Blyth Steam show a blast from the past
Erupting relics, 600 trailers and fiddling into the night
Time took on a different meaning to the folks who roamed the sprawling grounds of the 62nd Annual Blyth Steam Show and Threshers Reunion held in Blyth last month. Oh, they surely moved faster when a nearby steam whistle unexpectedly erupted with a raucous blast. And all heads turned when a multitude of whistles simultaneously screeched out their throaty announcement at noon.
“Hurry,” itself, would violate the inherent nature of the reunion. People come to gaze and reflect on the big iron machines that powered the country a century ago. Crowds stand and gaze at smoking steam engines powering an ancient hay press or cider press or singing sawmills. An operating threshing machine stole the show with its fascinating array of belts, pulleys and spewing straw and grain pipes. Standing downwind of that machine with the bite of that dust in one’s nostrils can make the nose run while releasing a flood of memories of being crammed in a suffocating wood-sided granary using a wooden push board to shove grain into every corner…
What magic, what power is it that brings such a crowd back to Blyth year after year to absorb these sights, sounds and smoky smells from our farming past? Folks watch blacksmiths poking at their glowing forges and tirelessly pounding out ironcraft on their anvils.
A glimpse of that drawing force came to mind while observing a ½ scale Goodison steam engine lazily puffing out smoke and steam as it powered a 1/3 scale, fully operational Goodison threshing machine, both built by Bill Jackson of Wyoming. As an employee at the Goodison factory where these threshing machines and steam engines were manufactured, Bill felt compelled to invest years of painstaking craftsmanship producing his own miniature version of both the Goodison steam engine and thresher.
Bill carved the wooden molds for casting many of the parts needed to build his own model steam engine. After Bill’s passing at the age of 96, his sons Brian and John still demonstrate their father’s handiwork.
Brian Jackson told of a tragedy at the Goodison plant in 1917 when a fire broke out and consumed 200 threshing machines. Such a loss was immense but the owners rebuilt and continued supplying this necessity to their customers far and wide.
Just across the way from the Jackson display was an immense, diesel oil engine which at one time powered the feed mill in Varna. Currently owned and displayed by Wayne McBride of Kippen, this 9-ton monster cranked out 57 HP from a one-cylinder engine with a 12” bore piston and 20” stroke, running at 275 RPM. Built in England in 1930, this engine ran day after day grinding and mixing livestock feed until it was retired and replaced with electric power in 1978 by mill owner Frank Roth.
After 48 years and countless hours of run time, it never had a major rebuild but still runs as smoothly as ever. Perhaps, in part, the engine’s longevity could be attributed to the careful maintenance of long-time mill operator Norm Smith who, according to McBride, would “get cranky if he didn’t have time to clean it up at the end of the day.”
The bandstand and bleachers prove that there’s much more than antique and classic machinery to keep the people entertained as strains of live country music drift across the grounds. On closing day, the crowd was held enthralled by classics such as “A Single Yellow Rose” performed by the Country Versatiles from Exeter, led by singer-guitarist Gerald Davidson who serenaded the crowd for 4 hours, non-stop. Many sat and listened while others danced the Foxtrot.
The Reunion provides camp sites for up to 600 trailers and its popularity is obvious as early in the week campers begin to arrive from far and wide, many returning yearly to enjoy meeting old friends and playing fiddle music into the night.
Modern-era technology has assumed the work done by these relics from yesteryear. But if these old machines and tools still draw crowds together and satisfy a communal need, is their time of usefulness really over?