six months), and training for a good sheep dog seems largely focused on positive reinforcement of behaviors the dog often already knows how to do. There’s a short video overview you can watch here that includes a demonstration of what Josephine means when she says a working sheep dog must be brave. If you want something a little more in-depth, the late Ted Hope (a decorated sheep dog trainer) filmed a short series of videos covering how he teaches young sheep dogs.

As for what a working sheep dog can do, well there are a few options. The first is, of course, to herd sheep on a farm, but there are other venues where these dogs can show off their skills. If you’ve never seen sheep herded before you might watch this video of Becca, the World Sheep Dog Champion of 2011

If you’re looking for something a little more exciting (the sheep dog trials are a little like watching any other sport– they’re exciting if you know all the rules and understand what’s happening, but if you don’t then a lot of the commentary won’t mean much to you), you might watch the video below. The dogs aren’t listed as the stars of this display of shepherding talent and creativity, but it definitely wouldn’t be possible without them.


In Want of a Plow

Nothing quite makes you appreciate the evolution of farming technology like trying to do something by hand. 

I’ve always been interested in history, and agricultural history holds a certain personal connection for me (all my grandparents grew up on farms of one kind or another, and visits to the family farm and ranch were the highlights of my summers, growing up). But it wasn’t until more recently that I really started taking a hard look at the tools and implements that are central to that agricultural history: I joined the Farm Collector staff, and I began planning to move somewhere where I would have some room for experimenting with gardening, preserving, and a scale of DIY projects that can’t fit into a two-bedroom apartment with no balcony.   

A few months ago, my boyfriend and I secured the lease of a small house on five acres. We haven’t (quite!) moved in yet, but we’re excited about the land, the woodstove, the chance to have dogs again and, perhaps most immediately, the garden. 

5acre house1 
The new place. 

Our future landlord was a friend (and our mechanic) before he became our landlord, and he’s open to us doing pretty much whatever we want with the space – gardening, chickens, goats, rain barrels and graywater reclamation, windmills, pretty much anything we want to put the effort into. But he hasn’t really done much with the land other than use it as space to store tools and old trucks, meaning that if we want a garden, we have to start from scratch. 

In many ways, we prefer this approach. It means that we can have a pretty good idea of what’s in the soil (and it’s fantastic soil, wonderfully rich and fluffy), and we can have exactly the garden layout we want, right from the beginning. But at the moment our cultivation tools consist of two shovels, two double-bladed weed cutters, a rake, a borrowed hoe and a machete our landlord lent us when we had trouble digging a tree out from under a rock wall. This is rather significant step into the past, as far as farm technology goes. We don't even have scythes.

weed cutters
The double-bladed weed cutters. One has a straight edge and one is serrated, and they’re both pretty sharp. The handles are about 3-1/2 feet long, so there’s lots of bending over if we want to chop off most of the grass. Perhaps someday we’ll get around replacing the handles with something more suited to our heights. Or we could actually invest in properly sized scythes. 

After a few hours of using the weed cutters to cut down the native grasses growing over our chosen plot and digging up rocks and root systems one spadeful at a time, I was feeling a little conflicted. I was proud of our progress and excited to finally be taking some concrete steps towards growing some of my own food, but I was also thinking that really, this is why plows were invented. And steam engines and tractors, if you get right down to it. 

At one point my boyfriend asked, “Can you imagine how much back-breaking labor was required to clear land by hand?” 

I’m starting to. I’m already looking forward to next year, when we’ll be able to spend some time top-dressing the garden beds and won’t need to do much more than loosen the dirt a bit before planting. This year, in order to plant our seeds on time and not spend money on something like buying soil when we already have plenty of our own (covered in hay grass as it is), we’re digging.  

Cut grass 
The space we “mowed” with the weed cutters, waiting for us to dig beds and set paths. 

hay field 
The rest of the land, all professionally cut by a neighbor who uses the hay to feed his cows. (We chose the un-mowed space for the garden because it gets lots of sun and is inside the space we can afford to fence off. The fence is intended to keep our future dogs from close interaction with the highway at the bottom of the hill.) 

It’s the sort of thing to make me want a Choremaster or a broadfork, or a walking plow and maybe a mule. A sod-cutter could be particularly useful, barring the fact that my boyfriend swears they’re just as miserable to use as the basic shovel method. Unfortunately, a mule and plow, or a garden tractor, or even a manual sod cutter, seems like a rather big investment for about 200 square feet of cultivated land. I’m tempted to ask the neighbors if I can borrow some of the old iron decorating their front lawn (I’ve been able to recognize a plow, a planter and a disc harrow so far, and I’m fairly certain they also have a manure spreader.), but it’s probably not in working condition, even if they would lend it to me.

Digging it is, but in the interest of saving ourselves some headaches, we’re going to try to kill the grass and start the roots decaying by layering newspaper and mulch over the space. Hopefully that’ll keep the frustration to a minimum and allow us to move on to the next projects (building a fence and constructing a chicken tractor) in the next few weeks.  

In the meantime, I’ll wield my shovel and start planning for a little more land, and the proper tools for working it. I’m pretty sure it’s something of a family tradition. 

Associate Editor of Gas Engine Magazine Says Farewell

I’m not one for long goodbyes, so I’ll do my best to keep this one brief. As some of you already know, this issue will be my last as associate editor of Gas Engine Magazine. It marks the end of one of the most interesting chapters of my life; one that will always fill a special place in my heart.

I’ve mentioned before that when I started at GEM in July 2007, my knowledge of antique gas engines was essentially non-existent. With some mental prodding, I can recall walking through the grounds of the Early Day Engine Club Show in Sandwich, Ill., as a 10-year-old boy, and listening to the curious rhythm of the hit-and-miss engines on display. Who knew that 19 years later, I’d actually find out what it was I was looking at and listening to that day? Life’s a funny journey that way.

Over the last four years, I’ve met some fine people. I’ve learned that collecting gas engines is just the common thread between the folks in this hobby; the true benefits of this hobby are the friendships born out of that common interest.

Just three weeks after I started, I wandered the grounds at the Tri-State Gas Engine & Tractor Show in Portland, Ind., wondering what the heck I had gotten myself into. But as anyone new to this hobby quickly finds out, it isn’t hard to find a veteran collector who is willing to be patient with you and show you the ropes. For me, that collector was Dave Rotigel. From the moment he introduced himself and asked if I wanted a beer, I knew I’d found the ideal mentor.

In all seriousness, Dave and the rest of the ATIS group couldn’t have been more welcoming and supportive. They patiently answered my novice questions, and helped me understand what makes these engines so interesting to so many people. While I never told them this personally, I described the ATIS folks to my non-gas engine collecting friends and family as the people who would have been building these engines a century ago – that’s how innovative and technically brilliant I think they are. Of course, I’ve met many more collectors along the way who fit that description, further bolstering my opinion that antique gas engine collectors and restorers are some of the smartest people you’ll ever meet.

I also have to single out Editor-in-Chief Richard Backus for taking a chance on me four years ago. I know I wasn’t the ideal person to run the day-to-day tasks of this magazine, but Richard recognized an ambition and willingness to learn that not even I recognized at the time. He is the rare editor who strikes a perfect balance between supervising and allowing one space to grow on their own. That mix of guidance and latitude helped me discover and hone the skill set that I’ll be using in the next chapter of my life as Editor-in-Chief of Utne Reader, one of our company’s larger magazines.

Finally, the future of GEM is in great hands as current Farm Collector assistant editor Beth Beavers will be making the natural transition to associate editor of both Gas Engine Magazine and Farm Collector. She’s excited to learn what I’ve learned over the past four years, and I know you’ll be happily willing to teach her.

Thanks for everything, everyone, and I’ll see you down the road!


Knowledge Is Power

The Internet is an amazing tool. It provides instant infor­mation and allows us to connect with people a world away. It also allows us to buy, sell and collect gas engines as quickly as we can click a mouse. Those transac­tions are instant and, unfortu­nately, so is losing your money to scam or fraud if you’re not careful.

Anyone who’s been in this hobby long enough will tell you that the vast majority of col­lectors are honest, above-board folks. But, if you’ve been around long enough, you’ve undoubted­ly run into some bad apples here or there. It goes without saying that the Internet has no short­age of bad apples. The problem is, it’s much easier for them to hide behind a computer screen, disguising their less-than-noble motives with a cordial message board post or friendly email.

If you choose to do business through online marketplaces like eBay and Craigslist, or if you shop through classified ads in newspapers or magazines, there are some guidelines you should be aware of in order to avoid an internet fraud or internet scam. The following is a list of tips published by the Better Business Bureau for doing business through Craigslist, but I think you’ll find many of these tips apply to any business trans­action with a stranger, online or otherwise.

Tips to Protect You From Internet Fraud or Internet Scam

• Try to deal with local buy­ers and sellers.
• Never wire funds to some­one you don’t know.
• Use caution when using an escrow service – make sure it’s reputable by checking it out at
• Never give out your Social Security number or personal financial information.
• Consider the risks involved with selling a high-value item yourself and any extra profit you might make against using a con­signment service. Is it worth it?

The BBB goes on to offer hints as to whether someone might be trying to scam you:
• The buyer or seller is from another country.
• The buyer or seller will not meet with you and will only com­municate via email.
• The buyer overpays and asks you to wire the extra funds back to him/her.

If you decide on meeting in person to finalize the transaction, the BBB offers the following tips:
• Set up meetings during daytime hours and in a public place (coffee shop, restaurant).
• Consider bringing a friend or family member with you if you have safety concerns.
• If you’re the seller, consider using an escrow service for pay­ment.
• If you’re buying an item, don’t pay with cash if it is more than $100; pay with a cashier’s check and let the seller know your method of payment in advance.
• If the seller insists you come to their home or apart­ment, tell them you will only meet at a neutral public site.
• Trust your instincts. If you don’t like the direction things are going, walk away.

Finally, online and classified transactions are nothing to be afraid of if you exercise due diligence. Hopefully, these tips will help you avoid internet fraud or internet scam, and better identify the bad apples before they have a chance to spoil your day.

Become a GEM Expert

As you might expect, we get a lot of phone calls and e-mails from collectors asking a lot of different questions about their antique gas engines. Some are looking for basic company history info that we're able to find for them through our archives, while others are looking for answers to questions that are simply above our area of expertise. In other words, they need an expert.

I’d wager that there are quite a few experts reading this column who don’t even realize that they are experts. I’m thinking specifically of the custodian of an engine registry (like Stover Stuff’s Joe Maurer) or someone who’s done a lot of research into an obscure company (like Chris Jerue did with the International Gas Engine Co.).

Essentially, we’d like to build a comprehensive resource list of experts that the entire gas engine community can utilize. At first, it will simply be a list of names, area of expertise and contact information that we’ll run in every issue, as well as on our website. We hope to include experts on every segment of the hobby from scale models to industrial engines. If you’ve acquired a decent amount of knowledge on a specific company, engine, restorative process, or anything else you think others would want to learn about related to antique gas engines, we want to hear from you.

We’ve made a call for experts in the past, and while we’ve received some responses, we know that there are more people out there who have a lot of information to share. So don’t be modest – the entire hobby will benefit from your expertise, and we can make that happen with an organized and centrally-located resource list. To become an official GEM Expert, e-mail me at the address listed below.

GEM Extra digital supplement 

The premier issue of GEM Extra was delivered to e-mail newsletter subscribers on Aug. 18, and the response has been very positive.

If you want to start receiving our new digital supplement, all you need to do is sign up for our free weekly newsletter. This will allow us to send you e-mail notification of the latest supplement when it’s ready for download. To sign up, simply send your name and e-mail address to me at

We expect the next digital supplement to be available for download around October 15. And don’t forget that with the digital supplement and the magazine, there’s more room than ever for your submissions, so keep them coming!

Gas Engine Magazine 2.0

Lately, Gas Engine Magazine has been showing off its international appeal.

Last issue, we featured Curt Andree’s Danish-built 6 HP Uller engine, and this issue features a 1908 3 HP Olds 2AA that found its way to Chris Broers in Australia. Speaking of the Land Down Under, Australia is well-represented in this issue through Joe Maurer’s “Stover Stuff” and a short feature on a father-son project involving a Root & Vandervoort.

It’s issues like this one that remind me just how small the world is these days. Not only have American-built gas engines found their way to every corner of the globe, but we also have communication capabilities that allow like-minded folks to connect with one other effortlessly. For as frustrating as computers and the Internet can be sometimes, there’s no question that both have made a positive impact on the gas engine hobby.

At Gas Engine Magazine, we’ve been keeping a close eye on the expansion of the Internet, and the new opportunities it offers in connecting with our readers. With that in mind, I’m excited to announce that starting in mid-August, we’ll begin offering additional content in the form of a “digital supplement” that can be downloaded for free from our website at

Utilizing PDF files, which are universally accessible and easy to download, each digital supplement will look just like a print issue of GEM complete with a cover image, reader-submitted feature articles and departments. You can choose to read the pages on your computer or you can print the pages and read them like the print magazine. Best of all, each digital supplement will be offered in the months between the print issues, which means you’ll be receiving new GEM content on a monthly basis.

As for the size of each digital supplement, they will be as large as you want them to be. The more reader-submitted articles and photos we receive, the more pages we’ll be able to include in each one. Unlike the physical magazine, we don’t have to worry about paper costs with the Internet!

To receive the digital supplement, you’ll need to be signed up for our free weekly newsletter.  This will allow us to send you e-mail notification of the latest supplement when it’s ready for download. If you’re not receiving the weekly newsletter, simply send your name and e-mail address to me at

We expect the first digital supplement to be available for download around August 15, so keep an eye on your inbox!

Get Coolspring while it’s hot 

If you were at the Coolspring Summer Expo in June, you probably heard the buzz generated by our latest book, “Coolspring: Discovering America’s Finest Antique Engine Museum.” While the Museum sold out early in the weekend, plenty of copies are available for sale online at