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Manchester man to drive tractor over Mackinac Bridge

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IMG_2510John Schiel has a soft spot for old iron. This local farmer and president of the Jackson Area Antique Tractor Club has been restoring vintage tractors for half a decade. And they aren’t just for show. For the last five years he–and hundreds of other tractor enthusiasts–have taken their iron north in the fall to drive them (slowly) over the Mackinac Bridge.

Schiel, like his father before him, raises sheep out along Hogan Road on family land in Bridgewater Township. When his forbears took wool down to the Mid State Wool Growers co-op in Ohio, they could make good money, clothing the nation. In the early days, Washtenaw County was the largest supplier of wool east of the Mississippi, and even more recently, according to Schiel, his family could at least pay their property taxes with the money brought in from wool. But those days are long gone. “It’s sad to see the farms going away and more and more housing popping up,” Schiel observed. Though they still sell wool and meat from their sheep, John’s main living now comes from working as a guard at the Washtenaw County juvenile detention center. But the extra money he makes selling meat from his flock to Wolverine Packing goes into his tractors.

It’s likely the iron in all those old tractors came from the same Upper Peninsula mines that built the bridge, and supplied Detroit for decades.

Schiel noted that crossing the bridge was breathtaking. “It was a rush crossing the bridge on iron I restored,” he said. Four of Schiel’s tractors have gone across the bridge over the last five years. A 1954 John Deere 40 went over the first two years, and was so admired that a man from John Deere itself offered to buy it. After that he took his wife’s N-series Ford, but that tractor has been disassembled for further restoration. But the tractor his mother declares her favorite, and the one he took last year and will take again this year, is the beautifully restored bright orange Allis Chalmers B. Schiel has spent more than 600 hours on this machine, and is rightly proud of the effort.

Last year the Chalmers was one of 1,091 tractors to cross the Mighty Mac, making the iron-on-iron event the best attended since the first crossing in 2008. Bob Baumgras of Owosso Tractor Parts ignited the event, and in September of 2008 he saw 614 tractors cross. This year is expected to be larger still.

This year’s crossing will be September 9th, and about ten local tractor enthusiasts will be heading north to participate. If you are interested in going to watch them or to join them, or just want more information, visit the event website or connect with the Jackson Area Antique Tractor Club via their Facebook page.

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John's parents.

John’s parents

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