The World Famous Lawn Rangers of Arcola, Ill.

Americana, Featured Article, Festivals, Hometown Heroes, People, Seasonal, Traditions
on August 19, 2012
David Mudd As the nation’s first precision lawn mower drill team, the Lawn Rangers parade each year down Main Street in downtown Arcola, Ill.

Brandishing brooms in one hand and pushing lawn mowers with the other, the World Famous Lawn Rangers draw cheers and applause as they march down Main Street during the annual Broom Corn Festival in Arcola, Ill., birthplace of the nation’s first precision lawn mower drill team.

“Cross and toss!” yells leader Chris Shields, 52, waving a sink plunger as the 80-member troupe comes to a halt, mostly at the same time. Maneuvering their mowers into position, Rangers crisscross and form two lines before tossing their brooms to each other—some members even catching the peculiar parade props.

Their trademark move complete, the Rangers resume their unorthodox march, mostly out of step and parading their theme-decorated grass-cutting machines. One mower features a blowup leprechaun, another is topped with a stuffed armadillo, and others are adorned with a pink flamingo, a longhorn skull, and a papier-maché likeness of Abraham Lincoln’s head.

“The Rangers are really funny,” says Becky Borntreger, 51, of Oakland, Ill., watching last year’s performance. “They’re just big kids, men who refuse to grow up. I think we’re all like them deep inside our souls.”

Since 1980, the Lawn Rangers have marched in more than 200 parades, including processions for St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago and St. Louis, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Holiday and Fiesta bowls, and President Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Arcola’s parade each September remains their favorite. Known as the Broom Corn Capital of the World for growing earless corn used to make broom bristles and crafts, Arcola (pop. 2,916) has hosted the festival since 1970.

“I’d always enjoyed the Broom Corn Parade,” says Arcola native Pat Monahan, 74, who co-founded the comical squad with friend John O’Halloran, 71, of LaGrange, Ill.

“My friends and I would sit on the curb and heckle the entrants,” Monahan recalls. “When we decided to join them, we discovered the only thing we could do was push a lawn mower and sweep with a broom. We got a warm reception and kept brooming along.”

Starting with 13 participants, they called themselves the Lawn Rangers because Lone Ranger actor Clayton Moore was grand marshal of the troupe’s first parade. Monahan estimates more than 1,000 men since have embraced the Ranger motto: “You’re only young once . . . but you can always be immature.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist Dave Barry accepted Monahan’s invitation to join the Rangers in 1991 and has marched in parades in Arcola and Washington, D.C. He quickly earned the Ranger rookie-of-the-year award and has written several columns about the parade antics.

“It’s physically very demanding,” quips Barry, 65, who lives in Miami, Fla. “You have to remain upright over an hour and push a lawn mower. It’s very sophisticated. Not everyone can do it.”

Parade repertoire includes tossing out Mardi Gras beads and candy, bantering with spectators and occasionally luring fans to take a seat atop a mower fitted with a commode or a recliner. In addition to the “toss and cross” maneuver, the Rangers demonstrate their “walk the dog” drill by holding up their brooms while pushing their lawnmowers in a circle.

“I tell bystanders not to try these tricks at home. They’re very dangerous,” Monahan jokingly says.

The Rangers have become a parade favorite because they make people laugh, according to Mark Neville, a coordinator with the Bridge-point Education Holiday Bowl Parade in San Diego, Calif., where the Rangers have marched eight times.

“When they take a year off, we hear about it by phone and emails from people wondering where they were and when they’re coming back,” Neville says.