Kinsley Public Library has collected stories and photos of the event.
Farmers know two things for sure — they can't control the weather, and they don't set the price of their commodities — but throughout history they have tilled the soil and raised livestock to feed the nation.
In the 1970s, some farmers believed the whole family farm tradition was in a crisis, and a solution could be had by telling their story in an organized manner and lobbying their legislators for laws more favorable to small farmers.
The American Agriculture Movement was born in 1977 and demonstrations were staged in most state capitols. When Congress convened on Jan. 18, 1978, thousands of farmers were there to greet them. A year later, with little improvement in the farm economy, a massive "tractorcade" to the capitol was planned.
Beverly Anderson, Pratt, then Beverly Snyder of Lewis, was a part of that history-making event. She has been told she was the only woman who drove a tractor the entire distance to Washington, D.C., but she has no proof that is so.
In 1979, the Snyders had been farming in the Lewis area for about four years. They had started farming "from scratch," with no inherited land, no family machinery and $20,000 in the bank. The rest of the money to buy or lease land, put in irrigation systems and buy livestock was borrowed at 18 to 20 percent interest. Every year they wondered if they would survive another.
The Snyders became involved with the AAM, and Rocky Snyder drove in a tractorcade to Topeka, on a 730 John Deere with no cab. When the 1979 tractorcade was planned, they discussed going. With cows calving and sows farrowing, one of them had to stay home.
"It will be easier, if I go," Anderson said, and he agreed. Neighbors helped care for their 3-year-old daughter Amy.
About 20 farmers from south central Kansas joined with other Kansans and a group from Colorado near Topeka on Jan. 18. Anderson said there were some farmers from Pratt in the group, and snapshots of Don and Jean Bergner are among her pictures. Anderson was in a 4020 John Deere with a cab, but no heat other than engine heat. She doesn't recall being cold, however, and photos show her dressed in brown coveralls.
They imagined they would just drive down the highway at 14 miles per hour until they had covered the 1,300-mile distance. But they left in a snowstorm, and a blizzard kept them holed up for a while in the mountains. In 19 days, Anderson estimates there were not four good days. Cold weather played havoc with the motorhomes and travel trailers that were their homes away from home.
Plumbing froze, heaters and cooking stoves didn't always work. If you had three trailers together, you might have all the facilities you needed, Anderson recalls. The Chenoweths from Haviland had a bathroom in their motorhome, so she became good friends with them, and often washed their windows at night.
Communication was difficult — cell phones would have made it so much easier, she noted, but the business band radios many farmers used at the time helped. Anderson also acknowledged that farmers are not real good at taking instructions, and rules made by the group were ignored by individuals and no one was ever sure quite who was in charge.
A typical day began around 4:30 a.m., with breakfast in the trailers. There were short breaks, maybe 15 minutes or so, mid-morning, noon and in the afternoon. The plan was to drive no more than 100 miles before stopping for the night.
Support vehicles went ahead of the tractors and scouted a place big enough to accommodate the group. Occasionally, they just stopped along the road. Anderson stayed in a trailer with Ed and Marge Scheufler of Lewis, and Marge always had a hot meal ready for supper. Fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy was a favorite.
Sometimes the tractorcaders were fed by people of the communities where they stayed, and people took notice of them as they drove down the highways. In that respect, their mission was a success — the contacts allowed farmers to tell their stories — that wheat was selling for about the same price as it had at the end of World War II, while production prices increased, that it cost more to put in a crop than they would realize at sale, and that failure of the family farm system would make the country dependent upon imported food.
Anderson estimates that there were a couple thousand tractors and support vehicles in the group that came from the west, and near Washington, D.C., they were met by other groups from the south and the upper midwest.
Darrell Miller, a farmer from Lewis who was in the group, estimated a total of 6,000 to 8,000 vehicles descended on the capital on Feb. 5. They had parade permits, but Washington police couldn't handle the influx.
Policemen were in riot gear, Anderson said, and at a rally on the capitol steps they could see police armed with rifles above them. Most of the tractors were barricaded into the National Mall, although three from Lewis had parked on side streets, so they were able to get out and do a little sightseeing.
There was probably some unnecessary violence — parts of an old thresher were thrown over the White House fence, a tractor was burned on the mall and another went swimming in Reflection Pool, she said, but on the whole it was a pretty peaceful demonstration.
"We were called radicals," Anderson said, shaking her head at the characterization. "I never viewed myself as a radical."
Anderson stayed in Washington for five days, talking with legislators and meeting with officials from Farmers Home Administration. Others in the group stayed several months, pleading their case.
She flew home, and an implement dealer in Greensburg brought her tractor home on a trailer.
"We were desperate," Anderson said. "That's why we decided to help this AAM thing. We tried, we did something, rather than just doing nothing."
Were they effective?
"I don't think it made a lot of difference, but it certainly made people think something was up," she said. "I've listened to a lot of the interviews (by Kinsley Library staff) and all the answers are about the same. We were successful in telling the story of the plight of the American farmer. As far as any legislation that helped, not really."
Rocky Snyder died in 1981 and Beverly left Lewis in 1984. She lives near Pratt and is married to Dick Anderson.
She is looking forward to an open house and a reunion of sorts at the Kinsley Public Library on Feb. 2. The library received a Kansas Humanities Council Heritage grant to make a record of area farmers who participated in the tractorcade.
Visit www.kinsleylibrary.info for photos, interviews and information about an open house at the Kinsley Library on Feb. 2.