Nineteen years ago, I sat across from Carla Kemp, my first editor with the Daily Herald and learned about writing a community column. Since I had spent the previous seven years writing a family column for another newspaper, I wasn't really sure about this new style of writing. I took notes.
"Just write it as if you are sitting across from a friend, sharing a story about someone in the community," she said. "Write a story about the neighbors of Batavia."
I had no idea, she meant that literally.
This story is about my neighbor, June Thomas, and her family. I came across the story when my husband noticed a large antique plow in her garage and asked her son, Jerry, about it.
Jerry was getting ready to move the plow to the Big Rock Plowing Match.
Generations of the Thomas family have been involved with the Plowing Match since 1895.
June Thomas's family also has a connection to the rural event.
"My dad, Ernest 'Mick' Lash, was president of the plowing match for six years," she said.
According to the Big Rock Historical Society, "The George W. Thomas farm, north of Big Rock, was host to the first Big Rock Plowing Match. William T. Thomas was president and the site was his son's farm, one mile north of Big Rock village.
The plowmen gathered at 8 a.m. with the contest to commence at 9 a.m. and finish at noon. The rules required that one-half acre be plowed with a depth from 5 to 6 inches. There were classes for gang plows, riding sulky plows and walking plows, and boys younger than 18 years could use any kind of plow.
There were nine plowmen -- actually eight as one was disqualified because he used two instead of three horses. They competed for three prizes in each class: $6 for first prize; $4 for second; and $2 for third. The best plowing with any kind of plow was the sweepstakes winner and received $5.
Benjamin Thomas earned the title that first year."
And this weekend, 122 years later, the competitors will again take to the fields to compete in one of the oldest matches of its kind in the U.S. Although the rules have pretty much remained the same over the years, the mode of plowing has changed. You no longer see the horse mule-driven plows. Now the plowmen use antique tractors and both one and two bottom plows.
A ladies' fair was established not long after the plowing match began.
In the early history of the fair, competitions varied.
"Entrants would have to write the Pledge of Allegiance and be judged on their penmanship," June said.
In 1950, the Big Rock Plowing Match Association purchased 20 acres and added more activities for the two-day event. This included a junior fair for children, a horse show, beef show, carnival, pedal tractor pull, horseshoe tournament, and many other activities.
This is an old-fashioned fair complete with baking competitions and watermelon-eating contests. And baked goods are auctioned off to go home with some lucky person.
"Every year there is a single recipe that everyone makes," said Dale Thomas, June's younger son. "I won the competition when the recipe was for a Snickers Cake."
Say what? A guy wins a ladies' fair competition?
"There is a special premium for men who enter," said Dale. "I added some Snickers on the top and around the base to make mine."
Dale Thomas now lives in Keokuk, Iowa, where he serves as pastor at the First Baptist Church. However, every year he heads back to Big Rock for the plowing match. He isn't competing this year, but he is a past winner.
"Although we grew up in Batavia, we spent a lot of time at my grandparents' farms in Big Rock," Dale said.
Jerry Thomas, who still lives in Batavia, remembers driving a tractor on the farm when he was only 8 years old. He has won the plowing match five times in various categories.
"I can't compete this year and I am really going to miss it," Jerry said. "I like the challenge of plowing."
Jerry serves as a director of the Big Rock Historical Society. His parents were inaugural members.
June Thomas continues as a volunteer at the society's museum, the Historical Corn Crib. She accepts donations and catalogs the donated items. She is proud of her family's involvement in the history of the plowing match and she is proud that the history continues with her
"It's not just about preserving the history of Big Rock, but it's also about preserving our family history." said Jerry.
If you go
The Big Rock Plowing Match takes place Friday through Sunday, Sept. 16-18 in Plowman's Park, 48W508 Hinckley Road, Big Rock.
Admission is free. Visit bigrockplowingmatch.com.