OVERBROOK, Kan. - From New Mexico to New York, pedal pullers have found a way to compete even if they can't be a part of the 4-H competition that has dominated county fairs for years. For four Lakota boys, the competition has not only been a way to shine at competitions across Kansas, but it's become a family affair that keeps them on the road during the pulling season cheering for each other.
Kids' tractor pedal pull contests aren't about speed. They are about giving kids a chance to show their strength and determination in moving a pedal tractor with a ''drag'' that is weighted according to age down a short track. The tractors move at a snail's pace, but no one would believe it once the spectators begin cheering. Sportsmanship is alive and well at each event for both the kids and parents; everyone cheers for the pullers, even those against whom they are competing.
Burlington residents Ivan and Janet Hill are a hard-working couple with four boys ranging in age from 4 to 10. Ivan, originally from Rosebud, S.D., grew up in Kansas and had little exposure to pow wows. When he and Janet married, they looked for things to keep their kids on the right track, and pedal pulling contests filled the bill. The family doesn't have Internet service, so time off is spent keeping their kids moving and finding activities in which the whole family can take part.
Pedal pulling came into the Hill family's life through a fluke. Janet Hill saw a competition and decided to enter her then 3-year-old son Tyler in the 4-year-old division. His determination and skill in his first ''pull'' got his older brother, Trevor, interested; and soon he was competing, too. ''I just thought I would see how Tyler did,'' Janet remembered. ''He was only 3, but he had to compete with the 4-year-olds. He got third place and Trevor, the older one, decided he wanted to give it a try. We've been at it ever since.''
Their hard work and travel has paid off. Last year, Tyler, now 7, qualified not only for the state contest in Kansas but went on to compete at the National Pull in Mitchell, S.D., placing ninth in his division. This year, all four of the Hill boys - Tyler, Trevor, Trent and Tristen - have qualified for state competition and have high hopes of all making it to national competition at the Corn Palace Sept. 22 in Mitchell.
For those who haven't been fortunate enough to see these steely-eyed athletes at work, the rules are simple, sort of. A tractor with a drag (small wagon of sorts) is hitched to the metal tractor. Weights are placed in the drag, dependent on the age category. The contestant then tries for what is known as a ''full pull'' of 40 feet. They are given two to three tries to get off the starting line and must stay within the course markers. For those who don't make a full pull, the distance pulled is measured and the longest distance determines the winner. That is where the simple part ends.
The rules can change drastically between the more than 21 states that have pulling associations and the various fairs and festivals that hold the competitions. In some contests, the age of the competitor is not what determines the class he or she will be in; it is their weight. In others, it is the age of the contestant, not the weight. In all venues, contestants must wear shoes, and girls and boys compete against each other in all classes. Pedal pullers with pretty pink shirts and ponytails must compete against the boys equally. At the Overbrook Fair, Tyler found himself in a pulloff against a girl, and the pulloff was so intense that both had to try again. Tyler came in second, but still qualified for the state competition.
Tyler, who started it all at age 3, is now a robust 7-year-old with one national competition under his belt. He has so far led the brothers in prizes. Tyler has 17 medals and six trophies; Trevor, at age 10, has 11 medals and three ribbons; Trent, the second youngest at age 5, has one trophy, six medals and 27 ribbons; and last but not least among the Hill brothers is Tristen, who at age 4 has one medal and has already qualified for his first state competition.
At a recent competition in Topeka, Janet Hill watched her boys as they gave their all to pedal a weighted tractor as far as they could. ''You know, I realized just how sad I am going to be when Trevor turns 14 and will be too old to compete anymore,'' she said wistfully. ''We have been doing this like a team for so long that it just won't be the same.''