'Living history' draws thousands to Rollag for steam threshers reunion
The Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion was held this past Labor Day weekend, Sept. 2-5, with attendance estimated at upwards of 36,000 for its four-day run.
ROLLAG — Entering the West Gate at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion grounds at Rollag, Minn., feels almost like stepping through a time portal into the past — or rather, into an alternate reality where past and present coexist.
While most of the steam, gas and horse-powered machinery and vehicles sprawled over WMSTR's 210 acres are from a bygone era, and the volunteers running those machines are dressed appropriately for the time period, you do occasionally spot a modern four-wheeler or SUV driving past, and the crowds milling through the dozens of exhibits on site are most often dressed in shorts, t-shirts and sandals.
Still, once you walk into the Pioneer Village, stroll down Main Street or enter the 1920s-era farm operation, the sounds and sights of the modern world begin to fade.
"It really is living history," says Tina Jaster, a Detroit Lakes resident who has been an active member of WMSTR for 30 years.
Jaster was working in the Ladies Activities building on Main Street at Rollag this weekend, showing young Paynesville resident Ella Houk how to weave a wagon wheel rug.
"They were originally done on a wagon wheel rim," Jaster said, explaining the name as she gestured up toward the ceiling, where one of the original rims used for weaving is displayed. "These days we mostly use bicycle rims. They're more portable."
She noted that most of the people demonstrating in the Ladies Activities building had learned their craft from relatives, or taken lessons when they were young.
Over in another corner of the building, April and Brian Shimpa of Erskine, Minn., are displaying samples of the wool they dye using all-natural materials, like tree bark, wood, dried insects, flowers and minerals.
Brian Shimpa, who learned how to dye wool at his grandmother's knee when he was very young, said that the one color that has continued to elude both him and his grandma is a true red.
"We've never gotten red," he said, adding that he took over the dye kitchen at Rollag when his grandmother retired.
Outside the building, Andrew Osten was explaining how the wood-fired Minneapolis steam engine he's driving works.
Osten, who lives in Callaway with his family, said that he's been coming to Rollag every year since he was a baby.
"I'm 47 now," he said, "and I've never missed one."
"We brought our boys here as babies, and they've never missed one either," said Andrew's wife Debbie, who like Jasken, was working on wagon wheel rugs in the Women's Activities building earlier that day.
Andrew said he learned how to operate steam engines from his parents — mostly his father, Lyle Osten, though his mother Bonnie was also well-versed in the skill.
"She was the first woman at Rollag to get her steam operator's license," he said proudly, adding that his father was "a really good teacher."
Andrew is the third generation of the Osten family to be WMSTR members, and he's been passing on the tradition to his sons, Simon and Murphy, as well.
"My oldest son Simon has his steam operator's license, and two of my nephews do too," he said, adding that Murphy would probably get his own license at some point in the future.
For those who don't have parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles to teach them these skills, WMSTR does offer some educational opportunities each summer, including the University of Rollag Steam School — held on Father's Day weekend each year, at Steamer Hill (located on the WMSTR grounds).
In addition, they also offer something called "Rollagology" — i.e., the study of all things Rollag. This year's schedule included classes in "Prairie Tractors," "Machine Shop Operations," "Draft Horses and Horsepower Area Activities," "Safe Hand Cranking Internal Combustion Engines," "Ice Cream Making and Scooping," and "Drill Bit Sharpening." The classes were held at Steamer Hill on July 9-10.
Those who take advantage of these opportunities can go on to become licensed teachers, or to exhibit or operate machinery at Rollag during each year's reunion.
But of course, these skill demonstrations are only part of what goes on at Rollag. There's also plenty of food, live music, kids' activities — including a steam-powered carousel — and parades. For those who want to get off their feet for a little while, there are also tractor-drawn wagon rides — as well as those of the horse-drawn variety, available at the pioneer farm — and steam-powered locomotives. The line for rides on "The 353," Rollag's vintage, full-size Alco locomotive, was particularly long on Sunday.
And speaking of crowds, WMSTR volunteer Teri Anderson, who was working the admission booth at the Administration Building on Sunday, said that organizers had estimated attendance at between 10,000-12,000 for Saturday's activities, and about the same for Sunday.
"It was at least 10,000, and probably closer to 12,000," she said, adding that coming up with exact attendance numbers was difficult, because admission can be purchased through a single-day ticket or a season pass, and the latter could be used to enter the festival an unlimited number of times over the course of the weekend.
Crowds on Friday (opening day) and Monday (closing day) were usually a bit smaller, Anderson said, but added that Friday's attendance was probably around 9,000.
For more information about WMSTR, and how to get involved, visit rollag.com .