Butch Neel, a Kansan who has spent two days on his eight-wheeled tractor dragging ambulances from snowbanks in Prince George's County, said he noticed a new feeling yesterday.
As Neel led a convoy of nearly 60 tractors around the White House in what has become for Washingtonians since the first one Feb. 5, a young boy leaned from his mother's car and yelled, "We're with you all the way."
It was just another sign, Neel said, that despite had weather and endless traffic that inched montonously through curb-to-curb slush, attitudes toward the farmers, like the two new feet of snow, have begun to thaw.
"I didn't like it so much the first day they were here," said Wilson Follin, a cab driver bottled up by the tractorcade on Constitution Avenue. "But I think they need a break."
"It doesn't bother me anymore," said Lillian Ecton, whose car was trapped at the Ellipse for a half-hour as the trappings of mechanized agriculture lumbered by. "I think it's neat," she said.
Indeed, smiling pedestrians waved and saluted, and even yelled encouragement. One woman ran up to Neel's tractor to ask where he was from in Kansas. (The answer was Windom.) A White House guard gave Neel a grin and a big, knowing wink. And Metropolitan Police Deputy Chief Robert W. Klotz, who normally keeps a wary eye on the farmers, sauntered along almost rhythmically near the head of the convoy to the strains of "God Bless America" blaring from Neel's tractor.
Klotz stopped occasionally to show other officers a button the protesters gave him that said, "I guarded the farmers on the Washington Mall."
Many area residents seemed to want to thank the famers for their help during the emergency that began early Monday as snow piled up higher than forecasters had guessed it would. "Terrific, in a word," is the way Prince George's County Fire Department Capt. Duncan Munro described the work of farmers who joined other volunteers at county fire stations to escort engines and extricate rescue squads from snow.
"Really, the public reaction's been great," said Jerry Patton, a farmer who has been sleeplessly dispatching tractors to help ferry doctors, nurses and patients to area hospitals since Monday.
"They all say they're glad to see us, and I think they want us to stay," said Chet Hurn, who stopped to help stranded motorists Tuesday night after spending the day digging out Metrobuses with his tractor.
Not everybody was happy with the Metropolitan Police, however. "The farmers wanted to help us, but the police wouldn't let them over here," said Dave Norcross of Alexandria Hospital. Police officials and protest leaders, meanwhile, have agreed to stop letting the tractors out of the Mall because police think the snow emergency is tapering off, police spokesman Joseph Gentile said.
The farmer's wives, meanwhile, have scheduled a grocerycade to a Safeway market on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown to begin at 10 this morning, but a spokeswoman said she was unsure how many tractors would participate.