Curtain falls on the square dancing tractor troupe
Eight farmers from Nemaha, Iowa, developed dances using Farmall tractors for their community’s centennial celebration in 1999. The production developed into a 10-year stint of paid performances at events across the Midwest.
You might consider square dancing: That’s what eight Nemaha, Iowa, farmers did when they put their vintage Farmalls to work with the Farmall Promenade. The group’s final performance last August closed a 10-year run.
“We always said we’d stop when it wasn’t fun anymore,” says Damon Mooney, who organized the group in 1998. “It’s still a lot of fun, but we’ve all decided it’s time to move on. A lot of people are saying they hope we change our mind, but 2008 was our last year.”
The promenade group made its debut in 1999 at the Nemaha centennial celebration. Since then, the group has traveled as far as St. Louis to perform. Members hauled their tractors on semi-trailers and chartered a bus so they could travel together to performances, including several at the Iowa State Fair. Their story has been featured on “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America” and “CBS Sunday Morning.”
The precision required to “dance” with antique tractors, bringing tires as close as 2 inches apart, demanded hours of practice. Once the eight drivers gained experience with the dances and the driving, regular performances (generally, 12 to 15 per year) kept the edge on “dancing” skills.
“We never had any serious mishaps on the tractors,” says group member Dave Cook. “A couple times someone bounced off or slid off, but no one was ever hurt. After a while you learn how everyone else drives and that helps too.”
Damon had seen a similar group perform at the Early, Iowa, 75th anniversary. In 1999, he thought reviving the idea might be a real hook for his community’s celebration. “I didn’t know exactly how to go about it,” Damon says. “I knew one of the guys who was in the first one so I went to see him. We talked quite awhile and I got some ideas and started putting it all together.”
Laurie Mason-Schmidt was the group’s caller and her expertise contributed to the group’s success. Choreography on a small scale added polish: Toy tractors were used to develop dance routines, all of which were adapted from actual square dances.
“We set up the toy tractors on a table and went through the dances and figured out what we could and couldn’t do,” Damon says. “We’ve been told by people who are members of square dance groups that our routines are very authentic.”
Four of the eight dancers dressed in shirts and cowboy hats. The other four dressed like women. The “couples,” whose names were linked to seed companies, were known as Mr. and Mrs. Pioneer (Dave Cook and Lynn Smith), Mr. and Mrs. Garst (Damon Mooney and Jeff Smith), Mr. and Mrs. Wilson (Lance Wedeking and Mike Wattier) and Mr. and Mrs. DeKalb (Neil Wedeking and Russ Davis). Neal Johnson and Jim Combes were substitutes.
“I don’t think we really ran into any major hurdles,” Damon says. “Once we got started, it just seemed to keep going. We started out with just four dances and then added more so that our final programs were an hour and 15 minutes long.”
Even though the dances brought tractor tires within inches of each other, the group never experienced any major accidents. Outside of bouncing into one another once in a while, performances went well. “If someone did make a mistake during a performance, we knew each other and the routines well enough that we could keep it going anyway,” Dave says.
None of the tractors had power steering, but that didn’t keep the drivers from making plenty of tight and fast maneuvers. “You get used to it once you’ve done it a few times,” Dave says. “And it was somewhat easier because we didn’t have any equipment hitched to the tractors, so there was no weight on them. We kept the pressure in the front tires pretty high too. When you spend that much time together, you get to know how the rest of the group drives and that makes it work smoother.”
Although their fans are disappointed, the men say it’s time for them to close this chapter of their lives. “We’ve had a lot of praise and people tell us what a good job we do,” Damon says. “They wish we wouldn’t quit, and that’s to be expected when you enjoy something. You hate to see it end.”
Old iron, though, endures. “I’ll be putting my tractor in the shed for now,” Dave says. “I think every one of us is keeping our tractor. They were a pretty big part of our lives for 10 years. It’s kind of bittersweet, but the memories will live on.” FC
Watch the Farmall Promenade in action on Farm Collector’s YouTube channel with Iowa Public Television’s video: “ Iowa State Fair - Farmall Promenade Square Dancing Tractors .”Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. E-mail her at email@example.com.