Tom Ross: Restoring a 1959 farm implement that broke new ground in Routt County’s Elk River Valley
Steamboat Springs — Imagine a futuristic 1950s-era hay baler with a name that evokes a large boat. That was the 1959 New Holland model 178 Hay Cruiser. And if it wasn’t exactly a beauty, it was a significant piece of farm equipment in its day.
Brothers Bill and Jay Fetcher, of Steamboat Springs, recently posed for a photograph on an old Hay Cruiser that was used for many years on their family ranch near Clark. The photograph nearly perfectly replicates an original photo taken a little more than a half-century ago when Bill was 13 years old and Jay was 11.
In an era when large, air-conditioned farm tractors with four-wheel drive and luxuries like satellite radio have become the norm, there’s something to be said for reconditioning a venerable agricultural implement like the self-propelled Hay Cruiser that Bill Fetcher put to work on the Fetcher Ranch near Clark this summer.
“We did 120 bales with the old baler I restored this summer, and none of them broke,” Fetcher said with a hint of pride in his voice.
Of course, 120 small bales represents a small fraction of the hay put up on the ranch this summer.
Fetcher estimates, based on annual records of hay tonnage harvested at his family’s ranch as well as at a second ranch where it spent its golden years, the Hay Cruiser turned out more than a half-million bales before it was taken out of regular service in 1992. And because Bill first began driving tractors on the ranch when he was just 10 years old, he is confident in saying that he got to drive that brand-new Hay Cruiser as a freshly minted teenager.
He undertook the restoration partly because it’s his nature to get the most out of old machines and appliances from toasters to tractors but also because of its historical significance.
Jay Fetcher said he’s always appreciated his brother’s aptitude for fixing things.
“It was fun to watch him doing that. He has this incredible talent for it, and it’s extremely calming for him,” Jay Fetcher said. “It’s an interesting part of how he feels really good about himself.”
It was enough of a big deal when the Hay Cruiser arrived in June 1959 that the Steamboat Pilot published a small item about it.
“The Fetcher Brothers, John and Stanton (the late John Fetcher was Bill and Jay’s father), large ranch operators on Elk River, have taken the seat at the Cruise Control Center of a push-button New Holland self-propelled Hay Cruiser baler,” the Pilot reported. “They are the first ranchers on the entire Western Slope to own such a high level in performance push-button machine made possible by New Holland’s 19 years of scientific leadership in grassland farming. The purchase was made through Harold Boggs of Boggs Hardware.”
Bill Fetcher said his family’s new hay baler was one of two that arrived in Northwest Colorado on a Rio Grande Railroad flat car.
You might have noticed that the newspaper reported that the implement dealer was the landmark Boggs Hardware store. And yes, they sold tractors on Lincoln Avenue in downtown Steamboat Springs, and they weren’t the only implement dealer on Steamboat’s main street. Today, the Images of Nature photography gallery and Bucking Rainbow Outfitters share the brick building that was Boggs Hardware.
Fetcher said the purchase of the self-propelled baler by his father and uncle was prompted by their four-year lease of the nearby Round Mountain Ranch, which meant they would be putting up a lot more hay.
“We needed to replace or supplement our International Harvester baler but were reluctant to buy another tractor,” Fetcher said.
The Fetcher ranch put the Hay Cruiser to good use until about 1975 when it was replaced by a new model. The 1959 Hay Cruiser was sold to another rancher. And 22 years later, Bill Fetcher bought the same baler from its new owner.
“Five years out in the weather had done it no good,” Fetcher confessed. “The engine was stuck due to rain and snowmelt getting into a cylinder, causing rust.”
After 12 years spent scrounging for replacement parts and making other parts from scratch in spare moments, Fetcher fired up the engine May 18, 2009. Farrow Repair Service helped him find parts, and Gwen Power, of Steamboat Springs, even reproduced the original decals. Finally, on Aug. 17 of this year, he drove it up Routt County Road 129 from his home in Elk River Estates to the ranch where it performed like a champ.
Long may you run, Hay Cruiser.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com