With so much no-till taking place in the Midwest, one might think plowing is becoming a lost art. But not in the town of Big Rock, Ill., population 651. For 111 years, farmers from miles around have converged there every September to pit their tractor plowing skills against each other in judged competition at the annual Big Rock Plowing Match.
At one time, plowing matches were commonplace in Illinois, but Big Rock has been the lone survivor since 1976, when the Wheatland Plow Match in Naperville ended. The site of that event has since been developed with homes and businesses.
Big Rock, however, is not about to go away. The plow match association owns the fairgrounds where numerous events similar to the offering at a county fair take place during the competition weekend. And Marvel Davis, owner of the field plowed each year, has promised it will always be available to the event.
If there's a concern the plowmen might follow the path of the horse-drawn plow, never fear. This match has categories for youngsters to keep them interested in the art once practiced by their great-great-grandparents.
At the Big Rock contest, pre-teen youths operate antique tractors from their grandfathers' era, competing years before they'll even have driver's licenses. Tommy Lambert, 9, hopped on his father's 1946 Case for the first time in 2004, and last fall plowed in the Novelty (not judged) class to gain some experience. "I think he did better than some of the people who were judged," says his father, Brian. Tommy's brother, Paul, placed fourth in the Boys and Girls 15-and-Under class.
Trent Pierson, 13, Kaneville, Ill., placed second in the Antique Steel class, competing against two veteran contenders with his dad's 1929 McCormick-Deering Model 10-20. This was his second year in competition. "I made it harder for him," says his father, Dale. "I set up one stake at each end of his lot and none in the middle, and told him to see how straight he could plow. It was good enough to place second."
Eric Lehrer, 14, Big Rock, never thought much about tractors or farms while he lived in Aurora, a city of more than 170,000, 15 miles east of Big Rock. But life changed when his dad lost his corporate job. The family bought an 8-acre farm where they raise milk cows, sheep and grow produce.
When the Lehrers needed a tractor, they opted for a 1939 John Deere Model A and a 1920s vintage John Deere Model B plow, and Eric learned how to drive. He has been competing for about four years, and last fall won second place in Boys and Girls 15-and-Under, and fourth in the Antique Rubber class.
Plowing can be new even for adults. Chuck Roberts, Big Rock, had never lived on a farm or driven a tractor when, after watching a match about eight years ago, he decided it would be fun to compete. He bought a 1936 Farmall F-12 and joined the action. He didn't place in his class (Antique Rubber) last fall, but took second in the Farmers Open.
For several years, the event has been marked by a bit of friendly family rivalry. Tom Evans of Big Rock, with a McCormick-Deering 10-20, competes against his brother, Paul Evans, also of Big Rock, who drives a Farmall F-12. Last fall, Tom took first place in the Antique Steel class, and Paul came in third. Paul, though, took first in the Prize Winners class, closely edged by Tom in second place.
Howard Anderson of Elburn took home the gold last fall as top plowman, a title he's held for the past several years. Driving his 1939 John Deere Model AR, he also won the Expert Plowman Sweepstakes and Antique Rubber class.
Contestants in the two-day event use two-bottom plows, most of which were built before 1950. Contestants are graded on mastery of five skills and can earn up to 100 points. No one has ever managed a perfect score. "Although plowing talent is very important, you also need a really good plow," says Craig Thomas, a plow match board member.
Contestants draw numbers to determine the area they will plow. Each plowman is issued a set of 5-foot stakes that he (or she) and a helper use to mark off the first row. The driver follows the stakes, hoping to stay in a perfectly straight line that will be the guideline for successive passes. Contestants have three hours to complete their plot, making seven passes in each direction along the 300-foot length. Most finish within three hours; points are deducted for late finishes.
Plowmen can accept help in adjusting their plow on their first run down and back. After that, it's "every man for himself." Contestants stop frequently to measure their furrow to ensure it's within the allowed 5 to 7 inches. They often make minor adjustments, moving plow blades up or down a notch at a time to get the depth just right. As the blades slice through the soil, they take on a shine like highly polished chrome.
When all plowing is complete, a group of nine judges ranging in age from 40 to 80 visit the fields to get a first-hand look and judge the entrants' plowing. "The back furrow is the most important," says Craig Thomas. "It's worth 25 points out of a possible 100. Two other categories are worth 25 points each, one other at 15 and one at 10." Each group of three judges is assigned two categories to judge: a 25-point category, and a 15- or 10-point category. Each judge scores each field for his two categories. All scores are then combined to determine a final score for each plot.
"None of the plots have the plowman's name on them, but the judges know most contestants so well, they can often tell who plowed which plot," Craig notes. "There are no biases among the judges. All are active or retired farmers, or people who have been involved in farming all their lives."
The plow match takes on the atmosphere of a county fair, with a ladies fair, junior fair, grain and vegetable show, western and English horse show, arts and crafts, antiques, horseshoe tournament, carnival rides, contests and games, 4-H beef show and auction, train and pony rides, and a pedal tractor pull. It's a classic fall tradition in Big Rock. "People come and go throughout the entire weekend," says board member Thomas Ludwig.
For more information: - Plowman's Park is located on Hinckley Road in Big Rock, which is on U.S. Route 30, 5 miles west of State Route 47 and about 60 miles west of Chicago on Interstate 88. The 2006 event (the 112th annual match) is planned for Sept. 16-17.
Lyle R. Rolfe has been a newspaper reporter/photographer for more than 40 years. As a freelance writer and photographer his work has been featured in Classic Cars, Cars & Parts and Rural Heritage magazines, among others. Contact him at 2580 Wyckwood Court, Aurora, IL 60506; (630) 896-2992; e-mail: Lrerartr@Comcast.net