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The popular (and very successful) fire-breathing 'Blue Ox' was built in 1980 and tractors have pulled the Anderson family together ever since. Submitted Photo

Tractor pulls family together

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Sometimes a tractor is more than just a tractor. Sometimes it can be the very thing that "pulls" a family together in every sense of the word.

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Such is the case with the Don Anderson family.

Many in the Detroit Lakes area know Don Anderson as the guy with the fire-shooting tractor. He was always in local events, including the Becker County Fair -- his kids proudly hanging off the tractor.

A gear head with a love for tractors, Johnson built "The Blue Ox" from scratch back in 1980 ... his father, Ray J., gave it the name after Paul Bunyan's powerhouse pet. During the creation of the locally famous tractor, then 6-year-old Dan Anderson was his dad's little helper.

"I was a little shop rat," said the now 37-year-old Audubon man, "He gave me some polish and let me do little jobs like that."

Don took bits and pieces of whatever he could find to assemble the one-of-a-kind machine, including using the engine from a Huey helicopter.

For years, Anderson and his little pit crew were seen around the region, attending tractor-pulling events -- sometimes literally blowing the roof off the event.

"They got pretty mad at him in Duluth because the fire that came shooting out of his tractor blew the ceiling tiles off the civic center there," laughed Dan.

Don took meticulous notes at each event, documenting every detail such as what the track was made of and what kind of weights were put on. His ability to drive and his knowledge of each event led Don's team to victory time after time, even when The Blue Ox was greatly out-powered.

The crew eventually re-built the tractor, giving it a roll cage, shining it up, and calling the 1,000 horsepower, single turbine, homemade machine "The Blue Ox II.

It was always, Ray J., Don and Dan -- grandfather, son and grandson ... making memories as they went.

"I remember Father's Day 1993 when I was 18, I got to pull for the first time up in Canada," said Dan. "And we actually got first place -- I'll never forget that."

As Dan got a little older, though, he admits he pulled away a bit.

"I was young and doing the rebellious thing," he said.

But even as Dan had drifted away, Don maintained his dream to someday compete on the grand national scale -- where only the best of the best make it.

As sentimental as the Blue Ox was to Don, he sold it in 1999, using the money to begin building a twin turbine, 6,000 horsepower tractor that he would enter.

It's this tractor that would not only pull in the biggest event the sport had to offer, but would also pull a father and son back together.

"When we started building it, it really got us back to our father-son relationship," said Dan.

It took the men six years to build the tractor they would name "The Blue Ox III," which they entered in the grand nationals in Tomah, Wis.

Dan remembers seeing his dad come around after the first lap.

"He had the biggest smile on his face that I had ever seen and he was yelling, 'We did it, Danny!', and it was just an awesome feeling," said Dan, adding that they finished in the top 10 amongst the best tractors in the country.

The Anderson men had their time in the sun, but according to Dan, his father never forgot the Blue Ox II ... the locally famous fire-breathing tractor.

In 2007, he sold the Blue Ox III and bought his original baby back from Rochert man Gene Brend, to whom he had sold it a year earlier.

It might have been another happy moment for the Anderson men, except that right around that time, Don was diagnosed with Parkinson's.

The idea of a nice retirement project of revamping the Blue Ox II was put on the back burner as Don began to lose the mechanical abilities in his body and Dan was deployed to Kuwait in 2008.

When he returned in 2009, the family found out their mother had cancer. She died only three weeks later. One week after her funeral, another blow came. Dan was told he, too, had cancer.

And while the younger Anderson went through a year and a half of treatment and thankfully went into remission, Don continued a very rapid decline both with Parkinson's and with dementia.

And although dark times had certainly fallen upon the Anderson family, that old tractor would soon begin to pull them out of despair.

Last fall when Dan and his sister, Beth, had to take their father off the Detroit Lakes farm he had grown up in and raised his own children in, Dan made a vow.

"I was going to restore the tractor like we had planned," he said.

In December, he brought the Blue Ox back into his father's old shop and began to tear it apart. And while his father was far past the point of being able to help him, he quickly found he wasn't alone.

Family members, including those from his mother's side of the family and his wife, Kristy's, family began popping in to help.

"It pulled my brother-in-law and my nephew in ... I've spent more time with my uncle and cousin in the past three months than I have in three years," said Dan, getting emotional at the amount of support he's gotten as his wife and his family rallied around him.

His 10-year-old son, Carter, helped with the sanding while his 8-year-old daughter, Camryn, painted the letters on the wheels.

"It's always been this family thing," said Dan, calling the tractor "a family heirloom."

Countless man hours were spent perfecting every detail of the project, giving it all new hoses and wiring while restoring the body by hand -- shining up every last nut and bolt.

"I could have just gotten it to run, but that's not what my dad taught me," said Dan. "You take pride in your work and pay attention to detail -- I wanted to do it the way I think he would have."

Meanwhile, Don was kept up to date on the project from his place at the Cottages of Emmanuel.

"With dementia it's oftentimes hard to perk their interest," said Beth. "But whenever I said, 'Dad, do you want to go see the tractor?' he'd always want to -- it still gives him joy."

Dan and his new pit crew finished the tractor two weeks ago -- naming it "The Blue Ox II...Reloaded."

The machine is shined up like a new penny, donning the words "Dedicated to my hero Dad" on the back.

A tech inspection Tuesday night officially gave Anderson the green light to enter it in the tractor pull in Perham this weekend, which will certainly be a family event for them ... including the original builder.

"Like father, like son," said Don, looking at his son. He is a man of few words now. "He's told me several times how proud he is of Dan, though," said Beth.

And although Dan says he is a bit nervous that things will go all right this weekend, he has already gotten most of what he wants out of it ... his family "pulled" around him.

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