Is the Symco Weekender America’s best hot rod show?

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Given its unique surroundings, long event list and slew of cars, could the Symco Weekender be America's best hot rod show? | William Hall photo
Given its unique surroundings, long event list and slew of cars, could the Symco Weekender be America's best hot rod show? | William Hall photo

A huge variety of traditional hot rods? Check. Evocative buildings and Industrial Age machinery as a backdrop? Check. Vintage camping alongside a cool, lazy river? Check. Pin-up girls and greasers? Check. Good food and cheap beer?

I think we have a winner.

The annual Symco Weekender provides an immersive hot rod lifestyle experience each August at the Unionville Thresheree grounds in the small town of Symco in north-central Wisconsin. This year’s event took place August 10-11.

For those not living in flyover country, a thresheree is a huge party where all manner of steam, water and gas-powered contraptions that harvested or processed this country’s agriculture during the early years of the Industrial Revolution are fired up and made to run amidst much glee.

The 33-acre property has a working water-powered grist mill, a saw mill and a steam-fired powerplant featuring some of the world’s largest operating antique Fairbanks-Morse engines.

Vintage motorcycles sit in the shade of an old schoolhouse at the annual Symco Weekender. | William Hall photo
Vintage motorcycles sit in the shade of an old schoolhouse at the annual Symco Weekender. | William Hall photo

A firehouse and police station, a working blacksmith shop, a general store, a town hall and a spired church are among the other vintage structures that have been relocated to the grounds from throughout the county.

But any stage is only as good as the players, and the rockabilly lads and pin-up lassies that populate the retro campground, swap meet and sprawling car show are nattily dressed in pre-1960 attire.

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Capping the pageantry, the Miss Symco Pin-Up Contest brings in competitors from around the region to strut their mid-century themed outfits for the crowd’s approval.

“It’s all about people getting together once a year to take a step back in time,” pin-up girl Gina Walber, who goes by Gina Continental, said. “The Symco Weekender gives adults that childlike-feeling of revisiting the town they grew up in.”

Honkytonk bands rock around the clock as spectators lounge in bleachers watching minibike drag racing. When the sun gets a little too hot, they grab an innertube and float in the Little Wolf River. By dinnertime, they’ve temporarily retreated to their elaborate, vintage campsites for tiki cocktails and barbecue before heading out for a night of Rockabilly music at the music hall.

The event is family friendly, as the whole complex is essentially a hands-on museum of America’s rural past. There are no rope lines keeping the kids from cranking the hand siren on the fire engine or weighing themselves on the floor scale in the grist mill. If they are big enough to ride a minibike, they can line up and race in front of the crowd on the dirt drag strip. It’s the kind of gritty fun and discovery that seems to be missing from childhood these days.

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William Hall is a writer, classic car broker and collector based in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. He has spent the whole of his professional career in the automotive industry, starting as an auto-parts delivery driver at the age of 16 to working for some of the nation's premier restoration shops. He is a concours judge and a consultant to LeMay-America's Car Museum in Tacoma, Washington.

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