“You may talk about St. Louis and the glories of the West, or prate of Babylonia’s garments in the air: But if you’d view earth’s wonders, the choicest and the best, you’ll have to do the Ulster County Fair.”— The Ellenville Journal, September 2, 1904
That’s a fine rhyming statement from a bygone decade in which automobiles were called horseless carriages and St. Louis was still something to talk about.
These days, after having passed alongside the cornfields on the highway to see the choicest and the best, one arrives at a vast, grassy expanse mowed short to serve as a parking lot. Employees of the Ulster County Fair, workers in neon vests, wave the cars along with bright batons like marshals on a tarmac.
There’s where the carnival song begins. Voices carried over loudspeakers too far away to understand. Distant music. Cars with their radios on and their windows down searching for parking spots.
Such is the sea of parked cars in that meadow that the fair organizers have arranged for a tractor-pulled trolley to go out and pick up attendees and get them to the gates.
The assembled hordes walk towards the fair in the distance. They come from far and wide, and there is permanence to their fashions on display that the internet has not yet defeated. Many young men dress just like their older counterparts.
Beige-colored ersatz calfskin-colored work boots, denim jeans, red necks, red arms, shirts with the arms cut off. Belt buckles and sports caps, sunglasses, the uniforms of a drywall hanger or hunting enthusiast on vacation.
The clothes of young women have not gotten any longer or less revealing either. Outfits that wouldn’t make a beach community blush seem wanton provocation out here in the farmland beneath the Shawangunk Ridge. It’s of some comfort that the mujahedeens, the ayatollahs, the Hasidim, they have not yet won. No patriarchal religion incensed by the bodies of young women has yet penetrated these parts.
The adolescents and teenagers act the same as they ever have. Underaged bad boys and girls are smoking cigarettes and hiding their beer while gathered behind vehicles like tailgaters.
While the fair is already open, the sun has not yet set. It is only when the darkness begins to fall that the bright-colored lights of the amusement rides flicker on and the real carnival materializes in the valley.
In the meantime, just outside the fair entrance gates, black smoke rises from a large, oval, dirt-floored ring where a rodeo could be held except for a small, delicate white painted fence around it that’s more for containing trotting horses or showing off the livestock.
Introducing Skip Chambers
Inside the ring are tractors.
In the last hour of the sun, also outside the ring, the rumble of idling engines thrum the air as the tractors, with no rows of crops to attend to, line up or roam about at random.
The farming tractors have been gathered for a competition spread out across twelve weight classes, starting at 2500 pound and increasing all the way to 8500 pounds and above.
They are ready to be tested against each other. Which will reap the minor cash rewards of being number one in the pulling department?
Fordson Majors, Allis Chalmers, Olivers, New Hollands. Most of them are row croppers, with tall back wheels and tiny centered, pigeon-toed front wheels. A row cropper is just what it sounds like. Its small front wheels allow a tight turning radius at the end of each planted row to quickly make the turnaround and head back down another row adjacent to the first.
Tractor pulling is a sport of farmers.
A tall set of sparsely peopled bleachers rises from one side of the 150-foot-by-300-foot ring. A small wooden press box looks back from the opposite side; an indecipherable voice over the loudspeaker is coming from there.
It is the voice of Jody DePew who has run the tractor pulls at the Ulster County Fair for the last dozen years. He calls out the makes and models, the names of the drivers, and the blow-by-blow of what happens out on the strip. He rouses the crowd to applause after each pull.
“Let’s give a hand to Charlie Rome out of Sussex, New Jersey,” sounds like the name DePew said, but it’s impossible to be sure. The amplification system is loud enough, but the words are lost in a muddy midrange.
The next name is “Skip Chambers.” The name isn’t said any more clearly than the one before, but it would be repeated many times in many weight classes over the course of the competition.
Skip Chambers places second in the 8500-pound weight class, and third in the 5500-pound weight class on his 1960 Fordson Major, pulling that sled 210 feet. He takes first place in the 2500-pound featherweight class, pulling on a 1952 Ferguson TO20.
And so on.
Chambers, it would be discovered, was a merciless competitor, an 89-year-old menace who hails out of Montgomery, where he still sells tractors.
Pulling the weights
This is how a tractor pull works. Waiting to be pulled out of its inertia and over the tamped-down dirt of the ring is a monstrous motorized machine known as a lead transfer sled or a pulling sled.
What looks like a long flatcar on big rig wheels in actuality has sled rails which run longwise over the top of the flat metal of the platform. A weight box, generally weighing a ton, travels down the rails to change the center of gravity as the pull progresses. The pulling sled itself can weigh up to 65,000 pounds.
Along the way, hydraulic cylinders lift the back of the sled up and transfers all the weight to the front, pushing down into the dirt of the ring. The tractors must pull this contraption as far as they can as the resistance increases.
An operator goes along for the ride high up in an elevated cab at the back away from the pulling tractor.
“Tractors, they have what they call a two-stage clutch,” explains DePew.“ The first stage operates the PTO (Power Take Off), the second the tractor transmission. “As far as double-clutching, they don’t shift them on the fly. You put it into gear and let go of the clutch.”
Amy Willis perseveres
The driver is Amy Willis, a young woman on a green and yellow John Deere who hitches up and stalls out on her first try.
“It happens. It’s no big deal. In the first 50 feet you have the chance to stop or start again,” explains DePew.“You can get your position reset and give it another try.”
The crowd, which has swelled to about 160 people scattered in the stands and leaning against the fences, watch with anticipation. Willis revs up to pull against the dead weight of the sled, She stalls out again. A heavy silence of expectation and concern permeated the background as she again reset her tractor.
The experience is something like starting from a dead stop just before the top of one of those nightmare hills in San Francisco. The light changes to green and the vehicle has to roll back when the clutch is released and you jam the gas pedal down to compensate. A lot of pressure.
When Willis lets up on the clutch a third time, the front on the tractor leaps up and bounces back down on the tiny front wheels while the back wheels spin in the dirt.
Something is terribly wrong. Willis is no amateur, and this is not her first competition. A swelling applause breaks out in the stands. The crowd is on her side.
Willis jams the gas down, lets up on the clutch, and the tractor gets a grip on the dirt and finally starts to pull. Willis pulls the sled with the weight increasing behind her far enough to nab second place in the 3500-pound weight class. The crowd is ecstatic.
Usually our guys are farming
Though tractor pulling may not be the most dynamic of contests, it draws a decent crowd and commands a fascination among those who know what a tractor is for. As DePew notes, while the build of the engines are all over the map (Skip Chamber’s 3500-pound Fordson Dexta for instance has just three cylinders), the focus is on horsepower rather than top speed. The diameters of the pistons are larger than those of passenger vehicles, and the internal displacement of the air mixed with the fuel becomes more of a factor.
Most of the tractors are diesel. The compression of the fuel itself, the pressure, is what ignites the combustion of the fuel. This may explain the propensity for the engines to run rich and produce the black clouds of smoke when straining.
Might the clouds of smoke be created on purpose, a practice among motorheads known as “coal rolling”?
DePew rejects the idea.
“No, no. It’s just basically it’s the motor working. You’ll see pickup trucks out there that are running diesel,” he explains, “That’ll throw a lot of black smoke. It’s the same thing.”
While the majority of the competitors are male, the number of women pulling from tractors is growing.
“You know, we have a pretty good group of guys. It’s different than the truck pullers,” says DePew, referring to the truck pull that took place on Thursday night. “They’re more of a …, I don’t know what you would call ’em. But usually our guys are farming. Most of the guys farm themselves. And there are women pulling really good, Willis obviously, and there are girls that are new to it as well, and just trying it out. We had a, oh my god, what was she, 14 years old this year?”
DePew confirms the age of the unnamed young puller. “The first time she pulled was last year, and she came back again this year. I think she’s out of Stone Ridge.”
The horse pull
Farmers on their off hours turn to contests to see what their equipment can do. This precedent goes back farther than either the tractor or the Ulster County Fair itself. The horse pull was the original contest among farmers.
According to Rich and Betty Albrecht, who held a horse pull competition two days previous in the same horse ring that the tractors were crawling through on Friday, horse pulling is perhaps the most traditional agricultural competition held in the Northeast.
“Horse pulling got its start when one teamster would challenge another to a test of strength between their teams,” says Rich Albrecht. “They hooked their horses to a heavy stone boat, a log, or anything else that might be handy. The object was, and still is, to see whose team can pull the biggest load.”
With the advent of the gasoline engine, most horses are off the hook for working in the fields. Tradition involving them continues mostly as a hobby and purely for contest.
“You will still find a few farm and logging teams participating,” notes Albrecht.
The teams compete in pairs. Two sturdy Belgian draught horses can weigh in at 3500 pounds, or as much as a small tractor. The horses, wearing attractive studded leather tack, are led into position by three horsemen on the ground. The stone sled they are hitched to weighs 500 pounds.
The ubiquitous Skip Chambers is there with a tractor to load the sled up with concrete blocks. The horses pull for 15 feet.
In the case of Possum and Price the winning team in the under-3425 class, it is no exaggeration to say that their hooves were as large around as frying pans. The head of an average full-grown man stops where their shoulders begin.
The pair which were the co-winners in the over-3425 weight class, Terry and Levy, pulled an astonishing 9150 pounds before the weight in the wager grew too dear. The horses seem to enjoy both the pulling, and the applause when they were done, holding tier heads high and trotting regally back to the fence.
Possum and Price match the feat of Terry and Levy, also pulling 9150 pounds. Neither pair’s owner wanted to go any higher in weight, and so the pull was over.
With the horses back at the fence, an owner in the ring patted one on the withers, leaning in to ask a couple of questions: “Are you just about done here? Getting bored? I am, too. Let’s go home.”
The sun had departed beyond the Shawangunk Ridge some time before. There has only ever been one carnival in the world to appear in the space prepared for it when the sun sets and the lights of the Ferris wheel manifests out of the darkness. The hubbub and susurrations, distant voices, excited screams, children overcome to tears by the excitement of it all, music recorded and live …, all are part of the materialization in the valley, well after any farmer in his field would have called it a night.