What happens when a group of men get into an argument at a small town bar? Yeah, you settle it outside.
That’s what allegedly took place 25 years ago in LeClaire, Iowa at the Roadhouse Tavern, which looks over the Mississippi River towards Port Byron, Illinois. Bravado over who was the strongest between the two towns turned into a bet: which town would win a tug of war across the Mighty Mississippi?
That challenge continues to this day, as the border towns battle annually for bragging rights at Tugfest.
This was the third consecutive summer that The Bittle and I road tripped from Chicago to a border state in search of weird sports and visual gems. First it was lumberjacks. Then hog wrasslin’. And now Tugfest.
We arrived a little early to the event, to get the lay of the land – and water. We both weren’t really feeling it when we arrived. Not seeing any photos in the harsh sunlight. It was mainly teams of people gathering in the shade.
But patience is a virtue for a reason. Once the actual activities got going, all was good.
When I’d tell folks that I was going to shoot a tug of war between Iowa and Illinois, there were visions of one team pulling the other team directly into the Mississippi. And that might have been how it was when it first started. (Can you imagine those photos?!)
But things are now much more scientific and more fair than you’d expect. Eleven teams of 16 tuggers for each side are actually perpendicular to the river, with a pulley redirecting the rope connecting the two towns. The Iowa teams are facing south; Illinois north. The goal is to pull the 2,400-ft, 680-lb. rope the greatest distance towards their side of the river in a 3-minute span. Whichever side wins at least six contests claims the Alabaster Eagle trophy.
A few years ago, a university research team measured the tug pits, distance, drag of the Mississippi and various variables to make things more fair. It turns out, Iowa had a slight advantage because of the slope of its pit. Things changed after the survey. One year, Iowa was shutout in the best out of 11 tugs.
I was curious to see what was going on on the Illinois side. Thanks to the kind and helpful organizers of Tugfest, I was able to get a police escort by boat to Port Byron. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to dock anywhere because of a sea of lilly pads. Though the view from the boat did reassure me that I wasn’t really missing anything. We headed back safely to Iowa and the rest of the action, with the police radio broadcasting updated scores.
Illinois went into this silver anniversary leading the series, winning the trophy 14 years vs. 10 years for Iowa. Last year, Illinois teams won 7 of the 11 tugs. This year it was tied going into the final tug, though Illinois pulled it out in the end. The result was pretty obvious, as a loud cheer boomed across the Mississippi River from Port Byron. There’s always next year, Iowa.
Thanks again to Bittle for joining me on another fun roadtrip.
Where are we going next summer?