It’s really an excuse for a party. It’s serious competition, but still a party.
The 31st annual Tug Fest, a tug-of-war between Port Byron and LeClaire has been described by participants as “three minutes of hell.”
There are ten men’s teams of 20 members each, which can include women. So there is not tie, the 11th team is a 25-member women’s team, which does not include men. This year LeClaire moved it’s tug-pit bit closer to the riverfront’s concrete levee, almost even with Port Byron’s pit.
The Illinois teams continued their dominance by beating Iowa's teams 9-2.
“We’re going to find out if it helps, we haven’t won in three years,” LeClaire committee member Barry Long noted.
Each side brings half the rope and a steel clamp is used to secure the middle.
The secret as to who wins is that the rope is rarely, if ever, taut between the two sides. The “winner” of each tug is usually determined by “feet,” sometimes inches, as to how much rope slack is pulled out of the river to each side. At the end of three minutes, judges from the other side measure how much more rope has been pulled.
Each side’s rope goes through a pulley, allowing each side more pulling space, a longer pit. The pulley can spare injury because the river pushes on the rope so hard it has knocked people down. When a team’s last man reaches the end of the pit, he’s required to leave the rope, and run to the front, grabbing it there.
One Port Byron team, Guither’s Tree Service from Walnut, Illinois, had almost half the team, eight, leave and then re-grab the rope. They beat an Iowa team by some forty feet, which included some members of the national championship team from Wisconsin. They were led by a cheerleader who held his arms above his head, then yelling, “pull!” as he slammed down his arms. The second the pull is over every tugger holds on but drops to the ground, where they get water bottles from a team of water-girls.
Some “tuggers” don’t necessarily look the part. Devin Allbee, 21, of LeClaire says his teammates don’t have to be big and muscular, but need to be quick, strong in the legs, and have great form.
“Your feet have to be able to side-step, your hands close to your body, your waist and hips need to face the sky, because you don’t want to bend over like a taco,” he explained.”
He notes they use a pulley system with barrels and weights until the last month and then they hit the pit.
“Once the adrenalin kicks in, you don’t feel it ‘til after it’s over,” he added.
As to why Illinois lately seems to win the majority of the tugs, Allbee admits Port Byron’s teams might practice more and may be in better shape.
Port Byron’s committee President Tammy Knapp also chalks it up to more practice and starting earlier.
Irvin Foltz of Albany, explains the Guither’s approach, saying they practice two or three times a week, in part because they love the competition. “And if you give 100 percent, it will be the worst three minutes of your life,” he insisted.
He referred to that “form” thing, too. “I don’t care how big or strong (you are), it’s all about technique and endurance,” Foltz said, adding, “you get a lot of power with everyone on that team looking like a centipede.”
Kelli Brannen of Moline on Guither’s team, had a piece of fabric wrapped around her middle; some people use a weight-belt “to secure their spine and ribs and you can push harder if you’re pushing against something.”
There are tuggers on both sides over the age of 60, but all say it’s a lot of fun.
There again is that “party” atmosphere. LeClaire’s spacious levee has plenty of room for carnival rides, food booths, a beer tent, and even a stage for Sunday’s church service can set up close to the action. One booth expanded its menu to include strawberry, red velvet, and s’mores funnel cakes. Stephanie Ramirez of Colona was twisting balloons into animal shapes, saying, “I learned how to do it by watching YouTube videos.”
Up the road at his home-accessories “Dwelling’s’ shop, owner Mike Hall was even having a good time.
“It’s a great exposure for the community and the restaurants kill it,” he said, adding, “many folks return each year and much of the money they charge to get onto the levee is given to local, not-for-profit groups.”
Adding to the offerings are many yard and estate sales as you drive to and through LeClaire, Rapids City, and Port Byron.