by Buckley Jensen
The giant green tractor that resided in the Monticello City Park for over 40 years fascinated thousands of tourists.
The Big-4 has a rich history in San Juan County, as the workhorse of early farming. Because agriculture has been an integral part of the economy of this area, and because the huge machine is the most conspicuous symbol of that rich history, it becomes our “giant” in San Juan this week.
With thousands of hours of donated labor and additional thousands of dollars spent to get it back into working order, this behemoth will once again chug proudly under its own power down Main Street (hopefully at this year’s Pioneer Day parade).
The Big-4 was built in 1912 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was purchased that same year by the San Juan Arid Farm Company for $4,500. It was shipped by rail to Dolores, and then “walked” (driven slowly) 60 miles from the railhead to Monticello.
Owners of the San Juan Arid Farm Company were Hanson Bayles, Walter C. Lyman, William J. Nix, D. John Rogers, E. F. Thompson, Fred Lyman, Emil Gammeter and Robert K. Havlicek. They used it on 3,200 acres dry farm at Piute Knoll and Piute Springs, east of Monticello. Many descendents of these original pioneers still live and farm in San Juan County.
The tractor was used successfully from 1912 to l915. In 1916, the crops failed due to drought and the company went bankrupt. It was used sporadically in later years. It sat for several years and was sold to Bill Barry for $100 in 1958.
Shortly thereafter, Wes McDonald of Monticello became interested in the tractor and urged the Monticello City Council to buy it to use as a tourist attraction. In 1962, the tractor came to Monticello with a price tag of $1,600.
Mr. McDonald drove it in the Pioneer Day Parade that year, and then it was placed in the Monticello City Park. It sat there in the elements for over 40 years, and became inoperable. Boy Scouts gave it a coat of paint every few years, which helped preserve the metal.
In 2003, a group of local tractor buffs made it a goal to restore the Big-4 to running condition and build a suitable home for it and a large assortment of antique tractors and farm implements at the Frontier Museum on Main Street in Monticello.
Project coordinators began fund raising in 2003. A successful grant was written and by 2006 the Foundation had raised more than $14,000 in cash. Young’s Machine Co. provided space in their shop with large hoists to work on the massive machine.
The tractor was completely taken apart and all the parts cleaned. The crank shaft was re-ground and polished, the pistons refurbished, new rings made, the old cylinders re-sleeved, the rods have new babbet bearings, and the transmission has had the bearings replaced.
The radiator was taken apart, cleaned and reconditioned. The carburetor and governor have been rebuilt and the clutch relined.
Some of this work was done locally. Specialized work was also done by firms across the nation. Paul’s Rod and Bearing company in Missouri donated 1,200 hours of labor. Love Machine Company in Salt Lake City donated $4,000 worth of labor. There were no parts available for this repair job, and new ones had to be made from scratch if the old ones could not be used. This would have made the project prohibitively expensive, were it not for the generosity of those who donated labor.
Other sources of funding came from the City of Monticello ($6,500) and tractor pulls in Moab and Cortez ($3,000), along with uncounted hours by volunteers interested in seeing this landmark reinstated for the enjoyment of all.
In April, the motor was put back together and started. When the noise of those giant pistons nearly took the roof of the Young’s Machine Building, it was said grown men cried. The excitement was palpable.
The goal to have this agrarian icon leading the parade at this year’s Pioneer Day Celebration, under its own power, looks doable, and after years of effort, those who have made it happen are thrilled.
There are only a handful of Big-4’s left in the world and fewer than 10 still run on their own power. When this tractor is placed with its smaller antique counterparts in the museum compound on Main Street in Monticello, the city will have a unique tourist attraction.
The goal is to keep the tractor under roof, maintain it, and keep it running for future occasion. Perhaps, like the “little engine that could”, it can become a headliner in parades and agricultural gatherings across the country.
The names of all those who have contributed to this project have, by request, been withheld until the project is completed. At that time, a complete list of all contributors will be made public. The entire County thanks those who have worked for years to resurrect this wonderful reminder of our rich agricultural history.