Back to the Farm Reunion celebrates 50th anniversary

Thursday, September 5, 2013 | 11:27 p.m. CDT; updated 5:48 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 6, 2013
Missouri River Valley Steam Engine Association attracts residents from across the state to the 50th annual Back to the Farm reunion.

COLUMBIA — Wheat turns golden brown with age. Hair turns gray. Metal machines become rust red when time and the elements take their toll.

As endless seasons change, the new becomes the old.

If you go

What: The 50th Annual Back to the Farm Reunion.

Where: Brady Farmstead Showgrounds in Boonville. Exit 111 off of I-70.

When: The Reunion goes through Sunday. Information about specific events can be found at the website of the Missouri River Valley Steam Engine Association,

Cost: $10 for four-day wrist band, $5 on Sunday, free for children younger than 12.

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On Thursday, the opening day at the 50th annual Back to the Farm Reunion in Boonville, something like the opposite occurred. Brown wheat bore fresh kernels. Gray heads sported young smiles. Obsolete machines roared with new life.

Jeff Pewitt, 56, stood a few yards in front of his 1920 Russell 25-75 steam tractor. Pitchfork in hand, he and his friend Shelly Lomen shoveled bundles of wheat stalks into the antique thresher his tractor was powering. Their friend Valerie Bruns kept the tractor chugging along, throwing wood into its firebox.

As they worked, the thresher spewed unwanted chaff out in a golden swirl, into a big pile on the ground. The sound of the new chaff hitting the pile was like a heavy rainstorm. The kernels were diverted into a nearby grain truck.

Coughing, Pewitt stopped work and walked back toward his tractor. Some of the chaff had gotten in his throat.

"She's a powerful little gal," he said.

Pewitt has loved steam engines since he was a kid. Since his grandfather in Washington, Iowa, introduced them to him when Pewitt visited his farm on summer vacations.

His grandfather had been too young to operate a steam tractor, but he was fascinated by them. He thought they were "the cat's meow," Pewitt said.

His grandfather always said that the Russell brand was the best, so when Pewitt got the chance 16 years ago to buy the machine he currently owns, he leaped at it.

The machine was a bit of an antique even at the time of its manufacture in 1920. Steam power was already on its way out by then. Pewitt's engine is numbered 16,902 and he says that Russell only made a little over 17,000 steam tractors during its heyday.

Pewitt lives in Finley, N.D., and works as an agronomist for a grain elevator there. Before that, though, he lived in Columbia for more than 30 years and never missed a Back to the Farm Reunion. He loved the event so much that he served as president of the Missouri River Valley Steam Engine Association, the organization that puts on the Reunion, for a couple of years.

"A lot of good ole folks come to these things," he said. "I've made a lot of good friends here over the years."

As far as the engines themselves are concerned, he loves the warm memories they provoke, but there's more to it than just that.

"I enjoy the machinery of it," he said. "Each one of these old gals has a personality of their own."

There's also the issue of what Pewitt feels steam engines can teach the public about this country's past. These tractors might be outdated now, but there was a time when these demanding machines were cutting-edge technology.

"They make me appreciate how hard our forefathers worked to make this country great," Pewitt said.

Roy Koirtyohann agrees. It was his father who once owned the grain truck Pewitt had been using earlier. One of the main reasons he's been involved for more than 25 years with the Back to the Farm Reunion is his firm belief that younger generations could benefit by being introduced to old ways of doing things.

"It's a history lesson," he said about the event. "It's living history."

That history extends beyond just steam engines.

Koirtyohann, for instance, operates a sawmill at the annual event. It's a job he's had since 1987. Now, at 82, he can't work all day like he used to, but he's still having fun.

"It's a helluva lot of work," he said. "If I didn't enjoy it..."

The Missouri River Valley Steam Engine Association has around 200 members, about 50 of whom are very active, Koirtyohann said.

The organization is "dedicated to preserving, restoring and demonstrating significant items in the history of agricultural mechanization," he said.

Although he admits that many of its members "have been having birthdays for quite a while," Koirtyohann is hopeful for the future of the organization and the reunion, pointing out that he was training a much younger person to take over his sawmill duties.

If Pewitt and Koirtyohann seemed eager to spread history's hard-earned lessons, others just came because they liked tractors.

Marcus and Bernice Evers were two such visitors. Marcus is a tractor enthusiast, and his brand is Allis-Chalmers. They are from Mary's Home, Mo., which Marcus described as a "little poke and plumb town."

"Once you poke your head out the window, you're plumb out of town," he said with a smile.

He wore an orange Allis-Chalmers shirt and hat and had come with the hope of procuring another shirt. Unfortunately they were out of his size.

The Everses usually come to the Back to the Farm Reunion every year, Bernice said.

Marcus inherited his particular love for the Allis-Chalmers machines from his father, who was a farmer.

The Back to the Farm Reunion will run through Sunday and features daily flea markets and tractor parades, along with other special events.

Supervising editor is Stephanie Ebbs.

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