The Old Thresher’s Steam Whistle: Four Generations of Dewees

It started in the fifties when H.D. Dewees, a farmer from Marion, Iowa, was on a trip to Florida. On the way home he went by a Navy shipyard and, unable to contain his interest in machinery and all the activity, stopped for a tour. It just so happened that a big steam ship, known as a Liberty Ship, was being decommissioned and torn apart. H.D. noticed the big steam whistle from the ship. Being an avid attendee and participant of the Old Thresher’s Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, he asked if he could buy the steam whistle.

“Well, sure.”

Each year, the Dewees had their own steam engines at Old Thresher’s–a Stanley Upright and a Russell. He asked the Old Thresher’s Association if they would like to have the big ship’s steam whistle.

“You betcha.”

So the big steam whistle was mounted on a building and hooked up to the main boiler. It became tradition that each day at noon, while the Old Thresher’s Reunion was in session, the steam whistle would be blown. Its shrill scream can be heard for miles, and would alert the steam engines in the Cavalcade of Power to blow their whistles. As an honor one time, H.D. Dewees was given the privilege of blowing his own whistle.

While in Mt. Pleasant for Old Thresher’s the Dewees would eat at Jerry’s Restaurant and stay at a nearby motel. Friendly people, they got to know Jerry and Lea Bradley, owners of Jerry’s Restaurant, quite well. Jerry Bradley was always a little envious of the Dewees because they were able to attend Old Thresher’s. Jerry, being the main cook at his restaurant, was always too busy feeding hungry threshers.

One year the Dewees’ motel reservations fell through and the Dewees were left without a place to stay. Everything in Mt. Pleasant was full-up. Lea Bradley overheard the conversation and said they could stay with her and Jerry. The Dewees have been staying there ever since.

H.D. Dewees and his wife, Helen A., passed away. But his son Earl and wife Dana, from Maryland, kept up the tradition of coming to Old Thresher’s each year, and showing the family’s two steam engines. Of course, they stay at the Bradley’s. Earl, now 81, had been coming to Old Thresher’s since he was 12. For the first time this year, he had the joy of blowing his dad’s steam whistle.

But Earl and Dana are getting up there in years and it’s hard for them to maintain their family’s steam engines. So, they asked their son and two daughters if they would like to carry on the tradition.

“Well, sure.”

So now, son Tom and daughters Molly and Emily are taking over the controls and maintenance of the two steam engines. But wait. Their kids, who would be Earl and Dana’s grandkids, and H.D. and Helen A’s great grandkids, love it too. So, the tradition, the legacy, and staying with the Bradleys and extended family, carries on into the fourth generation!

One more thing: Jerry’s Restaurant closed a couple of years ago when Jerry became too ill to keep up the cooking responsibilities. So, he now has time to go to the Old Thresher’s Reunion. This year, for the first time, Jerry was able to attend Old Thresher’s. He was driven around in a golf cart, but by golly he got to go and see what it was all about. There’s talk that next year, Jerry might get the privilege of blowing the Dewees’ steam whistle, proclaiming to the world that Mt. Pleasant, Iowa has the greatest Old Thresher’s Reunion of all!


Call or text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at 319-217-0526.


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