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All aboard! Steam Threshers Reunion opens Friday at Rollag

"Ladies of Steam" co-founders Nicole Wallace (left) and Jennifer Eden-Roth gave a basic overview of the steam engine at the start of a female-oriented demonstration held at Rollag's Western Minnesota Steam Threshers' Reunion last year. Vicki Gerdes/Tribune1 / 7
The big Alco steam locomotive known as "The 353" loops around the Rollag grounds, giving free train rides to passengers making their way around the festival. Paula Quam / Tribune2 / 7
Five-year-old Teresa DeCock helped her father, Christopher, operate one of the steam engines at last year's Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion. Vicki Gerdes/Tribune 3 / 7
Volunteers providing old-time music add an authentic flare to the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion, which is designed to give people a real feel for the simpler times. Paula Quam / Tribune4 / 7
The Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion is designed to take visitors back to a time when steam drove the engines of the machines people used to get around, and everything was made from scratch. The 65th annual event opens this Friday at Rollag and continues through Labor Day. Paula Quam / Tribune5 / 7
Tractor owner Mike Smasal talks with men inside the cab of a 100 year old gas engine tractor built by The Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co., the restoration of which was finished just prior to the 2016 show at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion. This year's WMSTR opens Friday and continues through Labor Day at Rollag. Dave Wallis / The Forum6 / 7
The barns at Rollag are full of "live horse power" – aka horses that are always ready to give visitors a show, as well as free pony rides for kids. Paula Quam / Tribune7 / 7

For one late summer weekend every year since 1954, a little piece of living history has taken over the tiny northwest Minnesota town known as Rollag — home of the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion.

This annual non-profit "steam meet" typically draws about 80,000 visitors over the course of its four-day run. The 65th anniversary Steam Threshers Reunion will be held over Labor Day weekend, opening this Friday, Aug. 31, and continuing through Monday, Sept. 3.

From the time the gates open at 6 a.m. until the last fiddler plays at night, there will always be an activity or demonstration underway.

"This year we're featuring homemade farm equipment and Galloway gas engines," says WMSTR President Pete Mandt. "The Galloway engines were pretty popular, they were used on lots of farms in lots of different rural areas. It's kind of neat to have them here, and the homemade farm equipment... years ago farmers didn't have a lot of this nice equipment they have nowadays. These guys would have a problem and they'd have to come up with a solution, so they'd try to improve [on what they had] and build bigger, better equipment.

"It's pretty interesting to see what kinds of ideas they had and how they went about trying to solve their problems," he added. "You'll see some pretty neat stuff out there."

Homemade tractors, combines, harvesting equipment and more will be on display throughout the weekend, alongside Galloway gas engines like the 'Handy Andy,' a 1¼ horsepower engine that was manufactured in the late 1920s.

Located about 20 miles southeast of Detroit Lakes, the Steam Threshers Reunion grounds will open daily at 6 a.m., with events continuing well into the evening hours.

Visitors will have plenty of things to do over the long weekend, including listening to music, watching parades and blacksmith demonstrations, exploring The Sandbox with its steam-powered earth movers, making crafts and much more.

One of Rollag's most visible attractions is what Mandt calls "our train ride to nowhere" — a full-sized Alco locomotive referred to simply as "The 353," which once served as a railroad switching engine, now provides rides around the showgrounds in a continuous loop throughout the day. And there are lots of hidden attractions throughout the show grounds, as well.

"There's a lot of things people probably haven't seen even if they've been here before," says Mandt. "If you go back among the trees... there's a lot of things hidden there that I think some people just don't see because they don't venture far enough back. There's a waterwheel, a pioneer homestead display... there's a lot of really neat things back there. If you spend a day or two just wandering around you'll probably see something you haven't seen before."

The grounds also include a "Main Street" with a general store, mercantile, church, post office, and Ladies Activity building, as well as a Pioneer Village, a blacksmith shop, 1930s farmstead and other areas that offer living history demonstrations. (Everything found at the mercantile and general store on Rollag's Main Street is handcrafted and homemade.)

"We also have our steam-powered carousel and the construction area, with its huge steam shovels — we probably have more operating steam shovels than anywhere else," says Mandt.

Miniatureland features intricate and detailed, fully operational scale steam engines, separators and other displays to look at, as well as miniature saws to cut wood and even a miniature hay baler, so kids can bring home a souvenir bale from the show.

Music can be heard across the showgrounds throughout the event — enjoy it from a gazebo, church or under a shady tree. From accordions to banjos, fiddle to harmonica, and maybe even the spoons, the music of Rollag takes many unique forms, and lasts well into the night.

Tractor and steam engine parades happen daily at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. — and on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, just after dark, there's a steam-powered "spark show."

"That's gotten to be a real popular event," says Mandt. "It has to do with loading up some steam engines with wood and some sawdust or other 'magic mixture' the engineers have and when it's dark out we put a load on and it throws sparks up in the air. It kind of looks like flames coming out of the engine. It's pretty entertaining."

For more information, visit www.rollag.com, where you'll find a complete schedule of events, a map of the festival grounds, and details about some of Rollag's more popular attractions.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 17 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454