Great Tractor Ride Part II: The Women Behind the Riders

Behind every Great Tractor Ride’n man, there is an even greater woman. With the eight tractors we took to the WHO Radio Great Iowa Tractor Ride, this year held in Sioux City, and the eight men drivers, there was a wife or, in my case, girlfriend.

In years past, some of the women have ridden along with their husbands for parts of the tour, and some have even taken their turn at the wheel (we saw plenty of women tractor drivers). Also in years past, the wives have driven cars out to meet their tractor-dive’n husbands at check points and lunch stops.

When this proved too cumbersome (the Great Tractor Ride is on a tight schedule, and rest stops are brief), the ladies just let their men go out and have their fun, while they stayed behind and had their own brand of entertainment. They shopped. And Sioux City has plenty of great shopping outlets. The ladies also played board games—dominoes was a favorite, and Skipbo. Workouts at the motel’s exercise facilities was also a favorite pastime. 

Of course, there were nice lunches at restaurants. And yakking. Most members of our group were raised in the Monroe area, and even attend the same Baptist church, which made for conversation aplenty.

Contrary to popular belief, the 500-plus tractors on the WHO Great Iowa Tractor Ride do not travel in one long string. It would make it too difficult for motorists to pass. Groups of about 50 to 80 tractors each are assigned with different start times.

As a kid, the tractors I grew up on were, for the most part, Farmalls. That’s because in Monroe, there was a Farmall dealer. So, when John Van Ryswyk let me drive a Farmall 560 Diesel, I couldn’t have been more pleased.

I still remember the gear pattern, the torque amplifier, and the sound they make. The diesel took a little gett’n used to, with the glow plug and such. But the power! 

Occasionally, I would get mixed up and, instead of decelerating, accelerate. Yow! But, hey, it’s been more than 40 years since I’ve been on a tractor. The Farmall 560 was king when I was growing up, and still is, as far as I’m concerned.

Fuel stops are critical to any organized tractor ride. At the end of the day, and along the route, tractors are seen stopping at gas stations and convenience stores. One laughable moment involved John Van Ryswyk (the “trail boss”) pulling into a Casey’s store for gas. The whole string of tractors followed right in behind him as if it were the route. 

I was privileged to meet one of the founders of the WHO Radio Great Iowa Tractor Ride. Craig Johnstone, of Grinnell, also known as “The Godfather of the Tractor Ride,” along with the late Mark Pearson and late Gary Wergon, were instrumental in getting the now famous (or is that infamous?) tractor ride organized.

The first-ever tractor ride in 1997 had 119 tractors, and traveled from Grinnell to Ankeny. In the words of Craig Johnstone, “I take three days off from work, and vacation with 549 of my closest friends!”

There are now a number of tractor rides in Iowa and the nation, and there was talk of which was next.

For every tractor you see out there, whether it’s in the field, or on the road, remember, American agriculture wouldn’t be where it is today if it wasn’t for women.