Arbor Crest Wine Cellars’ Cliff House sits on a bluff overlooking the Spokane River surrounded by a sunken rose garden, arched gatekeeper’s house, herb garden, open-air pagoda and beautiful spaces to walk in and around, and to attend luncheons, concerts or weddings – and, of course, for wine tasting.
And then there’s the square-wheeled tractor. There it sits, something of an anachronism, but one of the pride and joys of inventor Royal Riblet, who developed the hilltop site into his own spacious home and gardens at 4705 N. Fruithill Road in 1924.
Better known for his association with his brother Byron Riblet’s Riblet Tramway Co. and the development and improvement of the aerial tramway, he was passionate about mechanical devices and eventually held 20 known patents for products he invented – including the tractor on display outside Cliff House.
Jim van Loben Sels, Arbor Crest general manager, said this tractor is the original one, though others were created based on its design. Interestingly, it has just one square wheel, though some later models had two. Though Riblet patented the design in 1947, he actually created it several years earlier.
The invention consists of a track-laying wheel with 16 segments that surround each of the drive wheels so that three segments are always on the ground as the wheel moves, an effect that allows greater traction and has the benefit of creating less soil erosion.
Material from the Riblet albums indicates that in 1943 the U.S. Army tested the wheels and deemed them to be suitable for transportation use during wartime. But World War II ended before the military decided whether to utilize Riblet’s design.
During the winter the tractor is kept in a shed, but it is brought out in the spring and kept on display for visitors to see. Van Loben Sels said the tractor was completely restored about seven years ago and it’s fully operational – though not really ever used.
“Well, it’s not very practical, really,” he said. “There’s no brake, for example, but it’s so heavy that it just comes to a stop when the engine is shut off.”
He said the oversized square wheel on the original model has a 2-foot-wide track (though tracks on later models are 15 to 18 inches wide) and weighs 2,000 pounds. The tractor all together probably weighs 3,500 pounds, van Loben Sels estimated.
Riblet grew up on a farm in Iowa, and it is believed his experience with farm machinery triggered his fascination with mechanical things. He designed a bicycle for his daughter in 1901 that at the time was the smallest pneumatic-tired bicycle in the world, a design then used by the Barnum and Bailey circus.
He also invented a type of mechanical parking garage, an automobile turn indicator and steel-framed lawn furniture, along with items ranging from ankle supports to recessed radiators. He even had one of his aerial tramways running from the floor of the Spokane Valley to the Cliff House that was described as running with an automotive motor, transmission, clutch and brake, which enabled the positive traction car to ascend the cliff with no moving cables and without an operator at either end. The tram was removed in the 1950s.
Riblet trams – ski lifts – are in use throughout the world. But the original square-wheel tractor remains at his former home in Spokane, an archaic and interesting look into the mind of an inventor.