In a nearby barn Dick Wallingford was feeding Rock, his 12-year-old Belgian gelding that weighs 2,200 pounds and stands 19 hands high at the withers. Wallingford, 49, who has been drawing horses since 1942, considers Rock to be the strongest horse he has ever seen. During the roundup another horse puller offered $15,000 for him, but Wallingford was not selling the prize horse he purchased from an Amish farmer in Illinois. Plenty of trading does go on at every horse pull, though, because one teamster is always convinced he can do better than another with the same horse. In a sense horse pulling shares certain characteristics of contemporary marital customs.
Neither Danny Reed nor Dick Wallingford entered Saturday's event, an arcane pull native to parts of Maine called "two pound of rock," in which horses pull double their own weight as far as they can in five minutes. "I hate distance pulling," said Danny Reed. "It wears a horse's heart out, and 1 don't care for that machine, either. Six foot on a sled's real horse pulling."
So all day Saturday and far into the night groups of men and women gathered to pass the bottle, families ate steaming chicken in the 4-H food barn and teen-agers necked wherever they could. Through all the cold and wind and mud of the Cheshire Fairgrounds people talked, lived and breathed horse pulling, speculating on the outcome of Sunday's pull.
First there would be the lightweight 3,000-pound class—total weight of a team not exceeding 3,000 pounds—with Nate Black, Arthur Durgin and his brother Ronnie, the Trundy Brothers and Novae Bergeron among those entered. And then the heavyweights, with Reed, Wallingford, Harold Brigham, Charlie Wimler and old Frank Lambert, all names that sparked the kind of controversy that John Newcombe vs. Jimmy Connors does among tennis fans.
Saturday night Danny Reed's luck suddenly turned sour. Colonel, after acting funny all day, developed large boils on his legs and neck, a reaction to paint from the walls of his stall at the fairgrounds. Heartbroken, the little blacksmith packed up and left the roundup, arriving home at 3 a.m. He treated Colonel himself until six and then took the horse to the vet, who told Danny he could pull with him. "At first I thought the hell with it," Reed said, "but the vet assured me Colonel would be O.K." Back into the horse truck went Danny and his wife, and at 2 p.m. Sunday they were again in North Swanzey.
In an age that equates excellence in sports with six-figure incomes, private planes and fat endorsement checks, such dedication may seem anachronistic, if not downright ridiculous. Top money at the roundup, heavyweight division, was $115, plus a trophy and two pounds of naturally aged Vermont cheddar cheese. On the other hand, Shorty Dyke will never have to sell his house in Anson, Maine and uproot his wife and kids after being traded to San Diego, and as yet no teamster has had to resort to transcendental meditation for inner peace. Give him a chaw of Beechnut, a nip of home brew and the company of his friends at a good horse draw and things will work out fine. Never mind if the cost of feeding two horses and driving 25,000 miles a season far outstrips anything he could earn, even with a first place team. Horse pullers, after all, do more than promote and cherish a sport. They fiercely protect and defend a way of life.
Late Sunday morning the bitter north wind picked up, the sky turned heavily overcast and occasional flurries of snow whistled across the fairgrounds. Percy Culver convened a meeting of the teamsters to decide whether to pull inside the arena or out. "Cold enough for ya, Percy?" one driver yelled. "Why, hell," Percy said, "ain't no colder'n it was wet last week." Nonetheless, inside won hands down.
At 8 p.m. Sunday 18 heavyweight teams and their handlers gathered at one end of the unheated arena, the crowd of about 2,000 blanketed and long-johned fans made final bets among themselves and the long-awaited free-for-all horse draw began. "O.K., boys," said Junior Edwards, the announcer, in a voice that could peel the bark off a tree, "the starting weight is 5,000 pounds. Team No. 1 is J. D. Durgin and sons from Antrim, N. H., Ronnie Durgin doin' the drivin'."
The teamster, reins in hand, a dead cigar in the corner of his mouth and a hunting hat on his head, flanked by two tobacco-chewing attendants called evener-men, marched the length of the arena behind the great horses prancing with high-held tossing heads. As they approached the weight-laden sled the men circled ceremoniously and slowly backed the wild-eyed beasts up to the hitch. An iron bar with an eye in it, called a whiffle tree, secured to the horses' traces by an evener-bar, was placed over the hook of the sled by one of the evener-men while the teamster cajoled, commanded and muscled the horses back and forth. This is a task on the order of threading a needle and stopping a runaway freight train at the same time and, with more than two tons of psyched-up horseflesh rearing and pawing the ground, disaster is always imminent. Later in the evening Ronnie Durgin's brother, who won the afternoon 3,000-pound pull, was flipped 30 feet across the dirt when an evener-bar broke. Durgin flew one way, his plug of Redman flew another and his horse went right over him. Durgin was lucky to escape with only a shoulder separation.
They pulled for more than four hours, slowly eliminating one team and then another until, at 12:45 a.m. Monday, the John Deere payloader placed two 750-pound blocks atop the stack already on the sled to bring the weight to 20,250 pounds. Four teams remained: Wallingford, Reed, Charlie Wimler from Durham, Conn. and Magill & Kimball from West Burke, Vt. The crowd, numbed by the cold, was silent and tense. Now the teamster's coordination and the horses' ability to pull simultaneously were crucial. At the instant of each hitch the teamster's command sent the horses surging forward against the weight with a noise like eight interior linemen butting heads. For four or five seconds they pulled, necks stretched parallel to the dirt, chests and shoulder muscles bulging, mouths agape, legs digging for a hold in the loosely packed earth, the teamster, down low between their hindquarters, calling to them, "Now, Rock, yeah, Rock. Pull Rock, Rock, Rock," then unhitching while another team approached. Both Wimler and Magill & Kimball failed in three tries to move the weight six feet.