A little rain wasn’t going to stop close to 1,200 antique tractor riders from crossing the Mackinac Bridge. Drivers bundled up and donned rain jackets for the 12th annual Mackinac Bridge Antique Tractor Crossing.
But that’s not all they were wearing Sept. 6 as they rode across the straights and cruised on through to St. Ignace, Mich. — there were plenty of smiles.
The rain wasn’t much more than just an annoyance, as riders and parade onlookers, many camped under umbrellas, waved and hooted.
This year, 1,310 tractors were registered for the ride, but the actual total of 1,168 tractors crossing was down slightly from last year’s 1,342 drivers and the 10th anniversary record of 1,466 in 2017.
“The number of tractors this year was more manageable than when it gets higher,” says Bob Baumgras, owner of Owosso Tractor Parts, who created the event and has organized it since the first crossing of 614 tractors in 2008. He says he expects the event, now capped at 1,500 tractors, to range between 1,200 and 1,500 each year.
“This event has never been about the numbers, as in number of tractors,” Baumgras says. “It’s about providing the opportunity to cross the bridge with an antique tractor.”
He expects participation to spike next year, as the Sept. 11, 2020, event surely will feature an even stronger patriotic presence than the ride already has.
The Friday morning opening ceremony is emotional for many of the drivers, as all engines are silenced. This year, Charles Schiel, a disabled Vietnam veteran, raised the flag, while all other veterans were asked to come forward to the flagpole. There, they saluted Schiel and the flag while Linda Withey sang the national anthem. “It’s a short ceremony, but with big impact,” Baumgras says.
The Schiel family is heavily involved in the entire event. Charles’s wife, Joanne, makes a quilt from wool produced on their Manchester, Mich., farm that she donates for the Saturday prize drawings, which were attended by more than 400 people this year. And Charles’ son John organizes the tractor games Friday afternoon with Ed Hansen of Greenville, Mich.
The ceremony also included the presentation of a Certificate of Special Senatorial Recognition signed by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and presented by one of his aides. It reads, “In recognition of presenting the 12th Annual Mackinac Bridge Antique Tractor Crossing. The event showcases Michigan’s rich agricultural heritage, which is both culturally and economically important to our great state.”
This year’s grand marshal was St. Ignace native Ed Reavie, who also is noted for starting the car and truck shows in the city.
“The grand marshal has always been someone who has helped with the event,” Baumgras says. “He really helped in putting me in contact with the right folks to make this happen. It’s those background people you don’t see that have brought something different to the table to help me organize the event.”
A good mix
Each year, drivers become more and more diverse, coming from all over the country, ranging in all ages and including more women. Baumgras notes drivers come from Texas, Minnesota, Iowa, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Alaska, Minnesota and Georgia.
“The Texas folks never stopped smiling all weekend,” Baumgras says. “They had the Lone Star flag flying, which is not something you see in Michigan every day.”
If there was an award for longest traveled, Larry Wheat from Soldotna, Alaska, would be a shoo-in, traveling 4,300 miles one way. It’s his second year crossing the Mighty Mac on a 1950 John Deere B that he stores in Michigan just for the event.
The night before the crossing, as the tractors rolled in just outside of the Mackinaw City staging area, Wheat told Baumgras he wished his wife would come. After confirming that she had Facebook, “I told him, let’s go live on Facebook,” says Baumgras, who has documented a lot of the event on Facebook videos. “He got the biggest kick out of that. Not only did his wife get to see everything, he was getting several text messages from grandkids.”
Once across the bridge, tractors were staged at Little Bear Arena in St. Ignace for a public viewing Friday and Saturday.
Friday’s tractor games, to name a couple, included a timed race riding an antique tractor a short distance at Little Bear Arena. Drivers get off and dress up with the supplied garments — a bra, scarf and oversized underwear — and then return to the starting point. Another game includes driving a tractor while balancing a raw shelled egg on a tablespoon.
Added last year was a nonmotorized battle between colors — a tug-of-war game between John Deere and International/Farmall enthusiasts.
Last year, the red team won, and Baumgras joked that he would pull for the losing team the next year. “I thought they would forget about it, but oh, no,” he said. The battle included about 40 people, and in the end, the green team redeemed itself.
Friday night’s fun ended with an ice cream and cake social, including bingo and euchre.
“My daughter Rebecca Canze, administrator and coordinator of events, is behind all of that,” says Baumgras, who adds that he’s more of the nuts and bolts of the actual crossing. “She does a great job of adding more fun to the event."
To close the event, about 300 tractors paraded one more time through St. Ignace with Baumgras using the speaker to talk about tractors and drivers as they passed.