The honoree of the 2020 Teton Antique Steam and Gas Association’s Threshing Bee, Ben Wombacher of Choteau, brings smiles to young and old alike as the conductor of the small train traveling around the grounds during the yearly event.
To his fellow TASGA members, Wombacher’s contribution goes way beyond just volunteering during the annual threshing bee; it encompasses his all-around dedication for the past 31 years.
Wombacher said he got in the group kind of by mistake. He was asked to help with a project and has been helping ever since. He has been a part of bringing the grounds to life and helping relocate almost all the buildings, from the one-room schoolhouse to the blacksmith shop, the community church and the print shop. He helped construct the roof over the sawmill and was part of the crew that took the Pendroy depot apart, moved each section and reconstructed it on the TASGA grounds into a machine shed. About the only building he didn’t help move was the depot; the group was just moving the depot when he joined.
Wombacher estimates he volunteers 100 or maybe 200 hours a year at the TASGA grounds. “I’m probably over there once a week in the summer and four days a week the three weeks leading up to the threshing bee,” he said, “and of course the two days (this year three) days of the bee,” he said.
For many years, Wombacher was the floater during the threshing bee, helping wherever he was needed. That changed when he transformed a 1954 Bolens lawn tractor engine into the railway engine for the children’s train. Other members of the club built additional train cars. He now maintains the train and spends all his time during the threshing bee giving rides. The train is free to youngsters 12 and younger, he said.
“I start about 9:30 a.m. each morning and give runs until we shut down each day,” Wombacher said. This year, the volunteers will be paying close attention to safety and taking extra precautions, cleaning between each ride on the train.
“It is fun to see the faces of the kids when they go for a ride,” he said. He also said there are plenty of fathers and grandfathers who bring their children or grandchildren to the threshing bee to share history of agriculture. “Some of the fathers remember their dads or grandpas bringing them,” he laughed. He went on to say the threshing bee is certainly a family event. “It is a good place to look back at the beginning and see how things were done in the past,” he said.
In fact, Wombacher was one of those dads. He took his son, Cody, to the threshing bee when he was about 10 years old. “I believe it was the second year of the bee when it was held at Ove Larson’s property,” he said. “We went that year and I have gone every year since.”
Cody was active in the club from then he until he left for college. He helped run the model train. Cody and his wife, Autumn, and their daughter, Calli, now live in Victor, Idaho. Wombacher said his granddaughter enjoys the train when she comes to visit in the summer, along with swimming in the Choteau swimming pool.
Wombacher, who is married to Vickie, is a native of Colorado. He has lived in Choteau since 1973, working as a mechanic. He worked for Abbott Massey Ferguson Tractor and Ear Mountain Machinery before co-owning WW Exchange with Harvey Wilt. From 1994 until his retirement in 2014, he worked for Greyn’s Fertilizer.
He said a big part of volunteering with the group is the friendships he has made both locally and around the state. “The Teton doesn’t stand for the county but Teton River Basin,” Wombacher said. “There have been members from around the state, Conrad, Missoula, even a couple from Washington state,” he added. “They come from all over to enjoy the couple days we gather.”
He was humbled to be honored at this year’s threshing bee. “It shows they (his fellow members) respect what I have done and me as a person,” he said. “It is nice to be recognized for something I enjoy.”
Wombacher invites everyone to come and spend a little time at the grounds this weekend and if you’re a youngster, maybe take a little ride on the train.