Tractor Beam Me Up, Freddie
“He’s a laughing, singing, dancing-fool of a man, Freddie Kodanko, 65, of Liberty Grove….It’s a rare thing, a happy man. They say only saints and fools ever come close.” ~ From “Freddie,” a chapter in Norbert Blei’s Door Way.
Besides being immortalized as an authentic Door County character by Norb Blei, Freddie Kodanko has a beer named after him (Door County Brewing’s Polka King Porter), and an annual June tractor ride held in his memory.
What would Freddie think of all this posthumous idolatry?
“Oh, Freddie, he’d think it was ‘Wunnerful, just wunnerful’,” said Keith Bridenhagen, who has been a part of the annual Freddie K tractor ride since it began the summer of 2003, the year after Freddie died at the age of 89.
The annual Freddie K. tractor ride was the inspiration of Fuzzy Sunstrom, who owns Freddie’s Massey Ferguson 65 tractor.
Asked how it all began, Sunstrom said it was about remembering a Door County legend.
And then his friend Bridenhagen chimes in, “I’ll answer that. Fuzzy is a very social individual, always trying to think of fun things to do.”
“I like doing crazy things,” Sunstrom said.
“Or fun things, entertaining things,” his friend interjects.
“It’s just a day to remember Freddie Kodanko, get on a tractor and go out and have fun,” Sunstrom said.
But how did it become an annual event?
“By the time we were done with the first one, everyone had so much fun, we knew it would be annual,” Sunstrom said.
The riding of tractors symbolizes Freddie’s inability to drive a car due to “the sheriff’s boys” taking fault in his driving, as he told Blei. When Blei interviewed the 65-year-old Freddie, Freddie had been 18 years without a driver’s license.
“You don’t need no license for no tractor,” Freddie told Blei, and then wondered aloud, “Think the sheriff’ll know about this?”
“He went everywhere by tractor because he couldn’t get a driver’s license,” Sunstrom said.
“He went from bar to bar in his tractor,” Bridenhagen added.
It wasn’t just bars that Freddie visited. Sunstrom said Freddie was a baseball fan, and would drive his tractor to a baseball field, set up his amplified boombox and play polka music.
“Polka music is the only thing he played,” Sunstrom said. “He was a potato farmer. He said the only thing worse than potato bugs was rock and roll.”
“And that was a quote,” Bridenhagen said in his own voice before imitating Freddie, “Only two things I hate, potato bugs and wock and woll.”
“That’s it!” Sunstrom said of Bridenhagen’s imitation. “He crowned himself the polka king. He had a crown and cape.”
Up until 2011, Sunstrom’s uncle Earlen “Butch” Seiler was always a part of the Freddie K Tractor Ride.
“Butch was a real character in his own way,” Sunstrom said. “He and Freddie always had a competition going. He’d try to get his potatoes in before Freddie. They were good old boys. They loved to grow things. When we first started, Butch was all for it. The first couple of years he rode his own tractor, but then with age he started riding with me.”
On July 18, 2011 – a little more than a month after the 2011 Freddie K ride – 87-year-old Butch missed a step coming out of the AC Tap, fell on his head, and died.
“The good thing was, it was immediate,” Sunstrom said. “He always said he never wanted to go to a home.”
“He never suffered. Very appropriate,” Bridenhagen said.
“One of his favorite places,” Sunstrom said. “He always said, ‘There’s no place in Door County that AC Tap isn’t on the way home from’.”
“That’s right. And there you are,” Bridenhagen said.
Because Freddie and Butch were such friends, the 2012 ride and every ride since then has been known as the Freddie K B.S. Tractor Ride.
“We thought the B.S. was appropriate because of my uncle and all of us in there,” Sunstrom said. “I pull a manure spreader behind my tractor. I always thought that was appropriate.”
Bridenhagen points out that while a lot of old-timers who knew Freddie come to the tractor ride, it’s open to the public.
“If anybody’s got a tractor, come along,” he said. “Doesn’t have to be an antique. We even have a couple guys on ATVs and stuff like that. Usually there’s somebody who hauls a hay wagon so people without tractors can even ride along. It’s a good time. It’s a tradition and in memory of some authentic Door County locals that were the salt of the earth, two of the best people you’d ever want to meet.”
This year’s ride begins at 11 am on Tuesday, June 9, at the former Butch Seiler farm at German and Town Line Roads, but a lot of people hook up at the first stop, the AC Tap.