Threshers Association adapts to present drive-through event this Saturday
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
This Saturday, the Huron Pioneer Thresher and Hobby Association will host an event unlike any the organization has hosted before, but it represents the continuation of a legacy that has been part of the fabric of Huron County for generations.
The drive-through event will include much of the displays and performances that have made the association’s reunions great for decades, but patrons will have to enjoy them from the comfort of their vehicles, as a safety measure against the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
According to President Judy Sloan, who says she’s simply thrilled to be able to host an event after having to cancel a full reunion two years in a row, there will be working displays, music, a potato-picking demonstration and more for people to see between 1-5 p.m. on Sept. 11 at the Blyth Campground.
While the annual reunion - held every year on the weekend after Labour Day - has become a staple of life in Huron County, it had humble beginnings, sprouting from a meeting between a few men around a kitchen table in East Wawanosh.
When the reunion hopefully - and finally - goes ahead in 2022, the association will be celebrating its 60th annual reunion; a milestone that was supposed to be marked this year.
The seeds that would grow into the Huron Pioneer Thresher and Hobby Association were sown around the kitchen table of Simon Hallahan in East Wawanosh Township in early 1962. It was a special meeting among a handful of men that would set the table for the first-ever reunion to be held in Blyth that September.
The first step was the creation of the charter committee. Harold Turner was elected the president and Hallahan was the secretary. Hugh Chisholm of Sarnia, Jack Scott of Formosa, Stuart Muir of Paisley and Willie Joe Hallahan of Blyth were all named directors of the committee.
The Blyth Standard reported that an estimated 5,000 people were in attendance at the first-ever reunion. However, in the association’s Heritage Book produced for the reunion’s 50th anniversary in 2011, some who were there estimated that there were as few as 500 people there. An official attendance has never been published.
President Harold Turner welcomed Huron County Warden George McCutcheon and local MP Elston Cardiff to the opening ceremonies for the event. Cardiff officially opened the reunion and was “greeted with a chorus of whistles from the many steam engines” upon opening the show on the Saturday afternoon of the reunion.
The two dignitaries even hung around and each pitched a load of sheaves into a separator.
The first reunion’s parade was led by the Belgrave Pipe Band, followed by a 25-horsepower Sawyer-Massey steam engine. The machine was owned by Stewart Muir of Paisley, it was driven by Alex Gilbertson of Eden Mills and manned by Simon Hallahan, George McCutcheon and Elston Cardiff. The engine was pulling an Imperial separator built by Robert Bell Industries Ltd. in Seaforth and was owned by Simon Hallahan and his son Maurice.
Hallahan and Turner presented a special award that day to James Martin of RR1, Lucknow, who was the oldest participant in attendance. The 87-year-old said he had threshed for 50 years. His award was a pair of tickets to the 1963 reunion, the planning for which was already underway.
The first-ever reunion included five steam engines, two separators and a tented sawmill.
The event continued to grow year after year. The Blyth Standard reported that local author Harry J. Boyle would be on hand to perform the opening ceremony at the third annual reunion. It was Boyle’s work, specifically Mostly In Clover, that would lay the foundation for the Blyth Festival less than 10 years later.
In 1972, the reunion expanded to become a three-day event, more reminiscent of the event reunion-goers know and love today. The decision proved to be a wise one with an estimated 6,600 people attending the reunion over the course of the three days.
The momentum continued to build, as in 1973, the 12th annual reunion proved to be the biggest yet with well over 7,000 people attending.
For the 20th annual reunion, held in 1981, entertainment included a fiddling competition, a step dancing competition and performances by the Bannockburn Pipe Band and the Seaforth Community Band.
An estimated 11,000 people attended the 20th annual reunion.
In 1990, the Huron Pioneer Thresher and Hobby Association announced plans to improve Blyth’s fairgrounds, which played host to the reunion year after year. The Citizen reported that the association had earmarked $25,000 to improve the grounds.
Association President Jim Sloan presented the plans to Blyth Village Council, saying the association was prepared to foot half of the bill in the hopes that the remaining half would be covered by a grant from the village.
In 1995, the Threshers added a new steam-powered sawmill to the list of attractions at the annual reunion. Wilbert Phillipi of Chepstow was to thank for the new attraction, pulling it out of storage and working with other volunteers to assemble it and ensure it was in good working order for the reunion.
In recent years, the Threshers would go on to add a log cabin and the Memorial Building to honour members who have passed away over the years.
Judy Sloan is now the president, the third woman to lead the organization in its history (following Bea Houston and Trina McBride). Judy and Jim are the second couple to have both served as presidents, after Wayne and Bea Houston.
Stepping into the position just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Judy didn’t know that she was signing up for a term full of unique challenges that would familiarize her with plenty of public health regulations.
While a reunion hasn’t been able to move ahead, the organization has kept busy under Judy. Joe Hallahan has hosted several successful tractor parades and there have been upgrades to the grounds, including finally getting the antique cider press ready for operation in the coming years.
And now, there is the one-day event scheduled for Sept. 11 to keep momentum alive leading into the anniversary reunion next year.
In speaking with The Citizen, Sloan said that one of the most promising aspects of the association and the reunion in recent years has been the influx of youth. Just before Judy took over the presidency, the position was occupied by Peter Hendriks, the youngest president in the organization’s history. And now, Sydney Otten and Shalena Reid are heading up the reunion’s children’s events, injecting new life into them.
Judy said that when the pair took over, there was a real interest in the programs at the 2019 reunion. However, that progress was stopped in its tracks due to the pandemic, but Judy hopes it will continue when an in-person reunion goes ahead again.
The two young women, both of whom are youth workers, implemented a passport system for the visiting students, engaging more students in the hopes of increasing membership and general interest in the reunion. The passports, the pair said, have helped encourage young people to see displays and demonstrations throughout the entire site, rather than finding something they like and planting themselves there.
And while the young ones may have to wait until 2022 to fill their passports, Sept. 11 promises to be a great day for the association, giving people a taste of a reunion at a time when the full event is unable to go ahead.