The 1956 Tucker Sno-Cat at
Mountain Parks Electric (MPE) in Granby, Colorado, doesn’t get around much anymore.
These days, it spends most of its time on a trailer behind an even older line truck, rolling slowly through community parades and luring curious eyes to the co-op’s logo, where a smiling Willie Wiredhand perches, like the Sno-Cat itself, on snow skis.
But in its time, the awkward-looking vehicle was “the centerpiece of MPE’s power restoration winter fleet,” according to Rob Taylor, the co-op’s manager of communications.
With its tank-like treads instead of wheels in the rear and long, heavy skis instead of tires in front, the Sno-Cat lived up to its manufacturer’s motto: “No Snow Too Deep, No Road Too Steep.”
For more than 20 years after the co-op bought it used for $1,010 from an oil company in 1961, line crews working out of the co-op’s Walden office, 60 miles northwest of Granby, used it to get the power back on when heavy snows blanketed the mountains.
But as recreational snowmobiles got better and more versatile, the old, weather-beaten Sno-Cat, with its top speed of 15 mph and fuel-guzzling average of seven miles to the gallon, fell out of favor. Sometime in the late 1980s, it was parked permanently out behind the Walden office’s Quonset shop.
A few years later, Joe Lance became line superintendent at the Walden office after nearly a decade of working out of Granby. He couldn’t resist tinkering with the funny-looking beast out back.
“I got permission from management to get the thing running again, see what it could do,” he says. “I’d never been around a piece of equipment that old. I’d go out there on the weekends, on my own time, just because I was intrigued by it. All it needed was a water pump and fresh fuel. And I changed the oil because I had no idea how long it had been.”
Along the way, Lance learned a little of the Sno-Cat’s less heroic history.
“It still had pulleys on it for the cable steering system, which the guys absolutely hated,” he says. Before the co-op’s mechanic changed out the cables for a makeshift power-steering system, that cable-and-pulley mechanism combined with the balky skis to make maneuvering the vehicle an exhausting workout for the driver.
Keeping the thing in good running order, Lance adds, was laborious and time-consuming too. A lube job was especially trying because every bearing on the rear treads had its own grease fitting, called a zerk. And there were lots of them.
“I didn’t count them, so I’m guessing a couple hundred bearings, with a grease zerk on each one.”
It wasn’t long before Lance decided to retire the Sno-Cat again, and he shed no tears when the tough old vehicle was loaded onto a trailer and hauled off to Mountain Parks Electric headquarters about five years ago.
“All you have to do is go out and grease it once, and you’ll wish someone else had it,” he jokes. “Back in the day, those guys were probably a lot tougher than we are today, having to deal with that kind of thing.”
All in all, the Sno-Cat experience—on top of the day-to-day work of keeping the lights on for 40 years—taught Lance the value of keeping a co-op’s fleet fresh. Newer, he believes, is better.
Looking out at his fleet at the Walden office, Lance ticks off what he’s got now: a 1996 bucket truck that’s the co-op’s oldest vehicle, a 2015 line truck, a backup line truck bought new in 2011 or 2012, three late-model pickups, and three modern snowmobiles.
“The truck I drive is a 2017,” he says.
The new models, he adds, are safer, more powerful, easier to use, and less prone to breakdowns. It’s the reduced maintenance that helps get the front office’s attention, Lance says.
“If you’re constantly fixing things on something, they’ll replace it,” he says. “These days, we drive them into the ground most of the time.”
He still likes seeing the old Sno-Cat in its ceremonial parade duties, and he says it would be nice if it were put back to work—just not with him.
“If anybody can do something with it and wanted to, that’s a good thing.”