Ever wonder what would happen if the entire modern day computer-chipped society would suddenly come to a halt?
It wouldn’t be good at all. The whole country, perhaps even the world would shut down – except for Unionville.
Unionville is a relocated, rebuilt and recycled community in rural Waupaca County, located in Symco, Wisconsin. Symco used to be called Unionville; you won’t find the name on a modern day road map.
At the heart of Unionville are dozens of working volunteers and about 150 club members who keep the place running throughout the year.
Don’t let a little rust fool you.
“I like rust,” says volunteer photographer for the club, Dan Brunner. “You never know what you’re going to find out there,” he said as we scrolled through his photos of relics located at Unionville, some in the tall grass, some in the open, well trimmed parts of the village.
Thanks to the Union Thresherman’s Club the town is a living, functioning time machine, a picture of how life was in rural America before we became dependent on China and other countries to do our work for us.
Manpower is the primary source of energy in Unionville, while coal, wood, steam, water, horses, kerosene, diesel and gasoline are also important elements of what happens in this little antique village.
The population of Unionville peaks every year during the last weekend of July, for the Annual Thresheree and National Antique Tractor Pull. This is the 44th year and the town is still growing.
According to Club President Gary Knuth, about 10,000 visitors attend the three-day event, and that doesn’t include the hundreds of unique exhibitors, volunteers and club members present to help make history come alive.
Knuth and his wife, LuAnn, who own a farm implement company in Hortonville, Wisconsin, connected with the club some 30 years ago.
“We set aside our vacation every year to come to Symco,” says LuAnn. “We enjoy it and we think it’s important to preserve our heritage. It takes a lot of key people to make it happen every year,” she explained. The club is as much a part of their lives as John Deer tractors.
Gary’s other pastime is collecting and restoring John Deer equipment.
A walk around his farm and business reveals that Gary is about as green as green can get, when it comes to John Deer.
“Things just sort of follow you home,” says Knuth, with a chuckle.
“It’s funny,” he said. “When we all get together we have so many collector friends that some are ‘red’ and the other half are ‘green’. We have fun with it,” explained Knuth. Just then his precious little girl Heidi, age 8, hit the door jam of his office door with her John Deer pedal tractor.
“Practicing?” I asked.
“Yep,” she said.
“Do you want to see my trophy from last year?” she said. “It’s up high and I don’t know if I can reach it.” Like a true member of the Thresherman’s Club, the little girl added, “I might need help.”
In a way, that’s how club members are recruited. And often that’s how things and people wind up in Unionville, America.
It’s a magical little place built by hard working people, collectively using their resources, knowledge and experience to get things done.
“The only thing we don’t have is a doctor,” says Dan Casey, a long time member of the club, as he extended his handshake and warm smile. “By any chance, you’re not a doctor are you?”
After a good round of laughter he added, “That’s ok, someday we’ll find one.”
LuAnn adds, “I think that’s pretty much how everything goes around here,” she said. “Volunteers, members and people out of the blue come forward to make things happen.”
Dan Brunner would agree.
He’s a retired computer technician who came across the club about 10 years ago. His pastime is photography. Naturally since he became involved with the Thresherman’s Club, Brunner has helped document and photograph the ever-changing landscape of Unionville.
“You might find yourself running a torch or something else you never did before in your life,” said Brunner. “They make you feel welcome and you’re always learning something new. That’s what drew me to the club. There isn’t anything these guys can’t do or build,” he explained.
That’s how America was built.
Merlin Becker, who was there for the first thresheree 44 years ago, still recalls the early years.
“I was at the first thresheree only because my dad knew the guy who had the threshing machine and my dad loved pitching bundles,” said Becker.
“They had an oil pull machine come to Symco from Bear Creek and it didn’t start, so he had it run all night right up town there in Symco by the tavern. There it ran, pum, pum, pum, all night long she ran,” he said with hardy laughter.
“Well then it quit on us, and we had no way to start it.” So they had the young Becker grab a belt and run with it in an attempt to start the old machine. “You run one way then they put it in gear, then you run the other way – well 44 years ago I could run,” said Becker. “My dad said you’ll never get it started on the belt, but we got it started.”
“We made several trips up to my father-in-law’s barn to get beer down there. We only had one load of grain and the oil pull gave off a lot of smoke,” explained Becker. “It was right there by Highway 22 and people could see something was going on, so cars started to pull in and pretty soon Riske Road was parked full,” he recalls.
After that Larry Werth and his father Dick Werth got the idea to start a show.
From there the rest is history.
Dan Casey also recalled the early days. He lives near the grounds and worked down there for a number of years before joining the club. “Larry told me it’s one weekend a year…well, it turned into all summer,” explained Casey as he laughed and let out a smile that revealed countless memories throughout the years.
As Casey, Becker, and Knuth told stories and relived the growth of Unionville, they stood around the counter top at Knuth Farm Implement. The little girl sat there upon her dad’s lap just taking it all in. It’s a place any kid in America would want to be at that moment. The stories, the laughter and genuine characters there made you feel part of something bigger than yourself.
The conversation turned to things found and collected over the years. I even shared a story of some old printing blocks I pulled from the dumpster years ago during a remodel job at the newspaper office.
“If you find yourself pulling old things out of the dumpster in hopes of making them work again, well then you’d fit right in with us,” said Casey. “You should come out someday.”
This year there will be a few more wooden type blocks in the print shop at Unionville.
The Unionville collection, its grounds and building continue to grow. Along with some additional machinery being put to work, this year, you’ll see blacksmith shop still under construction on the grounds. See the special section inside the County Post.