Some of them chugged, some clanked, some purred and a few even backfired and billowed smoke, but at the end of the day, 1,370 antique tractors — carrying faces teeming with excitement and adventure —paraded across the Straits of Mackinac via the Mighty Mackinac Bridge on Sept. 11.
Spanning 5 miles, the majestic suspension bridge affords this opportunity only once a year — this was the 14th annual Mackinac Bridge Antique Tractor Crossing and Show.
Once on the other side, tractor drivers with their more than 300 buddy riders continued through the Upper Peninsula town of St. Ignace with scores of spectators clapping, hooting, hollering, whistling and waving throughout the route to the downtown show area, Little Bear Arena.
“There is no experience like crossing the bridge like that. … It puts butterflies in your stomach,” says Travis Bishop of St. Charles, Mich., right after parking his dad’s 1944 International I-9 at Little Bear. It was his first time in this event, and he was not alone.
“We had a lot of newbies,” says founder Bob Baumgras, who organizes the event with the help of his daughter Becca Canze and several volunteers. “First-time drivers represented 34% of our total.”
While the event hasn’t changed a lot since it was established in 2008, it has broadened its appeal to younger people and women. “And we’re drawing from all over the U.S.,” Baumgras says. “There’s a lot of new people with new stories, which makes it unique each time. It used to be that once in a while somebody would come from Illinois or Iowa, but now it's a consistent flow from states even farther away, like Texas, Kansas, New York, Idaho, Pennsylvania — just all over.”
While some out-of-the-norm tractors garner quite a bit of attention, Baumgras says it’s really about people, family and friends getting together. “This is bigger than the tractors themselves,” he says.
From memories with Grandpa to tales of demise, decay, resurrection and restoration, antique tractor owners are enthralled with the history of these mini to mighty iron workhorses. The attraction goes much deeper than bolts and belts.
How it started
Baumgras, owner of Owosso Tractor Parts, came up with the idea several years ago and pulled off the first crossing in 2008 with 614 tractors. The event is capped at 1,500 tractors, and registration usually begins at the end of February. “There were 1,500 registered this year, but there’s always some that don’t show,” he says.
Grand marshals were Ron Koch and Ryan Martin, who were acknowledged for their long-standing volunteer work directing trucks with trailers and semis on where to drop off tractors in the staging area.
Tractors started arriving Wednesday morning at the staging area just east of Mackinaw City, but the event didn’t officially open until the morning of Sept. 11. A ceremony featured the American Legion, Coast Guard and National Guard, the raising of the flag and the national anthem. “A gentleman there whose son passed away on 9-11 gave the opening prayer,” Baumgras says.
To give back to the community, Baumgras’ team took donations and conducted a 50-50 drawing to raise $1,650 for the St. Ignace Food Bank.
Six school buses transported drivers back and forth over the bridge the morning of the event and then after to retrieve vehicles.
Once at Little Bear, attendees enjoyed a DJ, an ice cream social and tractor games Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning.
To close the event, about 170 tractors paraded one more time through St. Ignace on Sunday afternoon.
To learn more about the event, visit mackinacbridgecrossing.com or search for Mackinac Bridge Antique Tractor Crossing on Facebook. Click on the photo gallery that features many tractors and drivers.