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Steamin' along at Rollag

CLARA EDIN of Askov, Minn., watches wheat flow out of her family's 1936 Allis Chalmers separator at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion in Rollag Sunday afternoon. (Brian Basham/Tribune)1 / 5
Craig Olson of Colfax, N.D., pitches straw onto a threshing machine during a demonstration on the grounds Sunday afternoon.2 / 5
NATHAN AAMOLD of Fargo stokes a fire in the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion blacksmith shop Sunday afternoon. He was making a leaf keychain.3 / 5
SMOKE POURS OUT OF THE TOP of a Model 21 3/4 yard revolving Marion Steam Shovel as it works at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion Sunday afternoon. Sean Nelson of Bismarck, N.D., (left) shovels a load of coal into a 1912 Gaar Scott steam engine.4 / 5
Sean Nelson of Bismarck, N.D., shovels a load of coal into a 1912 Gaar Scott5 / 5

Maybe it was because of the hard economic times. Maybe it was the lure of the orange Allis-Chalmers tractors featured this year. Or maybe it was a longing for older, simpler times.

But whatever the reason, the weather was beautiful and Saturday saw near-record crowds at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion near Rollag.

"We did great, we had a good weekend," said Mark Kerkvliet of Harwood, N.D., who sits on the WMSTR board of directors.

He estimated between 75,000 and 85,000 people made their way through the grounds over the Labor Day weekend.

There's something for everybody at the reunion, from rows of antique tractors to giant steam-run motors and equipment.

If you haven't been there for a while, you'll appreciate the antique construction equipment, including bulldozers and three steam shovels that were busy moving earth for spectators over the weekend.

The full-size steam-powered locomotive was kept busy pulling a half-dozen cars around a mile-long perimeter track. The railroad cars are equipped with bleachers, so people could enjoy a railroad tour of the grounds -- complete with the sulfuric smell of burning fuel.

More than 700 campsites were filled for the weekend -- at a cost of just $35 for as long as five days. And first-ever shower facilities meant those campers, and their loved ones, were a little happier, since they didn't have to go four or five days without a shower.

An assortment of vehicles traveled the gravel roads, from golf carts and ATVs buzzing around with volunteers to slower-moving tractor-pulled shuttle wagons.

Volunteers run the show at Rollag -- it's the biggest all-volunteer threshers reunion in the nation, Kerkvliet said, and it could well be the biggest such show, period, he said.

There are 1,200 to 1,500 volunteers who run all aspects of the event, from the dangerous job of showing how a steam-powered sawmill works, to the thankless task of facing a line of people wanting Rollag's famous triple-dip ice cream cones for $1.50.

"It's 100 percent volunteer," Kerkvliet said. "No one takes a penny out of the show."

There are about 6,000 NWMSTR members, but not everybody volunteers, since the organization asks a lot of its volunteers -- they get few perks, and even have to pay the $20 weekend admission fee ($12 daily, kids 14 and under free) like everybody else.

"It always starts out a little scary," as to the number of volunteers, Kerkvliet said. "But then it all comes together."

One of those long-time volunteers is Virgil Gunnarson of rural Lake Park (He has a farm in Cuba Township).

This was the 27th year he has served as the public announcer for the event.

He is only the second person to fill the job, after the late Al Hanson, owner of a store in Hawley.

Gunnarson lets the public know what events are going on and helps them locate everything from missing kids to missing wedding rings (someone turned one in on Sunday).

A few years back, he even helped return a wallet that had been lost by a man the previous year and was turned up by a plow during a demonstration the next year.

Gunnarson, otherwise known as "the voice of Rollag" can be found manning the information booth at the white administration center on the reunion grounds.

The show is over for this year, but the work will go on for several more weeks, as exhibition buildings become storage buildings for machinery and equipment, said Kerkvliet.

"We'll be out here for another two weeks, probably," he said, and water line and winterization work will be done in early October.

Another steam shovel will be arriving next year, "bigger than the three we've got -- probably twice as big as our biggest one," Kerkvliet said, but no major projects are planned in the next few years. The organization is marshaling its resources for major boiler repair projects and other maintenance needs.

"A good part of our budget will go towards repairs," he said. "We have to take care of what we've got."

The show draws carloads of people from all over the country -- and visitors from all over the world, Kerkvliet said.

"It's amazing -- I'm seeing cars from Washington, Oregon, Kentucky -- people drive a long ways. And they come from all over the world. There's people from Australia, England, Germany -- that amazes me."