Area farmers gathered inside the Kinsley Public Library on Saturday to reminisce about their journey to the nation’s capital as part of the 1979 “Tractorcade to Washington.” The protest took thousands of rural farmers from their hometowns, across snow-blown mountains and blizzard-clogged highways to Washington, where, despite significant legislative movement, their message was delivered in dramatic and historic fashion.
It’s Miller Time
Retired Lewis-area farmer Darrel Miller who, along with his wife Karen, drove a support vehicle in the Tractorcade. Miller was responsible for logistical support.
“We were out in front of the group trying to find places for people to park and get food,” said Miller. “Some of the time there were places lined up, but most of the time there wasn’t.”
Jumping between the large photo displays, the snack table and a seemingly endless line of handshaking, Miller might have been the loudest guy in the room, frequently cutting through the hum of chatter with his sharp, deep laughter.
“A lot of these guys, from Pratt and Cunningham and Dodge, they all started out as friends,” laughed Miller. “They were going to take turns cooking. About three days into the trip they all said ‘I want to drive my tractor, you guys can do all that other stuff.’”
While the tractor drivers watched the winter landscape roll by at 15 miles an hour, Miller and his wife, who provided much needed support to area farmers, zipped ahead, arranging lodging, food, gas and parking.
It may not have been the most glamorous part of the trip, but finding last minute parking for 400-500 tractors requires some savvy negotiating skills and resourcefulness.
“We were up in Indiana and we got snowed in. This guy tells me I should try to get us parking at the county fairgrounds. Well I go ahead up and meet up with this guy, who was some Perdue educated son-of-a-gun. He and I didn’t hit it off,” laughed Miller. “When I told him what we were doing, he wasn’t impressed. He told us he couldn’t do anything for us.”
“Then we went to the Indianapolis Raceway Park, which is out on the south side of town.
I’m speaking with this guy and tell him what’s coming and he said ‘explain this to me again,’” laughed Miller. “There’s snow all over the place, so he says ‘you got anything to clear the snow off of my racetrack?’ And I said ‘as a matter-of-fact, we do.”
Page 2 of 4 - Miller enlisted Don Berger, a farmer from Pratt and a farmer from Missouri named “Crazy” Marvin to clear the racetrack in exchange for free parking for all of the tractors.
“From then on it was one calamity after another,” laughed Miller.
Haviland Was There
Other area American Agricultural Movement (AAM) farmers, like Dean and Ella Chenoweth of Haviland, traveled amongst the group of local farmers, picking up “stragglers” as they moved slowly towards the capital.
Chenoweth said other farmers from Haviland, Henry McMackin, a young farm hand and The Smith’s had made the trip, but couldn’t recall if any other Kiowa County farmers had been there.
“Our wheat prices were so depressed,” recalled Chenoweth. “We weren’t getting any attention up there [in Washington]. They’d listen to us, but that was about all they did.”
Chenoweth had been to Washington on numerous occasions previously, representing the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, lobbying for better and more stable wheat prices.
Chenoweth, his wife and his son traveled to Topeka before leaving for the nearly two-week trip to DC with farmers from across the state.
Like many of the participants, the day-to-day of the trip make a much larger impact on him than the overarching social implications.
“All I remember about that trip was that the weather was bad,” he said. “It was very cold. It was so cold that some of the diesel in the tractors would gel up.”
According to the Farmer’s Almanac, temperatures for January 1979 were between 20 and 30 degrees on average.
“I remember coming though Pennsylvania and the mountains,” said Chenoweth. “They were really rough and really tough to get through. Sometimes we had to drive at night; it was a rough trip.”
Chenoweth acknowledged, like many of the farmers who made the trip that it might not have made the impact on legislators they hoped it would.
There were not significant changes to policy directly following the protests, through the social and cultural implications were measurable.
Local and national newspapers covered the events, though some felt the press missed the true intentions of the ag movement.
“I think we did some good,” said Edwards County farmer Jerry Stapleton in a video interview. “We brought a lot of attention to the problems that we perceived. History probably won’t treat us kindly because the press doesn’t know what is important until fifty years later. I think there was a genuine agricultural revolution that went on there.”
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“It really wasn’t over just because some of us left,” said Beverly Anderson a Pratt-area farmer credited as the only lone female from Kansas to make the entire trip to Washington. “A lot of people stayed there for quite a while afterwards to lobby. For me, after five days of being at the capital I flew home.”
Few farmers drove their tractors back, most opted to ship them on trucks and fly home.
Plane tickets were purchased with donated money.
Crawford Barber, the Greensburg International Tractor dealer and former mayor, shipped both Anderson’s and the Chenoweth’s tractors back.
“We went back to the farm and started to do what we always did, we farmed,” said Anderson. “I can’t remember that we ever dwelled on it much. We just went back to living our lives.”
Both families continued to farm, though now, they are both retired.
Mr. Chenoweth must not have thought much of his camper, which had lost a significant amount of its plumbing during its trip to Washington, because soon after returning home, he traded it for a used combine.
“It had been flooded because it was sitting in El Dorado during a really heavy rain,” he said. “But, I got all of the water out and I took it to Bucklin and traded it for a combine. I told him ‘I’m not guaranteeing it’s gonna work’ and he said ‘I’m not guaranteeing that combine’s gonna work either’ so we traded.
For Anderson, Chenoweth, Miller and the other thousands of farmers who braved January snow, clogged engines and broken heaters, the Tractorcade march, and its success, cannot be measured in legislation alone.
“Nothing we did resulted in a lot of legislation, but it helped us,” said Anderson. “At least we didn’t sit and whine about it, we did something. We tried to change things, to help preserve the family farm. We also have the story. Many farmers are good at telling their stories. I’m sure some farmers can find some meaning it now.”
Anderson said she wouldn’t change a thing, despite not making as much of an legal impact as she hoped to.
“Then, the farmers really hung together in a group,” said Chenoweth. “ Now, they are fewer and farther between. At that time there was a farm about every section, but not anymore. I think that’s changed a lot of things. But would I do it all over again? I suppose I would.”
Page 4 of 4 - The Kinsley Public Library will host their exhibit on local farmers that were part of “Tractorcade to Washington” through the summer. Extensive interviews, videos, transcripts and photos can be found at www.kinsleylibrary.info