The Orrville Tractor Show is back and better than ever!
When volunteer firefighters got together to host an antique tractor show in Orrville several years ago, some felt it wouldn’t last long and they’d soon be moving on to some other fundraising project.
Were they ever surprised!
Few, if any, of the organizers dreamed it would grow into one of Alabama’s most popular rural events, one that has attracted thousands of spectators every autumn.
"Our first tractor show was a small event, but people who drove by wondered what we were doing and it soon caught on," said librarian Karen Grimes, one of the event’s key organizers. "We learned they liked what they saw."
From a few hundred spectators who showed up in 2001 to the most recent one a few weeks ago when up to 5,000 people attended, it was apparent those who started it had created something pretty special.
It wasn’t long before they also realized they had a real tiger by the tail and wondered how much longer they could keep going.
It got so big, so fast, in fact, that those running the show had to announce a "time out" last year so they could recharge their personal batteries and decide if they wanted to continue.
"We met around Christmas in 2014 and decided not to have one in 2015," Karen said. "It just got to be too much and we needed to regroup."
When word spread that there would not be another event in 2015, disappointed supporters urged organizers to give it another try and bring the West Alabama Antique Tractor, Car, Gas Engine and Craft Show back to life.
Karen said many involved in the tractor event soon began to receive overwhelming positive responses and decided to give it another try.
Questions about the event’s longevity lingered after the first tractor show, but an admonition from the late Howard Gray, a Dallas County investigator with an eye on the future, helped resuscitate it.
"Howard let us know we had to keep it going," said Karen, whose husband, Bill, is chief of the Orrville Volunteer Fire Department. "He said we had a great thing going and just shouldn’t let it die."
Those who believe local word-of-mouth is better than slick advertising campaigns out of Madison Avenue in New York nailed it in regards to the Dallas County event.
As word spread around Alabama, farmers and collectors couldn’t wait to bring their old John Deere tractors and Fords to Orrville – a tiny crossroads community 15 miles west of Selma.
Mike Gallahar of Munford in Talladega County hauled his antique tractor 130 miles and then carefully put it on display in a large field not far from Orrville’s old high school.
His tractor was soon joined by dozens more, as well as farm implements and other pieces of old agricultural equipment that helped to sustain the existence of rural families for many years.
"I got to drive my granddad’s Allis-Chalmers when I was young and it’s always stuck in my mind," said Gallahar, 65. "I don’t remember the new name of that company, but the old one has always meant a lot to me."
Tractor companies with solid agricultural pedigrees often are sold or merged with other businesses through the years. Spectators at the recent show had a ball examining them.
The Allis-Chalmers Co. was formed in 1901 in Milwaukee following a merger. Financial problems led to its demise in 1985, but it was reborn as Allis-Chalmers Energy AGCO.
It was much the same with other tractors that might be a bit rusty, but still remain loaded with nostalgia and can provide a history lesson for those too young to have known their origins. That goes for the farm implements, too.
"Some wouldn’t have a clue about just what a threshing machine is or what it can do," said Sam Givhan, a member of AFC Board of Directors and a well-known farmer in west Alabama.
Back in the old days, Givhan said, hay had to be cut manually and fed into a thresher, but, with today’s combines, it would be cut at the ground level, dumped into trucks and then transported.
"In the past 20 years, technology has grown by leaps and bounds," Givhan said. "Today, we have GPS machines, steering controls and other amazing machinery for farmers."
The mid-November event keeps growing because other attractions are added to make it even more popular. Fun and games, arts and crafts, a petting zoo, bungee jump and even rescued turtles draw attention each year.
After the first event, organizers felt a stage needed to be built and it wasn’t long before a big one emerged for singers and other entertainers to perform.
The tractor show’s biggest fan has been James "Big Daddy" Lawler, a legendary Wilcox County-based outdoorsman whose radio broadcasts attract huge audiences throughout Alabama.
Lawler has been the emcee at all but a couple of the Orrville shows and has originated his Saturday radio program from the site of the tractor event.
He enjoys each one and saves most of his praise for Karen for her organizational skills.
"She is one of the most remarkable special events coordinators I’ve ever known," Lawler said. "Karen and Bill have done most of the important work since it started and Orrville is lucky to have them."
Orrville was first known as Orr’s Mills, but began to appear on state maps as Orrville in 1853, according to Stuart Harris in "Alabama Place-Names."
The town was named for James Franklin Orr, who bought land in the area four years later. He developed the town around his commercial cotton gin.
It should be noted that Orrville’s population is only 204 residents. The volunteer fire department doesn’t have that many members, but community support is as strong as it’s ever been.
It’s been that way since the first firetruck arrived not long after the end of World War II. Bill said it might have been war surplus, but, from what he’s heard, it was greeted with open arms from volunteers.
Federal grants and supporters who open their wallets each year to keep the event viable have meant everything. A $170,000 pumper truck is one of the reasons the town has so many people who help to keep the show going strong. It’s parked at the volunteer fire department headquarters and ready to go to fight brush fires and help those hurt in wrecks as well as other emergencies in the area.
A second vehicle is also part of the volunteer fire department, but there is no need for a ladder truck in the little town with no multistory structures.
Droughts that continued through much of 2016 have kept volunteers in Safford, River Oaks, Marion Junction, Beloit and Potter Station on their toes, especially for possible grass fires.
A brochure distributed by the departments also let residents know they are ready to respond to calls about house fires, bad weather alerts, missing person reports and vehicle accidents.
The Orrville Volunteer Fire Department is supported, in part, by an ad valorem tax, but donations are always appreciated and area residents have always responded to calls for assistance.
The tractor show’s future will depend, as it always has, on people who support it. If the most recent event is any indication, it should be around for many years to come.