‘Born as farmers’: threshing festival keeps traditions alive

One of the competitors in Sunday’s tractor pull. Arthur White-Crummey/Daily Herald

Hubert Smith pitches sheaves of wheat into an old Dion thresher, filling the air behind him with clouds of chaff.

It’s not unlike the machine he worked with 65 years ago, when he was just 16 years old. The thresher was far from efficient, and he had to keep up a brisk pace.

“You had a full two rows going steady all the time,” he remembers. “And if you started to slow down a little bit, the fellow who was looking after the machine, he might give you a hand or he might just tell you, ‘c’mon pick it up!’”

It was 1953 when his family’s farm got their first self-propelled combine. But Smith kept coming back to the old technology. Last weekend, hundreds of onlookers joined him at the Vintage Power Machine Threshing Festival – an annual event for nostalgic farmers and those eager to carry on their traditions.

Hubert Smith by a Dion threshing machine from the 1930’s. Arthur White-Crummey/Daily Herald

“We get a lot of older people here who like to relive their past,” said Percy Halliwell, curator of the Vintage Power Machine museum just southwest of Prince Albert. “The younger people, they have an opportunity to see what it was like 50, 60, 70 years ago.”

Halliwell is pleased to see the festival’s most popular event return after a two year hiatus. Twenty-three vintage tractors competed in Sunday’s tractor pull, hauling thousands of pounds along a dusty field – one after the other – until their front wheels bucked up into the air.

Paul Rybka, Reeve of the Rural Municipality of Prince Albert, brought his 1954 Cockshutt 40 Deluxe out to play. Vice president of the Vintage Power Machines club, he’s been competing for 14 years.

For Rybka, antique equipment has the allure of simplicity.

“This is simple mechanics; ordinary people can fix it,” he said. “These things can sit in the bush for 40 years, you can pull them out and have them running.”

The key to success, he said, is old worn tires that “put more rubber on the ground to grip.” It seemed to work. When all was said and done, Rybka took home three trophies.

The festival also featured rope-making demonstrations, an old-fashioned sawmill and a fully operative blacksmith’s shop. At the anvil stood Ramsey Rude, twisting red-hot metal into a decorative spiral. The 18-year-old got his start smithing with Hubert Smith, who taught him the old ways of working iron.

“His grandpa brought him too me and said ‘can you train this guy to blacksmith? He’s got the mind to it.’ And he was sure right,” Smith said. “He can make anything I can make.”

Ramsey Rude pounds away on red-hot metal during a blacksmithing demonstration Sunday. Arthur White-Crummey/Daily Herald

Rods of iron sat in glowing embers. Whenever the heat began to wane, Rude moved to the forge and slowly turned a crank.

“This is what feeds air into it and keeps it going,” the young man said. “I have a vacuum rigged up to do that for me at home, but here we do it like this to show the people how it was done the old days.”

Rude has no plans to go into blacksmithing as a career. “Hardly anybody can make a living out of this anymore,” he said. The old days, he admits, “were pretty rough.” With the skills he’s learned, though, he thinks he could have gotten by.

“At least I would have fit in,” he said.

Rybka said the club needs people like Rude. “Most of our members are seniors,” he said, and we would dearly like to get more young people into this kind of stuff.” The museum, he said, helps draw tourism to the RM. It needs another generation to keep it going.

“This is the heritage of the people of Saskatchewan,” he said. “We were born here as farmers, this is our past, and we want to keep it alive for future generations.”

Wayne Wodnoski manned the sawmill demonstration on Sunday. Arthur White-Crummey/Daily Herald