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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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From My Window

Issue Date: July 31, 2019

Jane Thibodeau Martin

Recently I attended a tractor pull in the tiny town near our home. To give you Peshtigo readers some idea, Halder is about like Harmony was 20 years ago " a church, a sleepy bar, a ball field and a community center. That about covers it. But one weekend recently, it was rocking and I got to be there to enjoy it.

Due to the fierce storm on Saturday, a tractor pull was rescheduled to Sunday, alongside a kid's baseball tournament, also impacted by the storms; and in the community center, a pancake breakfast fund raiser sponsored by the local snowmobile club. Once we exited church at 11 a.m. it was a veritable traffic jam in this normally quiet backwater.

We decided to get some lawn chairs and take in the tractor pull. I counted about 60 tractors, and a nice crowd composed mainly of friends, neighbors and families of the competitors. And because I have now lived here a year, I can happily put names to a lot of these faces.

Most of the crowd, little kids and senior citizens prominent among them, was focused on the competition results as tractors of different weight classes pulled the weight sled down the dirt track. A crew of about five men groomed the track, announced competitors and results, ran the weight sled and flagged the pulls. Little to no wasted time or dead space, and each tractor was running and in place when its turn was announced.

My first thought was that the people running the competition knew what they were doing, and the competitors were prompt and organized. It was nothing like the multi-day horse shows I attended for years with my daughter when she was competing " where nothing started or stopped on time. It used to drive me to distraction that we'd be idling back at the barn after her event was estimated to start 45 minutes late; about the time we untacked her horse and settled in to wait we were notified to be ringside in 5 minutes. Hours and hours of boredom followed by ten minutes of exhausting frenzy to arrive on time for her slot was the rule.

But I spent more time thinking about the history of what I was watching. The tractors were, overall, a vintage collection. Many were built in the 40's " during the war years. The oldest present was a 1929 John Deere " telling me that our garden tractor comes from an extremely venerable lineage. But unlike polished antique cars at a car show, most tractors did not sport immaculate paint. In fact, many looked pretty rough around the edges " flaking possibly original paint was common. These were not fancy show tractors, they were well-loved and well-used beasts of the field, working machines.

I was struck by the gyrations needed to drive the tractors. The bouncy, metal seats had no backs to ease the tractor driver's backsides " and I imaged a day of work in the fields would have been pretty hard on the farmer's spine. It took a lot of strength and reaching to operate the shifters and other controls " leaning and yanking because ergonomics were not a priority for the manufacturer. Some shorter people were stretching on tiptoe to run their tractors. The "man" had to fit the machine; the machine was not flexible to the man.

The tractors were loud, too, as they strained to pull the weight sled. It explains why the old farmers are often hard of hearing. It is more and more common for me to notice farmers and those just mowing their yards to be wearing hearing protection " a smart precaution.

My brother-in-law pointed out some rare tractors " one manufactured by Montgomery-Ward, and several "Co-op" brand tractors along with a Cockshutt. A few guys stood around oogling these rare beasts but these unusual tractors generally looked like the more common ones " like they'd been standing out in a field for 70 or more winters, which some of them probably do.

There were several extended family members competing with their five or so family tractors, and one grandson competing grandpa's tractor. I was also pleased to note one young woman competing, and holding her own. These are family events, and it seems no one likes to sell an old tractor out of the family. I think most of these competitors no longer farm for a living, although some may; but they have real affection for their metal companions and beam with pride when an operator's skill prevails in a weight class. Because make no mistake, this is not solely about horsepower. The tractor driver's skill makes a huge difference in who prevails.

In a very real way, these same tractors, and the farm families who operated them, made a difference in World War II. Their efforts fed the families of the United States as well as the military personnel fighting in far-flung theatres. They would not have been able to do what they did with horses and horse-drawn equipment; we don't think often about their contribution but it was critically important to the resolution of the war. Pretty hard for a soldier to fight on an empty stomach.

I'd like to think these country events will continue for the next century. The old tractors look like they are up to another 100 years. I just hope the country people here in Wisconsin keep the fire alive in their hearts to keep competing them.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.


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