WATERMAN – Leonard Johnson says a love for farming is in his blood.
Johnson was raised on a farm, and his passion for tractors started when his father let him drive one of the family’s tractors at 6 years old. Johnson has a degree in agriculture from Southern Illinois University and has been working with farms and farmers in DeKalb County since the late 1960s.
Today, Johnson is part of the three-person committee that coordinates Waterman’s Lions Summerfest and Antique Tractor and Truck Show. The festival’s main attraction is the tractor pull and the antique farm tractor show.
The 14th annual festival will be held Saturday, July 19, at Waterman Lions Park. Events include a tethered hot air balloon ride, a vintage base ball game, a craft show and flea market, and a fireworks show. A beer garden will be open from 3 until 11:30 p.m., with live music from 6 to 11:30 p.m.
Johnson, who has been a member of the Waterman Lions Club since 2004, met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to talk about the festival.
Milton: How and why did you get involved with Summerfest?
Johnson: Well, I grew up on a farm, and our livelihood was involved with agriculture. For some reason, I just have a liking for old tractors and farm equipment. I have an interest in it. That’s what started my involvement. As part of the Lions Club, it’s all part of our spirit. We’re a service organization, and we like to do things for the community.
Milton: Is the festival free of charge?
Johnson: Admission to the event is free, and so is parking. Most of the events will be free of charge, and donations will be accepted and appreciated. Our intent is to make an affordable day of fun for families. There are things orientated to the kids, but it is fun for adults, too. The best way I would describe it is like a homecoming. It has a nice hometown, homecoming atmosphere to it, very friendly.
Milton: Will the event be held if there is rain?
Johnson: For almost all of the years that we’ve had the event, there has been some rain at different times during the day. We have never had to cancel a show. The chance of a total rainout is extremely unlikely. There would have to be a fantastic rain to totally rain us out, and I just don’t think that that is likely to happen.
Milton: What makes this year’s event unique?
Johnson: We started a mini tractor pull three years ago which involved smaller tractors. Some of them were highly modified. It was very exciting and they made a lot of noise, but this year, we’ve upgraded to full-size tractors. The full-size tractor pull is brand new.
The other new event is that we are going to be offering tethered hot air balloon rides starting at 6 a.m. until 7 a.m. The rides will be dependent of the weather and is strictly on a first-come basis. Balloon rides will be free.
Milton: Tell me about the train rides.
Johnson: There will be rain rides by Waterman & Western Railroad, and there will be a charge for the rides. …The train rides are for both kids and adults.
Milton: Will there be any other activities for children?
Johnson: There will be a cowboy quick draw, where shooters aim at balloons. I believe that the powder itself, when aimed correctly, will pop the balloons. There are no live bullets or anything, so there is no danger involved. …Mr. Steve’s Kids & Magic Show is at 11 a.m., and there will also be a petting zoo.
Milton: Is the pedal pull for children?
Johnson: The pedal pull is for both children and adults. There will be miniature pull tractors that you have to pedal with your feet. Some of these are even built for adults, with no charge on this either, by the way. In the past, it has been mostly for kids, but I’ll bet that the adults have just as much fun on them as the kids do. Registration starts at 1 p.m. for the 2 p.m. pedal pull.
Milton: Can you tell me about the tractor pull?
Johnson: Weigh-in starts at 10:30 a.m. Registration for exhibition and pulls begins in the morning. Exhibition pulling is $10 per hook and the competition pull entry fee is $15. Pull judges will determine the eligibility and class of each tractor and truck. There are six different categories in the pulling competition, with three non-cash prizes in each category.
At noon, there is our Parade of Power, when the tractors line up. There really isn’t a number yet, but there should be between 75 and 100 tractors in the parade. The tractors will go around the park and will stop in front of a reviewing stand. The master of ceremonies will tell us a little bit about the tractors and their history, sometimes even telling us anecdotes. …This year, the emcee will be Mark Tuttle, the president of the DeKalb County Farm Bureau. The tractor pull will start at 1 p.m. Max “Tractor Boy” Armstrong, a famous Midwest farm radio and TV broadcaster, has previously attended the event and may attend the event this year.
Milton: Who will lead the parade?
Johnson: One of our Lions Club members, his name is Ralph Johnson, will be leading the parade. Ralph is 88 years old and has been an avid International Harvester collector. He has been a member of the Lions Club since 1971. He has always brought down a part of his collection to our show every year. Anyway, he lost his wife, Marion, last year, and he will still be coming to our show. In September of this year, he will be auctioning part of his collection. …So we are going to honor him and have him lead the parade. We will give him special recognition for his tenure and support of the Lions Club and for what he has done as a collector and an exhibitor.
Milton: Will all of the tractors be antiques?
Johnson: Most of them will be. However, that is not necessarily the criteria for the pull. If you have a newer one that is normally aspirated, and you enter it in the pull, I am sure that there will be a class for it. We also have a class for exhibition pullers for those that do not qualify or meet the guidelines to be in competition pulling, including pickup trucks.
Milton: What will the tractors and trucks pull?
Johnson: They will pull a full-fledged sanctioned pull sled. It is built strictly for tractor pulling. You would see it at all the big tractor pulls at fairs and other contests.
Milton: Will there be food and drink available?
Johnson: At 10:30 a.m., the Lions Club starts the concession stand. There will be grilled hamburgers, hot dogs, and pork steak sandwiches. Those hot dogs are the best I’ve ever had. It’s good stuff, and we make sure that that the food is reasonably priced. We want to make it affordable. …There will also be an auxiliary stand with local Boy Scouts down by the tractor pull area. …The beer garden by Pub West starts at 3 p.m. and lasts until 11:30 p.m.
Milton: What makes this festival different from any others?
Johnson: Definitely the scale. It is all day long, with a variety of events. We aren’t doing just one thing, but we have a full schedule of events, with many happening at the same time. You have your pick of what you want to do.
If you travel into the city, you have to fight the crowds and traffic. If you want to go to the Taste of Chicago, and all you want to do is eat, that’s fine. But here, we have open spaces and we have a whole lot more than just eating. There are people that come from all of the surrounding towns. You might see people that you haven’t seen for many years. It’s a social event. A lot of the truck and tractor owners sit in front of what they own, and they come to socialize. People are walking by, curious about the old tractor or truck, and the owner is probably anxious to talk about it. …There are stories and sentiment behind a lot of the tractors.
Milton: Do you have your own tractors?
Johnson: No, but I appreciate the fact that people take the time and expense to restore the tractors. That way, people like myself can go by, walk around, look at the antiques, and enjoy them.
For more information about Waterman’s Lions Summer Fest and Antique Tractor and Truck Show, visit www.watermantractorshow.com.