Threshing Bee

author: Brad Spear

posted 23 November 2009 in Family

1 comment / tags: , , ,

I’ve been digitizing home movies from 8mm video tape, and ran across one from our 1996 vacation to see my parents in the Black Hills. On this tape was footage of a side trip we took to a threshing bee in Sturgis, South Dakota.

If you have no idea what they are, most modern threshing bees are essentially antique shows; places where the owners of old iron meet to show off their prized equipment. The best, in my opinion, are primarily about steam-powered farm equipment such as traction and stationary engines, with a few gas and diesel tractors. Many are polished and painted and look like new. Others are just barely working, and no effort has been made for aesthetics. (Some threshing bees may even have actual threshing.)

Scenes of a bee

Anyway, the images on the video took me back to 1970, when I was a child visiting my grandparents in the Black Hills, by myself for the first time. And one of the enduring memories I have of that summer was when my grandfather took me to see my first threshing bee in Sturgis.

Steam engines are relatively simple machines, but there is a sort of life in these old constructions that just isn’t present in anything else. I was mesmerized by the whole thing – the video doesn’t come close to recreating the feeling of being there.

The smells of oil and grease heated by fire; the aroma of burning coal; the chuffing of pistons exhausting condensing vapor from sweaty cylinders; the whirling wheels; the seemingly inexorable movement in all of it – pretty heady stuff to a 12-year old. If you’re a steampunk fan, you may understand what I mean.

Perhaps my fascination was just a characteristic of most little boys; we all like our trucks and trains, especially the steam ones. But I think it was also helped by some of my earliest memories of my father and me.

When I was a child, dad was a heavy equipment operator. He’d occasionally take me to one of his job sites, where I’d get to ride in the open cockpit of a huge, green Euclid double-bowl scraper (three big diesel engines!), or sit on the bench of a yellow Caterpillar bulldozer. I’d bounce around in the head of a massive machine with him, breathing the smells of the newly disturbed earth, along with the stink of the oil, grease, and diesel exhaust.

And in my child’s mind I attributed far too much to what those machines, and my dad, could do. A neighbor girl came over to our home after Sunday school and announced that God had built the world. My response, in all the seriousness that a child’s mind could muster, was, “No He didn’t, my dad did.”

None of these steam engines are huge in a modern sense, dwarfed by open-pit mining equipment, and by large ships, certainly, and by some of the equipment my dad worked with. However, to a 12-year old they were still impressive. They were accessible. They were noisy. They were alive.

But time marches on and those days are long gone. I have other responsibilities and activities now – my family, my computers, a car waiting to be rebuilt – and I haven’t attended a threshing bee since 1996. But I know that the next time I do, those old, familiar feelings will hit me and I will become that mesmerized boy once again.


  1. Comment by Rick S on 05 December 2009

    Cool! As a child, my family stumbled into a threshing bee while camping in Pennsylvania. It seems that the Amish have no prohibition against steam!

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