Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Spare Moments at My Folks' Farm 6 (Last Installment in This Series)

Each July, the 4-H fair in Williamsport, Indiana, occupied my family’s fullest attention. For months leading up to the event, we had prepared by training young pigs and cows in how to walk and pose like runway models. For our gardening exhibits, we had grown cabbages larger than our heads. We had made crafts, and we had snapped photographs. Using tweezers, we had even painstakingly selected the largest wheat grains from a bushel of wheat to exhibit—as if all our wheat were that free from chaff and imperfections. As we were enrolled in so many projects, we had tasks to fulfill nearly every day. Finally, when the week of the fair rolled around, we were not only ready but also excited to collect ribbons for our achievements. (Be sure to read my blog about our Holstein cow named Buttercup:

Buttercup at the Warren County (Indiana) Fair

We hoped for sweepstakes rosettes, and we received them in such projects as entomology, but we usually had to settle for purple champion ribbons, blue first place ribbons, or red second place ribbons for our livestock.

Wearing My Scrooge McDuck Hat
(Which I Still Have)
While Getting Buttercup Ready
For the 4-H Judging

For me, the most enjoyable of the many enjoyable facets of the fair was the social interaction. By the time that I was in high school, I was working in the Junior Leaders building whenever my township was called upon to provide the crew. Picture a white-painted, square structure in the center of the slightly rolling grounds. Off to the north were rows of brand-spanking-new tractors and farm implements. To the northwest were the rides, lit with colored bulbs at night. To the south stood the cafeteria, and to the east stretched the coliseum filled with animals. We Junior Leaders sold ice cream in cups and cones and soft drinks in various sizes. Our hands tingled from holding the cold scoops to scrape ice cream into “dips,” or servings. We set the icy soft drinks on the counters, which were formed by dropping them down on hinges from three sides of the building. Whenever judging in the show ring ended, we were swamped with business. Fairgoers strolled from the coliseum to our location and lined up around the counters. We flew from the ice cream freezers to the soft drink dispensers to the napkin holders. … and we quickly calculated amounts and made change. While we were at it, we did not forget to have fun. An abundance of jovial banter went back and forth while we worked.

The Way I Remember the Farm
In We Do It Together
Vol. 2, No. 7
Part 3 for April 19, 1959

Throughout the years that I participated in the 4-H fair, I derived tremendous satisfaction from the evening when it was my township’s turn to run the cafeteria. From the time I became old enough to carry a rubber dishpan full of plates and silverware, I kept busy bussing tables. The pace was fast, for the cafeteria did a lot of business, especially during the evening meal—and Adams Township had the dinner on Wednesday evening, which was one of the busiest dinners of them all!

My father and his good friend Don Akers stood shucking sweet corn just outside the back door of the large building on those hot summer nights while I strode briskly from table to table, collecting the dishes, knives, forks, and spoons to carry to the line of volunteers washing the dishes in back. Most of the farm families thought of pleasant things to say to me as I quickly cleaned the tables. I had to listen carefully, as the hum of voices was loud and steady within the spacious cafeteria building with every seat taken at every table.

Only when the hour was late did the lines of patrons diminish, enabling us to slow our pace. Around midnight, my father had finished his clean-up tasks, and we went home, tired but as happy as people can be who have literally served their neighbors.   

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Spare Moments at My Folks' Farm 5

Almost every Labor Day Weekend when I was growing up, my parents loaded the 1950 Chevrolet with a picnic basket, blankets, and thermos bottles, and we headed out for Pontiac, Illinois, and the Central States Threshermen’s Reunion, 100+ miles away. The show featured farm steam engines smoking and whistling on the 4-H fairgrounds. One of the principal purposes for such engines was to provide power to threshing machines, which separated wheat and other small grain from the stalks that they had grown upon and which collected the clean grain. As my father’s uncle had trained my father to run such engines long ago, Dad thoroughly enjoyed the nostalgic rally under the massive oaks. My mother had grown up within a short walk of the Keck–Gonnerman steam engine factory; accordingly, she loved the Kecks exhibited in Pontiac. One of them—an 18 HP owned by Joe Weishaupt—had Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse painted on the bunkers. Of course, I loved it!

Joseph C. Rhode (1918–1999) with Son
Standing Beside Reeves Steam Engine
Owned by Lindenmier Family
At Central States Threshermen’s Reunion
Pontiac, Illinois, 1953

Even though a boy my age was selling hotdogs, we ate our own dinner (as farmers called the noon meal) when all the engines blew their whistles. I had to hold my hands over my ears because I could feel my eardrums imploding from the sound of so many whistles shrieking at close range. Little did I know that the hotdog boy was John Spalding, with whom I would one day write the nonfiction best seller titled The Steam Tractor Encyclopedia.

Back then, my mother served our dinner beside our car. We were not alone. Up and down the lines of vehicles were other families spreading their blankets and munching sandwiches in the shade of the mighty oak trees. We always ate tomato soup and cheese sandwiches. Not a fan of tomatoes, I looked forward to dessert. Mom made the best pies, cakes, and other baked yummies! It was not at all unusual for me to be presented a quarter of an apple pie that bubbled in the oven just the night before. My parents drank coffee; I drank milk. To this day, I can recall the fun of picnicking at Pontiac!

When we strode around the grounds to watch the steam engines, as well as the Rumely OilPulls, we had to glance over our shoulders to be sure no parading engine was sneaking up on us. At the age of four or five, I wandered behind a 16 HP Reeves engine that was parked and being fired by Doris Lindenmier. She and her husband, Lester, were engineers, and both exhibited Reeves engines. Doris turned around, saw me dawdling there, and asked me, “Do you like steam engines?” I was delighted that such a great person as a steam engineer would take notice of me. That day, she planted the so-called “steam bug” in me, although I was 40 before I could afford to buy a steam engine of my own. I took it to Pontiac, and Doris, still showing engines, invited me to follow her in the parade. As our engines proceeded, my tears of happiness were glistening in the sunshine.

To return to my elementary school days, I will mention that, at one of the shows, I admired the 50 HP Case, then recently restored by Sam Haley. Maybe Sam inspired me to purchase a 65 HP Case many years later. His sons, Jim and John, helped me during the steep uphill learning curve of operating a ten-ton steamer. Eventually, they built new bunkers for my engine.

When I was a kid at the Pontiac shows, legends were forming. Some of them I knew then, some I came to know later, and some I never knew. The legendary engineers included such names as Dan Zehr, Milford Reese, Wilbur Collins, Homer Dixon, J. D. Roberts, Art Erickson, Sylvester Fosdick, Ray Ernst, Herb Beckemyer, Russell Helm, and Henry “Father Time” Lucksinger. I could name many more, and I apologize for not naming them all. The Central States Threshermen’s organization was too big for me to name everyone here.

Typically, on the way to Pontiac or on the return trip, Dad changed a flat tire. In those days, flat tires on trips were expected, even customary. One year, Dad’s spare tire also gave out, and a long delay occurred while Dad searched through a town for a mechanic who could patch tires.

In certain years, Dad bought a model for me in the flea market. I still have my Lesney Models of Yesteryear Allchin traction engine, made in England, which I was given at the 1961 Pontiac show and my American 4-4-0 locomotive, which Dad purchased for me at the 1962 reunion—both in their original boxes. I also have a 1904 Spyker automobile in its box that Dad gave me when we attended the Pioneer Engineers Club show in Rushville, Indiana, in 1963.

The trips to engine shows were highlights of my younger years. I get what Pontiac citizen Bert W. Johnson meant when he said in 1968 that the excitement felt at threshing reunions was like “steam bubbling in your veins.”