St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Last Week for Crutches!

On Thursday I have an x-ray to see if my knee and broken leg are finally ready to walk on again. We plan to hook on the camper and head south Friday to find a warm ice-less area to practice walking on for 3-4 weeks before coming back to tap the maples in Wisconsin. Spring!!!!!

Here is a newspaper column from last week:

Rearranging Nature

“Practice your wave,” Byron told Margo who was sitting at the passenger window of his 1950 2-ton Chevrolet truck. We put the truck in super low and crawled our way though mainstreet Prentice, WI, accidentally becoming part of their 1978 summer parade; waving and smiling, wishing we had some candy to throw out. The truck had a sign, B &V Lumber, and was loaded with the bright orange 1947 Cletrac crawler, a DNR TP 110 label. When the parade route turned off mainstreet, we headed straight on out of town to Cushing to bring our new crawler home and begin re-arranging nature on the farm.

Back in 1970, a very dry year on the farm near Cushing, I watched as my cousin Harvey Roberts made one of our silted-in cattail swamps into a very nice farm pond with his big Cat Dozer. It made me realize that I too needed a dozer if my life was to be satisfying and complete.

That summer I worked for the WI DNR fire control group out of Grantsburg. Some of the time I was in the Sterling fire tower, but much of the time, I was at the station in Grantsburg where Glenn Nelson, Bud Nelson, Leslie Anderson and our boss Earl Meyer worked on projects while keeping prepared for forest fires. Glenn and I were the summer help and painted the inside of the garage and insulated and paneled the inside offices in the old cement block building. My name is likely still hidden under the paneling at the outlet next to the door that exited to the east.

During the time I was there, I got to see Bud and Leslie drive the Oliver Cletrac AG-6 and International TD-6 fire plow crawlers. These small, narrow tracked tractors pulled a two-way fire plow to make a wide furrow and stop a ground fire. The operators preferred the International as it was easier to turn. “the TD-6 clutches and brakes a track when you pull the lever, but the Cletrac just brakes, so you have to really yank and then it might not come around,” Bud told me. The crawlers were new in the late 40’s.

My brother, Everett Hanson, worked for the DNR out of Grantsburg starting in the early 1970s. He told me:
“Bud Nelson hated his Cletrac. He thought the IHC (T-6) replacement was vastly superior with it's excellent turning ability. With a fire plow, the Cletrac almost refused to turn. Bud claimed that he went from tree to tree bouncing off one side or the other. If the bounce went wrong he had to stop, raise the trailer plow, turn and try for the next tree. It wasn't quite that bad but if you had previously driven a T-6 it was maddening.”

“The Cletrac had a nice smooth sounding 6-cylinder Continental engine but I preferred the bark of a 4-cylinder T-6 with only a spark arrestor for a muffler--probably why my hearing is so poor. If you have really worked my IHC M hard you know the sound, you can almost count the cylinders firing. The assumed (mostly by those who fought fire from behind a desk) advantage of the differential steering of the Cletrac was slow gentle turns that would get you though swampy ground with out getting stuck. When pulling light loads the Cletracs turned fairly well.”

“The Cletrac had about 40 hp and the T-6 had just a little less, I think. The number was alway had TP for tractor plow on the old units. TD stood for Tractor Dozer. A lot of the old crawlers were 1947's with less bought in the early 50's. There was a larger purchase of 6 cylinder T-6's in the 1960's.”

“The old crawlers had trailers made by the Tomahawk DNR mechanics. They were long single axel, tilt bed heavy trailers. You tipped the back down; drove the crawler slowly up the two heavy metal rails and then the trailer tipped forward either gracefully if you were going very slowly or with a bang if not. An old army truck pulled the trailer loaded with the crawler and plow. At the fire, you backed the plow and crawler down the ramps and headed out to contain the fire.”
“The Cletrac was painted orange. It was narrow, not much over four feet wide, so it could skinny through the woods. The mechanics at Tomahawk WI added a metal rooftop and mounted two 70-gallon water tanks, one on each side of the operator, who sat on the broad bench seat; strapped in with a seatbelt and protected by canopy and tanks somewhat from the brush and trees as he plowed a furrow ringing the fire. They only pulled the plows; no front blades for pushing. The older crawlers generally had an 1 1/2" hose with a nozzle and some had an operator added 1" or a 3/4" garden hose for mop up. The early crawlers did not have water tanks just a back can mounted on the side running board/fender.”

“There were a few dry years in the 70's but 1977 was the year of the big fires in WI. The State bought, with much Federal Funding assistance, many new 1978 International 3 ton trucks, John Deere 450C crawlers, flatbed trailers and 4x4 pickups. They got rid of the 4 cylinder IHC T-6's and all of the Cletrac AG-6's. They still had some 6 cylinder T-6's but they would soon be replaced as with no dozer blade their non-fire use was very limited.”

In the summer of 1978, Everett, working for the DNR at Grantsburg, told me that there was going to be an auction of crawlers. “the Internationals go for $1500 to $3000 and the Cletracs for $1000 and up. These crawlers are 30 years old, but in almost new condition. We maintained them very well. We only used them for plowing around fires; maybe only 20-40 hours a year. Everything is like new. They are selling the old tilt-bed trailers too, as the new John Deere’s won’t fit on them. ”

In 1978, I was a married man; a school teacher with a job in Amery with summers off, helping at home on the farm when I wasn’t teaching. My teacher’s salary in those days was less than $12,000 a year including coaching, yearbook and bus chaperoning. Margo, knowing how badly I needed a crawler to make life meaningful, said “go to Cushing and ask the banker.” Mike agreed that I needed a crawler, “up to $2000 I can give you a personal note.”

Margo and I drove Hwy 8 over to Tomahawk on Friday, August 27, 1978, the day before the Saturday sale. We had our pickup with the aluminum topper. We spent the afternoon studying the five crawlers for sale. Everett told me “look at the tracks and rollers. If they are good, the rest should be good. Check the brakes and clutch for signs of wear. I talked to the Tomahawk people and all of them are good. The Internationals are likely to be used more as they were preferred by the operators. See if the oil looks clean, and look for any leaks.”

We ate our sandwiches from the cooler and inflated our air mattresses in the back of the truck; opened the side windows and slept fitfully over night in the back of the DNR lot. The auction was to start at 9:00 AM. We breakfasted on doughnuts and coffee brought in by the auction crew. Remember, $2000 dollars was 1/6th of our gross yearly income, and we were driving a 1961 Chev at the time (Grandpa’s old one that he bought from Bud Jensen—I think it was Larry’s go-to-college car).

We looked at the crawlers with the hundred or so other folks at the sale. There were two Internationals and three Cletracs, some trailers and some miscellaneous surplus tools and DNR gear. The first International went for $2500. Then a Cletrac went for $1350. Then the other International for $2000 and the next Cletrac for $1400 without me bidding.

“Did you come over here all this way and now you aren’t going to buy anything?” said Margo. “You better buy the last one.” I was waiting, hoping that the last one, the nicest one of the Cletracs would be the cheapest. My goal was $1250.

I started the bidding at $700. It quickly went to my bid of $1250 and then the other man bidding hesitated. “That sounds like a really good price,” coaxed Margo. She knew me and how hard it was for me to spend money. The auctioneer pried $1300 out of the other fellow. “This is just like a new machine folks. Don’t go home and kick yourself for missing this deal. Each year these sell for a couple hundred more. I got 13,13,13,13, go 1350. So with Margo poking me in the ribs, I bid $1350, and after another long spiel, the other fellow finally said $1400. I immediately yelled $1450, trying to intimidate him and keep my ribs from being broken. That did it! It was ours and the banks.

I settled up with a check that I said would be good Monday. The trailers went for nearly $1000 each, so I didn’t buy one. I did buy a brand new large stainless steel monkey wrench for $5.00 from a group of 20. Later, when Everett saw it he called Tomahawk and asked them to send a couple to Grantsburg rather than giving them away at the auction!

“Is there anyplace I can load it onto a truck?” I asked the DNR representative. “Sure, you can back up to a ramp we have over by the shed. Tell us when you are going to pick it up and we will have someone here to help.” We arranged for next Saturday.

Before the auction, I had asked Brother Byron, “Do you think you can haul a crawler on your truck if I buy one at Tomahawk? Everett says it weighs 7000 lbs.” Byron had bought and overhauled a 1950 two-ton Chev truck for log hauling. He had rebuilt the flat bed with very heavy white oak planks. “Oh, I think we can get it home with the truck,” he said. “You buy it and I’ll help you get it home.” We knew that if we had to we could hire Cousin Harvey to get it.

Early the next Saturday morning, Margo and I climbed into the old Chev truck and with Byron driving headed out for Tomahawk. Scott stayed with Grandma. We cruised along about 45 mph. I had arranged with the DNR for pickup just before noon. The DNR representative looked at my auction receipt and handed me a key and said “It’s right over there, next to the ramp. Are you sure that old truck will hold it?” Byron said “well, let’s drive it on and see what happens!”

He backed the truck up to the ramp. I told him “you drive it on,” worrying about what might happen. It started right up and had a wonderful throaty roar as the 6-cylinder Continental engine came up to speed. Byron put it in low and slowly drove up the earthen ramp and edged it on to the truck bed. The truck squatted down as he drove it all the way on, cutting the power and hopping off.

“Well, the springs are holding, even though they are bent a little down. It’ll likely sway some on the way back, but if we go slow, we should be fine.” We locked the brakes and chained it down to the rack.

We were in downtown Tomahawk stopped on mainstreet at the stop sign and the truck engine killed. “H’mm,” said Byron, “must be vapor lock.” We got out and opened the hood and looked at the engine. “Needs to cool down a little, I guess,” he continued. Meantime, the downtown traffic had to go around us. After ten minutes, it started up, much to my relief and we were on our way.

When you overload a truck, the back springs let the rear sway. At over 35 mph, the sway was too much to drive comfortably. We chugged along slowly, the truck swaying like a hula dancer, all the way to Prentice. The traffic was backed up and mainstreet closed. They were having their annual Prentice Progress Days Parade. Cars were backed up on one side waiting for the parade to end and parade units on the other. The policeman saw us coming, an antique truck loaded with a DNR fire crawler and waved us into the parade route! We became part of the parade as we drove through town and then continued on Hwy 8.

We got home at about dark, seasick from the swaying ride, but with no more problems. We backed the truck up against a steep ditch bank where we could drive the crawler off and give the truck a rest. We drove it around the orchard taking Scott for a ride with Dad and Mom admiring it. “Needs a blade,” I said, thinking of my next purchase.

The next year, we returned to Tomahawk and bought a surplus $700 tilt bed trailer built for the Cletrac so we could haul it from farm to farm. I found a dozer blade and had the Branstad Blacksmith, Al Mesecher, modify it to fit the dozer.

We have had the Cletrac now for 32 years. I started working on fixing it up last summer as the gas tank had gotten rusty and other parts need some work. It is true, for me to be a fulfilled man, the ability to rearrange nature has been key! You buy some land and then you clear brush, build ponds and roads and make it yours, just like getting a wife and re-arranging her until you are satisfied with the results.