Big Smoke – Director’s Essay


The old-time threshing shows of the northern plains are among the finest examples of living history in all of North America—“living history” meaning the reenactment or recreation of historic events and activities by knowledgeable and dedicated citizens of the present. Quilters, buckskinners, military reenactment troupes, these are all practitioners of living history. The practitioners and perpetuators of old-time threshing, however, are distinguished by several things.


1.      They hold and perpetuate specialized knowledge about a particular aspect of the past. To operate a steam engine or a stationary separator (threshing machine) takes know-how, not only of the technical sort (how to run the machines) but also of the cultural sort (how people organized themselves around them).


2.      They have wonderful historical artifacts, and some of them are huge. The restoration, care, and exhibition of steam engines, threshing machines, and the other mechanical wonders of times past requires investment, expertise, and dedication. It is not a casual commitment.


3.      They delight in presentation of their historic interests and artifacts to the public. Their machinery collections are not private stashes for their own enjoyment. They are created and showcased to educate and delight the public.


“Big Smoke” is a documentation and outreach project of the Center for Heritage Renewal, North Dakota State University. Its purposes are to


1.      Gather and publish directory information about old-time threshing shows.


2.      Document the history and culture associated with old-time threshing.


3.      Promote public appreciation of these events as a distinctive feature in the heritage of the northern plains.


Center staff gather and publish directory information, while student researchers do the documentation of history and culture. Students in HIST 431, The North American Plains, attend threshing shows, gather documentation in the field, and conduct library research to establish context. Center staff then process their reports into this website presenting the threshing show tradition to the public.


We of the center believe that the big smoke of old-time threshing is an undervalued and under-utilized heritage resource of the region. We encourage citizens and travelers to discover this distinctive heritage experience. Have some hearty food, talk with some knowledgeable operators, and get involved. Just ask – one of those guys likely will be willing to let you take a turn with a pitchfork. Leave the engine operation, though, to the experts!



Big Smoke \ Center for Heritage Renewal