Two priests engage in vintage tractor showdown in Monroe County (VIDEO)

Friendly rivals Fr. Dawson and Fr. Tibai stage own ‘tractor pull’ for bragging rights, showing off vintage farm equipment and unique hobby

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MAYBEE — In a remote field just outside Maybee, Mich., two priests squinted at each other through the afternoon sun. 

Perched atop their respective giant farm tractors, they squared off, waiting for the referee’s arm to drop. In a huff of smoke and with tires peeling, they roared off the starting line. 

Well, not exactly. 

But it sure felt that way for Fr. Andrew Dawson and Fr. Mark Tibai, friends and — for one afternoon at least, friendly rivals in a makeshift vintage “tractor pull” contest of the pair’s own making.

Fr. Dawson, associate pastor of St. Joan of Arc in St. Clair Shores, is the owner of a red 1946 Farmall H tractor. Fr. Tibai, associate pastor of St. Fabian in Farmington Hills, proudly calls a green 1950 John Deere Model A his own. 

Fr. Andrew Dawson, right, aboard his 1946 red Farmall H tractor, and Fr. Mark Tibai, left, on his 1950 John Deere Model A, prepare to face off in a friendly backyard “tractor pull” at Fr. Tibai’s parents’ home in Maybee. The friends and farm equipment enthusiasts say their hobby has inspired homilies, but above all an appreciation for the gifts God has given. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic) 

“Usually, we go to the Monroe County Fair and the tractor pull,” Fr. Dawson said. “But it’s 2020, and it’s canceled, so we thought, ‘We’ll have our own.’”

The two were at Fr. Tibai’s parents’ home Sept. 17, where a Detroit Catholic reporter, photographer and video team were invited to witness, and referee, the friendly contest. 

Fr. Dawson, a native of Yorkshire, England, said he’s always been fascinated with farming equipment and machinery.

“In the seminary, I was placed at a parish in North Branch (SS. Peter and Paul), where there are a lot of tractors around, and that piqued my interest more,” said Fr. Dawson, who was ordained in 2017. “Somehow I knew I was always going to get a tractor, but I didn’t think it would be a year after seminary. I got myself a Farmall from the Upper Peninsula, working on it ever since.”

Fr. Mark Tibai, associate pastor of St. Fabian Parish in Farmington Hills, grew up in Monroe County, where tractors and farming life were part of his upbringing. “I have farming linage in my family,” he said. “It’s in my blood, so I’ve always enjoyed it.”

For Fr. Tibai, ordained this past June, farming and rural living were simply part of life growing up in Maybee, a town of less than 1,000 in central Monroe County.

“Tractors have always been part of my life, not that I’ve owned one, but I grew up in the area, surrounded by tractors. My first word was ‘tractor,’” Fr. Tibai said. “I have farming linage in my family. It’s in my blood a bit, so I’ve always enjoyed it.”

Shortly after Fr. Dawson got his Farmall, Fr. Tibai got his John Deere. Both tractors, the priests agree, are “workhorses” and were among the most popular tractors of their eras. 

The pair, who attended Sacred Heart Major Seminary together, often come by the Tibai family home, where the tractors are stored, to restore the classic machines to their former glory, touring the area for tractor pull contests whenever they can.

The two friends and seminary classmates enjoy working on their vintage tractors on their off days at Fr. Tibai’s parents’ home, where the machines are kept. “It’s a relaxing hobby,” Fr. Dawson said.

Time spent working on the tractors — the machines are more than 70 years old, so they break down easily — is a relaxing hobby for the two priests. But it’s more than that, Fr. Dawson insists. 

“I’ve used my Farmall tractor in many homilies now,” Fr. Dawson said. “Jesus talks about farming in his parables. For me, it gives me a great appreciation of what God has given us in the ability to create these machines, these very simple machines, that have saved so much time for people, so much work.”

Besides a chance to reflect on his priesthood, Fr. Tibai said his tractor gives him an appreciation of the sacrifices of those who came before him.

“I wrote a bulletin article on how working on my tractor reminds me of the people who built this country,” Fr. Tibai said. “I don’t know much about my tractor, but I like to think about the farmers that operated it, the toil they went through. For me, it’s an opportunity to pray for those who went before us.”

Fr. Dawson’s interest in vintage tractors goes back to his early life, but he never considered owning one until a pastoral assignment at SS. Peter and Paul Parish in rural North Branch sparked the idea.

Sentiments aside, however, there was a race to be had. And that meant the ribbing would begin.

“I'm not really picky about which contest my tractor wins, as long as it’s all of them,” Fr. Dawson joked. 

“I’ll let what happens out there speak for itself,” Fr. Tibai replied. 

Between the razzing and friendly jabs, Fr. Tibai had quiet confidence his John Deere would leave Fr. Dawson’s Farmall in the dust during the tug-of-war and drag racing parts of the challenge. 

But Fr. Dawson was equally confident, especially in his tractor’s ability to win the “beauty contest.”

“I mean, look at the curves, the red paint,” Fr. Dawson prodded. “I’m not saying John Deere tractors are bad, just Farmall tractors are more in the fullness of the truth of what a tractor is.”

Fr. Tibai, on the green John Deere, and Fr. Dawson, on the red Farmall H, prepare to start their engines. Fr. Tibai’s tractor won the race, but Fr. Dawson insists his machine won the “beauty contest.” 

Theological insights aside, when it came time for racing, Fr. Tibai’s John Deere took the first win. Then the second. Then the third.

Fr. Dawson blamed the shortness of the track and the wind for losing. But it was time for the tug-of-war to regain some honor for the red Farmall.

Well, at least it had the chance. Fr. Tibai’s John Deere made quick work of Fr. Dawson’s Farmall, easily pulling the front tires of the red tractor into the air.

“I think we proved who had the superior tractor,” Fr. Tibai ribbed, with Fr. Dawson standing next to him, offering a few explanations for what happened. “Really, we had a lot of fun today. We played around with the tractors, plowed some dirt and got to show off these great machines.”