Preserving the Lost Art of Tractor Plowing

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Eric Lehrer, 14, Big Rock, slowly rolls along, nearing completion of his seven rounds on his 1939 John Deere Model A.
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Trent Pierson, 13, Kaneville, Ill., guides his 1929 McCormick-Deering Model 10-20 down his first row as his father, Dale Pierson, adjusts the plow.
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Tom Evans plows the first row with his McCormick-Deering 10-20.
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Paul Evans, Big Rock, drives his antique steel Farmall F-12 as his brother Tom, also of Big Rock, adjusts the plow for him.
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Tommy Lambert, 9, Plano, grimaces as he pulls the rope to adjust the 1950s-vintage Case plow on his 1946 Case.
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Contestants are innovative when it comes to adding weights on their plows. An old engine head was used to add heft to this plow.
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Chuck Roberts, Big Rock, makes some adjustments on his plow blades shortly after starting out.
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Howard Anderson, Elburn, turns the earth with his 1939 John Deere Model AR as a helper checks the depth of his furrow.
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Illinois

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

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