Photo courtesy of Probasco Family
A parade wouldn't be complete in Huntsville without Dennis Probasco (shown here in last year's Fourth of July parade) and the rest of the Probasco clan on antique tractors.

HUNTSVILLE — Dennis Probasco knows exactly who to blame for the fact that he always winds up at the tail end of a parade he’s never witnessed in 64 Fourth of Julys.

Ever since his father, Harold Probasco — aka “Shorty” to the locals — decided to fire up several of his antique tractors and lead the Probasco clan around Huntsville Park at the end of the city’s Fourth of July parade, “that’s where our family has been every year,” he says.

“I’ve never actually seen the parade, but I’m told that we have a good one. Especially the part with the tractors.”

This year, when old and young Probascos gather once again to celebration the nation’s birthday and show parade-watchers a forgotten slice of Americana, Harold will be 87 — “old enough to know better but young enough to turn over the engine one more time.”

In his blue bib overalls and baseball cap, sitting atop a perfectly restored Power Horse that putters like an old Model T, he’s as familiar along the parade route as kids on bicycles and clowns on stilts.

“I call it a good day if I can get through the parade without one of (the tractors) breaking down,” he says. “Just like me, they’ve seen some miles. I guess it’s a nostalgia thing: taking people back a bit and showing them how things used to be done is what it’s all about.”

For the record, Harold hasn’t spent much time working the fields with any of the tractors in his historic collection. Born and raised on a Missouri farm, he decided that planting and plowing wasn’t for him when he came home from the Navy after World War II, so he went to work for the Union Pacific Railroad.

“But I’ve always loved to tinker with engines, especially tractor engines,” he says, taking a Free Lunch break to talk about the hobby that has taken over his life and his garage. “The day is coming when there won’t be anybody left who remembers seeing farmers ride machinery like this in the fields. I aim to keep collecting and restoring as long as I can.”

Two of Harold’s sons, Dennis, 64, and Gary, 63, also collect old tractors, patiently fitting them with new engine parts until they’re able to sputter at 2 mph in Huntsville’s parade.

“The first time we appeared in the parade, though, was actually on a float that Dad put together,” says Gary, who recalls waving at his friends with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. “Then he got the idea to show up one year with all of us on tractors and it stuck. We’ve been bringing up the rear of the parade ever since.”

Among the more unusual farm machinery in the Probascos’ collections are several rare 1930s-era Power Horse tractors made in Clinton. “They’re driven with reins like a team of horses,” says Harold, “and believe me, there are days when they’re every bit as temperamental.”

He and Gary will be driving theirs in this year’s parade, pulling buggies loaded with Probasco grandkids.

“We’ll put two gallons of gas in each tractor and hope that we make it through the entire parade route,” says Gary. With 20 tractors, “we’ll use up about 40 gallons,” he says, “but it’s always worth it.

“It’s a heck of a lot more fun,” he admits with a laugh, “than putting red, white and blue crepe paper around the wheels of a tricycle.”

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Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime western correspondent for People magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.