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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Prairie Village Steam Threshing Jamboree: Full!

My path to marriage began with a simple question in August, 2001: "Do you like steam tractors?" Erin said sure! and came to Prairie Village for Madison's signature event, the Steam Threshing Jamboree. We looked at tractors, visited the Lawrence Welk Socialist Hall, talked E-Prime over lemonade, crossed the road to the Moonlite for dinner... and the rest is history.

Fueled by romance and the Izaak Walton League's all-we-could-eat pancakes and sausages (so good they set off the smoke alarm... kind of like our own romance), we steamed over to Prairie Village on our bikes (with Madville Times Jr. in the bike trailer) to see the big threshers and tractors and take the Divine Miss K for her first train ride.

Let's see... about a dozen cars lined up waiting to turn into the Prairie Village entrance. Not too bad a wait to the west...

...uh oh. This is the line coming from the east on Highway 34. At 10:00 a.m. Before lunch, we heard traffic was backed up to Pizza Ranch, maybe even as far as Madison's Main Street, about three miles. Plus traffic backing up north on U.S. 81. Tell me again, which stretch of road needs four lanes?

Once in the gate, no worries. We've got cowboys (and cowgirls) on the job. And they didn't turn us away for not wearing Allis orange. This easy rider shows us real cowboys drink Coke on the job. One of his colleagues cheered our bikes: we left one more parking spot available! Good thing we did: when we rode the train around at 11:30, the horse patrol was directing cars to the last parking spots at the far southeast corner of the lot. I've been to the Jamboree off and on over the last 25 years, and I have never seen it this full.

Inside Prairie Village, the only traffic jam is the reasonably orderly convergence of tractors lining up for the hourly parades.

And on Prairie Village's Main Street, much calmer traffic.

On display among the antique cars, a 1921 Ford truck... more like a rolling carpenter's shop! Saws, vises, drill press, grinder... dang! Who needs a hemi? I'll bet Ford could pull out this blueprint and sell a million of these to do-it-yourselfers today!

Ours weren't the only human-powered vehicles at the Village. The Wentworth Depot features another of my dream machines, this rail velocipede from the 1880s. It's a two-seater, so the rail inspector can concentrate on his checklist while the other guy busts his chops cranking along the line. I really, really, really want to sneak into Prairie Village some night and take this baby for a spin. (I suspect I'll want to bring an oil can.)

Here's a full view of the velocipede with its outrigger.

Second choice for vehicle I might hijack at Prairie Village: this two-seat pedal car! Not an antique, but pretty cool with its stick shift. On the downside, I did not see any brakes... gangway!

The Prairie Village Herman & Madison Railroad blue USAF engine runs on diesel. Don't ask what the PVH&M crew were running on when they hung the bloomers from the water tank.

Ah, what might have been: the PVH&M loops through the old Herman townsite. Pioneers in this county thought Lake Herman would be a pretty place for a town. But then C.B. Kennedy wanted to increase the value of the land he'd bought three miles to the east, so rich guys friendly to his interests bought up buildings in Herman and hauled them back to New Madison. Small revenge: right now, there are more people at Prairie Village on the northeast shore of Lake Herman than there are in the city of Madison. (Now, Prairie Village, let's talk about putting up a sign to commemorate the Lake Herman bordello...)

A 9.12er... Wasn't that an experimental model John Deere introduced in Russia in the 1920s? Or wait, wasn't that the combination thresher and 108-bale haywagon Minneapolis put out back in the 1890s? Oh well, guess I'll have to wait until this evening to find out.

Not everything at the Village is an antique. These sculptures actually weren't in the flea market; they were featured in a sculpture garden of sorts by the sawmill in the show grounds. Now if a guy could rig up a chain saw to run on steam power, that would be impressive! (No word on whether the chain saw artist has obtained rights from Hanna-Barbera. If he were selling sculptures of the Enterprise and Mr. Spock, Paramount would be beaming in lawyers in an instant!)

Why yes, that is Austin Powers, rendered in wood. Behave. $900.

The best maintained building at Prairie Village, the iconic 103-year-old Junius Church has greeted travelers along Highway 34 from this site since 1967. I can see it from my house on the other side of Lake Herman. Different congregations hold services every Sunday here during the summer. It may be the prettiest place in Lake County to get married, especially when you step out the doors and see the sun gleaming on the lake.

Oh yeah: Madville Times Jr. enjoyed her first train ride. She clung tightly to her mother the whole way, just like on the buses in Winnipeg. We'll get her used to mass transit yet!

Among other joys of the Jamboree, I ran into Benjamin Stowe, a true railroad devoté. When I worked as summer help at the Village 20 years ago, Ben was there, barely a teenager, working right alongside Joe Habeger and Paul Redfield to build the Village railroad. He tells me this is his 22nd straight Jamboree... and he's still wearing his blue and white engineer's cap. Very cool.

What I like most about the Jamboree and Prairie Village is that this big event came from a few local folks with big ideas. They've plugged away since the early 1960s, doing crazy things like moving an opera house down the highway, building their own railroad, and daring to believe they could throw a party centered around antique machines that would double the population of Lake County for a weekend. They've forged a reasonable success, and they haven't needed focus groups or fancy outside marketing consultants to make it happen. They've taken what we have here on the prairie, our own heritage, and polished it into a cultural gem—a rough little gem, sure, but a gem nonetheless, the signature event of Lake County.

Update 22:15 CDT: Check out this video from Horseshoe Seven. My friend John caught the Minnesota wagon train heading for Prairie Village Friday right past his house on old 34. Yay, horsies!


  1. Reminds me of the Pierce County, NE threshing bee every September. I enjoyed the article.

  2. Sounds like you had a great day out there. We'd heard that there was quite a backlog of traffic and they actually stopped letting vehicles in.

    I talked with several ladies wearing orange who'd accompanied their A-C driving spouses down from Oakes, ND. That's a long drive on a tractor.

    I hope to make it out there tomorrow. It was a great day for it today! Thanks for all the great pics. If you haven't seen the little video of the critter-powered vehicles come by my place, check out the H7 blog.

  3. Della Whitcomb8/30/2009 7:19 PM

    So great to read about PV and see the pics.
    Used to run the Methodist food stand when we were Sr. High Youth leaders at the Madison UM Church.
    Thanks for sharing.
    We practically lived out there for 4 days or so...and loved every minute of it.
    Della Whitcomb

  4. Cory,

    Perhaps you'd consider posting some of your Jamboree pictures on the ArtsLive page of the Madison Area Arts Council Web site.

    Emyle Elliott

  5. Cory, I made it to your fair city this past weekend. We saw the big traffic jam on Saturday but drove on into Madison to help our son-in-law shingle his roof. We hit Prairie Village on Sunday. The announcers were saying that Saturday set an all time record for attendance and the Sunday crowd was equal to an average Saturday crowd. All in all a great weekend the weather was perfect.


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