They’re Pulling it Together

It’s tractor-pull season in apple country

Phil Nesbitt in front of his Oliver, a brand of diesel tractor. A revolving band of regulars make the “Edneyville Motor Speedway” the place to be spring through fall.
Photo by Jack Robert

They arrive in the morning, on custom trailers hitched to trucks. Painted red, green, or orange, they are Allis-Chalmers, Farmalls, Internationals, and John Deeres. They’re old, but they’re clean. Antique tractors are simple: Give them air, fuel, and a spark, and they’ll run. At a tractor pull, they may win someone a trophy. 

Every second Saturday through August, a 250-foot dirt track gets prepped on land rented from the Apple Growers Co-op in rural Edneyville in Henderson County. “Edneyville Motor Speedway” is what Larry Phillips calls it. Phillips is a funny guy with an easy smile and white Oakley shades. He was President of the Apple Country Engine and Tractor Association, which sponsors the tractor pulls, for nine years. “I told them, the President of the United States only has to do eight years max,” he says. “I’ll give ’em one more year than that, but then I’m out!” 

“She’s a John Deere girl,” says Martha Phillips (right) about Niki Ward (left). “I’m an International girl … but we’re still friends.” The two women help organize registration and prizes.
Photo by Jack Robert

Last year, Phillips ceded his office to current president Thomas Glenn. Glenn now handles the delegation, but he also gets his hands dirty making sure the track is level and the holes are filled in.

Phillips, meanwhile, announces pullers (who pay $10 per hook) from the small wooden trackside booth. “Everybody likes to hear their name over the loudspeaker,” he says.

Phillips watches a monitor displaying data from the sled being pulled. It shows the speed and distance of the attempt. Two hundred feet is a “full pull.” If a tractor can make it that far before getting bogged down, the driver will be in contention for a prize. If more than one tractor hits a full pull, there is a “pull off” to determine the winner.

John Rhinehart stands by his Kubota. Many models and vintages are seen at the Edneyville Motor Speedway.
Photo by Jack Robert

Ray Metcalf, a weathered, white-haired cattle and produce farmer from Dana, N.C., is one of the original founders of this organization. Metcalf attended tractor pulls in the 1980s before measuring off 200 feet in his friend’s driveway, where he hooked a pan sled up to his tractor. In the spirit of “My John Deere will outpull your Farmall” the club was born, Metcalf says. Over the years, it’s grown to more than 100 registered members. 

Some pulls don’t allow tractors newer than 1964. Seeing how much pulling power someone can get from the older, non-turbo-charged motors is the point. “Farmers, back in the ’50s and ’60s, knew how to maintain tractors and get the most out of them,” says Metcalf.

ALL ACTION
Thomas Glenn, in black jacket behind the John Deere, is the newest president of the Apple Country Engine and Tractor Association, taking over from Larry Phillips. But he still spends a lot of time getting his hands dirty.
Photo by Jack Robert

There are 15 weight classes and 29 pulling rules. If a tractor goes over 4 mph, a horn blows. If a  second horn sounds, the puller is disqualified. “There’s no drinking or obscene talk,” says Metcalf. If someone breaks one of the rules, “there’s no ‘knock down drag out’ like at the car races, we just ask them to be considerate of others.” 

Keith Martin (who just turned 18) is one of the youngest pullers. He’s been coming to tractor pulls with his dad, Josh Martin, pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Hendersonville, since he was 11. “Because of the tractor pulls, [Keith] learned how to weld,” Josh says. “He can take the motor out, completely tear it down, put it back together and put it back in.” 

COUNTRY CASUAL
Spectator Adria and her daughters Evelyn and Rosie show up for some good clean fun.
Photo by Jack Robert

The pastor backs their 1950 Allis-Chalmers WD off the trailer. “We put it together and finished it late last night,” he says. 

“Good, clean fun,” says Keith, repeating what’s become the club’s unofficial slogan.

As the pulling starts, family members and friends sit on truck tailgates or in lawn chairs to cheer for their favorite tractors. Martha Phillips (Larry’s sister) and Niki Ward stand in the booth checking registrations and preparing the day’s prizes. “She’s a John Deere girl. I’m more of an International girl, but in the end we’re still friends,” Martha says. 

Ward’s been a club member for 12 years. “When [the tractors] get towards the end, the front starts to bounce. That’s what everybody likes to see,” she says. 

Tractor pulls give rural Southerners a playful way to share and appreciate their roots. North Carolina’s farming tradition has been declining. In 2020, the USDA listed 46,000 farms across the state, 7,000 fewer than in 2007. Some pullers buy tractor parts from small family farms that went out of business. 

Here at the pulls, as long as it doesn’t rain too hard, it’s all smiles and laughs. For a few hours, this patch of dirt will be the center of the universe for pullers and spectators. The pullers stand in a tight circle before the event begins. Some worry that the rain won’t hold off. Their workman’s hands are stuffed inside jeans pockets or crossed behind flannel shirts. Some will make it to the end of the track today and hear their name over the loudspeaker. Folks they know will cheer them on. The tractors they grew up with will keep running.

Apple Country Engine & Tractor Association, “Edneyville Motor Speedway,” 2298 South Mill Gap Road, Hendersonville. Tractor pulls run every second Saturday of the month through August and are followed by Fall Harvest Days tractor shows. To learn more, visit: AppleCountry.org or the group’s Facebook page, facebook.com/applecountrync.

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