Manitoba’s Big Roy still stands tall

Tourist attraction | Famous 600 horsepower tractor has received hundreds of thousands of views online

AUSTIN, Man. — Of all the tourist attractions in Western Canada, from wildlife in Banff to polar bears in Manitoba, Jeremy Progein of Switzerland travelled to Canada to see a different beast.

In October, he and his wife Karin came to Canada to see Big Roy, a 600 horsepower Versatile tractor at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum in Austin.

Following his two-hour visit, Progein summed up his impression of Big Roy in two words.

“It’s big.”

Progein is one of dozens of international tourists who stop at the agricultural museum every year to look the Versatile 1080, a one of a kind machine with four axles and the engine at the back. It weighs nearly 30 tonnes.

Versatile made only one of the tractors at its Winnipeg manufacturing plant.

“We usually ask (visitors), ‘how did you hear about us (the museum)?’ Big Roy,” said Georgette Hutlet, chief museum officer.

“They’ve read about him in some farm publication, years ago or recently, and they’ve always kept it in mind and wanted to come and see Big Roy.”

Progein, who owns a 150 h.p. Massey and competes in tractor pulls in Switzerland as a hobby, saw the Versatile tractor in a book.

Other museum visitors have seen the tractor in a YouTube video showing Big Roy in action during the Threshermen’s Reunion, which is held every summer on the museum’s grounds three kilometres south of the Trans-Canada Highway near Austin.

“That YouTube video is up to something like 777,000 hits,” said museum board member Alex Campbell.

Big Roy drives most of the traffic to the museum’s website, she added.

Officials at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum have plans to restore Big Roy and promote the big machine as a feature attraction. | Robert Arnason photo

Officials at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum have plans to restore Big Roy and promote the big machine as a feature attraction. | Robert Arnason photo

“The breakdown of visitors to our website, you can tell what they looked at and where they’re from. A lot of Germans like (Big Roy).”

The tractor also generates souvenir sales. Progein bought $179 worth of Big Roy mugs, T-shirts and scale models on his way out of the museum.

Hutlet and curator Tanya Wiegand, who both began working at the museum this year, realize they have something special in Big Roy.

They are developing a plan to capitalize on the tractor’s notoriety, which will include restoration, promotion and a proper display building.

Versatile built the 1080 as a prototype in 1977, and the museum would like to have all its plans in place by 2017 in time for Big Roy’s 40th birthday.

Glenn Lennox, a museum board member, said the tractor’s 600 h.p. engine is in good shape, but there are other mechanical issues.

“Some gears they can’t get it into right now because of the shifting cables (are corroded),” he said.

The tractor has non-standard parts that could be difficult to replace or fix because Versatile built only one, Campbell said.

A bigger concern is building an appropriate home for Big Roy.

The tractor is now stored outdoors in a wooden shed with no walls. It’s difficult to get a good look at the tractor or take a proper photograph because it is parked next to other antique tractors and there is no lighting in the shed.

Campbell said an Australian visited the museum in January this year to see Big Roy. Despite -30 C temperatures, he walked 500 metres through the snow to get a look at the tractor.

Museum staff and directors would prefer to have a more humane setting to display Big Roy and other showcase tractor, but the museum operates on a limited budget.

“For these tractors, we’re going to need something like a double-long machinery shed … built with insulation so it can be heated,” Lennox said.

“That’s going to be pretty expensive. But the flipside is, we have irreplaceable artifacts here we almost have to protect.”

The museum continues to actively promote the tractor. Visitors paid $20 to drive Big Roy during Manitoba’s Open Farm Day Sept. 21.

About 40 people took it for a spin, including two dogs that went along for the ride.

Hutlet doesn’t envision a future where visitors can drive Big Roy any day of the week, but she wants to create a memorable experience around it and other historic tractors at the museum.

“We have so many unique items here: to make them interactive, where people can come and experience them, as opposed to looking up and taking a picture,” she said. “(Maybe) there will be a certificate (for driving the tractor) … or a photo, to give it a more of a quality experience…. It brings the museum to life. It’s not just a place where you go look at old things and nothing runs and nothing moves.”

The museum may want to duplicate the hype and promotion of Big Bud 747, the most powerful tractor in the world. The tractor, built in 1977 in Montana, had a 760 h.p. diesel engine and has since been upgraded to 900 h.p.

It has its own website and is on display indoors at the Heartland Museum in Clarion, Iowa.

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