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Who will keep the memories alive at Pioneer Village?

Photos by Tom J. Bechman replica of a pin barn built at Pioneer Village at the Indiana State Fairgrounds
MORE THAN AN EXHIBIT: This replica of a pin barn, built several years ago at Pioneer Village on the Indiana State Fairgrounds, houses animals and is visited by thousands each August.
Once this generation passes, will the next generation step up?

One of the must-see places at the Indiana State Fair is Pioneer Village. It doesn’t matter if you grew up on a farm or live in downtown Evansville, or if you are 7 or 70 — you can find something to pique your interest there.

That’s because Pioneer Village is so much more than a museum of old agricultural equipment.

It’s important to preserve horse-drawn equipment, one- and two-row planters, and hand scythes for cutting grain so people never forget that blood, sweat and tears turned Indiana soils into some of the most productive in the world. Pioneer Village is so much more than old relics. It’s a spirit of the past portrayed by people in costume of the times, doing what pioneer craftsmen did — cut wood, grind corn into meal and stitch quilts — all as people watch. Volunteers reenact farming activities of the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s by threshing grain, baling straw, sawing logs and chopping cornstalks into ensilage.

Ellsworth Christmas recaning a buggy seat

MASTER CRAFSTMAN AT WORK: Ellsworth Christmas, a longtime retired Purdue University Extension agronomist, is a master at recaning this buggy seat. Who will do this work 20 years out?

The Hoosier whose dream became Pioneer Village, Mauri Williamson of Economy, is no longer here. His name and likeness are on the pin barn, but after a good life, he passed on. Many other volunteers who wear bib overalls and make things tick at Pioneer Village are older than me, and that’s saying something.

Bring on volunteers

Gary Emsweller, who heads up managing Pioneer Village, is himself a retired Purdue Extension educator, still doing a great job but not getting any younger. When interviewed for a story about Pioneer Village before the fair, he first ran down a list of who might not be back to help this year, because old age or illness was catching up with them. It sounded like an injury report for the Indianapolis Colts!

Don’t get me wrong, plenty of volunteers came in 2021, from all over the country and even abroad, to participate in this one-of-a-kind celebration of agriculture. “Reenactment” isn’t the right word — it’s more real when they fire up the steam engine and operate the Red River thresher to thresh oats and bale straw.

But here’s why I’m hoping younger generations will step up, volunteer and keep this spirit of community alive. When I first watched a crew thresh grain at Pioneer Village, it was some 50 years ago. I’d never seen a threshing ring, but my dad was part of one. When I saw my first threshing, it was barely 25 years removed from when threshing rings still operated. Now it’s 75 to 80 years removed. People today who see threshing when they’re 12, 15 or 21 have no direct tie to what it was truly like.

It’s an appreciation that must be handed down from generation to generation, and it can only happen if the generation that remembers is still around!

Consider if volunteering at Pioneer Village is in your future. Someone needs to tell the story of threshing rings when the 100th anniversary of the last threshing ring, somewhere around 2045, occurs. Otherwise, a piece of Indiana ag history and spirit will be lost forever.

Comments? Email [email protected].

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