The word has gotten out. One day a year, it becomes legal to drive antique tractors over the 5-mile suspension bridge connecting Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas. And, each year, the tractors keep coming — and not just from Michigan. There were several drivers from Ohio, as well as Minnesota, Iowa, West Virginia, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, Georgia, and even Texas and Alaska.
With 1,168 antique tractors in one location, there was no shortage of stories as enthusiasts gathered to make the 12th annual crossing of the Mackinac Bridge on Sept. 6. 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 to antique tractors goes much deeper than bolts and belts, as the camaraderie among drivers and the joy of seeing so many antique tractors in one place was a real treat for these collectors.
Some of the tractors are spotless and meticulously restored — some original, some not. And what may appear to be a bucket of rust to some is a prized heirloom to another.
OLIVERS: Bob Thompson, 74, of Sunbury, Ohio, drove a 1949 Oliver Model 66, while his nephew-in-law Mike Huey drove a 1965 Oliver 550. They were also accompanied by Bob’s niece, Theresa Huey. Pictured from left are Mike, Theresa and Bob.
This year, 1,300 tractors were registered for the ride, but the actual total of just under 1,200 tractors crossing was down slightly from last year’s 1,342 drivers and the 10th anniversary record of 1,466 in 2017. The weather may have a played a role, as rain drizzled for most of the morning of the crossing.
Bob Baumgras, owner of Owosso Tractor Parts, Owosso, Mich., 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 vehicles each year.
Once across the bridge, tractors were staged at Little Bear Arena in the Upper Peninsula city of St. Ignace for a public viewing Friday and Saturday. To close the event, about 300 tractors paraded one more time through St. Ignace.
I’ve covered this event for 10 of its 12 years; and each year, drivers become more and more diverse. They come from all over the country, range in all ages and include more ladies every year.
The first two drivers I visited with this year were from Ohio. Here are their stories:
Andy Rayl. It was a six-hour drive to Mackinaw City, Mich., for Andy Rayl, his grandpa Kenny Klinger and five other Ohioans with one semitractor-trailer and a pickup loaded with six antique tractors. Rayl, 22, of Ada, made his inaugural ride over the Mighty Mac after watching his grandpa cross last year.
Rayl drove a 1965 John Deere 3020 diesel that was restored two years ago for Klinger’s first ride. The tractor has been in the family, which farms about 1,200 acres, for 22 years.
To be in the crossing, you must belong to a tractor club, and both Rayl and Klinger are part of the Heart of Michigan Tractor Club. “I just thought it would be neat to cross the bridge,” Rayl says. “And now that I’ve done it, I’ll be back.”
Bob Thompson. Seventy-four-year-old Bob Thompson of Sunbury, Ohio, drove 500 miles with his nephew-in-law, Mike Huey of Marysville, Ohio, to make the crossing.
Thompson, who has now crossed twice, drove a 1949 Oliver Model 66 that he’s had for about six years. “When I got it, there was no paint on it, just rust,” Thompson says. “An Indiana farmer bought it new, and his daughter didn’t want it, so I picked it up as its third owner. Restoration is still in progress.”
Huey drove a 1965 Oliver 550 that Thompson has had for about seven years. “It’s pretty much the way I bought it now — I haven’t done a whole lot with it,” Thompson says.
Last year, he used another Oliver to pull a trailer hauling a steel-rimmed 1918 Jerry tractor — one of only two known in the world. I’ll write more about this tractor next month after I drive down to see it.
If you’re interested in reading more about the crossing and seeing video from the event, visit its Facebook page at facebook.com/bridgecrossing. More about the ride, how to register and the rules are available at mackinacbridgecrossing.com.
The next crossing is Sept. 11, 2020.
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