Port Byron wins Great River Tug

The Illinois river town builds a 21-11 advantage over LeClaire, Iowa, in the annual tug-of-war across the Mississippi

 Tom McClaine on point leads the Peacock's Tavern team to victory in Illini orange in the Great River Tug Fest in Port Byron on Saturday. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Tom McClaine on point leads the Peacock's Tavern team to victory in Illini orange in the Great River Tug Fest in Port Byron on Saturday. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

The Alabaster Eagle is staying in Illinois.

Port Byron won the 32nd annual Great River Tug Fest Saturday over LeClaire, Iowa, by a score of 8-3. That gave the Illinois river town just north of the Quad Cities a 21-11 advantage in the overall series in the tug-of-war across the Mississippi River, as it's won 11 of the last 12 years. The Alabaster Eagle traveling trophy, which goes to the victorious town, stayed put.

"We've got the sport figured out," said Harry Guither, who runs two teams including his own for Guither's Tree Service. "It's technique and practice."

Technique, practice, and guidance from tugmaster Alan Black, that is. He trains the Port Byron tuggers with a contraption of his own devising, which uses a pully to lift weights of up to 1,362 pounds, intended to mimic the estimated 1,500 pounds of tension on the rope in the Mississippi River water when both sides are pulling on it.

Asked if he's the world's greatest tug-of-war coach, Black said, "Oh, I doubt that," adding, "We put our heart into it, let's put it that way."

Black teaches the tuggers technique and synchronization, so they pull together as one with the maximum efficiency. "It's all doing everything together," he said. "If you can get 20 guys to do it together, you're hard to get beat."

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"Smile before the game, and then you don't smile until after the game. If it's victory, then you celebrate."

Linda Hoehn, Hillsdale Storage coach

Port Byron and LeClaire both field 10 teams of 20 persons each — some co-ed, some all men — and one team of 25 women. The Port Byron women's team, Hillsdale Storage, has never been defeated in the 15 years the women's tug has counted in the final score, and it defended its perfect record Saturday.

"Every year we hear they're gunning for us," said Hillsdale Storage coach Laura Jackson, "and that just gets us to work harder and harder."

According to those in the know on the Port Byron side, LeClaire was also gunning for them this year with eight ringers brought in from a world-champion tug-of-war team, stacked in the Swiss Colony squad on the second tug. Guither led his own team to victory in the opening match by a wide margin, then guided Farrell Chiropractic Clinic to victory in that second tug, shaving the ringers by 67 feet to 64 feet.

"Ready, boys!" Guither called out before the tug. "Party on!"

The tug doesn't pit two teams trying to drag the other into the Mississippi River waters, but instead finds the rope strung alongside telephone poles at the banks. With the river current pushing the rope downstream, it's a contest to see which team can pull the longest length out of the water, then maintain it as the two squads tug with the rope at maximum tension.

Each three-minute tug begins with the squad of 20 (or 25 for women) dashing, rope in hands, away from the Mississippi, then turning to dig in and pull in unison.

"It's not all fun and games, so let's go!" Hillsdale Storage coach Linda Hoehn called out in the instants before the women's team set off. Along with Jackson, she drove the women's team to victory.

Hoehn said her approach is to "get in your face. Smile before the game, and then you don't smile until after the game. If it's victory, then you celebrate."

The whole town of Port Byron — population 1,700, and with thousands of others in attendance — was celebrating when it was all over Saturday. It won the first two tugs, dropped one, and then the women won to put Port Byron up 3-1. LeClaire won the next match, but then Port Byron ran off five straight, with Larson Pump earning the clinching sixth victory.

Vern McKeag was the point man — the first in front — on that tug, and caught some shade from tug emcee Matt Russell for being one of the older competitors.

"I'm on the downhill slope," he said afterward with a smile. "That's why I pull so hard."

Pete Miller, described as "just a beast" by Guither, was the point man on the opening two Port Byron victories. He said the point man is "fairly important, but you've still got 19 guys behind you. You've still got to work together. If you've got 20 guys stepping together, you're going to win."

Tom McClaine, the Port Byron point man on four tugs, winning three of them, agreed, saying, the key is "having teammates who work well with you."

The annual tug is a weekend festival on both sides of the river. Port Byron and LeClaire join in funding a massive fireworks display Friday night, and the match on Saturday begins in Port Byron with a kids' tug-of-war as the next generation of tuggers is indoctrinated in the town's pride-and-joy pastime.

"You won!" Port Byron Tug Fest President Tammy Knapp said to Black at the end of Saturday's contest.

"Yeah," he said with a nod, and walked off, no doubt already preparing for next year.