Go Illinois! Dunk Iowa in tug-of-war!

Port Byron takes on LeClaire in 32nd annual Great River Tug Fest across the Mississippi

 The Farrell Chiropractic Clinic team takes part on the Illinois side in the 2016 Great River Tug Fest. (Facebook/Tug Fest)

The Farrell Chiropractic Clinic team takes part on the Illinois side in the 2016 Great River Tug Fest. (Facebook/Tug Fest)

By Ted Cox

It's Illinois against Iowa this weekend in a tug-of-war across the Mississippi River — and we're not pulling your leg.

Port Byron on the Illinois side takes on LeClaire across the mighty Mississippi in Iowa in the 32nd annual Great River Tug Fest at noon Saturday.

Illinois is out to build on a 20-11 lead in the overall series, having won last year by a score of 9-2. Since the first 20 were split down the middle, Illinois has won 10 of the last 11, according to Port Byron Tug Fest President Tammy Knapp.

The tug pits 10 teams of 20 men and one team of 25 women on each side in a series of pulls to see who will claim the Alabaster Eagle traveling trophy for the next year.

"The women are undefeated," said Matt Russell, an 11-year tugger who now acts as tug emcee along with his twin brother, Marty, revving up the crowd on the Illinois side. Knapp added that the women's tug started as an exhibition a few years into the annual event, but it has been tallied in the final score the last 15 years and, yes, the Port Byron women are defending a perfect record.

It was founded in 1987 by Scott Verbeckmoes, of Port Byron, who'd seen a similar, smaller-scale tug-of-war in Michigan across a creek and got the bright idea to enlarge it and extend it across the Mississippi against Iowa neighbor LeClaire.

At this point, it's a multigenerational test of civic and state pride, according to Knapp. Her father-in-law, Charles "Boots" Knapp, was one of the original organizers, and her 29-year-old son takes part in the tug-of-war now. "He's been doing it for a while," she added.

The first rope, used until it was retired in 2006, was made of four 600-foot coils bought at Trever's True Value in Port Byron, linked together to create the 2,400-foot length necessary to cross the river. But the rope is strung alongside telephone poles on both ends to keep anyone from actually suffering the indignity of taking a dip in the river as the agony of defeat.

"For safety reasons, there's nobody getting in the water," Knapp said.

It's a community festival on both sides of the river, with a carnival that began Thursday in Port Byron and extends through Saturday. Fireworks are set for 9:30 p.m. Friday.

 Marty and Matt Russell talk about how they rev up the crowd as "tug emcees" on the Port Byron side of the Great River Tug Fest. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Marty and Matt Russell talk about how they rev up the crowd as "tug emcees" on the Port Byron side of the Great River Tug Fest. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

"We joint-effort it," Russell said, with Port Byron, LeClaire, and sponsors contributing to the fireworks over the Mississippi. "It's the only joint thing we do," he added.

Otherwise, the competition is fierce. "We take it frigging stupid serious," Russell said. "It's brutal." He pointed out that the teams have tryouts just to make the final squad of 20 (or 25 for the women's team).

Knapp, however, emphasized that otherwise the two neighboring towns across the Mississippi get along splendidly — but for the three hours a year the tug-of-war takes place.

In Port Byron, a kids' tug-of-war takes place at 11 a.m. Saturday for aspiring future tuggers as the undercard for the Great River Tug Fest, which begins at noon. The award ceremony is set for 4 p.m., and for those not already tuckered out by the pull there's an arm-wrestling tournament at the same time.

Knapp said 25,000 people attend the fest just on the Port Byron side, but while it's been growing steadily attendance "depends on how hot it is" from year to year. The forecast for Saturday calls for bright sun and temperatures in the mid-80s.

"I guess Iowa's is getting smaller, because they keep losing, but ours is getting bigger," Knapp said.

Let it be duly noted that admission to the fest on the Illinois side is $4 in Port Byron, while it's $5 in LeClaire. So that might play a part as well. Viewing of the actual tug outside the fest in downtown Port Byron doesn't cost anything at all — except perhaps for parking.

The 11 Illinois tug teams include groups from Duey's Corner Tap, Peacock's Tavern, and, of course, Knapp Contracting & Storage, while the LeClaire teams include groups from the Riverview Roadhouse and Snap Fitness. But beware, Illinoisans, the Iowans have been training with weekly Sunday tug practice at Huckleberry Park in their bid to reclaim the Eagle.

Knapp said she isn't concerned. "We practice," she said matter-of-factly. "That's why we win."

Ted Cox