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Unique Art Project Reminds Drivers to Share Roads with Tractors

Rich Egger
The unveiling ceremony for Tractor Town drew a crowd on Saturday, September 11, 2021.

On a sunny and warm late summer afternoon, Kelley Quinn of Macomb unveiled her latest piece of art. Her canvas is a vintage 1939 Farmall H tractor. It is largely covered by a mosaic.

Quinn believes this work of art is unique. She said she looked it up and could not find any mention of anyone anywhere mosaicking a tractor.

“Yeah. Anywhere. Anywhere in the world. Nobody has mosaicked a tractor before,” she said with a laugh.  

“It’s a special first and it will be neat that it’s from Macomb.”  

The mosaic  is part of a project called Tractor Town, and it has traveled quite a road to get here.

Quinn said the tractor was a brown crumpled heap when she found it at a salvage yard a couple years ago.  Since then, it has taken countless donations of money, materials, and volunteer hours to make Tractor Town happen. In addition, Quinn had to pause during the pandemic, which set back the project by more than a year.

It also takes time to create images from pieces of tile.

“I typically use this material. It lasts longer than paint,” Quinn said. “And it’s a little bit fresher and newer looking. It’s more unique than just painting the tractor.”

The mosaicked tractor now stands on a concrete pad designed to resemble a barn floor. The display is surrounded by a black wrought iron fence near the community’s downtown, at the intersection of two highways and a train crossing.

Quinn said she wants Tractor Town to remind people that we’re on shared roadways. The idea for the project came to her after she saw tractors lined up during the funeral for a local farmer.

The Fatal Crash

On May 22, 2019, life-long farmer Tim Sullivan was on a tractor in the right lane of Route 67 north of Macomb when it was struck from behind by a box truck.  The impact threw Sullivan from the tractor, killing him. He was 64.

Credit Courtesy of Jessica Lambert
Local farmers parked their tractors along the route from the church to the cemetery for Tim Sullivan's funeral.

The truck driver told prosecutors he was also in the right lane and that he saw Sullivan ahead of him.  He thought he had time for a couple cars on his left to pass, reached down for his drink, and realized too late that he misjudged how slowly Sullivan was moving.

He pleaded guilty to reckless driving and was sentenced to 180 days in jail, two years of probation, and 200 hours of community service. He was also fined.

Sullivan’s youngest daughter, Theresa Young, said as the family drove from the funeral service at the church to the cemetery, they were comforted to see the route lined with tractors of all sizes – and even lawn mowers – as the community’s farmers paid respects to Tim Sullivan.

“It really made that drive after the service a memorable one and a beautiful one,” Young said.

A Hazardous Occupation

Tractor safety is a significant issue in farm country, and the concern is not limited to collisions with motor vehicles.

The National Ag Safety Database (NASD) reported overturns, runovers, entanglement, and highway collisions involving agricultural tractors kill around 250 people a year. The NASD said they are by far the leading cause of death and serious injury in agriculture. 

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that in 2017, 416 farmers and farm workers died from a work-related injury. Transportation-related accidents -- including tractor overturns -- were the leading cause of death for these farmers and farm workers. “Agriculture ranks among the most hazardous industries,” according to the CDC.

Josie Rudolphi, who focuses on agricultural safety and health at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she is an assistant professor and extension specialist, said despite the dangers, farmers use tractors just about every single day.

“We do know that farmers are very aware of the numerous hazards involved with their work. But they often consider those hazards part of the job,” Rudolphi said.

Part of the job sometimes means using public roads to get from one field to another, especially in spring and fall., so Rudolphi said some states, such as Illinois, now require new farm machinery to include flashing amber lights and red reflectors.

Creating the Mosaic

Theresa Young is one of the volunteers who helped Quinn piece together the mosaic. And on one section of the tractor, Young created a mosaic of the Sullivan family’s sesquicentennial farm.

“That’s really a special thing for us to have and do and show our children,” she said.

Credit Rich Egger
Theresa Young works on creating a mosaic of the family's sesquicentennial farm.

But before the mosaic could take shape, Quinn needed to complete prep work.

She said after the salvage yard donated the tractor, it had to be sandblasted and painted with primer and red paint to prevent it from rusting out. “I’m really excited about watching the paint dry,” Quinn said at the time, in November 2019.

The tractor doesn’t run so they also had to make sure the brakes work to prevent it from rolling.

And she had to teach the finer points of creating a mosaic to volunteers, who she said ranged in age from 5 to 84.  One of those volunteers is Alysson Bernards of Macomb.

Credit Rich Egger
Kelley Quinn (in the yellow shirt) working on the mosaic with Alysson and Mark Bernards in March, 2021.

“Kelley is great to work with. We definitely learned a lot from her and learned to listen to her perspective take her opinions because she’s the true artist here,” Bernards said.

Much of the mosaic work was done at the Physical Plant at Western Illinois University, which donated space to store the tractor as the project progressed.

Bernards hoped people will see Tractor Town as a beautiful piece of art that represents the region’s agricultural roots.

“I also hope that it will represent something to them to think of Tim Sullivan and that we should all be aware of the things around us,” she said.

Bernards said she knew Quinn before getting involved with Tractor Town and said it sounded like an important project. Her family worked on the mosaic several nights late last year and early this year. She said it was a fun family project and a great outlet during the pandemic.

Her daughter, Eliza Bernards, 14, said she enjoyed working on the mosaic. She called it a brain exercise.

“You have to figure out how things fit because sometimes things won’t fit. And sometimes things will fit and then they’ll crack. And then it’s like, well, I just spent 15 minutes doing that for nothing,” she said.

“So you just go back and do the piece again and sometimes it’s even better than the first one.”

She said working on a mosaic is a good way to get your mind off everything else and spend some time away from the computer.

Sullivan Family Thanks Supporters

After the dedication ceremony, Young said the family is touched by the project. She said it’s personal, but also thinks the community will appreciate it.

“I think it’s perfect. I think the location and the outcome, the whole set up is beautiful,” Young said, adding that she’s seen a lot of tractors in her day but nothing like this.

Her brother, Brian Sullivan, said his father promoted farming whenever he could and helped revive the FFA program in the Macomb School District. He believes his father would have approved of the Tractor Town project.

“It promotes agriculture, it promotes farming, and it promotes our community. That makes it just perfect for him,” he said. 

Credit Rich Egger
The mosaicked tractor is also decorated with lights. Here it is pictured just before dawn on Thursday, September 23, 2021.

The artist, Kelley Quinn, said Tim Sullivan was respected and loved in the community. She wanted to use art to honor Sullivan and remind people to share the road with farm machinery. She hoped the Tractor Town project will get people talking about and thinking about that.

“The talking about it is really important. If people are thinking about tractors more, maybe there will be fewer accidents,” she said.

Quinn said she’s not done reminding truck and car drivers to think about tractors while traveling through farm country. Her goal is to mosaic several more tractors and display them around Macomb. She is currently looking for a vintage John Deere tractor for the next addition to Tractor Town.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.