Thresher Reunion welcomes thousands to Blyth for another great year
BY SCOTT STEPHENSON
This past weekend, visitors to the Blyth Campground had a chance to travel back in time at the 62nd Huron Pioneer Thresher and Hobby Association (HPTHA) Reunion. It’s the one time a year that the living history of Southern Ontario’s agricultural industry can be found in one place, along with great food, music, dance and demonstrations of the essential skills of yesteryear.
The official opening day ceremony featured a speech by HPTHA President Cole McDonald that was brimming with brevity and concision. A group of local dignitaries that included Huron County Warden and Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh Mayor Glen McNeil, Central Huron Mayor Jim Ginn and North Huron Reeve Paul Heffer also offered greetings. When the reunion finally concluded on Sunday, McDonald was fairly certain that the event had gone off without a hitch, commenting that “I think everything went very well for us… the whole thing is kind of a blur to me now!”
While the sheer variety of things going on at the small campground was astounding, one of the main draws of the weekend is always the steam show. White plumes of steam emanated from the collection of engines at the centre of the festivities, welcoming visitors as they approached the grounds. Each engine has been carefully brought back into top working condition by dedicated enthusiasts, and each one spent the weekend demonstrating what a little ingenuity and a lot of hot air can do. The versatility of these complex antiques was on full display - steam-powered engines crisscrossed the grounds, while others planted themselves to do everything from sawing logs to threshing grain to crushing rocks. Many of the impressive engines were built right here in Ontario, by companies like the Waterloo Manufacturing Co and Sawyer Massey. These now obsolete machines, once the cutting edge of technology, are still able to pull their weight when it counts, and look good doing it. The powerful sawmill, run this year by Adam Henderson, was a particularly impressive sight as it carved giant logs into usable pieces of timber.
For guests looking to learn the history before the history, a quiet corner of the grounds was set aside for demonstrations of essential horse-powered farm equipment from the era before steam. In those days, horses helped with almost every aspect of farming, from pulling a plow to powering a bucksaw. Horses still have their place in agriculture, but modernization has lightened their load considerably.
Just down the way a piece from the steam-centric action was a field full of antique tractors organized by brand, creating a rainbow of farm vehicles from throughout the decades. These more modern machines also have their own special place in our collective history. Rows of creations from Ontario farm equipment dynasties Massey Harris and Cockshutt stood proudly alongside American plowing innovations from John Deere, Oliver and International Harvester. The impressive power of these machines was demonstrated throughout the weekend through antique and classic tractor pulls.
On Friday, the association invited Wingham favourites Stoneboat Pullers to put on one of their patented lawn mower pulls, much to the delight of the crowd. Saturday and Sunday also featured a kids’ lawn tractor pull for any young people in a competitive state of mind.
Friday was also Elementary School Activity Day for lucky students from Brookside Public School and Hullett Central Public School, as well as interested home-schooled students. Student Program Co-ordinator Sheila Orr and her team of volunteers put together a full day of activities that kept the kids engaged while being educated, and their collective enthusiasm for the old ways was infectious. A tour of the two-storey Threshers log cabin (a permanent campground fixture) gave kids a glimpse of what home looked like in a time when each member of a family spent the majority of each day devoted to the chores required to live a sustainable life together. The important role of women in farming communities was highlighted during the tour, with hands-on demonstrations of skills like quilt making, butter churning, wringer washing and rope making. By the end of the day, it was all the rage amongst friends to use their homemade rope to tether their backpacks together in a pack string formation, making moving around the grounds require a concerted effort. Smithing and horse demonstrations were also on the agenda, as well as corn broom and scarecrow making, pedal tractor pulls and a petting zoo put on by the Huron-Perth Junior Farmers.
The students also participated in a demonstration of how a steam-powered thresher works, along with a little history lesson on the enormous impact that these machines had on the agricultural industry and society in general. Threshers quickly remove the seeds from the stalks and husks of grains, a job that was previously done using hand flails. The kids were intrigued by the vintage contraption as it took in sheaves and beat them.
Hand flailing grain was one of the most labour-intensive parts of farming - threshing machines could do the work of many men in a short time period, and its advent signalled the beginning of the age of mechanized agriculture. Credit for the invention of the thresher goes to Scotsman Andrew Meikle, who stated that his 1786 design was merely an improvement on a machine created by a farmer known only as Leckie. When entrepreneur John Fisher settled in Hamilton, Ontario in 1835, there was no knowledge of such machines in Canada. Fisher, however, was aware of Meikle’s innovation, and set out to bring threshers and reapers to Southern Ontario. He opened the Hamilton Agricultural Works and started building threshing machines in 1836. This company would eventually become Sawyer Massey, one of the leading manufacturers of tractors, threshers and other farm tools.
A showcase of antique road vehicles was also on display all weekend, which included a dairy truck from the Teeswater Creamery - the second creamery ever founded in Canada. A pristine 1929 Packard 733, owned by Ken and Lila Procter of Brussels, made it clear that owning one of these American luxury vehicles is just as impressive as it’s ever been - just ask them! A cavalcade of Studebakers from throughout the years reminded visitors of their rightful position in Ontario’s history. The Studebaker company may have gotten its start manufacturing buggies and wagons in South Bend, Indiana, but its first truly modern automobile factory was established in an anti-aircraft gun plant in Hamilton in 1947. The last-ever Studebaker may have rolled off the line on March 17, 1966, but the vehicle, marketed for years as “Canada’s Own Car!”, remains a favourite of antique automobile enthusiasts from Hamilton and beyond.
Augmenting the vehicular component of the Threshers Reunion was a whole weekend of food, music and dancing. Whoever said “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” has never experienced the reunion’s daily bean pot, where white beans, slowly simmered over an open flame, get ladled out to anybody who wants a cup, free of charge. The same goes for the nightly corn roast, which always attracts a long line of campers and visitors looking to enjoy a butter-dipped ear or two.
Friday night’s fish fry, organized by the Blyth Lions and the Brussels Legion, served dinner to over 250 people, and the Blyth Firefighters Association breakfasts on Saturday and Sunday fed about 1,600 people.
There were many musical elements to the reunion. There was a free fiddle workshop on Thursday, a dance on Friday hosted by The Country Versatiles, and a performance from the Teeswater Pipe Band on Saturday, just to name a few. Step dancing and fiddle competitions took place throughout the weekend, and anybody wandering the campground was treated to the sound of multiple jam sessions mingling in the chilly late summer air.
Saturday also saw the hotly-anticipated reprise of last year’s Lucky Charms concert, which was held on the Blyth Festival’s Harvest Stage in support of the Blyth Kids Club. It was a free show, but young members of the club went through the crowd collecting money to help fund their activities next year. Lucky Charms frontman Joe Gahan was particularly pleased by this news, as he is also leader of the Blyth Kids Club.
It is awe-inspiring to see the actual horse-, steam- and gas-powered farm machinery that shaped Ontario in action. Their endurance is not only a testament to the skill of the materials and craftsmen that made them, but the skill and passion of all those over the years who have dedicated their time to keeping them running. Whether an expert, hobbyist, tinkerer or mechanic, when a person works to preserve or restore one of these machines, their effort becomes intertwined with its legacy. These threshers, reapers, tractors and more were constructed at a time when agricultural and industrial prosperity went hand in hand, shaping the Ontario we know today. From beginning to end, the Threshers Reunion paints a picture of a community driven by innovation, powered by teamwork and protected by resiliency - all great values that we can learn from and use to build a better Ontario for the future.