Countdown to IPM '17 - '78 host governed at national level
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Jim Armstrong, who lives just north of Blyth, has been a big part of the competitive plowing scene for decades and the branches of his tree have continued his great work.
Armstrong and his wife Carol served as hosts for the 1978 International Plowing Match (IPM), which was held on land that is now the Richard W. LeVan Airport on Hwy. 86 just east of Wingham. The ambition to one day host an IPM, however, was just the tip of the iceberg for Armstrong.
For decades, Armstrong worked for David Brown farming equipment. The company had territory in Ontario, but was looking to expand and that was where Armstrong came in. It was through his work that he became familiar with the IPM and provincial figures who were instrumental in its success, like Walton’s Gordon McGavin.
It was, however, when he was earning a degree in agriculture from the University of Guelph that he was first introduced to the world of competitive plowing.
In a 1993 interview with The Rural Voice, Armstrong said he tagged along and observed some of his classmates and learned the importance of setting up equipment ahead of the competition.
After attending the match for several years, Armstrong quietly and privately began to hope that one day he and his family might host an IPM. However, in the early stages of that desire, Armstrong said his family didn’t exactly share that enthusiasm.
However, as Huron County won the right to host the 1978 IPM and his family’s farm was in the running as a potential host, everyone soon came around.
“I was really interested by the IPM and I thought some day that I wished I’d have the luck of hosting something like that,” Armstrong said in an interview with The Citizen.
The Armstrongs first set up shop in Peel County (now the Regional Municipality of Peel), where Jim and Carol maintained a dairy farm. However, Jim suffered a heart attack at the young age of 34 and he was forced into an early-life career change.
The family moved to Huron County in the late 1960s and began to farm on the Wingham-area parcel of land where the 1978 IPM would eventually be held. The Armstrongs established a beef and cash crop operation once they were settled in Huron County.
The Armstrongs made the change in order to put Jim’s health first and they had to sell the dairy herd before they moved to the Wingham area. And while he and the family had to make a change, he said they were all determined to still make a great life for themselves, despite the challenges.
“After that you can sit in a chair in the corner of the house or you can get up and get back to work,” he said.
After attending several IPMs and meeting those involved with the Ontario Plowmen’s Association (OPA), Armstrong’s farm was thrown into the mix for the 1978 match.
Back then, he said, there was a five-year lead-up between announcing the host county and actually hosting the match. That was essential at the time, because many counties were bidding to host the match and the environment was very competitive, which made hosting the IPM even more thrilling for the family.
The Armstrongs were in the process of acquiring more land for their operation in the years leading up to the match, so they had to move some crops around and began growing alfalfa as early as they could to ensure a good base on their land for the tented city.
When the time actually came, Armstrong said he was shocked when he woke up every morning of the IPM to look out the windows of his home and see a tented city with thousands of people walking around. To this day, he says, the IPM in 1978 is one of the best-attended in the OPA’s history, attracting 215,000 people to the area over the course of five days.
Armstrong says he remembers fearing rain the week of the match after weather had washed out the match of the year previous, but it proved to not be a factor.
One highlight that Armstrong says he remembers more than many of the others is on opening day of the match when he and Carol met Neil Armstrong and his wife Janet. Jim says he remembers the astronaut being exceptionally humble and interesting.
In fact, the two men bonded over the Scottish roots of their ancestors when after some discussion they realized that their ancestors both came from the same small town in the southeast corner of Scotland: Langholm.
He said the match, which is commonly referred to as the “Money Match”, will always be remembered as a great success. And while he spent most of his time circulating around the site and meeting people, other members of the Armstrong family were also hard at work.
Carol was in charge of the IPM’s women’s program throughout the match and on one day Jim served as the program’s guest speaker.
Of their five children, Jim said that his and Carol’s son Bill was one of the biggest helpers, but that their two youngest daughters, Deborah and Wendy (Deborah is the chair of the beautification committee at this year’s match and Wendy is the principal at North Woods Elementary School) got the most out of hosting the match and being present at the site throughout the week.
The two girls were in their teens at the time of the match and worked as greeters, meeting hundreds of guests every day.
Armstrong’s involvement in the world of competitive plowing, however, runs far deeper than simply hosting the match in 1978.
In the years leading up to the Armstrongs hosting the match, Jim became a director with the OPA, eventually moving on to be part of the organization’s executive.
He would serve as the president of the OPA the year following hosting the match, when the IPM was in Chatham-Kent. The challenges he faced as the president of the organization, he said, were completely different than those he encountered as a host of the match.
Armstrong said that as the OPA president, he was at least able to focus singularly on the task at hand. When he was the host of the match, he had to look at things three different ways: as a host, at the Huron County level and at the OPA provincial executive level, which made things complicated, he said.
Doing one of those jobs, he said, was enough, let alone trying to do all three in the same year.
The workload and responsibility, however, didn’t deter Armstrong as he continued to rise in the ranks, spending time with the Canadian Plowing Council, eventually serving as its president as well.
Again, he said that serving at the national level offered a completely different experience from hosting the match and serving at the provincial level.
He would go on to be the president of the national organization from 1986 to 1990 and that led him to serve in a Canadian Coach Judge capacity at two World Ploughing Matches. The first match saw him travel to Amana in Iowa in the U.S.A. for his duties as a back-up judge at his first world match in 1988 and then to Kleppe, Norway for the match the following year where he was the Canadian Coach Judge.
He would then go on to judge at several local competitions in the years that would follow.
The Armstrongs would eventually move to Bruce County, living between Walkerton and Hanover for a number of years before they moved to their current home just a few kilometres north of Blyth.
While in Bruce County, Armstrong was brought on as a member of the executive committee when the match was held near Walkerton in 1993.
And while he’s been involved with various plowing organizations in prominent positions across three decades, Armstrong insists that his “official” time with IPMs has come to a close. He and Carol hope to attend this year’s match, if health allows them, but only as spectators.
Armstrong feels the match is important for rural residents as well as those who live in urban areas, which is why he’s been such a supporter over the years.
While he always viewed the match in a rather progressive way, focusing on not just plowing, but the rural way of life, he knew that plowing would always be the centrepiece of the match.
“Plowing is still an important part of the match,” he told The Rural Voice in 1993. “It’s a skill that can be turned into a competition for people.
“It’s important that urban people learn about plowing so that when they drive down the road, they don’t look straight ahead, but look to the fields and are able to understand what’s happening to those fields in order to get a bit of an idea what goes into producing the food that they eat.”