“What could be more depressing, when one is working so hard to finish a 30-mile stretch of snowmobile trail before Christmas, than to have your 56,000-pound earth mover sink in six or seven feet of water?”
That was the opening line to a story from the Dec. 20, 1975, issue of the Detroit Lake Tribune, after a 1949 TD24 International bulldozer sunk into the swamp near Island Lake while building a snowmobile trail through the woods of Valhalla Resort.
The bulldozer has now been out of the swamp for more than a year, having been rescued by the nonprofit Pine to Prairie Antique Tractor & Gas Engine Association on March 16, 2019.
And today, the bulldozer is running again, according to Pine to Prairie founder Jeff Janke.
After all of the muck from being in the swamp was cleared out, ”I just thought for the heck of it I’d push against the belt and the engine turned,” Janke said. After finding that the engine would turn, it has undergone work and now is running on gas.
“So now our plans are that we want to have it completely functional for Pioneer Days,” Janke said.
The 50th Pioneer Days is set for Aug. 15-16. However, if the event will be held this year in light of the COVID-19 pandemic will be decided by the board this coming week, according to Janke. The bulldozer is housed at Perham Pioneer Village, home to Pioneer Days.
According to that 1975 issue of the Tribune, the snowmobile trail was being built by the state Department of Natural Resources for Becker County, under the sponsorship of the Sno-Fari Snowmobile Club and the Northwest Minnesota Resort Association.
According to the Tribune, Bob Wiedewitsch was driving the bulldozer when it first became stuck in the swamp. The swamp belonged to Norma Grotnes and her late husband, Leonard Grotnes, who were in Indiana for Christmas 1975 when the event occurred, according to Focus archives.
Grotnes told the Focus in 2019 that her husband had flagged out where workers should go, and had warned them to stay away from the swamp.
They didn't stay away from the swamp.
Early rescue attempts
The snowmobile club worked with the Minnesota National Guard in one of the first attempts to free the bulldozer from the swamp. However, after a cartoon mocking their involvement was published in the Tribune, the National Guard pulled out of the project leaving the bulldozer stuck, according to the Focus.
After the idea of receiving help from the National Guard was lost, “Suddenly this white pickup pulls up with four guys in there,” Janke said. Two of the men were thought to be from the DNR, according to Janke. They walked around the sunken bulldozer and then left.
When the white pickup returned, they started the last attempt to free the bulldozer in 1975, Janke said.
This time, they had help from Jim Richards, a geologist who owned a business using explosives to create ponds in the wetlands of the Upper Midwest.
According to a recent letter that Richards sent to the Focus, he was well known for his work with explosives at the time. That's why he believes that Oscar Birkeland, who was the coordinator for Becker County snowmobile trails, called on him to try to help free the bulldozer.
“I told Oscar I didn’t think it would help much, but it was late in the season, winter coming and they wanted to do something,” Richards said in his letter. “It is a common fact among users of explosives that blasting in wetlands tends to settle the earth and things sink or decompress, so to speak. An old technique for setting power and telephone poles was to use dynamite to set the pole in swamps with dynamite and they would go deep and bottom out.”
“I put one charge on each side of the Cat (the bulldozer), lit a 4-minute fuse and all good,” Richards said. “And running back to look after the blast, it was 'goodbye Cat' as it was gone and sunk in the deep organic peat.”
After the bulldozer sank into the swamp all attempts to free it were abandoned until 2019.
After 43 years, Pine to Prairie Antique Tractor & Gas Engine Association recovered the bulldozer with the help of Jim’s Towing of Fargo, who donated their services even after being offered money, Janke said.
“They said we didn’t do it because we wanted to make a profit, we did it because we wanted to preserve history,” Janke said.