Why This Labour Day Tradition Means So Much to My Family

Milton, Ontario's annual Steam-Era festival is an opportunity for us to celebrate our rural roots.

Our family’s story begins in 1913 when my grandparents, Ernest and Anna, were married at the Anglican church in Palermo, Ontario. They soon returned to Penzance, Saskatchewan, to work the family farm—a 160-acre parcel of land that had been granted to my great-grandfather, William Sr., in 1904.

In Penzance, the Rayner men purchased a 75-horsepower JI Case steam engine and, over the years, a threshing team was established to assist neighbouring farmers harvest their grain. Unfortunately, in 1922 my grandfather died of pneumonia, leaving my grandmother to raise their three children. Anna returned to the Boyne, Ontario, area following his death and built a home on a one-acre parcel of land that her brother severed from his own farm.

In 1947, my grandmother purchased a farm close to her in hopes that her children could make a good living. It was 100 acres of happiness, with fresh air, unique smells, John Deere tractors and work horses.

Helen Driving TractorCourtesy Helen Rayner
Helen behind the wheel of her sister’s John Deere tractor.

Growing up on a farm as one of four daughters, I learned to drive our John Deere tractors at an early age. My first opportunity and experience was with a John Deere AR model. It had a hand clutch that seemed hard to operate at nine, and I spent hours going up and down the fields. As each summer passed, it definitely got easier to drive.

Don’t miss this heartwarming story about what it’s like learning to drive on the farm.

Origins of the Milton Steam-Era Festival

In 1961, my father’s friends shared with him their interest and love for antiquities. These gentlemen had successfully managed “The Power & Steam” show at Les and Ellen Lowes family farm the year before. Collectively, they wanted to continue this success and show off their collections of steam engines, gas tractors and antique collectibles at the Milton Fair Grounds. At the time, it cost 75 cents to see these technological wonders.

My father, Gordon Rayner, became a core part of the show. So invested, in fact, that he first began working as the treasurer, then vice president and eventually, president. His longest-serving position on the board, however, was as secretary for 18 years. As the show grew, so did our family. By 1967, when Canada celebrated its 100th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, Dad was father to three daughters and our mom ensured that our family did their part to commemorate this special occasion by sewing matching red gingham dresses and bonnets for all of us to wear.

Growing up, I followed my dad wherever he went. I loved the chugging sound of the Rumely tractors and was equally as amazed at the rows of steam engines. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized the importance of our green tractors.

Whether it was bringing dignitaries through the downtown parade, giving rides in our Bain wagon, or participating in the threshing competition, our team of Belgian horses named King and Bill were known as the Steam-Era horses. King and Bill not only worked hard on the farm, they also enjoyed the steam show like the rest of us. It was fun for them to give rides to guests.

Threshing was a part of the show from the beginning. In the mid ’70s after a team from Saskatchewan challenged our farm boys to a competition, Steam-Era invited them to participate at the threshing competition during the show. By the end of the weekend, the western boys claimed victory and hoisted the trophy.

Losing was not something our Steam-Era members wanted their legacy to be defined by, so in 1978, they challenged the western team to a rematch. With the world title on the line, our team headed to Saskatchewan. Determined to regain the title, Allan and Jamie McBay, Bruce Davis, Dennis Webb, Allan Byers and William Rayner put on a tremendous show. After setting a record time for threshing, they became world champions. A record not challenged to date.

Every Labour Day, many of the same families reunite at the Milton Fairgrounds for the weekend’s events. Family heirlooms are pulled out of sheds, steam engines that have been restored and polished over the years allow Halton Hills to come alive. The day starts with a tractor pull, followed by live entertainment on the main stage. All of the steam engines at the show blow their whistles to indicate noon each day—a tradition that has continued over the years.

As a child, I looked forward to the Steam-Era festival—we became part of the Steam-Era family. These days, I love being able to continue these traditions with my girls.

Milton Steam Era Festival TractorHelen Rayner
That’s Helen’s mom, Muriel, and sister, Cathy, driving a Rumely tractor.

Passing the Torch

As time goes by, knowledge and experience have been passed down through the generations. Since my father chaired the threshing competition, his wisdom and experience helped me to continue this legacy. Many of our current members are third and fourth generations, something we are proud of.

As we celebrate Steam-Era this Labour Day, we salute Canadian ingenuity and the invention of steam engines, and proudly uphold the core values of integrity, commitment and innovation. Although my father has passed away, his passion and love for the show lives on through us. Our family legacy and love for John Deere tractors can be seen on display at the show. As I drive around on my John Deere tractor with my two girls, I tell them to look up. Papa is smiling down on us.

Next, read the sweet story of a farm truck that was truly one-of-a-kind.

Originally Published in Our Canada