Steam Power Display, Somerset, Virginia


The Annual September Pasture Party Display is organized and put on by the Somerset Steam and Gas Association in Somerset Virginia.  These events are commonly known as Steam Fairs, most of which are put on in the United States and United Kingdom with a very few in other countries.  Though I have seen this event advertised in central Virginia newspapers over the years, I didn’t seem to get the ambition to attend the outdoor show less than an hour from my home.  This year was different when my retired golfing buddy Mike and his wife Marcia invited me to go along on a Saturday morning.  I recharged the camera and hopped in their car for a TravelGumbo photo adventure. 

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Our first stop was to the nearby Grelen Orchard a couple miles from the event where everyone was welcome to pick peaches at no cost.  Mike and Marcia picked a couple pecks and we then went to the event where the cost of entry was a $10 donation (children under 12 are free) to the association putting on the non-profit event which gets divided amongst rescue squads, fire companies, scholarships and charities.  It was a warm cloudy day with threatening rain, but it held off before we left in the afternoon.  Parking was in a local Orange County farm field with rows and rows of cars and pickup trucks with streams of families strolling for the entrance across the busy highway.  Local police were halting traffic to allow the pedestrians to make their way to the event field on the opposite side of the highway. 

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Once entering the large pasture, the smell of black smoke from coal fires of the steam powered engines filled our nostrils and watered our eyes.   Steam powered farm vehicles and machinery were running full speed and the dark coal haze exhaust fumes were blanketing the ceiling over the field.  This event was billed as a chance to see how steam power machines transformed America over a century ago.  The all day show featured antique steam powered tractors, a working sawmill, blacksmiths, threshing and bailing.  Steam plowing, a shingle mill, a duplicating lathe and corn chopping were also a few of the mechanized activities. 

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There are children’s activities, a “Bits and Pieces” section where machine parts and used tools are sold, and lots of local southern food stalls for the hungry and thirsty.  Also, there are tent canopies with live music, flea markets, arts and crafts, and antique vehicles.  My friend Mike got to drive a steam powered tractor around the grounds with Marcia giving him instructions.  Before departing they got to partake in the chicken tenders with Carolina sweet mustard sauce and an Italian sausage sandwich.  Some Steam Fairs are static displays like inside a museum where you can just look at the machinery, but the Somerset version shows most all of the machinery in action with farmers and operators working them in the manner of years gone by.  This action kept the attention of the younger generation attendees.

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Steam powered agricultural machines reached their prime in the late 19th and early 20th century replacing water power and animal power.   In the mid-1920’s, steam powered farm equipment gave way to the internal combustion engine that was improved during World War 1.   Though steam powered plows could plow ten times the area of horses in a day, they were expensive and cumbersome to use.  Once self-propelled tractors gained popularity, they also had drawbacks such as frequent boiler explosions and collapsing bridges under their weight.  Small steam powered engines on wooden sleds for mobility were developed for many other chores such as the pumping of water.

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The Somerset event is located at 14375 Blue Ridge Turnpike, Somerset, Virginia 22972.  A little over a two hour drive from the heart of Washington DC and one hour and 20 minutes from Richmond Virginia.  ATV’s are available to transport handicapped visitors around the event area.

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