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Saving Marriages and other delights of antique tractor pulls

Article by Wallace Williams

Old Machinery – July 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

MOST PEOPLE THINK OF SUMMER as a time for gardening, traveling, boating, fishing, camping, hiking, biking, sightseeing, and generally doing things outdoors. There is, however a rapidly growing family activity offering travel, entertainment, food, camping, and 15 minutes of fame packed into a minute and a half. Obviously, it is Antique Tractor Pulling.

Gone are the days of the stereotypical tractor puller, a farmer driving his John Deere into townin his bib overalls, to hook up to an ancient sled where weight is added in increments by bystanders hopping on to increase the weight. In reality very few farmers want to put part of their livelihood at risk on the weekend when they are going to need it on Monday. More often, the typical tractor puller brings his tractor to an event on a trailer. The wife and kids are along as competitors, hoping to show the old man up. The wife or girl friend usually has a better pull than the husband; it’s Murphy’s Law.

Before there were tractors, farmers competed with horse pulling. Weights were added to a sled until the horses could pull no more. When tractors replaced horses, the sled was still used, and weights were added at intervals until the tractor stalled or spun its wheels. That was fine with horses because there was not a great weight difference with horses, but as tractors evolved, the weight and horsepower increased. The little tractor didn’t stand a chance.

The culmination of bigger and bigger is the monster tractor pull, where all the tractors are modified for top performance at great expense. It boils down to a case of he with the most bucks gets the best pull.

On the other end of the spectrum are the antique tractor pullers. Their tractors are limited to those manufactured before 1953. A further distinction is made according to weight to equalize things, and then a split between those manufactured between 1939-1952. These are classified as classic. Older than 1939 are classified as antique. It all sounds complicated, but it isn’t. What it all boils down to is a bunch of people with a bunch of old tractors, getting together for a friendly competition over one or two days.

Antique tractor pulling is a very casual activity. The motto of the local engine club, coined by Slim Loop is, “If you can’t smile, you can’t pull.” The biggest reward is getting a ribbon, an occasional trophy, and bettering one’s previous pull.

The pulling sled is what tractor pullers work against. It is a modern version of the hay sled with people jumping on at intervals. Briefly, a tractor pulling sled has a large water container which moves up an incline to put more weight on a “shoe.” A shoe is a piece of metal which slides along the ground increasing resistance as the water tank moves up the slide. Just how far the weight moves up the incline is measured in increments of ¼ inch. The inch measurement has been converted into the number of pounds pulled by a sophisticated computer program (4 lines in BASIC). This weight is divided by the tractor weight to come up with a percentage.

For example. suppose a tractor weighs 4,000 lbs. And the inch measurement on the sled reads so many inches which corresponds to 4000 lbs. on the computer readout, then the tractor has pulled its own weight or 100 percent. Percentages over 100 are very common depending on the conditions of the track.

He who pulls the best percentage wins. When a tractor pulls a hundred feet or more, ¼ of an inch doesn’t appear to make much difference, but this ¼ inch can make the difference between first and not placing.

Eight years ago there were two sleds in the state. Now there are at least five. On most summer weekends, there is a tractor pull someplace in Colorado. There are no cash prizes, but ribbons and sometimes trophies are awarded as well as recognition for the highest and lowest percentage pull, and maybe the ugliest tractor award.

So what is the big attraction for this activity? This goes back to sandbox Psychology 101, the theory of placation and appeasement. The wife or girlfriend and kids get a weekend vacation with a slight detour to the nearest tractor pull. Everyone gets to compete with the husband, and if he is smart he will lose. The lawn and outside housework wait another week. All the time spent in the garage in the wintertime restoring the tractor while the family car sits outside under a foot of snow is forgiven. Heaven only knows how many marriages have been saved by an antique tractor. Many husbands and wives have his and her tractors and pull in the same class. This can become a sticky wicket if the husband maintains both tractors.

It doesn’t require the national war debt to get into tractor pulling. Start small, then grow as experience is gained. A little tractor weighing 2000 to 4000 lb. can be a good beginning, but make sure it is model year 1952 or older. There are books which have serial numbers for most tractors which will give the year they were made. There is also a book on current prices for used tractors including auction tractors.

Next, go to auctions to get a feel of what the prices really are. Tractor dealers can sometimes cut a deal because older tractors are not very useful for the real farmer, but they may make up for the sale price by selling parts.

Now that the rusty wreck is sitting in the back yard or hopefully a heated garage, restoration can begin. Never say salvage, for this is a diamond in the rough. For information on what to do next, contact the local antique engine club or do a internet search. At last count there were over 1000 websites related to antique tractors. There is an engine club in Salida; see the end note for information.

After a small second mortgage, the newest member of the family should be ready for a weekend trial run. Get to the tractor pull early. The officials really don’t like late entries. Kids over 12 can usually pull with a parent walking along side. Whether the puller gets a blue ribbon or low percentage of the day, there is always next week, and so it goes throughout the summer.

Wallace Williams lives outside of Nathrop and is a member of the Arkansas Valley Flywheelers, the local antique engine club. The Flywheelers have their own sled, put on tractor pulls around the state, and have a display of antique engines as well as a tractor pull at the Chaffee County Fair the last week in July. For information contact Wayne Stone at 719-539-4870 evenings, or John Troutman at 719-539-5472 or e-mail