One day a year, it becomes legal to drive antique tractors over Michigan’s 5-mile suspension bridge connecting the upper and lower peninsulas. And, each year, the tractors keep coming — and not just from Michigan.
Love your antique tractor and looking for a new adventure? Many in Michigan know about the Mackinac Bridge Antique Tractor Crossing, but its popularity is exploding and drawing drivers, and spectators, from around the country and Canada.
To that end, Bob Baumgras says welcome, but register early because only the first 1,500 tractors at least 40 years old — who meet all the requirements — will be allowed. Baumgras is the owner of Owosso Tractor Parts in Michigan who created the event and has organized it since the first crossing of 614 tractors in 2008.
The 14th annual event, normally on a Friday morning, is on Saturday this year, beginning at 9 a.m. Sept. 11. The parade is typically three-plus hours. Participants may arrive Wednesday to Friday to drop off their tractors in a designated staging area south of the bridge.
One year, six tractors were trailered up from Arizona, another five from Pennsylvania, and a group of Wisconsin folks drove their tractors through their state and across the U.P. 400 miles to make the bridge crossing.
Drivers have come from Canada and Ohio, Connecticut, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania and more. “One year we had an entire club from New York,” Baumgras says. “We’ve had participants from Texas and California to Minnesota and Florida. I’d say probably half the states have been represented.”
Twice, couples have used the occasion to be celebrate matrimony. “The one couple got married and then drove across with the bride in her wedding gown,” he says.
On the last crossing of the bridge in 2019 (2020 was canceled because of COVID-19), Stanley Knoph of Marlette, Mich., 90 at the time, drove across the bridge with the very first tractor he ever owned — a 1936 Farmall F-20. His family made the weekend his birthday party, drawing in relatives from six other states to join the festivities.
Share tractor tales
The attraction to antique tractors goes much deeper than bolts and belts. 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.
Owners and drivers are more than willing to share those stories. After crossing the Mighty Mac, tractors go on display at Little Bear Arena in St. Ignace, in Michigan’s U.P. For those that desire, the event continues Saturday afternoon with tractor games and into Sunday, when a drawing is held for various gifts and trips and a parade through St. Ignace closes the event.
There are a lot of tires to kick on tractors of all colors — green, red, blue, white, yellow and even pink. Rust also is regarded as a color. These old workhorses have history. Sometimes there’s a long lineage, sometimes not.
Nevertheless, there’s a sense of pride in owning and riding tractors that tilled the ground and supported an industry that provided for America’s sustenance.
Don’t forget the flag
This year’s crossing aligns itself with the 20th memorial of the 9-11 attack on our country, as well as Patriot Day, where U.S. flags are lowered halfway and there is a countrywide moment of silence at 8:46 a.m. — signifying when the first plane crashed into one of the Twin Towers.
There’s always been an overabundance of American flags flying from these tractors. I’m sure there will be a sea of the red, white and blue this year.
With an event like this, of course there are rules. To start with, and to register, participants must belong to a participating tractor club, which must have insurance for liability reasons.
“It also helps greatly with organization, and we cross-check to make sure they are a club member in good standing,” Baumgras says. The deadline for clubs to register closed May 15, but do not despair if you would still like to participate and are not a club member. “We can arrange for them to join one of those clubs that are registered,” Baumgras adds.
The event is only open to those 18 and older, and as I’ve been covering this event for many years, I have noticed the interest and involvement from young people has pleasantly skyrocketed. Some have driven across, and others have ridden in an approved buddy seat, allowed on each tractor. Registration deadline for participants is Aug. 15. If you’re new and want to have a buddy seat, you must register by July 15 to allow time for inspection.
“Safety is always first, and we take it very seriously,” Baumgras says. “We have many volunteers that help unloading and loading tractors. And, on our website, we have information to help participants check over their tractors.”
Two volunteers who have been helping in that area for several years — Ryan Martin and Ron Koch, both of Greasy Fingers Tractor Club out of Big Rapids — are this year’s grand marshals.
I’ve reported on this event on all but two years — I missed the first one because I didn’t know about it and another year when a family event conflicted. One year they even made me the honorary grand marshal. It was a year most won’t forget, as downpours that morning provoked a driver meeting to discuss cancellation.
Drivers wouldn’t have of it and as a buddy rider on the lead tractor, rain pelleted my cheshire cat smile all the way across. What a thrill, no matter the rain, which finally started to let up as others made their way across. I’ve loved hearing the tales, the traditions, the history. I enjoy making my way through the old-time tractors and snapping pictures all the way. If you decide to go, look for me. … I’d love to tell your story.
“Quite a few people use the event as vacation, a family gathering or anniversaries or just to have fun,” Baumgras says. “Whatever the reason, we invite them to come.”
For more rules and to decide if this is for you, visit mackinacbridgecrossing.com/2021registration.