A surge of pride swelled up as two 16-year-olds from the Hope area became the fourth generation of the same family to compete in a tractor pull at the Bartholomew County Fairgrounds.

Garrett McGaha and his cousin, Nicole Beeker, are the great-grandchildren of Robert “Bob” Yeley (1924-2012), who won the first-ever tractor pull in the Columbus area 67 years ago.

Both teens carried on a family tradition Sunday by competing in the 25th annual FFA Antique Tractor Pull at the Bartholomew County Fair.

Several organizers, as well as Beeker’s mother, Becky Tedder of Hope, said they believe the Hauser students are the first fourth generation tractor-pull competitors at the local fairgrounds.

Story continues below gallery

Click here to purchase photos from this gallery

“No one in our family pressured us into doing this,” Beeker said. “We just chose to carry on – and hopefully we’ll keep those generations coming.”

Those generations go all the way back to July 21, 1950, when Bob Yeley, then 26, competed against 17 other contestants. It was the heavyweight division for tractors weighing over 4,500 pounds during an era when winners were determined on the percentage of their own weight they could pull.

In that first competition, the big tractors stalled out on a pull of 12,000 lbs. or 6 tons, but 26-year-old Bob Yeley moved a few inches — just enough to be declared the winner, according to the Evening Republican, forerunner to The Republic.

Bob Yeley would continue competing in tractor pulls up until five years of his death, said his son, Mike Yeley of Hope.

“I think Dad’s problem was that he won his first pull,” Mike Yeley said. “It certainly wasn’t for the money.  We paid $10 to pull, and the most we ever won for first place was $25.”

In contrast, most of Sunday’s pulls required a $20 entry fee in hopes of winning a $100 first prize, as well as a trophy.

Despite purses that never covered expenses, tractor pulls quickly became so popular in the Columbus area that a record 101 entries caused the 1954 competition to stretch into the early morning hours, a news article from that year stated.

It wasn’t just farmers. The event also became a matter of bragging rights regarding diesel vs. regular gasoline engines to generations of Cummins Inc. employees, according to news reports at the time.

“In the early days, the gas would always out-pull the diesel until they put a turbo on them in the early 1960s,” Mike Yeley said. “Then it was all over for the gas engines.”

After participating a few years in tractor rodeos and driving contests, Mike Yeley began competing alongside and against his father in the 1967 tractor pull – just one year after graduating from what was then Columbus High School.

In the early 1980s, veteran 4-H member Debbie Schroer cracked the glass ceiling by becoming the first female in Bartholomew County to compete in the tractor pull, Mike Yeley said.

“I remember the guys didn’t mind making the gals feel bad, but the boys sure didn’t like getting beat by them,” he recalled.

In subsequent years, Mike Yeley watched as his four daughters — Tina McGaha, Jackie Arnholt, Amy Adams and Tedder — competed.

He also watched Sunday as his grandchildren continued another tradition by using the same two tractors his family had always driven: a 1948 Farmall H and a 1953 International Super MTA.

“It’s just a really cool feeling to know my family has done this for such a long time in this county, and we get to carry on with it,” Garrett McGaha said.

As a spectator sport that has a maximum 3 to 6 mph speed limit, depending on how much weight you pull, antique tractor pulls are widely considered the least exciting grandstand show at the fair, Tedder said.

“It’s exceedingly slow,” she explained. “More of a patience than a power pull.”

“It’s all first gear,” Mike Yeley said.  “Flies keep up with us all the way.”

Only about 30 people were watching from the stands an hour into the event — fewer than the 45 competitors on the track.

But the challenge doesn’t come from speed or power or the crowd, but rather from forming techniques and strategies, such as deciding which lane to pull in, Garrett McGaha said.

His cousin admits watching the old tractors huff and puff, backfire and spin their wheels to see who can pull a weighted sled the furthest distance is an acquired taste.

“You’re either into it or you’re not,” Beeker said. “But when you grow up going to the pulls, you grow a love for it and understand it’s all about putting your heart into it.”

Fair schedule

Today, JULY 10 BARTHOLOMEW COUNTY DEMOCRATIC PARTY DAY

1 p.m.: Lil’ Wrangler Swine Show, 4-H Gilt Show, as well as Open Carcass will follow

5 p.m.: Lil’ Hands on the Farm, 4-H Community Building, Family Arts and Commercial Buildings open

5 p.m.: Midway Opens – Dollar Day: $1 per ride

5:30 p.m.: Watermelon Seed Spitting Contest, Farm Bureau Building (registration at 5 p.m.)

7 p.m.: Columbus Clogging Company, Farm Bureau Building

7 p.m.: Columbus City Band, David Boll Theatre

7 p.m.: Truck Drags – Side by Side Dirt Drags, Grandstand

TUESDAY, JULY 11 BARTHOLOMEW COUNTY REMC DAY

10 a.m.: 4-H Barrow Show & Showmanship, Pavilion

2 p.m.: Community Day at the Midway. Midway closed to public.

5 p.m.: Lil’ Hands on the Farm, 4-H Community Building, Family Arts and Commercial Buildings open

5 p.m.: Community Day at the Midway.

6:30 p.m.: Horse & Pony 4-H Fun Show & 4-H Costume Class

7 p.m.: Frog Jumping Contest, Farm Bureau Building, registration at 6:30 p.m.

7 p.m.: Chordlighters – Barbershop Quartet, David Boll Theatre

7 p.m.: Midwest Three-Quarter Racing League, Grandstand

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.