Great tractor ride kindles farm memories
Before I get started, I need to issue a disclaimer: I know almost nothing about tractors and farming.
That said, let me add this: I think farms and tractors are really cool, and I have for decades! And both are forever connected to the State of Iowa.
I grew up in Waterloo, in a cozy neighborhood called Highland, on the east side of town. But my aunt and uncle, Helen and John Dreessen. lived on a farm near Reinbeck, and it was a real treat to go visit them through the years. And to stay with them a week in the summers was a wonderful experience. My cousin, Ron, was three years older than me and a great guy, so I really enjoyed my farm visits. The clean, crisp air was part of the attraction for me. I fondly recall tromping through the barnyard, listening to the various animals sounding off, and shooting my Red Ryder Bee Bee Gun at trees and birds (none of which I ever hit).
Bev, my wife of 40 years, grew up in a very strong farm environment. Her parents, Harold and Jackie Reiter, own farm land near Eagle Center, about 10 miles south of Waterloo, and raised 15 children on the family farm. When I first met Bev and visited the house, I loved the atmosphere and the setting. Harold and Jackie have lived on that farm for 60 years and are as active and vibrant as people half their age. I think the farm lifestyle has a lot to do with their attitude and health.
In addition, two of my biggest Iowa heroes have strong rural backgrounds. Frank Gotch grew up on his family farm three miles south of Humboldt in the 1890s, and became the world heavyweight wrestling champion in 1908, starting Iowa’s love affair with the sport.
And Nile Kinnick spent many of his early years on the Kinnick family farm, near Adel. Be sure and read the new column “Kinnick Comments” in this issue to see what Nile thought about Iowa farm life.
THESE THOUGHTS came to mind the three days of June 22-24 when the WHO Radio Great Iowa Tractor Ride came to Waterloo.
There were nearly 500 tractors headquartered at the Electric Park Ballroom parking lot, adjacent to the National Cattle Congress grounds in Waterloo that week. Imagine driving by the parking lot and seeing that many tractors “camped out.” There were tractors of every size, shape and color!
I pulled into the lot and tried to find out who was in charge so I could do a story for Iowa History Journal. All the volunteers were attired in bright green tee shirts, and when I asked whom I should talk to, everyone said, “Find Molly! She’s the one!”
Molly Pins of WHO Radio coordinated the entire venture, and was hustling around with a cell phone that was going off every few seconds. She carved out a few minutes to sit with me and chat, but the phone rang continually, and people stopped by to see her without pause.
The tractor ride began 13 years ago with just 60 tractors, and this year there were 627 drivers (some change off during the week) on 500 tractors. There were 17 workers, some paid but most volunteers. John Deere has been a title sponsor the past ten years. Molly never lost her poise – until I asked her how she does it. Then, she choked back the tears: “It’s the people, here and at WHO radio, and the riders and the families … Everyone! The policemen, the various sheriffs’ departments, highway patrol, the Department of Transportation. It’s so incredible!
“This is a ride that no one will ever forget,” she added. “There was bad weather most of the week, including severe storms that spawned tornado warnings. One of my favorite stories was of 30 riders going down Independence Avenue, on the far eastern side of the city under terrible skies, and a woman running right out on the street to wave the drivers into her yard.
“She said there was a tornado warning and they had to come into the basement at her house. They did,” said Molly, her voice cracking with emotion. “One guy even had popcorn and Kool-Aid for the drivers.”
At another point, a group was driving near Jesup when a pastor came out of a church, motioning for the drivers to pull over due to the weather. “He opened up the church. It was incredidle, about 200 tractors in the church lot. Later, the drivers took up a collection and donated $300 to the church.”
She paused, and added, “I cry all the time at this thing. The people are so wonderful.”
Her written statement inside the official WHO pamphlet said it well.
“Over the years, I’ve been asked many times why we do this Ride. My favorite answer came from a co-worker many years ago. She said, ‘It’s like summer camp for grown ups!’ I love the analogy. We come together for four days of fun and fellowship, then part ways again, many of us not speaking to one another until next year.”
I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Iowa’s tremendous farm legacy and history than The WHO Radio Great Iowa Tractor Ride!
(Mike Chapman is the publisher of Iowa History Journal. Born and raised in Waterloo, he retired from a 35-year newspaper career in 2002. He is the author of 21 books and is a public speaker. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton.)