MENNO POWER SHOW: FULL STEAM AHEAD
STORY & PHOTOS BY JEREMY WALTNER
Thirty-five years after it debuted at the Menno City Park and 26 years after moving to a more accommodating acreage purchased by the Menno Power Heritage Association (MPHA) a half-mile north of town, the Pioneer Power Show unfolded once again last weekend.
And if the 36th annual event held Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 24 and 25 suggested anything to the hundreds of exhibitors and guests who took it all in, it’s that Menno’s grandest to-do just keeps getting grander.
“Gate looked good,” said Daniel Harnisch, chair of the MPHA, the organization that took the event to an entirely new level in 1996 after purchasing the farm ground that would become known as Pioneer Acres, the 50-acre home of the Power Show. “They had a hard time finding places to park everyone.”
Saturday, in particular, was another level of busy as throngs of people took advantage of perfect early-fall weather and experienced all the Power Show had to offer — small engines and big demonstrations, vintage cars and tractors, games and activities for children and plenty of other things to do, see and experience.
“Just good people,” said Chad Gortmaker, an enthusiast from Canistota who has been coming to the Power Show every year since 2010. “Lots of fun equipment always shows up and there are plenty of neat things to see.”
And the seeing is every bit as important as the doing, he said.
“There’s so much work to be done,” Gortmaker said. “Some shows you just have steam engines where they’re boiling water. Here we put then in the sawmill, put them in the threshing machine, put them on a plow and put the plow on the ground. We make things work.”
That’s not necessarily unique to Menno’s show, he said, “but it is one of the really neat things about it.”
As for working with the star of the show, Gortmaker exhibits the enthusiasm of a child.
“There’s just something about the power of steam,” he said. “You have a hand-fed machine, everything is manually controlled, and yet you have this immense power behind it. It’s just a real joy to see manual labor turned into power like that.”
“There’s nothing like steam.”
That was, of course, the idea behind that first show held in conjunction with the Fourth of July celebration in 1987 that featured a 1916 Case 65 horsepower steam engine and a 1928 Avery threshing machine to go along with a display of antique cars and tractors.
“Seems like a little more than yesterday,” said David Mensch, who was instrumental in that first show and the growth that ensued in the years that followed. “They were smaller, for sure, when we were uptown, but guys would come every year, and then we’d catch another one. And it kept getting a little bigger and a little bigger. Then the land came for sale and it was a great opportunity to move and grow, and we took advantage of it.”
Today Pioneer Acres is a sprawling and picturesque property that is a hidden gem in Menno despite its obvious presence on the east side of 431st Ave. heading north out of town, anchored by a historic red barn and the white wooden church just south of it. There’s the Little Red Schoolhouse, the Carter Log Cabin, historic Utica Depot, a flour mill, jail house and sawmill, all of which help set the stage for the mission of the MHPA — to teach the future about the past.
And all of it represents the vast growth of the Power Show the past quarter-of-a-century.
“Now we’ve put our 24th structure on the grounds this year and we have full intentions of building a 40×80 museum, fully insulated, where we’ll be able to take smaller donations and collections that need to be keep in a clean and safe environment,” Mensch said.
Mensch said $50,000 has already been committed to the museum project, which may be built near the main gated entrance of the property and used for people to pass through on their way onto the grounds.
“Our goal has always been to offer historic items for display and education, and we would at times have a five- or six-year plan that invariable changed every 15 minutes,” he said. “And we’re always after diversity. Here we have something for the entire family and people come in the morning and they leave at the end of the day because they’re having such a good time.”
And, as Chad Gortmaker suggested, an appreciation for steam has always anchored the show.
“We’re doing the three basic things that steam engine tractors did back then, and that was plow, thresh and run sawmill operations,” Mensch said. “But they also did other jobs like rock crushing — whatever power was needed, that’s what they used them for.
“So why didn’t they survive if they were so good?” he continued. “They were high-maintenance machines that took a lot of people to operate. When gas tractors came along, where one individual could operate it, it was no longer necessary anymore.”
As is the case every year, the Power Show once again showcased featured items — Oliver Hart-Parr Tractors, Stickney Engines and Cadillac Cars. And Harnish said the display of those items was impressive.
“We had a very nice selection of Oliver Hart-Parrs — at least 11 of them — and they’re all approaching 110 years old,” he said. “We had eight or so Stickneys that are quite rare, as well, so we had a good variety of what people used 100 years ago.”
As for the show itself, putting it on is no small thing. As many as 400 volunteers are required to staff the grounds and there’s a tremendous amount of planning that goes on behind the scenes, whether it’s the church youth groups operating food stands or the Menno Community Club and its longstanding pancake and sausage feed each Sunday of the show. And that says nothing of the maintenance on the grounds.
We added a carousel building a couple years ago and now a picnic shelter to the north, and with all the buildings that are there, there’s a lot of upkeep,” Harnisch said. “Fortunately we have people who volunteer to paint, fix things, mow, general cleaning. The barn we rent out for meetings and family reunions, and the church occasionally, so those always get cleaned.”
And now, with the 36th show in the books, it’s not too soon to starting looking toward next year. The 2023 Menno Pioneer Power Show is set for next Sept. 23-24, with Case tractors, Case cars and Fairbanks Morse engines the stars of the show.