Woody Turner stands amid the engines at the 1981 show. Photo courtesy Commercial Review.
604 East North Street Portland, IN 47371
Gas engines are the center of attention at the annual Antique Engine and Tractor Show held in Portland, Indiana, each August. Woody Turner, as president of the Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Association, Inc., has been the guiding power behind this show which has grown to be the largest show of its kind in the world with a gross of $82,000 in 1981. This 1981 event attracted exhibitors from fourteen states with some coming from as far away as California, Texas and Florida. These exhibitors brought 1600 gas engines, 165 tractors and four steam engines. Thousands came in campers, in cars and on foot to browse and reminisce amid the smoke and sputter of the engines. Turner describes the people who come each year as 'good down-to-earth people with a common interest.' This common interest is watching the engines and tractors in operation.
The engine show had a modest beginning. Turner had become interested in small engines in 1964 after seeing a collection in a museum in Montana. He bought some engines for himself and attended tractor and engine shows. He observed that tractors received most of the attention. Gas engine owners told him they wanted a show of their own. In January, 1965, he sent letters to 30 area engine owners inviting them to a meeting. Despite ice and snow, thirteen men attended and decided to continue their planning at a meeting in two weeks. At that time, they organized the non-profit organization and elected Turner president. Turner, a factory employee of a forgings manufacturer, began using managerial skills he never realized he possessed. The new organization needed a place for a show and the Ft. Recovery, Ohio Jaycees needed a money-making project. They combined their efforts and held the first Antique Engine and Tractor Show in Ft. Recovery. Sixty gas engines, five tractors and two steam engines made up that first exhibit. They did not make any money with only 500 paid admissions, but they found that people were interested in small gas engines. They immediately began to make plans for the show next year with them as sole sponsors.
The association moved the show to the Jay County Fairgrounds in 1966 where it has flourished for the last fifteen years. To increase community interest, antique dealers were invited to be part of the 1967 show. This, too, has grown, and in 1981, 140 dealers sold their wares with 100 more on a waiting list for space.
Turner also uses entertainment to help draw the public through the gate. A Saturday night amateur fiddler's contest was introduced in 1969 with seven fiddlers. Turner found his first contestants by visiting shows and personally asking them to come for the competition. A Friday night banjo contest was introduced in 1971. These contests have proven so successful that a limit of 20 contestants has been imposed. The contestants are capable, non-professional musicians who play for the love of performing. The winners of the contests receive trophies and each contestant is given $20 expense money. Blues groups play informally on the grounds on Thursday evening and thirty minutes before the contests on Friday and Saturday.
'Don't make too many mistakes,' is Turner's philosophy for being a successful promotor. After the first show in 1965, he turned to Eldrew Cissell, a longtime Portland newspaper man for advice on publicizing the event. Turner's natural instincts and Cissell's knowledge of advertising techniques account for much of the growth of the annual shows. Turner had never been president of an organization before but he was an apt student. His plan was a simple one: visit as many shows as possible, figure out what they were doing wrong, and then avoid the same mistake. Turner provides free camping space and gate passes to keep the exhibitors happy. Careful attention is given to the arrangement of exhibits and traffic flow patterns to make visitors comfortable. Plenty of Lion burgers and whole hog sandwiches plus the usual county fair food is available on the grounds. He also believes in using newspaper, radio and television advertising. He distributes 50,000 flyers throughout the tri-state area.
Turner recently resigned as president of the association and is leaving behind an enviable record of achievement. In addition to sponsoring the annual show, the organization has purchased 19 acres of land adjacent to the Jay County Fairgrounds. They have erected a building that contains a club house and storage space for antique machinery. They recently purchased a 1924 two-cylinder Fairbanks-Morse diesel 100 horsepower engine. It is expected to be in operation next summer during the show. New restrooms, more camping sites and more exhibit space will provide for expanded activities in the future. Turner is succeeded by Dave Reum, Cowan, and he will be assisting the new president with the 1982 show set for August 26-29.
Turner's plans for the future include promoting the two bluegrass festivals he sponsors. He started with one festival in 1977 at the urging of a friend who was interested in bluegrass. He admits he knew nothing about bluegrass but he does know how to promote a festival. He added a second festival in 1981 and is busy with plans for the two events. Making them as successful as the engine show just might keep Woody Turner busy in retirement!