It's been 66 years since the first Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion was held in the tiny town of Rollag, Minn., and the annual "steam meet" has grown to draw an estimated 50 to 60 thousand people per day — including roughly 2,000 volunteer exhibitors and festival staff — every Labor Day weekend.
This year's reunion is set to open Friday, Aug. 30, continuing through Labor Day on Monday, Sept. 1. From the time the gates open at 6 a.m. daily until the last fiddler plays at night, there will always be an activity or demonstration underway, as local volunteers do their best to show visitors what life was like back in the early days of agriculture and steam-powered locomotion.
Even the prices harken back to the good ol’ days: Once you pay your $14 gate fee (kids 14 and younger are admitted free of charge so long as they’re accompanied by an adult), or $25 for a “season pass” to all four days of the event, there’s no reason to get out your wallet again until meal time. All of the rides and attractions on the reunion grounds are included as part of your admission.
Train rides and parades (twice a day), sewing, spinning and knitting demonstrations, blacksmithing and threshing demonstrations, vintage tractors, steam and gas engine displays, steam-powered “spark shows” at night, live music throughout the day and much, much more. It’s all part of the fun at WMSTR — pronounced “Whim-stir” by the locals.
Each year, the WMSTR Expo also features a different brand of ag-related equipment. This year's expo features J.I. Case equipment and implements including everything from gas tractors and assorted ag-related implements, to steam engines including the newly built 150HP Case steam engine.
And when you do get hungry? There’s plenty to eat, with a fry-bread stand, homestyle “threshermen’s meals,” ice cream cones and more available for purchase. There’s even a souvenir stand if you want to buy a cap or a shirt to take home as a memento of your visit.
One of Rollag’s most visible attractions is the so-called "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, including a waterwheel, a pioneer homestead display, steam-powered carousel and "The Sandbox" — a construction area featuring huge steam shovels.
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 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.)
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 as well — 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 long after most of the other attractions have shut down for the night.
Tractor and steam engine parades happen daily at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. (only 2 p.m. on Sunday) — and on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, just after dark, there’s a steam-powered “spark show,” where engineers load up some steam engines with wood, sawdust and a bit of "magic mixture" that causes the engines to throw up a series colorful sparks to light up the evening sky.
The reunion grounds can be found about 20 miles southeast of Detroit Lakes. 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.