Josie Kelly
Josie Kelly

Have you ever met an eighth-grade mechanic? Well say hello to Josie Kelly, an enthusiastic 4-H participant with a knack for crafts and equipment repairs.

4-H is a nationally recognized program that provides children across the country an opportunity to participate in character- and skill-building projects.

“I’ve been in 4-H since I was in second grade, and I’d always done crafty sort of projects,” Josie says. “So I decided to try my first mechanics project by renovating a wagon.”

Josie and her father, Andy, found the wagon for their project at a scrapyard. The piece was an old Litchfield manure spreader that only had its wheels and a few hinges left.

“It was really a unique piece that she brought back from nothing,” Andy says. “When it was all finished, it really popped. We put it in a local rodeo, we put it in parades — it was everywhere.”

But when it came time for the judges to decide which 4-H projects would move on to State, Josie’s project wasn’t chosen.

“I don’t think it was as obvious how involved the project was,” Andy says. “So for the next year, we figured we better do something major. We wanted to really showcase what Josie could do.”

Finding a forgotten Bobcat loader

Bobcat 440B skid-steer loader "before" photo
The Bobcat 440B skid-steer loader before Josie began restoring the machine.

What’s bigger and better than a wagon? Enter an old Bobcat 440B skid-steer loader. Built between 1986 and 1994, it was clear this loader needed a little TLC.

“My dad was the one who actually found the Bobcat loader,” Josie says. The Kelly family manages various properties, and one of their customers was getting rid of some of his old equipment. While the Kellys aren’t exactly sure of the model year, they guess it’s about 33 years old.

“I decided to go for it because most of the updates were generally cosmetic,” Josie continues.

“Plus, I didn’t really know a lot about engines, so I saw this as an opportunity to learn more about the mechanics of the machine.”

Summer spent restoring the 440B loader

While other kids her age may have spent the summer splashing around at a pool, Josie rolled up her sleeves and got to work.

“She took the skid-steer loader right down to the center box — we took the body off, took all the cylinders off, took the engine out,” Andy says. “Then we sprayed just the initial two axles and center drive box and rebuilt it from there. Most of what we did was belts and hoses, filters and fluids. We got pretty lucky.”

Yet, as any mechanic knows, each project has its hiccups. There was a major dent in the canopy — like something had been dropped on it — and Josie and her dad worked for hours to straighten it back out.

“This isn’t like working with a dent in a car where it just pops right out,” Andy says. “This is some serious, heavy-duty metal. We were really pushing on things.”

The two set up hydraulic ram sets to push from one side while also hitting the opposite side with a sledgehammer.

“We were doing some serious metal work, but [the dent] was just about indistinguishable when we were done,” Andy says. “Figuring out how to restore the canopy was a major factor in showing the judges that Josie was doing more work than just spraying paint.”

Crunch time: wrapping up the 4-H loader project

Figuring out how to solve these frustrating challenges together made for lasting memories.

“Completing 4-H projects and working are the big things my dad and I spend time doing together,” Josie says.

But with the State Fair quickly approaching, they had to call in reinforcements. Andy asked his father to help the pair with the remaining tasks.

“It was great seeing them spend real quality time with each other,” Andy says. “It’s different from going to the movies or one of her softball games — they sat down and worked together. Plus, if my father hadn’t come down for a long weekend, I don’t know if we would have gotten it done. I think the paint was probably still wet when we loaded the finished project.”

Hard work pays off at the Iowa State Fair

Bobcat 440B skid-steer loader "after" photo
Josie Kelly restored this Bobcat 440B skid-steer loader for a 4-H project.

By the time they were finished, the whole skid-steer loader project had taken about 90 days. And although the restoration was a team effort, the project was definitely Josie’s.

“I wanted to stress the value of hard work for her,” Andy says. “The end product wasn’t going to be that she just sprayed nice paint on the skid steer — that wouldn’t be worth it. She needed to properly prep and clean everything to begin with, and that was her responsibility.”

Josie agrees. “I learned that if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right the first time.”

Presenting a blue-ribbon Bobcat loader

Looking back on the finished product, Josie is proud of how it came out.

“It’s just really fun to know that I put something together like that.”

And the judges agreed. Josie’s revamped Bobcat 440B skid-steer loader earned a much-deserved first place blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair.

Love a good Bobcat family story? Check out how one man started from the bottom and grew to take on his family’s legacy

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