People & Places

Explore: Mount Pleasant preserves farming culture, history

Thousands flock to Midwest Old Thresher Reunion each year

People demonstrate how a threshing machine (background center) processes stalks of grain at the Old Threshers Reunion. (Photos courtesy Midwest Old Threshers Reunion)
People demonstrate how a threshing machine (background center) processes stalks of grain at the Old Threshers Reunion. (Photos courtesy Midwest Old Threshers Reunion)
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Sometimes you don’t have to travel very far to go a long way back in time.

Take the town of Mount Pleasant, a railroad town, center of culture and birthplace of a two-term governor. Steeped in history, it was established in 1835, eight years before Iowa officially became a state. For a time it was known as the “Athens of the Midwest” for its unusually high number of schools. In fact, Iowa Wesleyan, established in 1842, is the oldest university of its kind west of the Mississippi River.

But despite the many educated young minds it exported in its early years, Mount Pleasant’s primary business was agriculture.

This long, storied history is celebrated on a campus of a different sort near City Park. The Midwest Old Threshers organization has established museums devoted to the implements and culture of rural life from the city’s founding to the more modern era of agriculture in the 1950s.

The celebration of this culture culminates in the five-day Midwest Old Thresher Reunion, an event that draws thousands of people to the area each year.

History on display

Open from Memorial Day through Labor Day, the Richard E. Oetken Heritage Museum is devoted to the history of rural America, from field to town to home. Exhibits include a display on traction steam engines, responsible for the “The Golden Age of Threshing in Iowa,” a recreated 1915 family farmhouse visitors can walk through, an investigation into the role of women on the farm, antique clothes, farm equipment and signage, an exhibit on old printing techniques, the most recent addition, a large collection of antique dolls.

Grant Davidson, public relations manager for the Midwest Old Threshers, said this vast variety of historic artifacts has grown over the years since the organization’s founding, which started as an endeavor mostly centered on threshing demonstrations using period steam engines.

All the exhibits since then have been added with the intent of keeping history alive for current generations and those to come.

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“I think it is very important to know where our farming heritage has come from and how much of a harder life it used to be during that time period versus today,” he said.

Across the street from the agriculture museum is the Theatre Museum of Repertoire Americana. This museum is devoted to one of the primary forms of entertainment for rural Americans of this era, as actors would bring performances to small towns housed in tents and opera houses.

David Ripper, president of Mount Pleasant-based National Society for the Preservation of Tent, Folk, and Repertoire Theatre, said repertoire or tent theater is part of a rich history of Midwestern theater entertainment that often is overlooked and is dying out today. At one time, however, there were hundreds of active repertoire theater companies in the United States, with Iowa boasting the most of any state in the nation.

“Iowa has a very long history with quality entertainment and supporting the arts, and I’d honestly like to think these early touring companies had a lot to do with it,” Ripper said.

These performances included original works and plays from the coasts, tailored to the tastes and values of rural Americans, Ripper said. Plays are still held in the basement theater of the museum, and just like their predecessors, they are suited for all ages.

“The farmers and their wives didn’t come in from the fields to go into a play, they had to bring the kids with them, so these plays had to serve the whole family,” he said. “They were often the big social events of these areas, something you could go to where you could see and be seen.”

The Big Reunion

Imagine all of the museum exhibits mentioned above, add several steam engines in action and several thousand fans of farm history, and you’ll get the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion.

“You get a taste during the summer if you want to come to the museums, and you get a big taste if you come to the Reunion,” Davidson said.

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The five-day event, which has taken place every Labor Day weekend since it began in 1950, is scheduled this year for Aug. 30 to Sept. 3.

Just like with the museum exhibits, there should be something to enjoy for every member of the family, Davidson said. He said there are more than 2,000 exhibits and attractions, including a trolley and steam train rides, a carousel, a tractor to drive, exhibits of gas engines, cars and trucks, steam engines, horses and, finally, an Old West town, an 1846 explorer post log village and more. Grandstand concerts and daily parades are all designed to help visitors make memories.

“This is such an amazing show to just learn about our heritage in the Midwest, and we make sure to keep it alive,” Davidson said.

Plan your trip: Old Threshers Reunion and Mount Pleasant

The Old Threshers Reunion: “Where memories are made”

  • Where: 405 E. Threshers Rd., Mount Pleasant
  • When: Aug. 30 to Sept. 3
  • Cost: $20 for multiday admission if purchased by May 31. Starting June 1, tickets are $30; Single-day admission $15; Kids 10 and under free
  • Details: (319) 385-8937, oldthreshers.org

The Richard E. Oetken Heritage Museum

  • Where: 405 E. Threshers Rd., Mount Pleasant
  • When: Memorial Day to Labor Day, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and noon to 3 p.m. Sunday
  • Cost: $5 adults, kids 10 and under free with adult; Group tours and rates available
  • Details: (319) 385-8937, oldthreshers.org

The Theatre Museum of Repertoire Americana

  • Where: 405 E. Threshers Rd., Mount Pleasant
  • When: Memorial Day to Labor Day; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday to Saturday or by appointment.
  • Cost: $5 adults, kids 10 and under free with adult; Group tours and rates available.
  • Details: (319) 385-9432, thetheatremuseum.com
  • Performances: This season, the museum will present “How Funny are People,” a play of the repertoire theater era. Showtimes 7:30 p.m. July 20, 21, 27 and 28 and 2:30 p.m. July 22. Tickets are $10 adults, $5 kids 11 and under. The play will be performed again during the Old Threshers Reunion.

• Comments: (319) 368-8956; stephen.schmidt@thegazette.com

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