FINLEY, North Dakota — One of the region’s biggest-ever farm shop projects — a 30-ton silo mover — helped an eastern North Dakota farm survive the farm credit crisis in the 1980s, and it’s still working today.
“It’s the only one in the world, the only one ever made,” said Walter Grotte, 81. He and his sons built the Mighty Mover some 40 years ago as the farm credit crisis wiped out profits on his 2,200-acre farm. Grotte designed it to move the iconic blue Harvestore silos during the farm crisis, especially in Iowa and Illinois.
Walter and a grandson-partner, Max Grotte, 23, still use the machine in the family’s Grotte’s Farm Service business and still uses it to move hopper bins, up to 70 feet tall.
‘Pickert Tech’ alum
Walter was the youngest among eight brothers and sisters. He ended his formal schooling at age 16.
“I went through ‘Pickert Tech,’ “ he said, with a grin. ”Ever heard of Pickert Tech?” Pickert was a rural township school about seven miles southeast of Finley in eastern North Dakota. Walter graduated eighth grade.
“I thought it was more fun to stay home and weld and fix things and make money,” he explained. “I never graduated from high school, but I did a lot of welding and things around the shop.” Older siblings taught him a lot.
At first, Walter helped his parents on the farm. His father urged him to take classes Hanson Mechanical Trade School in Fargo, North Dakota, and at Interstate Business College in Fargo for bookkeeping.
In 1959, at age 19, he married Donna Trost, a farm girl from Hope, North Dakota, whom he’d met roller-skating. Initially, the couple farmed with his two older brothers, Jennings and Jon. At age 23, they went out on their own. His solo business enterprise initially was moving hay stacks, using the stack movers that had just come into vogue.
“I could work all day and make a hundred dollars! I thought that was pretty good, driving a WD-9, hard-to shift, hard-to-step on the clutch, not starting,” Walter said.
Walter and Donna built their farmstead on a bare pasture. They built everything.
“And I didn’t get no help from the government. We had to pay for it ourselves,” he said.
The Grottes had six kids — four sons and two daughters.
“They all helped us farm and pick rocks, and so on,” he said. “We never went on welfare. We always worked!”
Stacks to bins
Eventually, people asked if he could use Grotte’s haystack mover to move grain bins.
They tried it but the cradled bins were too high, and interfered with power lines. “So I decided to build a machine that would get the bin down on the road,” Walter said, "a foot off the ground.”
In about 1965, Walter built his first hydraulic bin mover. The first machine handled mainly 4,000-bushel bins.
“I found out that the government was selling all of these Commodity Credit (Corp.) bins. I started moving them,” he said. He was only getting $100 to $200 to move a bin.
He made improvements on what he called the “little” machine, but it could only move up to 10,000-bushel bins.
To make ends meet, the family did the bin moving.
“It was a savior of many years — the moving of the grain bins,” he said.
Eventually, he eyed a growing demand for Harvestore silos.
The iconic blue Harvestores had became common in the 1970s. They weren’t cheap, but they offered “push-button” feeding, attractive to smaller dairies with less labor. The low-oxygen silos featured molten glass fused to both sides of the steel sheets They keep contents in an oxygen-free, high-quality state, preventing mold and decay that can occur in concrete stave silos or bunker silos.
Some farmers who were forced out of dairying wanted to sell and move them.
“I talked to a fellow that worked for the Harvestore company out Fargo, and he said to move a Harvestore was $24,000,” Walter said. "I got thinking, I should make something to move Harvestores.
“I called the president of A.O. Smith (Harvestore’s parent company) and asked, ‘Does anyone move them in one piece?’ And he says, ‘No way, don’t even try it,’” Walter recalled.
“So, we felt that was a challenge, so we built this machine,” he said.
Big Iron debut
Walter Grotte and his four sons, aided by a master welder, built the Mighty Mover in their “spare time” over about four years, starting in about 1981.
“We were farming a couple thousand acres, so we only worked on it when we had time,” Walter said.
The Mighty Mover was 60 feet long and — with extensions — could move an 80-foot tall Harvestore silo. The machine has two hydraulic cylinders, each holding about 100 gallons of oil.
The machine weighs 60,000 pounds, but the 24 tires under the rear of the mover steer with electric-over-hydraulic control. The driver can use his finger to move a toggle switch to steer the back wheels around a corner.
“We can go around corners with it,” Walter said.
It’s 18 feet wide, so the Grottes needed special highway permits every time they use it.
The Grottes back up to the bin and run a strap around the top, the bottom, and fix a chain to the front to the machine, to do the vertical lifting. They fitted it with styrofoam padding 10 inches thick so the bins aren’t scratched up.
Son Corey, 51, now of Camano Island, Washington, was watching a move near Petersburg, North Dakota, on Aug. 2, 2021. He was about 10 years old when the project was being built.
“I remember the metal showing up and getting stockpiled. I remember being in the shop, as a 10-, 11-, 12-year-old, grinding on the welds,” he said.
The Grottes built the machine in part from beams from an auditorium in an area school that was being torn down.
“We’d take it out, build the other half, and when both halves were done we’d connect them together,” Corey said. “Neighbors showed up and wanted to look. I remember being out there dirty, a lot of noise.”
Donna said was skeptical, at first. “When he was building it, I told him, ‘I don’t know if this thing is going to work.'”
But it did.
Corey said the machine helped the family survive the farm crisis. Things had not been good in farming.
“I felt there wasn’t opportunity at home,” he said. “I’d seen how hard farming had been, a lot of work. No payoff.”
He took a career in aircraft maintenance.
The Mighty Mover got its public debut to great fanfare and interest at the Big Iron farm show at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds in West Fargo, North Dakota, in 1984. A reporter from The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead helped spread the word, which reached customers in Iowa and Illinois.
Asked what the maximum capacity of the Mighty Mover might be, Walter laughs.
In the mid-1980s, a fellow from Hoopeston, Illinois, called, saying they had a $2 million Zimmerman Tower Dryer, 100 feet tall, and wanted to know if the Mighty Mover was strong enough to move it.
“I says, ‘Come up and look at it,’” Walter said.
The company engineer flew into Fargo, drove to Finley, and looked at the machine without getting out of his rented car.
“He just said, ‘It’s strong enough.’ I said, ‘You get a trucker to bring it to Chicago, I’ll follow, and we’ll do it,’” Walter recalled.
So, they rented the machine and he removed the big dryer.
The Grottes moved about 10 Harvestores through the 1990s, before the boys left home.
“It was a lot of work, doing the ground work, the foundation,” Walter said.
Farmers who bought Harvestores often emblazoned them with the year and the family name, and the flag of the United States. As the farm crisis unfolded, some silos were being erected in the year their owners lost their farms. They were nicknamed “blue tombstones.”
Grotte remembers a woman on a dairy farm calling.
“She says, 'We had a dairy, and we quit the dairy. We owe money on it yet.’ She said 'We’ve paid $1,000 a month for it, and we still owe $60,000,''” Grotte recalled. “She said she wanted it off their farm because the lien was against their land.”
In the 1990s, farmers turned to cheaper, faster, bunk storage. The Grottes’ work shifted more to conventional bin moving. In 1996, Walter and Donna handed off the farming to their oldest son, Barry (Max’s father) and worked full time on silo and tank moving.
Donna helped line up jobs and physically helped until Walter “retired her” at age 77, he said.
“The kids said, ‘Mom, you shouldn’t be climbing on that ladder. You’re going to fall off and break your bones,” Donna said.
Walter keeps on going, flanked by Max, who had been helping since he was a teenager.
Donna said she thinks it's good that Walter keeps on going.
“If I can’t get him out of the house to do something, he’d drive me crazy in there,” she said. “It’s better he’s out doing something, profitable.”
“I’ve got about a million miles on me, but I still feel pretty good,” Walter said.
He and Max charge about 50 cents per bushel of capacity. So a 4,000-bushel bin is about $2,000. They get $5 a loaded mile. The Grottes usually haul bins for roughly 50 miles.
A crew of two can do the job, unless they’re on state highways and need flag cars on the front and the rear.
“We get calls all of the time,” Walter said. “We have about 10 bins waiting for us. If we could do them, they’d want it this week.”
The bins are getting taller. On Aug. 2, in Petersburg, North Dakota, the Grottes moved a 20,000-bushel bin, with a 24-foot diameter.
“Anything that’s 18 feet, we can usually drive under the wires,” Walter said.
‘Infinity and Beyond’
Walter loves working with Max, who graduated high school in 2016 and took a year of classes at Northland Community and Technical College at East Grand Forks, Minnesota. He returned to the farm 2017, and but most of the year helps with the bins.
“Max behaves himself — no drugs, no alcohol, no smokin,’ no bad language,” Walter said, of his protege. “He’s going to take this over. ‘Cuz I’m going to get rigor mortis one day. I’m 82. You know rigor mortis?”
Max said he’s thinking about how equipment will change over time. Bins are 60 feet tall instead of the 15 feet like they used to be. The Grottes have modified the machines, changing “arms” to adjust where they grab onto the bin. They've strengthened the axles and running gear under the trailer to deal with more weight.
The Grottes aren’t sure what is the biggest bin their Mighty Mover machine can handle. They’ve moved 25,000-bushel bins. Max is thinking about the 30,000- to 50,000-bushel flat-bottom bins that are more common on farms today.
“My idea is actually an air bag you keep in the center of it to keep it in round,” Max said. “Obviously, you have to cut down every power line you come to with those because they’re 40 feet in diameter. You’re not going to fit under anything.”
Walter still has far-flung dreams.
“I have thought of telling SpaceX they could buy it to tip their missiles over and haul them,” he said, referring to the company founded in 2002 by Elon Musk that designs, manufactures and launches rockets and spacecrafts “If they ever want to to lay them down, we could take it down and haul it down the road and — hey — they’re down in Texas. They might pay big money for it."
Asked what the machine is worth, Walter thinks and then hollers over to Max.
“Would we sell it for $2 million?! We prob’ly would.”
He pauses briefly, and adds: “We prob’ly would.”