Plains Folk

Iron Men


It’s a guy thing, in my observation. And it gets bigger as the years go by. Old guys gather iron like magnets, and they like to put it out there where people can see it.

For many years the best known of these iron men was W. O. Krumwiede, of Voltaire, North Dakota. I used to love to drive Highway 52 up toward Velva and see Bill’s vast collection of stationary separators, that is, old-time threshing machines, exhibited on a hillside. Rumely Bill, as people called him, passed away in 2007. His collection was dispersed—I don’t know the details of that.

Rumely Bill’s obituary said, “W.O. collected antiques, guns, Rumely Oil Pulls, John Deere tractors, antique cars, and traps. Every summer and fall he enjoyed traveling to many of the area and regional threshing shows. He was an avid reader of western novels. W.O. was known by several nicknames, including Rumely Bill, Trapper Bill, and Bill the Gun Trader.”

Rumely Bill was preceded in death by another great iron man, John G. Grenz, known to his many friends as Custer. The difference is that following Custer Grenz’s passing in the year 2000, his family preserved his collection as a folk monument and invited the public to enjoy it.

As you drive Highway 34 just east of Napoleon, look for the billboard that reads, “Dinosaurs of the Prairie.” Up the fencerow and into the pasture, stretching north up the hillside, is a long line of threshing machines, the collection of Custer Grenz. A little swinging gate invites entrance and a stroll up the hill through history.

German-Russian farmer Grenz was born in 1917, grew up in Napoleon, and married Irene Wittmier in 1942. They farmed on the Streeter Flat and later ran a café in Napoleon. Besides collecting machines, Custer fed his historical sensibility by writing articles for the Napoleon Homestead.

His obituary said, “He was an avid antique collector over the years attending most auctions in the tri-state area. He had a special interest in threshing machines and his collection graced the hills three miles east of Napoleon for many years.” It still does.

A few years ago the Great Plains archeologist Raymond Wood wrote a spoof piece about the prairie dinosaurs, which he named “Threshersaurus dakotaensis,” wherein he mused about the anthropological significance of such installations as Custer Grenz’s Dinosaurs of the Prairie. I think there is an interesting study in human development psychology to be done in order to get at the origins of this guy thing.

Here, however, is another approach to the Dinosaurs of the Prairie: just get out there and enjoy them. You are invited to hike up the hill alongside Custer’s prizes, to contemplate the countryside from the ridge, and just to absorb the sensory experience, preferably around dusk.

Which is what we did, along with four grandkids and a beagle, a few days ago. The beagle flushed critters from beneath the machines, the kids raced about thinking I have no idea what, but clearly enchanted with the place. I tried not to spoil things with a history lecture. These things speak for themselves.


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