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Tractors and drivers take a whirl during Farm Show's tractor square dance

HARRISBURG — Justin Carr square danced twice at the 103rd Pennsylvania Farm Show, once with people and once with tractors.

The 13-year-old boy from Holsopple said he prefers dancing with tractors.

On Monday, Carr danced with the Milk Squirts of Somerset County in the New Holland Arena as he and hundreds of others participated in the state’s largest square dance. On Thursday, he and guys on seven other tractors did tractor square dancing, highlighting the sixth day of the eight-day Farm Show.

“This is my first year doing tractor square dancing at the Farm Show,” said Carr, an eighth-grader at Johnstown Christian School. “We practice every Monday evening. My pap (grandfather) does tractor square dancing too.”

Tractor square dancing, a quirky Farm Show tradition, mirrors human square dancing. Eight people on tractors, four men and four playing the part of women, “dance” their way around the arena. Since relatively few women participate in tractor square dancing, some men on tractors dress up in skirts, wigs and bonnets.

The Root Top Tractor Buddies, founded nearly 20 years ago by William Blough of Boswell, seems a perfect fit for the county that is the state’s stop square dancing county. Somerset County is known as the “roof top of Pennsylvania” because it has the highest point in the state, 3,213 feet.

As people headed into the New Holland Arena, drivers ranging from ages 13 to 81 years old got on their tractors that ranged from the 1940s to the 1960s. Team caller Edith Rhoads sang the national anthem, welcomed the crowd and put vinyl records on a record player. She then called out the orders.

To the tune of “Tractor Stroll,” “Turkey in the Straw,” “Tea Cup Carousel,” “Relay the Deuce” and other songs, the tractors whirled, twirled and made their way around the arena.

“It helps that we know how to square dance,” said Justin Carr, who drove a 1942 Farmall in the event. “I know square dance moves so I just had to learn how to drive a tractor. I like square dancing with tractors because I don’t have to learn hand motions.”

As the performance went on, the arena became a colorful blur of intricate maneuvers. The audience marveled at how the tractors with different gear ratios and different wheel sizes worked together so well, especially when operated by men with different driving styles.

Sometimes, the tractor wheels came within inches of each other. Yet nobody collided. Justin Carr said the group’s weekly practice, followed by a potluck dinner, helps.

Even state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding and his deputy secretary, Fred Strathmeyer, got into the act, both riding on tractors in the arena for part of the event.

Tractor square dancing is a family affair in Somerset County, Pennsylvania’s premier square dancing county.

There’s Harry Rhoads, his son, Tim, and his grandson, Brandon, all of Berlin, who for years square danced with the Wheelers and Dealers of Somerset County. The group also includes Darrrel Holsopple and his grandson, Justin Carr, and Greg Miller and his grandson, Tyler Zimmerman.

Edith Rhoads, team caller, is Tim Rhoads’ wife. The drivers give her credit for “keeping us straight.”

The drivers took pride in their tractors, Dan Parks with his orange 1950 Co-Op, Bill Blough with his green 1962 John Deere and the others with their red Farmalls. Allen Rhoads drove a red 1940 Massy Harris.

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Exceptional Kids Rodeo participants get chance to play cowboy or cowgirl

HARRISBURG — Two Cumberland County eighth-graders on Thursday traded classes for cowboys and cowgirls as they roped steers, rode bulls, tried bareback riding, did barrel racing and got close to a horse named Miss Bell.

The students, part of the East Pennsboro Middle School Life Skills and Autism Support Program, said they thoroughly enjoyed the First Frontier Circuit Finals Rodeo’s annual Exceptional Kids Rodeo during the 103rd Pennsylvania Farm Show.

First Frontier, which holds paid rodeos the last three nights of the Farm Show, sponsors the hourlong event to give under-privileged and challenged children a taste of rodeo. They took the children around to the stations: stick horses for barrel racing, a small simulated bull for would-be bull riders, a small wooden calf for calf roping and more.

Kevin Clanton, president of the First Frontier Circuits Finals Rodeo, said hosting the exceptional rodeo always is a great experience for the 75 cowboys and cowgirls in the rodeo. That was evident from the smiles on their faces as each was introduced to a child to escort around the arena to simulated rodeo events.

The 75 children, mostly from East Pennsboro Middle School in Enola and Hamilton Heights Elementary School in Chambersburg, enjoyed the experience — and the cowboy hats, rodeo T-shirts and bandannas they received when they arrived in the New Holland Arena.

An East Pennsboro Middle School eighth-grade girl seemed thrilled to be paired with cowboy Carmine Nastri of Ballston Spa, New York. Nastri, a roping specialist in the rodeos, showed the girl how to rope a dummy steer then grinned when she successfully did it.

The girl also sat atop a simulated bucking bronc, grinning with delight as two cowboys gently rocked the bale of hay underneath.

“This is my first rodeo and it’s fun,” she said. “I’ve been collecting the autographs from the cowboys and cowgirls.”

A 14-year-old boy from East Pennsboro seemed gleeful at the bull riding station, holding on tightly, laughing and exuberantly waving his cowboy hat to the imaginary crowd.

The Chambersburg-area students seemed to be having just as much fun. An eight-year-old boy, with all the confidence of an experienced cowboy, tried out bareback riding on a dummy the cowboys rocked.

A 7-year-old boy happily petted Miss Bell, a 19-year-old paint horse. “I like horses,” he said simply.

“I live to make people fall in love with rodeo,” said Madison Iager, Miss Agriculture USA. “Seeing this little girl smile makes my year,” she said as a 6-year-old girl she was escorting beamed in delight.

“This day gets our students out in the community,” said Bre Corby, Hamilton Heights Elementary School autism support teacher. “We brought 43 kids with us today. They’re having fun.”

State Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding called it “part of the Farm Show for everyone regardless of ability. It’s a gift that First Frontier gives to these children.”

The First Frontier Circuit Finals Rodeo will perform in the Large Arena at 7 p.m. Friday and 5 p.m. Saturday. Tickets can be purchased outside the PA Preferred Banquet Hall.