It was the end of a long, long day. I had seen both the dawn and the setting of the sun, traveled over 200 miles round trip, spent the whole day in the sun with hundreds of other spectators, inspected more tractors than I could possibly count, tasted my first ice cream churned by a John Deere hit-and-miss engine, and witnessed my first tractor pull. I had just experienced my first “tractor show”—a family nickname for the Southeast Old Thresher’s Reunion in Denton, NC.
After the lull of interstate travel, the sudden stops and starts and slower pace of county roads had woken me from my dozing. I began to recognize familiar roads and started to pull my things together—a backpack laden with sunscreen and water, my socks and sneakers that I had ditched for flip flops on the ride home, a straw cowboy hat.
We pulled into the driveway and came to a stop. Jeremy and I climbed out of the car, shouldered our possessions and thanked his granddad for the day.
“So, Nicole,” PaPa said to me as I shifted my backpack into position, “What did you think? Would you go with us again next year?”
“It was actually really fun!” I replied enthusiastically, “Definitely not like anything I’ve ever done before, but I would totally go again!”
To be honest, I think he was a little shocked by my response. He looked down for a moment in his characteristic PaPa way, and then replied with a little laugh and a smile, “Well, looks like I got myself another grandchild, then.”
Ever since my husband Jeremy and his sister Lindsay were kids, they have joined their granddad (PaPa) for an annual trip to the Southeast Old Thresher’s Reunion. The tractor show, as they call it, always falls during the week of July 4, and the first summer Jeremy and I were dating, he invited me to go with them.
To be perfectly honest with you, I had no idea what to expect. I’m not a native southerner. I’ve always lived in the suburbs. I know basically nothing about rural life, tractors, farm equipment, or pretty much anything else one would have in their schema to be interested in such an event.
What I learned that year, though, and in all the years since, is that the tractor show is about more than tractors — it’s about the experience…
When we go to the tractor show, we rise more or less with the dawn to get on the road early since there’s a long drive ahead of us.
When we go to the tractor show, we always stop somewhere over the North Carolina border for a quick fast food breakfast. But we never go through the drive-thru. No, we park the car, we get out to stretch our legs, and we go inside the restaurant to sit and dine like civilized people.
When we go to the tractor show, we know we’re getting close when we see the familiar trail of black smoke spewed out from the steam engine’s smokestack, and if we roll down the window and listen, we might even hear the toot-tooooooooooot of Engine #9 about to embark on its next trip around the Handy Dandy Railroad.
When we go to the tractor show, we arrive just as the heat of the day is ramping up. After slathering ourselves in sunscreen and loading our bags with water bottles, we begin the trek up the hill toward the entrance of the park, and as we arrive at the top, we stop for a moment and see it all laid out before us — rows upon rows of tractors, the field full of farm equipment waiting to be auctioned, the red clay track at the bottom of the hill prepped and ready for late afternoon tractor pulls, the cotton press and steeple of the old church towering above it all.
When we go to the tractor show, our visit follows a predictable routine every year. We start out by wandering through the tractors and other equipment, inspecting the rainbow of John Deeres and Olivers and Farmalls and Fords from all eras and in all conditions. Even though there are aisles of food trucks and vendors, we order the same food from the same Methodist church fundraiser. After we eat, we find seats in the music pavilion and listen to the sounds of bluegrass, country, or even gospel music before beginning our venture through the woods to see what wares are being sold. Once we’ve freed up a bit of room in our bellies, we walk the same familiar path to enjoy a scoop of Poppin’ John’s homemade ice cream. The day ends at the tractor pull, where we always enjoy pulling for our favorites. A couple hours before sunset, we head back to the car—dirty and tired and happy—and leave for the long drive back home.
In my years of going to the tractor show—as a girlfriend, then as a fiancée, and now as a wife—I’ve learned that even though you see the same people and the same exhibits and the same models of the same tractors every year, the reason you keep going back is for the conversations and the connections.
I’ve also realized that doing the same things every year makes the memories that are different stand out — like the year I touched the boiler of a steam engine (I was testing it to see if it was hot! Spoiler: It was…). Or the year we broke from our routine and returned to the car at midday, moved it to a shady spot in the field, and had family “rest time” so our niece could have a nap. Or the handful of times we’ve huddled under the train depot or the music pavilion when an afternoon shower popped up and sent everyone running for cover.
Over the years, my favorite thing has become people watching. Ever the photographer, I’ve brought a camera with me every year since the first—my point and shoot, then my first DSLR, and finally my professional one—and in recent years, I’ve given myself a “photo project” with a theme for the day. I’ve learned that it makes me look at everything from a different perspective and allows me to notice things I might have missed otherwise!
In all my years going to the tractor show, the people I’ve gone with have been different every year, and many times the memories we make are shaped by who we share the day with. The first year I went, my now-sister-in-law was almost 8 months pregnant with our niece, Olivia. I remember witnessing the tractor show through her eyes on her first visit, and years later, marveling at how grown up she was as she went on her own to buy a frozen lemonade while we watched from a safe distance. I also remember our nephew Samuel’s first time at the tractor show, how he lost. his. mind. over all the tractors and gleefully pointed out which ones looked like “PaPa’s tractor” and which ones were “just my sh-ize.”
The last time I went to the tractor show was two years ago, and I was pregnant with our son. He hasn’t been yet, but I’m really looking forward to the year that he gets to experience the tractor show for the first time, and I’m especially excited for all the memories we’ll make with him there over the years.