The parade route was up a gentle grade, alongside which were parked dozens of old separators, or threshing machines. People were lined up three-deep along the road, but clearly, the best vantage for viewing the parade was from atop the separators—which was where hundreds of spectators climbed and perched like pigeons. This is perfect, I thought. Just like in the old days, when the crew would climb atop the separator to ride to the next farm to be threshed out.
The parade was the procession of tractors and engines, involving hundreds of machines, staged every afternoon of the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion, near Rollag, Minnesota. I’ve attended a number of such expositions, up and down the wheat belt from Oklahoma to North Dakota. Some are modest and local; the one in Rollag is an unusually large one.
Such shows constitute a national phenomenon. Across the country, and especially in the Midwest and the Great Plains, there are these annual events where antiquarians, mostly men, get together to show their machines and recreate historic operations. In North Dakota alone you can watch these exponents of living history do their thing in Bowman, Fort Ransom, New Rockford, Fullerton, Makoti, and probably other places I don’t know about.
Here’s the puzzle. All these participants come together of their own volition to do historical things—firing up their boilers, belting up, pitching bundles—associated with threshing. They recreate all sorts of other elements of rural life, too—cutting silage, boiling sorghum, making brooms from cane, you name it. They spend lots of time in the off-season not only maintaining their own machinery but also doing organizational tasks such as erecting buildings, landscaping grounds, and getting out publicity. Gathered around the thousands of participants are the ten thousands of spectators who turn out, often despite oppressive heat or threatening storms. And how many of these folk, if you asked them, would say they just loved History when they were in school?
Hardly any, I can tell you for sure. A few years ago two historians, Roy Rosensweig and David Thelen, published a book called The Presence of the Past. This detailed a nation-wide survey of how people felt about History. No surprise, most of them hated it in school. On the other hand, the authors report, visitation at historic sites is at record levels. From quilting to buckskinning, there is an outbreak of living history across the country. Re-enactment troupes and Chautauqua companies are everywhere, and crowds respond. How do we explain this?
Partly it’s a matter of life cycle. School age is not the best time of life to learn History. It’s in middle age that people get reflective about the past, and as they get older, they become a downright nuisance talking about it. Partly, too, it’s a matter of presentation. Textbook History is stifling; History on the hoof is fun.
Which is what people were having in Rollag, fun. As the parade participants chugged or hissed up the road, some of them had their chests puffed out vainglorious, while others seemed nonchalant, but every one of them was there for the love of it. When they belted up and threshed, you could tell that they relished the opportunity to get dirty and sweat in front of an appreciative crowd. This is the presence of the past, and we love it, once we’re out of school.