Threshing bee steams ahead as agrarian tradition

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Farm Forum

BUTTERFIELD, Minn. — The Butterfield Threshing Bee started with $100 and a 1916 Case steam engine.

Now the Bee is celebrating its 50th year of drawing about 15,000 people to a shady campground in this town of about 590 people as the steam engine that gave the event its start turns 100.

“It seems like it keeps growing; it’s become a real reunion,” said Howard Madson, president of the Butterfield Threshing Association.

The idea for the bee was born when Ned Gustafson, then the president of Butterfield Foods, raised the idea at a community club meeting. He mentioned a man who lived south of town and had a steam engine. Would people be interested?

A single afternoon of threshing in 1966 drew more than 10,000.

The event now stretches across three days, beginning with a tractor pull and bluegrass music at 5:30 p.m. Friday night, and features more than 200 tractors and an array of historic engines and machines.

In addition to threshing, the main attraction, the Bee features various shops where harnesses, shoes, prints and brooms are made, a blacksmith, wood carving and cutting, a barbershop, schoolhouse and numerous crafts, including corn-husk dolls and candles.

Using a wind-powered gristmill, flour is ground and sold. A children’s barn showcases chickens and other animals. People can scour for odd car and tractor parts during a swap meet Saturday. And there’s food and three large picnic shelters nestled along Butterfield Lake.

About 400 people from across Minnesota and neighboring states are expected to camp in the shady Voss Park campground about 10 miles west of St. James where more than 30 buildings have sprouted up in the 50 years since the event’s inception.

Organizers used the scant funds available for the first event to buy admission buttons, gambling there would be time to sell enough to cover the cost. They had about 20 antique tractors.

“We really didn’t have a heck of a lot but people came anyway,” said Wayne Kispert, one of the founding members who still volunteers as he can at age 88. “It’s amazing to me that we even got the thing off the ground. Most people had old machinery that they didn’t realize they had.”

Sanitation was a problem that first year. Organizers hauled in four outhouses. But with crowds thousands strong, that wasn’t near enough.

“The cornfield got pretty well taken care of during the show,” Kispert said.

Born and raised on a farm, Kispert’s family stopped threshing in 1946, purchasing a small combine. The changes to farming were profound, shifting the foundation of the farm all the way down to the number of women who toiled to feed farm workers.

The wheat and oats used in the threshing process at the Butterfield event are grown on a 12-acre plot on the south side of Voss Park.

A trip into an agrarian past seems to be the allure for the thousands of people who still faithfully make the trip to Butterfield as well as the roughly 500 volunteers.

“It’s like a family to me out here,” said Joyce Peek, 87, the former manager of the campground who still volunteers at the Bee, this year managing the general store and drug store. “It’s like watching my children grow up. I know what’s in every building. We’re very proud of it.”

Though there are other threshing bees, Butterfield’s Bee stands out from the crowd because of its scenic location as well as its demonstrations, she said.

“It’s much more fun to watch people make a broom than to buy one and sweep with it,” Peek said.

So few steam engines exist anymore that many organizers say interest and curiosity in the Bee will likely continue unabated. “Young people are getting interested,” said Jim Lepp, who’s been involved with the event since it began and whose father was on the original board.

“Nobody has a steam engine anymore. Steam is what’s really the star of the engine.”