Menno, South Dakota, population 608, has hosted the Pioneer Power Show every year for the last 26 years. This year, we estimate that more than a thousand people came as we did to participate in one of the best down-home celebrations we have seen. It is held in Pioneer Acres, a piece of land in which the town has reassembled a collection of old buildings including a train station, the Tractor provides power sheriff's office, a pioneer cabin, a school building, and several barns. Each one was open and contained special exhibits, including old photos and handmade items.
But we were there to see the demonstrations. Every few minutes, a steam whistle pierced the air. Each whistle had its own distinctive sound. Some came from stationary steam engines, some from steam tractors, one from the engine at the saw mill, one from the steam plow. All these machines have been meticulously restored and maintained by the men and women who love them and love the idea of remembering how farming used to look to the pioneers.
We watched demonstrations of plowing and baling hay and shucking and shelling corn, even though until about noon it was just too cold and windy for spectators to be comfortable (an unusually cold day for September in South Dakota). Away from the demonstration field the wind was not as strong, so we took the time to admire the tractors preparing for the afternoon's activities. Threshing wheat People had come from all the neighboring states, and were still arriving, their tractors hauled behind their pickup trucks. Those who had arrived earlier camped in the field above the fairground, their trucks and RVs lined up many rows deep.
South Dakota, like much of the rest of the country, has been suffering severe drought and many attendees talked about that, about how they were producing only a fraction of the expected corn or soy beans from their fields, although, being farmers, they remain optimistic for the next planting season. At the show, the ground was bone-dry underfoot.
Inside the large barn buildings we admired stationary engines, some of which could be hauled into the field and used to power special purpose harvesting equipment. We were surprised to see the way the belts between pieces of equipment were twisted and kept somewhat slack. But they worked just fine that way! Old John Deere
At noon the parade formed up, and we had front row seats. There were at least 150 vehicles (late-comers were still registering at parade start time), about two-thirds tractors and farm machinery, about one-third classic cars. The latter included a hand-built replica of a model A, several old trucks, and quite a few cars we recognized from our own families. We quote the description of the Feature Car, a 1947 Chevrolet Fleet Master:
"...in 1963 [the owner's] brother, Al, hit a deer and damaged the left front fender. They removed the fender and put the car in storage where it sat for 27 years until Mike and JoAnn bought the car from JoAnn's mother...In 1991 Jim...installed the fender and gave it a new paint job...one of his last jobs in the auto body business. So for 65 years, which is how old the car is, it has been stored no more than two blocks from its original home. The car has 38,000 miles, original factory seat covers and a clock that still works..."
The parade itself was grand. No music, no bands, no floats, just, one after another, farm machinery interspersed with cars and lovingly described on the PA system. All had been waxed and rubbed and polished until everything shone. Some of the tractors had great studded wheels which left interesting tracks in the dirt road. Ice cream making
For lunch after the parade we joined the long, patient line into the Big Red Barn and chose Hot Dog and Tavern. Tavern, it turns out, is a local Iowa/South Dakota dish also called Loose Meat, that is hamburger not formed into a patty; it's quite tasty and can be eaten in its bun, unlike sloppy joes. Outside, children rode a specially-constructed train through the grounds; the cars were made from plastic 55-gallon drums. For dessert we treated ourselves to home-made ice cream which was, naturally, created using steam engine-powered beaters.
Now it was time for the tractor pull. Contestants were divided into two major groups: large tractors and small tractors. Two simultaneous tracks were established, because there were so many people who wanted to enter. A tractor got hitched to the special sled which it pulled along the course. As it moved, the load became heavier and heavier. The winner went the longest distance before the load became more than the tractor could bear -- at this point the engine whined and the front wheels often left the ground completely, causing the tractor to tip perilously backward. The announcer said that first and second prize winners each get a plaque, and third place gets a hug.
We have to admit that, sunburned and tired, we left before the end of the contest. When we saw that the field could be lit, we decided they were serious about maybe going until after sundown. We old folks had an hour to drive back to Sioux Falls. We will remember this day as a warm and earnest traditional celebration of harvest in a very small town, and one we, and everybody else, enjoyed completely.