The Farm Sports Festival (1/28/2022)

The winter Olympics are just days away. People are getting excited about them. Some 80 years ago the farmers and their families in Iowa and Illinois were excited about a different type of Olympics known as the Farm Sports Festival. In this Friday Footnote we are going to learn about the Farm Sports Festivals held in Illinois and Iowa from the 1930s through the 1960s.

Figure 1, Pins won by participants in the Farm Sports Festivals

Earlier Footnotes this month focused on the FFA Basketball tournaments and FFA Boxing teams that were popular in the 1930s – 1950s. While I can’t prove that these activities inspired Farm Sports Festivals in Iowa and Illinois, it is possible they did.

The first Farm Sports Festival was held in Illinois on September 4-5, 1936 at the University of Illinois. Seventy-five Illinois counties competed in the various events. More than 100 softball teams participated for state honors, the farm bureau baseball championship was decided, and young and old took part in track and swimming events. a checker tournament, tug-of-war, husband-calling, sock darning and rolling pin throwing tilts. The event was sponsored by Prairie Farmer Radio Station WLS and the University of Illinois, the Illinois Agricultural Association (the earlier name for the state Illinois Farm Bureau) and county farm bureaus. This event continued for decades.

On March 1, 1939 the Iowa Farm Bureau Association created a Rural Youth Department. The goal of this Department was to promote worth-while educational, recreational, social and service activities for farm youth. The Department was to work with “the Extension Service and other organizations.” According to the Iowa Yearbook of Agriculture (1939, p. 327) “Probably the greatest single contribution of the Rural Youth Department during the year was the promotion and management of Iowa’s first state-wide Farm Sports Festival. On September 8th and 9th, more than 2,000 farm people, young and old, representing 49 counties, went to Iowa State College to participate in games and contests for state championships.” And that was the start of a tradition in Iowa.

The Farm Sports Festivals were popular events. They were the highlight of the year for many rural families, both the young and the old. It was a chance to get away from the farm for a few days and have some fun. These events attracted thousands of people. And for some, it was the opportunity to claim bragging rights for the next year. In Illinois all contestants had to be Farm or Home Bureau families, or members of the 4-H Club, Rural Youth (an extension organization for young people up to the age of 35), F.F.A. and F.H.A. (Galesburg IL Register-Mail, July 24, 1953)

The newspaper article below summarizes the feeling surrounding the Farm Sports Festival.

Figure 2 Source: Quad-City Times, Davenport Iowa, August 20, 1950

The article above mentions some of the events that occurred at the Farm Sports Festivals. What follows is a list of events gleaned from various sources. There could have been additional events.

Table 1 A Sampling of Competitive Events at the Farm Sports Festivals in Iowa and Illinois

Archery Bait casting Bowling
Boxing and Wrestling Chair quoits Checkers
Clock golf Darts Family Singing (three or more immediate family members)
Fiddling Folk Dancing Golf
Hog calling Horse pulling Horseshoes
Husband calling Nail driving Novelty bands (three or more instruments, two must be homemade)
Pie Eating Ping Pong Rifle Shooting
Rolling pin throwing Shuffleboard Softball and Hardball
Square dancing (four couples per team) Swimming Tennis
Track events Trap and skeet shooting Tug-o-war
Tumbling Volleyball Wood chopping

One of the more popular events was the tug of war. Teams of eight burley men from each county competed for bragging rights. In Illinois, a junior tug of war competition was started for members of the 4-H and FFA in 1954. Having the winning team was newsworthy as the newspaper article below attests. I found several articles where even the weight of each man on the team was given.

Figure 3. From the Daily Register Mail, Galesburg, Illinois, August 27, 1954

Figure 4. The St. Clair County Tug of War Team. Source: Belleville (IL) Daily Advocate. August 6, 1953.

One of the popular events at the Farm Sports Festival was hog calling (and husband calling). At the Illinois Farm Sports Festival, the hog calling contestants were judged on the following:

“A. VOLUME or CARRYING CAPACITY. This is important because the voice must reach the ears of the hogs if they are in the backfield.

“B. APPEAL. The voice must be earnest and sincere, denoting honesty. It must carry conviction to the hogs that their supper awaits them.

“C. VARIETY. A varied call is more interesting and penetrating than a monotonous one given in the same key.

“D. ORIGINALITY. The hog should know his master’s voice so he may not be fooled by impostors.

“E. CLEARNESS and MUSICAL QUALITY. A clear, musical call is more enticing and appealing than a throaty one lacking music. Hogs enjoy music and happiness aids digestion. A musical call will bring them in quicker and with better appetite.”

Another popular event was softball. There was competition for adults and the youth. Most counties had adult and 4-H softball teams competing. In 1950, for the first time, FFA softball teams were allowed to compete in the Illinois Farm Sports Festival (The Dispatch, Moline, IL, June 2, 1950).

Figure 5. The Bellflower 4-H of McLean County won the 4-H state softball championship at the Illinois Sports Festival in 1937.

One of the interesting aspects about the Farm Sports Festivals was the competition involving husband and wife teams. I have been able to document husband and wife teams in bowling, archery, golf, and trap shooting. There were probably more.

Figure 6. Mixed Doubles champions. The couple on the left are Lynn and Pat Landmeier of Des Plaines, Illinois who won the husband and wife bowling crown in Illinois in 1960. This was the 2nd time they had won the state championship. Lynn was treasurer of the Arlington Heights FFA in 1956 and had won honors for FFA land judging. The photo on the right is from The Rock Island (IL) Argus, Aug 29, 1947.

The Illinois Farm Sports Festival in 1949 had reduced participation because nobody under the age of 16 was allowed to participate or attend because of the possibility of contracting polio (The Decatur Illinois Daily Review, August 13, 1949).

Putting on the sports festival was a logistical challenge. To make the state level events manageable, there were district and regional elimination competitions. In 1954, 110 Illinois softball teams qualified to compete at the state level in seven different divisions. No telling how many teams there would have been without district eliminations. Some of the events were also moved to different times and locations such as the Farm and Home Week at the University of Illinois.

Because of the popularity of the sports festival, many local counties started staging their own sports festival.

Concluding Remarks

It is nice to reminisce about times gone by. But one thing we can learn from the Farm Sports Festival is there must be some recreation and fun in our lives. The old saying that “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is certainly true. We must have some balance in our lives.

Agricultural education professionals tend to be very dedicated to their students and the profession, and they should be. However, we must pause from time to time and kick back. It is ok to have some fun and participate in recreational activities. We don’t want to burn out. And the same is true for our students. There is a lot of stress on our students, and they need time for recreation and play. We need to remember that “recreation” has been one of the purposes of FFA since its inception.

One of the early books written for agriculture teachers in 1934 was titled “Fun and Work for Future Farmers.” Perhaps we need to reread that book and apply it to ourselves and our students