In December 1975, landowner Leonard Grotnes specifically told the bulldozer crew carving out a snowmobile trail through the woods of Valhalla Resort not to go near the swamp.

"My husband flagged out where they should go," Norma Jean Grotnes said of her late husband. "He said 'Do not go in that swamp. Do not go there', and they did anyway and it went down." By "it", Grotnes means a 56,000 pound Army surplus bulldozer.

Now over 40 years later, the massive machine has been unearthed by a group that intends to bring it to the Perham Pioneer Village.

"I'm the dreamer that got it all going," said Harold Wilkinson of Frazee. Last fall, Wilkinson started calling around asking why no one pulled out the machine after all these years.

"They all thought it was a DNR cat," Wilkinson said. "Nobody tangled with the DNR."

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After talking to a lawyer, Wilkinson found out the bulldozer became the property of the landowner the minute it went into the ground. Backed by the law and a team of friends, Wilkinson got serious about excavating the rig.

The army surplus caterpillar sat in this swamp for 43 years before being pulled out on March 16. "The first thing they saw was a bunch of bubbles," said Harold Wilkinson. "Pretty soon the ground lifted up, out comes a pile of mud and water and out come the cat."
The army surplus caterpillar sat in this swamp for 43 years before being pulled out on March 16. "The first thing they saw was a bunch of bubbles," said Harold Wilkinson. "Pretty soon the ground lifted up, out comes a pile of mud and water and out come the cat."

Fertilizer bomb

"We always thought it was a legend or a myth," said Jeff Jahnke. "We heard about this like 40 years ago. We were just 16 years old; we didn't know if there was anything to it or not."

According to the Detroit Lakes Tribune, Bob Wiedewisch, president of Sno-Fari Snowmobile Club, was behind the wheel when it submerged into the hidden swamp under the ice. The crew quickly worked to build a corduroy road with logs to get closer, but it only moved 20 feet.

"It just happened to be it was Christmas weekend, so a lot of people wanted to be with their family," Jahnke said. "It was just bitterly cold. It actually froze in."

As legend has it, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey was called to get the military's help in excavating the bulldozer under the guise it could be used as an exercise. After the troops were lined up, the Detroit Lakes Tribune ran an editorial cartoon including the "weekend warriors with a keg of beer," Jahnke said. Having been insulted, the military called off the exercise, and the bulldozer was still stuck.

The Minnesota National Guard initially agreed to unearth the bulldozer until this cartoon was published in the Detroit Lakes Tribune.
The Minnesota National Guard initially agreed to unearth the bulldozer until this cartoon was published in the Detroit Lakes Tribune.

Running out of options, the crew took one last stab. According to Grotnes, the owner of Maplelag Resort, Jay Richardson pulled up in a white pickup truck and started on a fertilizer bomb.

"They drilled holes and put diesel fuel and fertilizer on one side and dynamite on the other," Wilkinson said. "One set of explosives went first. There was mud flying everywhere."

Once the dust had settled, the bulldozer was buried under 17 feet of corduroy road, where it stayed until a few weeks ago.

"You don't run into this every day," Jahnke said. "The cat ain't worth a whole lot, it's just historic."

Last fall, armed with an ice auger and a general location, Wilkinson, Jahnke and a few others located the International TD-24 under 20 feet of muck.

"Then we got excited," Jahnke said.

Despite being under feet of mud for 43 years, the engine on the army surplus bulldozer is still capable of running. "It's still got the batteries in there yet," Jahnke said. (Carter Jones/ FOCUS)
Despite being under feet of mud for 43 years, the engine on the army surplus bulldozer is still capable of running. "It's still got the batteries in there yet," Jahnke said. (Carter Jones/ FOCUS)

After two recovery attempts fell short last year, Jim's Towing of Fargo donated their services free of charge. Using three trucks and 400,000 pounds of force, the bulldozer saw the light of day for the first time on Saturday, March 16.

"This thing is just unbelievable. They pulled that out of there like there was no tomorrow," Jahnke said "It's preserving something that would've been long forgotten."

Wilkinson said the crew from Jim's Towing is magnificent for working for free, even after being offered money.

"They knew it could come out," he said. "Pretty soon the ground lifted up. Out comes a pile of mud and water and out come the cat."

Jahnke said the engine still turns and he intends to get it running, after it's cleaned and drained out.

"This is the stage of the game we're at right now," Jahnke said while scooping mud. "What an exciting deal."