The pfut-pfut-pfut of the tractor engine, the slapping belt, the clacks and rattles of the thresher did draw some people to the fence of the show ring at the fairgrounds. The public, ready for the sensory appeal of carnival rides, food trucks and other vendors, found instead an active agricultural display.
We were threshing grain with our Champion No. 1 thresher, providing those attending the county fair the opportunity to experience a little bit of 1890s agricultural living history. Seeing the sheaves forked off the wagon, the fat sacks of grain and the growing straw pile told a story, and the interpretation provided by the living history farm staff added to the auditory experience for the people on the fence line. This was one of the high points of my summer, in spite of the scratchy chaff and the inherent danger involved in operating this machine. When I had my “threshing legs,” the firm footing to sway and shake in tune with the vibrations of the machine so I could concentrate on feeding the stalks of rye and not my hand in to the mouth of the beast, I could revel in this active piece of late 19th-century agricultural equipment.
I love being able to bring history to life. Often demonstrations focus on muscle power: the strong slow ox team, prancing or plodding horses and the vast array of tools in the skilled hands of talented crafts people. Far too often the machines of our past are relegated to stationary exhibits. Why? Curators warn us of wear and tear; few replacement parts are available; operating means maintenance; and without a manual does anyone still know how to start it, to operate it, to troubleshoot when it breaks down? These are all significant concerns but, oh, the glorious thrill of an engine come to life! If you don’t run the equipment do you truly understand it? Sure it looks good, but how did it get the job done?
I am not neutral on this topic: I operate a 19th-century gristmill. We have eye-catching informative panels, friendly knowledgeable interpreters and hands-on opportunities in the building to engage visitors, all of which explain the how, what and why of milling grain. But no matter how engaging the interpretation, nothing beats hearing, seeing, feeling and smelling the mill in action. The building comes alive and so does the understanding of a miller’s job, the power of the equipment, the engineering involved and the magical feeling as hard kernels of corn become fine soft cornmeal in seconds.
I will never forget driving an old gasoline tractor at a workshop at the 2014 ALHFAM Conference in Calgary. That experience provided me with more than just the historical context of the incredible change in farming that came with powered equipment. It added the sound and motion and what felt like unstoppable POWER. What I experienced behind the wheel of that tractor could not be duplicated through any number of words on a panel or images on a screen. My interpretation is now based on tangible understanding rather than abstraction.
I am a strong proponent of preservation. Sometimes using equipment can mean losing it, so do approach your mechanical artifacts with respect. But when you can, power it up, turn it on, let it roll! If you can’t operate your machinery on a regular basis, invite everyone you can to take part in the experience; document every bit of the preparation, action and resulting maintenance, and I think you and your team will find a new level of appreciation for your historical machinery.
Author Sarah Bent is a Historic Sites Supervisor for the Monmouth County (NJ) Park System.