LODA — It was over a couple of cold beverages that longtime friends Danny Starkey and Dwain Weber decided to start a truck and tractor pull in conjunction with the annual Loda Good Ole Days celebration.
The two Loda men had been competing in such events around the area, and they thought it would make a nice addition to the three-day festival.
At the time, Mr. Starkey was friends with Rick Goben, who owned land on the village's west side that seemed ideal for a pulling event. While Mr. Starkey arranged for the use of that land and began lining up potential contestants, Weber built the 330-foot-long track.
That first year, there were an estimated "50 to 70" entries in the various pulling divisions for pickups, semi-trailers and tractors, Weber said. There was a better-than-expected crowd on hand, too.
"I'll never forget it," Weber said. "We thought maybe we'd have 20 or 30 people come to it, because we never advertised; it was just phone calls and word getting out. ... But as we were standing there, we looked over where everybody would sit, and the whole yard was full. We gave each other a high-five, and the pulls began."
The Loda Good Ole Days Truck & Tractor Pull would become an annual event, drawing pullers from across central Illinois and as far away as northern Illinois and Indiana — "just all over," said Mr. Starkey's mother, Darlene.
Now in its eighth year, the event has gotten "big," she added — "bigger than those two boys ever thought, I'm sure."
Last year's event saw a record 190 entries in the contest's 13 divisions. This year's event — scheduled for Sunday — is expected to bring in even more.
If he were still alive to see it, Mr. Starkey would be smiling. The affable co-founder of the annual event died in a traffic accident in March. He was 46.
"He always wanted to keep making it bigger," Weber said.
For Weber and other friends and family members of Mr. Starkey, there is a mix of emotions as they prepare for this year's event, which is being held in Mr. Starkey's memory. During the event, special T-shirts listing some of Mr. Starkey's "funny sayings" will be sold for donations, his mother said. There will also be a time of remembrance to kick off the event at 11:15 a.m., followed by the pulls starting at noon.
People from across the nation — and globe — who knew Mr. Starkey plan to be there, Darlene Starkey said.
"We've got people here from England visiting to see it," she said, adding that she has heard that Mr. Starkey's friends from Texas, Indiana, Iowa and New York are also planning to come.
"Everybody knew him," she continued. "He just socialized. He just socialized everywhere he went."
That much was evident when some 800-plus people attended Mr. Starkey's visitation following his death, and his funeral drew a packed house at a Paxton funeral home.
Mr. Starkey made social connections through his employment at Rockwell Automation in Champaign and the Twin Lakes Marina in Loda. Of course, his participation in truck and tractor pulls made him a lot of friends, too. In recent years, Mr. Starkey and Weber had a team that competed in pulling events in Illinois, including Loda's annual event.
"We put (the truck) together," Weber recalled. "G&D Salvage got it for us, and we pulled that for a few years. It was a lot of work, but we had a lot of fun doing that."
Mr. Starkey developed an interest in pulling early on in life.
"Any tractor pull that was around, we went to as a family," his mother said.
Organizing Loda's truck and tractor pull has become a family affair, too. A couple of years after Mr. Starkey and Weber got the event off the ground, members of the Starkey and Weber families teamed up to form a nonprofit organization called the Loda Truck & Tractor Pull Association, which now is responsible for organizing each year's event. The organization helped spread out the workload among more than just the two men who founded the event.
"I can't have enough praise for the people who work up there (to organize the event)," Darlene Starkey said.
The group splits up duties amongst its 15 members to organize the pulling event, as well as other events being held this weekend in conjunction with the Loda Good Ole Days celebration on Jefferson Street on Loda's west side. Other events include a parade at 10 a.m. Saturday, a mud volleyball tournament at 11 a.m. Saturday, fireworks at dusk Saturday, a barn dance featuring the Scott Marek Band at 9 p.m. Saturday, a Little Mr. and Little Miss and Jr. Mr. and Jr. Miss Pageant at 6 p.m. today and music by the JMT Trio at 7:30 p.m. today.
Proceeds from the events are used by the Loda Truck & Tractor Pull Association to cover expenses. If enough funds remain, they are given to a local charity.
With Mr. Starkey no longer around, his family is stepping up to fill the void. If he were here, his mother said, he would give his familiar words of encouragement:
"We can do this. We've got this."
Will Brumleve is editor of the Ford County Record, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit fordcountyrecord.com.