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Antique tractor pulls -- a rev’d up tradition

By Faith Anderson

Before the invention of the tractor, farmers competed in community pulling contests in order to prove they had the strongest, hardest working horse in the neighborhood. Those were friendly, informal competitions in which someone would provide a large wooden slab, or perhaps even a barn door, to which each horse in turn was hitched. In those early contests, hay and even boulders were used as a stationary load that each horse would attempt to drag along a flat, measured distance. The horse that pulled the load the farthest without stopping was declared the winner and its owner earned bragging rights until the next neighborhood event.

Rod Davis and his son, Kevin, have participated at antique tractor pulls together for 10 years. They are pictured with one of their more popular tractors, an Oliver 990 diesel. This machine brings plenty of engine noise and exhaust to any tractor pull and has proven to be a fan favorite. Photo by Faith Anderson

Eventually, a greater challenge was needed, and someone came up with the idea of adding more weight as the horse moved forward to make it increasingly more difficult and more competitive. The added weight was achieved by having men stationed along the path who would, one-by-one, step onto the moving sled until the horse was no longer able to drag it forward. Imagine the balance it took to step on to a moving platform that is increasing in speed. No doubt, there were a few ankle sprains and breaks as horses lunged and jerked along.

Fast forward to the year 1929 when farmers competed in similar pulling contests using tractors. They found the noise and the smoke attracted spectators who would pay for the opportunity to watch their neighbors compete. By the 1950s, small towns and county fairs were featuring tractor pulls on their list of activities. The tractors used in weekend competitions were the standard farm vehicles that were back to work the next day, pulling equipment, hauling feed and cleaning the barns. In their early years, the National Tractor Pullers Association used the motto, “Pull on Sunday, plow on Monday.”

In the early 1970s, things became more sophisticated and tractors were customized for the purpose of competing. New classes were added, allowing them to be adapted with increased horsepower, strategically placed weights and various other changes to the original build of the tractor.

Today, the average event includes four or five classes that are restricted by horsepower, speed, weight and other customizations. Still popular however, is the antique category. Although limitations vary by event, a tractor must be 40 years old or older to be included in this category, which is further restricted by specific weights and speed classes. There’s only one age restriction for the driver, however. In many area events, drivers must be at least 12 years old.

Tractor Pulls aren’t just for the guys. Nineteen-year-old Hailee Becker of Kensington waited in line, ready to drive her dad’s Minneapolis Moline at a tractor pull held this summer. Photo by Faith Anderson

Steve Czech of Starbuck lived near Royalton growing up and attended his first tractor pull with his dad at the Benton County Fair. “I think that’s where I got hooked,” he said. Today, he and his sons, Quinten and Clayton together own a 1941 John Deere A and over the years have entered it in a number of local antique tractor pulls in the area. The tractor, previously owned by his grandfather was used to farm 300 acres back in the 1950s. “I’ve done lots of mechanical work on it over the years and added some weights to the front end,” Czech said, “but it’s got the original paint.”

Today’s tractor pull events are a bit more sophisticated and even use digital technology to accurately measure the distance pulled by each tractor. Czech remembers when stakes pounded in at intervals, a tape measure and discerning eyes were the tools used by track officials to make final measurements.

At an event, a tractor is connected to what is called a skid which has a weight transfer system that automatically moves a set of weights closer to the tractor as it moves forward. The tractor’s operator will, after getting a green flag, begin dragging the skid, being careful not to exceed the speed limitation specified by the class into which the vehicle has been entered. Most events provide a groomer and a packer to be pulled over the track to firm up the surface between pulls. Skids are owned by private individuals or companies who travel from event to event all summer. They are paid by the event’s organizers through the collection of participation fees. Those fees average around $20 per hook. One regional skid company, located in Kandiyohi County, listed 35 different events on its calendar this summer, starting in May and running through September.

All venues create their own lists of rules for participants. There are limits as to the height from the ground to the top of the hook point, distance between the center of the tractor’s back axle to the hook point, limits to the amount of weight that can be added and where those weights can be located. In addition, there are tire and overall weight restrictions. Tractors must be weighed and re-weighed before each pull during a given event. “There’s a bit of geometry involved when figuring out how to maximize your pull,” said Czech. “That’s what makes it fun…it’s not all about horsepower.”

Kevin Davis attempted a pull with his 1938 John Deere B, a small tractor that was introduced in the 1930s to fill the needs of row-crop farmers. It’s estimated that it had a nearly 20-year production run with over 111,000 John Deere B tractors produced. Photo by Faith Anderson

The combination of restrictions and customizations makes it a unique challenge for many individuals but it seems that it’s the competition and camaraderie that bring many participants back to the “battle” again and again. Those who participate in many pulls a year get to know other enthusiasts and share tips and tricks. “It’s always a learning process,” said Czech. “Each track is different and even the same track will see conditions change from early pulls to those later in the event.”

Rod Davis of Starbuck has been participating with his son, Kevin, for nearly 10 years and recently brought home a trophy, pulling with a 1938 John Deere B at the Pope County Fair. “I enjoy the competition and the anticipation leading up to a few minutes of excitement,” Rod said. “And it has just turned into a great hobby that I can do with my son.”

In order to please a more diverse crowd, many events now include categories for old tractors, newer tractors, semi-trucks and even lawn tractors. Some events have been known to have a women-only class, although anyone can pull in any other class. Running an event is time consuming and takes a lot of individuals and organization to do it right. Recently at the Pope County Fair in Glenwood, start time was scheduled for 3 p.m. and nearly six hours later, they had registered 215 pulls using two skids.

Steve Czech posed recently with his 1941 John Deere A, sporting its original paint. The tractor belonged to his grandfather before Czech and his sons became its owners. Photo by Faith Anderson

Dewey Nordman, 74, of Willmar, was born and raised on a farm, helping with fieldwork and driving his dad’s tractors at a young age. As an adult, he owned a skid for 15 years and traveled to various festivals and fairs. “I met some wonderful people from the five-state area over the years and just loved being involved,” he said recently. “Now, I just enjoy the competition and the bragging rights!” He began participating as a puller in 1995 with his 1952 G John Deere, and this year was planning to pull at the Kandiyohi County Fair with his Case 300.

Antique tractor pulls remain popular with spectators as well. On any given weekend in Minnesota’s small towns and at county fairs, people of all ages gather. They sit in bleachers and grandstands for hours to hear the roar of loud engines and to see raw power at work. Occasional waves of exhaust fumes pass through the air as they nibble salty popcorn with family and friends. When the trophies are all handed out and every tractor is trailered for the trip home, devoted fans compare event schedules and make plans to do it all over again.

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