For a half-century, people have gathered in Tampico to hear the roar of tractor engines and smell the exhaust as drivers compete to pull the most weight as fast and as long as they can.
Those who aren’t fans of tractors come for the fish sandwiches and homemade desserts, all in support of the Grassy Fork Volunteer Fire Department.
Although it started in 1966 with just a few locals getting together for fun on a Saturday morning or afternoon, the annual Grassy Fork Volunteer Fire Department Truck and Tractor Pull now attracts thousands of people from places near and far.
The event is sanctioned by the Pro Pulling League Champions Tour and the Southern Indiana Pulling Association.
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This year’s pulls, which started Thursday night with antique, pedal and garden tractors, mark the 50th anniversary of the tradition. The action continues tonight at 7 p.m. and again at 7 p.m. Saturday at the track near the fire station on South County Road 450E.
There is no cost for parking or admission.
“We’re known all around for our pulls,” said Marvin Wischmeier, who served as chief of the Grassy Fork Volunteer Fire Department for 26 years before retiring in 1997.
He was one of the event’s founding members and continues to go as a spectator.
“Oh, I’ll be there,” he said of this year’s pulls. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
A couple of years ago, Wischmeier said he was standing near the announcer’s booth when someone told him they really enjoyed coming to the pulls each year.
“I asked him where he was from, and he said southern Tennessee,” Wischmeier said. “We must be doing something right if people keep coming back, so why change it if it’s not broken?”
The pulls, which later added trucks, became the main source of funding for the fire department, but not at first, he said.
“We didn’t make much money,” Wischmeier said. “It was more for fun.”
And instead of cash prizes and trophies, winners were presented with small red, white or blue ribbons, he said. Not much of an incentive, but people still came, he said.
The community had borrowed money to purchase equipment and to build the existing fire station. Profits from the entries in the pulls and food and T-shirt sales have gone to pay back that debt and continue to support the fire department’s needs.
But a lot of things have changed about the pulls over the years.
After tearing down the old Tampico School building from the property that was donated by the Brownstown school board, the department added lighting so pulls could go on well after the sun went down. Now, crowds stay past midnight, Wischmeier said.
Another improvement was the addition of guardrails to protect fans and new technology to measure pull distances.
Early on in the event’s history, pull lengths were determined with a tape measure and flagmen signaled the beginning and end of each pull. Today, distances are measured by laser, and a digital sign board displays results immediately. The sign also signals drivers when to start and stop.
The farmers who made up the volunteer fire department also built the weight transfer sleds that were pulled behind the tractors to gradually increase the resistance as they traveled down the track.
“We built the first large pulling sled in southern Indiana,” Wischmeier said.
That sled was taken to other pulls, where the department would run it for additional revenue.
Also, the department decided to switch from selling hot dogs to fish sandwiches, which proved to be more popular with attendees and more of a moneymaker. The line for fish sandwiches often is long, and the department fries and sells anywhere between 2,000 to 3,000 pounds annually.
With a population of about 100 people, Tampico doesn’t see much activity any other time of year, so the pulls are important to not just the fire department but for the community as a whole.
In 2015, weather forced officials to cancel the pulls for the first time in history.
“The track was basically underwater,” Wischmeier said. “We hated to do it, but there was nothing else we could do.”
Except go ahead and sell fish sandwiches, he said. Because the department already had all of the fish on hand and ready, they decided to try to make some money.
“And we did. People still bought them,” Wischmeier said.
Robert Dillman of Seymour said the pulls make for great entertainment for all ages. Although he has missed a few, he has been going for the past 20 years.
“First of all, it’s a free, family-friendly event,” he said. “You see old friends you haven’t seen for a while, and you make new friends.”
He makes sure to have a fish sandwich or two while he’s there, too.
“Who doesn’t like a great truck and tractor pull?” he said. “We always watch the pro mod four-wheel drive trucks and the diesel class for sure.”
The pulls have evolved from just garden and farm tractors to include several different classes, including souped-up farm and pro stock tractors from the Lucas Oil Pro Pulling League.
Angie Mellencamp of Seymour said the pulls are a great way for the men in her family to spend time together, including her young sons.
“My boys love going with their dad and papaw,” she said. “They usually go on Thursday because the boys like watching the pedal tractor pull and the antique tractors.”
This year, Mellencamp said she thought her youngest son might participate in the pedal tractor pull.
“Papaw thinks he’s got him talked into it, but we’ll see,” she said. “It’s great bonding time for the guys and memories made for my boys they will have for years.”
What: 50th annual Grassy Fork Volunteer Fire Department Truck and Tractor Pull and fish fry
Where: 5358 S. County Road 450E, Tampico
When: 7 p.m. today and Saturday
Cost: Admission and parking are free; $25 entry fee to pull
Information: Visit facebook.com/tampicotractorpull or call 812-358-2123