Tractor Day hangs on by a single thread at Mattituck High School

06/20/2019 6:00 AM |

A unique Mattituck tradition that dates back two decades may be on its last legs.

On Monday morning, Mattituck High School principal Shawn Petretti waited outside the school as students began arriving by bus and car, as usual. He feared the school’s annual Tractor Day tradition might have reached its end. 

Then he saw a bright red tractor pull into the campus parking lot with senior Wylee Sanders at the controls. Mr. Petretti said he was “relieved” to see a student continue the tradition.

This year, it turns out, Wylee was the only student to arrive at school in a tractor.

A 20-year tradition, Tractor Day coincides with one of the final days of classes. Students are permitted to park their tractors in the student parking lot.

For Wylee, the typical six-minute commute along Main Road from Cutchogue instead took about 40 minutes, she said. The Farmall Cub tractor, brought to Cutchogue from Setauket Sunday morning, came from a family friend. As a safety precaution, Wylee’s father, Thomas, followed her to and from school.

“They were looking forward to doing it,” he said. “It’s just a shame there wasn’t anybody else.”

In June 1996, then-senior Peter Ruland struggled to start up his truck one day, Mr. Petretti said. With no alternative, he rode a tractor to the high school instead. The tradition has stayed in the district ever since.

Mr. Ruland, now 41, who currently lives in Aquebogue, was reached by phone Monday evening. He said he drove the tractor to school as a joke after a dare from his friends. For several years, he said, he didn’t know the prank had evolved into an annual tradition. In 2016, Tractor Day brought out about a dozen tractors.

This year’s low turnout wasn’t a surprise for Wylee, who only learned to drive a stick-shift tractor Sunday morning.

“A lot of the students that I know don’t have access to tractors,” she said. “I knew it’d be a small amount.”

She said her senior classmate, Christopher Imbriano, had planned to participate but decided the distance was too far from his Cutchogue home.

Mr. Petretti said the lack of participation might signify a decline in the number of students who come from agricultural families on the East End.

Those who do have agricultural backgrounds, he said, “look forward to Tractor Day — and they have the equipment. This year, I don’t think we had too many folks from farming families … but it comes in waves.”

Mr. Ruland agreed: Fewer agricultural families could be contributing to the decline.

“You certainly don’t have the volume of farms, in the industry or at least definitely in the same capacity,” he said. “But again, this was in 1996. … things have changed.”

Mr. Ruland also cited declining enrollment overall as a potential reason for the lack of participants this year.

“If you look at the population of the school itself, it shrinks and grows,” he said. “We could be in a down-cycle.”

In March, the district projected that enrollment in grades 9-12, which had 435 students as of February 2019, is expected to shrink by 22 students for the 2019-20 academic year.

This year’s senior class trip to Walt Disney World, which took place June 13-16, may also have distracted students who might otherwise taken part in the annual event, Mr. Petretti said.

“They’re trying to do so many things in such a short time frame,” he said.

Regardless of the reason for this year’s decline, the principal said he hopes to keep the Mattituck tradition alive.

“I think it’s a very unique and special thing to Mattituck and the North Fork,” he said.

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