Stick-Pulling: Newly Revived Game of the 1840s

Ready, get set, pull!

Games of the 1830s and 1840s were primarily individual contests of skill, physical strength, and endurance. Daylight hours were needed to outsmart the elements and wrestle the wilderness. This left little time for team practice and scheduled games as we know them today. Yet men and boys have always loved to compete, especially when opportunities arise to display their speed or strength to the fairer sex. Things were no different in Joseph Smith’s day. Races were popular, as were jumping contests, and the best wrestler was the one who could throw his opponent to the ground. Stick-pulling, a contest of sheer strength and endurance, was also a very popular sport.

In the summer of 1843, the champion stick-puller of Hancock County, Illinois, was Joseph Smith, Jr., our latter-day Prophet. On June 30 of that year, Joseph met with several thousand citizens of Nauvoo at a large outdoor gathering to tell them of his recent escape from those who were trying to return him to Missouri to face false charges. During his opening remarks, the Prophet described how he passed the time while held captive. He was feeling elated. He had beaten his enemies both legally and physically. He said, “I meet you with a heart full of gratitude to Almighty God … I am well—I am hearty. I hardly know how to express my feelings. I feel as strong as a giant. I pulled sticks with the men coming along, and I pulled up with one hand the strongest man that could be found. Then two men tried, but they could not pull me up. …” (Documentary History of the Church, vol. 5, p. 466.) Joseph Smith, a little over six feet tall and weighing about 200 pounds, was thirty-eight years old at the time.

A few frontier games can be found represented in popular sports of today, such as track events and wrestling. It appeared, though, that stick-pulling had faded with the prairie grass, faded, that is, until recently.

A revival of stick-pulling started in the St. Louis Second Ward, St. Louis Stake, when a member of the bishopric who was also a Church history buff began to bring sticks to the ward picnics and socials to keep the younger children entertained. The “children” turned out to be most of the male members of the ward. The game caught on, and before long, groups in many wards throughout the Midwest were pulling sticks.

Subsequently, the Joseph Smith, Jr., International Stick-Pulling Championship Coordinating Committee came into being, and on April 24, 1971, as part of the St. Louis Stake YMMIA sports program, the first World Championship Stick-Pulling Contest was held.

During an interview on stick-pulling with a leading TV sports announcer of St. Louis, the interviewer and his associates became so interested in the challenge of the sport that before the demonstration was over, the entire broadcast staff was on the floor—pulling sticks. Even some of the St. Louis Stake high councilors gave it a try (after the meeting, of course, and with the door closed).

Modern stick-pullers are divided into two divisions, one for the juniors and one for the seniors. Juniors must be under twenty years of age on July 4 of the year in which they are competing. Seniors are all those over twenty years of age. Second, each division is divided into classes according to weight as follows:


to 100 pounds


101 to 125 pounds


126 to 150 pounds


151 to 175 pounds

Far West

176 to 200 pounds


201 to 225 pounds


226 pounds and over

The weight class is determined by a weigh-in just prior to the start of the contest. A contestant must wear minimal clothing consisting of pants, shirt, and shoes. His dressed weight determines the class in which he pulls. The flip of a coin determines who will have first choice of hand grips (inside or outside). The loser has the choice on all subsequent pulls.

After your division and class have been established, you might ask, “Exactly how does one pull sticks?” The answer, of course, is, just as Joseph Smith did it in Nauvoo. Contestants sit on the ground facing one another with their feet braced sole to sole. The Far West, Nauvoo, and Carthage divisions grasp a round stick, a 1 1/4-inch hardwood dowel, between them, parallel to the ground and lengthwise over their braced feet. The Vermont, Palmyra, Kirtland, and Independence divisions must use 11/8-inch sticks. On a given signal they begin to pull against each other until one is lifted off the ground enough to see daylight beneath him. It’s that easy, or at least it looks that easy. The best out of three pulls determines the winner of the contest, and a simple elimination contest determines the champion in each class within the division.

By the way, stick-pulling is an isometric exercise. You can pull with a lot of muscle and effort yet go nowhere. Some contestants in St. Louis struggled for nearly thirty seconds with both participants expending all their energy and neither one moving an inch. Stick-pulling is a strain, so concentration and prime physical condition are essential. The order in which muscles are used is also important. When starting to pull, keep the legs flexible, testing the opponent’s strength by pushing with the legs while keeping enough tension on the stick to hold it in the starting position. Then, as the legs reach maximum effort, start pulling with the back and, finally, the arms. All this must be one smooth, coordinated effort. Sustain it just long enough for your opponent to weaken. Then watch him come up.

For further detailed rules and information you are invited to write to R. Don Oscarson, Chairman, Joseph Smith, Jr., International Stick-Pulling Championship Coordinating Committee, 1645 Jodphur Drive, Florissant, Missouri 63033.

Whether or not you ever decide to hold a contest, you and your friends will surely enjoy this warmhearted, competitive game even as the Prophet Joseph Smith did.

[photo] Photo by Fred Palmer

[illustration] Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn