Bobby Barnes always felt there was something missing while he was growing up on his father’s 70-acre farm in Mills River, not far from Etowah. “My father said the farm was too small to own a tractor, so we never had one,” Bobby was saying one recent Saturday morning. “He brought in people who already had their own tractors, or horses sometimes, for the plowing. But I grew up always wanting to have my own tractor.”Bobby has a dozen of them now, one of them the bright orange 1953 Allis Chalmers he’d brought to the monthly tractor pull organized by the Mountain Men Tractor Pullers Association. The 50-horsepower rig named Ol’ Peaches would be among the 20 or so burly machines, all of them pre-1960 rigs in the club’s Antique Tractor category, waiting to take to the track at the far eastern end of the WNC Ag Center’s grounds in Fletcher.
Linda McDowell, the Association’s secretary and the organizer of each month’s pull, is busy getting things ready for the day’s event, which would involve tractors of increasingly large size and horsepower entered in weight classes starting at 3,000 pounds and going all the way up to 12,000 pounds, in 500 pound increments. “That’s the weight of the tractor itself, plus the weights added to it,” Linda explains to a novice as she bustles up and down the Association’s 300-foot, pounded dirt track. While the lighter classes rarely drag a weighted sled more than 30 feet, the heavier machines can roar and bounce their way well over 250 feet (although club rules forbid the front wheels rising more than 18 inches off the ground). “You get ten points just for hooking up to the sled, and then you get so many points depending on how far you pull,” Linda goes on. “It goes from ten points for placing first down to one point for tenth. It’s pretty simple.”What’s not so simple is the man and machine power needed to staff the pulls. One mammoth tractor and driver have to haul the sled back and forth between the starting line and wherever it ends up after each pull; another tractor trolls up and down the track to grade it smooth after each pull. Someone has to ride on the sled itself to operate its changeable gear system, so that the steel block travels the appropriate distance along the sled for each weight class during a pull. This same person, who this morning happens to be Linda’s husband, also reports the distance traveled according to a rotating wheel attached to the sled’s gears.
There’s a man with a green starting flag and a red one to signal the end of each pull, three recorders in the secretary’s booth, and someone to man the weighing station that’s a necessary stop before each tractor rolls onto the track. Linda fills in wherever she’s needed and announces each contestant’s results. All this unfolds against a blue-smoked background of roaring engines, diesel fumes and the whine of airplanes landing at the airport just across Route 25 from the track.
The organizational skills are impressive, given that the MMTPA is a strictly local group, with only about 30 paid members, unaffiliated with either the United Pullers of the Carolinas or the National Tractor Pullers Association. The NTPA was organized in 1969 to bring standard rules into play for what are still mostly rural, widely scattered events that had their origins in the competitive spirit of farmers eager to show off the strength of their draft horses. Pullers’ lore claims that, in a pre-mechanized age, each horse would be harnessed to a barn door laid flat on the ground, with onlookers jumping on until the door became too heavy for the animal to drag. The first mechanized pulls came along in the 1930s, using the same tractors that worked the fields during the week, giving rise to the mantra “Pull on Sunday, plow on Monday.”By the 1960s, tractor pulls had become a popular enough pastime that special machines were set aside solely for that purpose, like Bobby Barnes’ Ol’ Peaches, which he uses only for pulling. “The tractor just has to have what they call a stock appearance,” Bobby explained, implying that most everything else about the tractor was the owner’s business. Like most of the pullers present, Bobby does all the work on his tractors himself, drawing on his 30 year career as a mechanic for DuPont. In the 4500 pound class, one of three in which Bobby and Ol’ Peaches competes, his machine pulls 28.4 feet before straining to a halt, its tires turning and digging into the dirt.
Most of the tractors being used this morning were John Deeres, which is partly due to whatever dealership is most successful in any given area and partly due to tradition. “It just means that’s what their Daddies had,” claims Anne Whit of Travelers Rest, who is one of three women competing. She herself has brought a 30-horsepower, shiny-red 1947 Cockshutt, a Canadian model popular in the Midwest. Anne had only been pulling for three months and had gotten the bug from her daughter. “It’s terminally addictive,” admits Anne’s companion, Terry Lee, watching Anne pull in the 4000-pound class.
The youngest puller of the day is 11-year-old Ryan Ferguson, who lives most of the year in New Jersey but who spends every summer on his grandfather’s farm near Cherokee; and who, with his red-checked shirt and mop of straw-colored hair, is only lacking a Lassie to complete the picture of the all-American farm boy. “I learned off my cousin about pulling,” Ryan said. “This is only my second time.” Even so, Ryan manages to pull a more than respectable 23.4 feet in the 4000 pound class with his 1949 Farmall, its brilliant raspberry housing sprinkled with glitter and sparkling in the sun.Maybe one day, Ryan will compete in the Championship Tractor Pull at the National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville, Kentucky, held each year in February and billed as “the granddaddy of indoor pulls,” where modified tractors can be powered by aircraft engines and prize money can top $200,000. Traditionalists object to what they see as an effort to turn tractors into oversized dragsters at these kinds of events, the low point in their eyes being 1988, when a tractor with no fewer than seven engines was allowed on the track.
Somewhat more sedate are the NPTA’s own championships each summer in Bowling Green, Ohio, the site of one of the first mechanized pulls and somewhat of a shrine for puller enthusiasts. The NPTA’s event is governed by some of the safety rules it helped pioneer for more high-powered events, like roll cages, fireproof suits for drivers and prominently mounted lights indicating when a pulling vehicle shifts into gear from neutral.
What those big-time events can’t match, though, is the convivial atmosphere of the kind of small-town pulling organized by the MMTPA, the kinds of events where newcomers like Ryan Ferguson and Anne Whit can show off their tractors, and where Bobby Barnes can fulfill a childhood wish; where hot dogs and homemade desserts can be shared along with admiration for each other’s handiwork in the gleaming chrome and flawless paint of each other’s machines. It’s where even someone as crucial to each event’s smooth operation as Linda McDowell gets to strut her stuff, pulling with up to 8000 pounds in her 1956 John Deere, parked beside the secretary’s booth and ready to go. “My husband gave it to me for Christmas and we worked on it all winter to get it ready,” Linda says, proudly patting the sturdy metal of her baby. “Isn’t it just beautiful?”
The next Mountain Men Tractor Pullers Association Pull will be held October 28 at the WNC Agricultural Center, 1301 Fanning Bridge Road. Call
828-687-1414 or visit