Despite suffering sound defeats in recent years to rugged rope pullers in the Illinois Quad-Cities, tuggers in Iowa remain confident about their upcoming challenge.
“I don’t live in the past,” said Chad Christy, head tug master for LeClaire, Iowa. “To me, it’s all about this year, and I feel better this year than I have in the years past.”
That’s a good sign, considering teams representing LeClaire have lost nine of the last 10 tug-of-war battles to their cross-river foes in Port Byron, Illinois.
The small towns, just 15 miles upriver from the metro Quad-Cities, will square off next Saturday during the 31st Tug Fest, one of the region’s most unusual bi-state contests.
Since 1987, officials have strung rope across the main channel of the Mississippi River for the annual afternoon of grueling competition.
The U.S. Coast Guard confirmed that boat traffic will be halted from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Aug. 12.
Over 11, three-minute bouts, opposing teams will dig in their work boot heels and duel for control of the rope. The side with more wins earns bragging rights and the alabaster eagle trophy.
Practicing in private
No one described the experience better than Harry Guither, a longtime tugger for Port Byron who travels about 45 miles here every August from Walnut, Illinois.
“Some people call it sheer bliss and some people call it three minutes of hell,” said Guither, who has brought a 20-man team with him to Tug Fest since 2004. “It depends how much training you’ve had.”
Each side has 10 teams of 20 males and one team of 25 females. The past two years, the Illinois side has won all 11 matches.
The last time Iowa won was in 2013, and that broke a seven-year losing streak, according to Quad-City Times archives. Illinois leads the overall series 19-11.
Tammy Knapp, president of the Port Byron Tug Fest, credits that success to their training regimen.
“It used to be more of a party back in the day, but practices are harder now,” said Knapp, who has spent her entire life in Port Byron and nearby Rapids City. “Just like anything else, the more you practice, the better you get.”
But Knapp, whose family has been involved with Tug Fest since its inception, would not disclose how or where the Port Byron teams prep for the main event.
“It’s all private because we don’t want anybody knowing our secrets,” she said, noting many teammates have been practicing at least twice a week for four months. “They know what they’re doing, and they’ve been doing it a long time.”
Guither, the Illinois tugger who runs a tree service company in Walnut, said his team practices by pulling against a barrel of concrete attached to an elevated pulley.
“We practice for four to five minutes, so three minutes is a vacation when you have thousands of people yelling at you, cheering you on,” he said. “It’s all for the love of the sport.”
While they have introduced the tactic to other teams on the Illinois side, Iowa teams practice with a similar setup. Instead of using a barrel of concrete, they hang various weights from a pulley, according to Iowa tug masters.
To better their grip, Guither said they cover their hands with a sticky homemade concoction called “lumpucky.”
They produce the syrupy substance by boiling rock rosin in gasoline.
“It’s well known in the sport,” said Guither, who has been tugging since 1980. “It’s a minor part of our success.”
In Iowa, competitors mix rosin with camping fuel, said Matt Thoene, a lifelong LeClaire resident and tug master for his hometown.
“We mainly use camping fuel because it’s not as flammable as normal gasoline,” he said.
Thoene, who has not missed a Tug Fest in 23 years, also captains Muddy River Tug Club, a traveling team mostly made up of LeClaire residents.
Last month, they participated in the United States Amateur Tug of War Association’s national tournament in Mount Vernon, Wisconsin, where they finished first in the unlimited weight class.
“Our guys have improved a ton,” Thoene said. “I think we have a real good chance this year.”
Increasing their odds of winning, the club from Mount Vernon, which won every other weight class at nationals, plans to pull for the Iowa side at Tug Fest.
“It’s not something you can do every day,” Thoene added. “People from all over come and look at the river, and we get a chance to actually pull across it.”
Vying for a comeback
Before the gritty action begins, representatives from each side will fasten separate ropes in the middle of the river.
Previously, the 2,700-foot, 680-pound rope was transported across the river from Port Byron to LeClaire. However, some thought the process made the Iowa-side part of the rope wetter, and therefore heavier.
Although his team lost 11-0 last year, Christy, Iowa's head tug master who no longer competes due to multiple neck injuries, said the change made a difference.
“We had dry rope for the first time ever,” he said with a laugh. “Dry rope has to be better than wet rope.”
This year, his teams will position themselves to pull at a slightly different angle in hopes of combating the current.
"Nobody controls the current," Christy said.
When it comes to the pit in Port Byron, they abide by one rule: If it's not broke, don't fix it.
“Ours isn’t fancy,” said Knapp. “It just looks like a little piece of grass with a pole.”
No matter what, the elements are sure to have an impact on the outcome. That’s what makes this the tug of all tug of wars.