Threshers build on nearly 60 years of history
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
The next reunion the Huron Pioneer Thresher and Hobby Association will host will be its 60th anniversary event. The first reunion was held in September of 1962, and now, with the 2020 reunion cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all eyes are on the milestone 60th year of the event in 2021.
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. 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.
Once the committee was established, the next order of business was creating a program for the event. The next meeting was set for June 20 at the Blyth Orange Hall with a call going out to all local threshers seeking their input. The committee’s hope was that by reaching out to the public, at least four steam engines could be procured for the show, which had tentatively been scheduled for Sept. 14-15.
At the June 20 meeting, members of the committee were officially named to their positions. Turner was unanimously supported as the group’s president and a motion was passed confirming Simon Hallahan as the secretary.
Through considerable discussion at the meeting between Robert Beatty, one of the oldest threshers at the meeting, and Willie Joe Hallahan, the group decided to officially form an organization called the Huron Pioneer Thresher and Hobby Association. At the meeting the group decided to move forward with the reunion on Sept. 7-8.
Also at that first meeting, Ron Marks of Walton displayed a steam engine that he had built himself.
The committees established at the first meeting were: steam engine committee, grounds committee, entertainment committee, transportation committee and advertising committee.
After another planning meeting in July, followed by further preparation in the months leading up to the reunion, the event went forward, drawing a large crowd, benefitting from “fine” weather.
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 then 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 thresher 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 saw mill.
The following year’s event indeed went ahead in 1963 with The Blyth Standard declaring “Largest local crowd in years attended Thresher’s Reunion”.
The parade for the second reunion was said to be over a mile long, led down the street by the Mitchell Legion Brass Band.
Cardiff was on hand once again to officially open the show, while Rev. William Morritt of Blyth welcomed those attending to the village.
After the 1963 reunion, association Treasurer Alex Manning said the admissions totalled over $1,400, accounting for a “sizeable” balance after the reunion’s expenses for the year were paid. This successful year paved the way for a third reunion.
Turner was re-elected to the president’s position and the group also voted to host the reunion in Blyth once again.
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.
For the fourth reunion, held at the Blyth Recreational Center, the event had its first brush with inclement weather, with just about everything scheduled for the Friday of the reunion being rained out with the exception of the Friday night dance at Memorial Hall.
Saturday brought clear, sunny skies and a large number of people to the village. The Blyth Standard reported that people travelled to the reunion in Blyth from as far away as Michigan, Quebec and remote areas of Ontario.
Turner would be the longest-serving president in the organization’s history, staying on in the top spot from 1962 to 1970. (This is an impressive stretch, considering that Ray Hallahan would eventually serve three terms as the organization’s president: 1984-1985, 1992-1993 and 2008-2009.)
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 1998, the reunion added a kids’ tractor pull to the slate of events, including yet another activity for the youngest attendees.
In recent years, the Threshers would go on to add a new log cabin and the Memorial Building to honour members who have passed away over the years.
In 2010, the reunion was honoured with a Cultural Award from the Huron Arts and Heritage Network as the best organization or event of the year. The following year the association marked its 50th anniversary, a milestone worth celebrating for any volunteer organization.
Despite not hosting the 59th event this year, the association will mark its 60th reunion next year, which organizers hope will be special for those who attend with added attractions and celebrations.