RANTOUL, Ill. — The safety of visitors and exhibitors is a top priority for Half Century of Progress organizers.
As part of the registration process, safety meetings are conducted by Craig Long, retired Kankakee County sheriff’s deputy, during each of the event’s four days. Nearly 800 operators attended the 2017 safety briefings.
The safety meetings at the biennial event at the former Chanute Air Force Base are geared toward those driving the vintage agriculture equipment and giving demonstrations. They’re also held for spectators.
“Those who come in that are driving Gators and golf carts are supposed to come in, too. I’m not sure we get a whole bunch of those people. I’m not sure that they know for sure they’re supposed to do that,” Long said.
Long’s involvement in the event dates back to the first Half Century of Progress in 2003, when he drove his 1953 International Harvester Super W4 in the tractor drive from Penfield to Henning that kicked off the festivities held in conjunction with the Farm Progress Show.
Long, who was with the sheriff’s department for 32 years, retiring as a sergeant, also farmed with his dad. He and his dad began their classic tractor collection hobby in the 1980s and started attending shows in the mid to late 1990s.
His collection now includes 21 tractors, about 16 of which he restored with his dad, who passed away in 2001. He’ll be driving his 1963 Allis-Chalmers D15 in this year’s tractor drive.
“When we came up with the idea of holding it at the airport in Rantoul and move it there in 2005, Darius Harms asked me, I guess because I was a policeman, if I would give everybody a safety pep talk as they came in. I agreed to do that and I’ve been doing it every year since,” Long said.
Harms was one of the founders of the Half Century of Progress.
Safety instructions have evolved slightly over time because Half Century of Progress is held at an active airport.
“There are a lot of rules that go along with being on the airport property about spillage and not interfering with the active runway and being respectful to the property,” Long said.
“As the show has evolved, we went from the first time worrying about the airport to worrying about golf carts and Gators. So, it became apparent right away that we needed to address that and so I give them a little pep talk about injuries that could happen if they weren’t careful.”
Fortunately, there have only been a few injuries at the show over the years that draws over 1,000 exhibitors and demonstrators and upwards of 40,000 spectators — and Long wants to keep it that way.
“Most were tripping injuries where people weren’t watching where they were going and fell for one reason or another. We had a broken wrist and another fell and got some stitches on their forehead,” he said.
“We try to point out to people that they have to be watching out for each other, picking up stuff that doesn’t need to be lying on the ground, and picking up your feet.”
Another area of focus on the safety end is the field demonstrations.
With more and more spectators maneuvering to get an up-close look at tractors and harvesters in action, operators are reminded to keep a keen eye on those around the field. Long also reminds spectators to give those conducting the fieldwork demonstrations plenty of room.
“What’s happened is there are so many who come to watch the demonstrations out on the fields that we have to be careful that they don’t get in the way. That’s something we want to stress this time. It’s like the new hot topic to make sure spectators are out of their way while they’re doing the demonstrations,” Long said.
“There are so many people that I’m not sure you can look at all of the people from the platform. So, we have to enlist the help of the other people that are there to kind of look out for that. They’re all trying to get that one and only photo that they’re going to place on Facebook and they’re in rough territory stepping in the furrow right in front of 200 horsepower.”
Yesteryear’s equipment didn’t have all of the safety features of today’s machinery.
“That’s one of the things also that we talk about is some of these machines were made 75 years ago and so there’s a lot of moving parts that are exposed. They may not have the shields on them like when they came out of the factory and quite frankly modern people, even farmers, are not used to belts and chains and all of the things that go along with that. So, we try to remind them that they can get hurt badly on one of those machines just by putting your fingers in the wrong place,” Long said.
Safety is Long’s No. 1 concern, but he also enjoys chatting with those who attend the show and the friendships he’s developed over the years.
“For me, it’s all about meeting the people and have a conversation with many of them. I’ll ask them where they’re from, what did they bring and how many times they have been there,” he said.
“It’s fun for me and you get to the point where you kind of expect to see certain ones and you hope that they make it back.”