A century of earthmoving

Caterpillar: A company that was grounded in agriculture and sprouted tracks

Article July 01, 2001
Printer-friendly version





Before sound was recorded on film, before the world’s first motel opened in Monterey, Calif


Before sound was recorded on film, before the world’s first motel opened in Monterey, Calif., before the first demonstration of television, there was a Caterpillar Tractor Co. And before there was a Caterpillar Tractor Co., there were Holt Manufacturing Co. and C. L. Best Tractor Co.


Holt Manufacturing Co. was an early and vigorous supporter of the national "Good Roads" movement, which was championed by the American Road Builders Association and the American Automobile Association. These associations were formed in 1902, just four years before the beginning of the magazine that would become ROADS & BRIDGES.


In a May 1908 bulletin, Holt Manufacturing stated, "We want better highway laws, better highway administration, better roads, better methods of maintaining them and better spirit to back them."


Charles Holt left his family’s lumber mill in New Hampshire in 1863 to seek his fortune in California. When he got to the West Coast, he started C. H. Holt & Co. as an importer of hardwood lumber.


Holt and his brothers went on to become key figures in developing agricultural machinery, such as the "combine." These huge machines combined cutting, threshing, cleaning and sacking grain. They might be drawn by as many as 40 horses or mules. The first Holt brothers combine, called the Link Belt Combined Harvester, was sold in 1886 and represented major improvements over previous designs.


Holt built his first experimental wheeled steam tractor engine in 1890. The tractors gained popularity as a means of transporting lumber, ore and supplies. The problem was that these machines operated in areas where the roads were marginal or nonexistent. In the Stockton, Calif., area where the Holt brothers had established the Stockton Wheel Co., the soil was deep peat. When the ground was wet, vehicles could easily get bogged down.


Holt initially thought of distributing the weight of the tractor by using "extension wheels," long tubular drums that rolled the machine forward, but even with the extension wheels, the tractor could get bogged down in soft ground. Then Holt tried replacing the wheels with tracks.


The first Holt track-type tractor was tested on Nov. 24, 1904. Soon after, Holt coined the "Caterpillar" trademark, and it came to be applied to many products in the Holt line.


The first production model of the Holt tracked tractor proved itself in 1906 to contractors building the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Holt’s tracked tractors hauled supplies to the aqueduct through desert heat and sand, proving the dependability of the machine. Experience with the sand led to more wear-resistant track designs.


Two years later, Holt introduced its first gasoline-powered tractor, which quickly became a success.


About the same time, Benjamin Holt, Charles’ brother, suspended an adjustable blade beneath a machine with a track on one side and a wheel on the other. By spring 1909, the self-propelled precursor of the motor grader was maintaining San Joaquin County roads. It became known as the "Good Roads machine."


Parallel pioneer


The life of Daniel Best followed a trajectory similar to that of the Holt brothers. In 1859, at the age of 21, Best left his family’s Iowa farm to seek gold in the West. After trying mining and lumbering, Best found success with grain cleaners, which allowed farmers to prepare their grain for market in the field with a machine they could afford to own, so they did not have to pay to have the grain transported and cleaned elsewhere.


Best patented his grain cleaner in 1871. Best Manufacturing Co. grain cleaners were so successful in the wheat fields of California that Best resorted to stacking inventory in the streets of Oakland where he had moved from Oregon. When the Oakland police objected to the equipment in the streets, Best bought a factory in nearby San Leandro, Calif.


Like Holt, Best was an innovator in agricultural machinery, including combines. Best began experimenting with combines in the early 1880s and sold his first combine, incorporating his grain cleaner, in 1885.


Best introduced his first steam traction engine in 1889 and patented a steam-powered version of his combine the same year. Although the high cost meant that only the most prosperous farmers could buy one, Best’s steam-powered harvester was a milestone in mechanized agriculture. The steam tractor also became popular in the lumber industry.


Within two years of the introduction of his steam tractor, Best had sold 25 of them. Best employed about 100 people to build combines, traction engines and a variety of other items.


Like Holt, Best saw the end of the age of steam power and the rise of the age of the internal combustion engine. Best began experimenting with internal combustion engines in 1888 and introduced his first such engine in 1895 for use in irrigation, sawmills, dairies and boats. It had a top strength of 200 hp.


A company that did not make the transition from steam power to gasoline power at the turn of the century—and did not survive—was Colean Manufacturing Co., a tractor manufacturer in East Peoria, Ill. Murray M. Baker, an agricultural implement dealer in Peoria, notified Pliny Holt, Benjamin Holt’s nephew, that the Colean manufacturing facility, a relatively new, well-equipped plant, was standing idle. At the time, Pliny Holt was looking for a manufacturing plant to expand the Holt tractor business beyond the West.


Pliny visited the East Peoria site, bought it in 1909 and began building Caterpillar track-type tractors there. Also in 1909 Holt made its first export of a crawler tractor. The tractor went to the Huasteca Petroleum Co. in Tampico, Mexico.


The Caterpillar trademark became internationally known during World War I, when the overwhelming majority of crawler tractors used were built by Holt or Holt licensees. Nearly 10,000 Holt tractors went into action for the Allies. Caterpillar track-type tractors were used for hauling artillery and supplies.


British military officer Ernest Swinton, often credited as the father of the modern tank, visited Benjamin Holt in April 1918. Swinton said it was the Caterpillar track-type tractor that inspired his idea of the tank and helped change the course of the war.


Perhaps the earliest connection between Best and Holt was in 1908 when the 70-year-old Daniel Best sold out to Holt, which continued to make a line of products under the Best name until 1913.


In 1910, C. L. Best, Daniel’s son, formed his own company. The C. L. Best Gas Traction Co. began building wheeled gas-powered tractors in Elmhurst, Calif.


Almost immediately, Best began experimenting on a track-type tractor, which he produced in 1913 under the Tracklayer trademark. Incorporating a number of significant advancements, including improved metallurgy, the new Tracklayer tractors were a success.


A unified company


It was C. L. Best’s company, known by then as the C. L. Best Tractor Co., that merged with Holt Manufacturing Co. in 1925 to form Caterpillar Tractor Co. Best served as the new company’s first chairman. The new company started out with manufacturing plants in San Leandro and Stockton, Calif., and East Peoria, Ill.


In its first year of existence, the company sold $13.8 million of equipment. The company’s product line consisted of five tractor models and a few combines. The company had 2,537 employees and 1,919 shareholders.


In the past 75 years, Caterpillar has grown to over 300 different products, including engines and turbines, and diversified into financial and logistics products. The company points to its patents as a sign of its innovation. Since 1975, Caterpillar has been granted 10,090 patents worldwide.


More specific to the roadbuilding industry is the development of the motor grader. Russell Grader Manufacturing Co. of Minnesota started building pulled implements for ditching and road contouring in 1903. Russell introduced the first self-propelled motor grader, called the Motor Patrol No. 1, in 1920. In 1925, Russell introduced the Motor Patrol No. 4, which incorporated a Holt crawler tractor and had the same basic configuration as modern motor graders.


Caterpillar bought Russell in 1928. Early developments in Caterpillar motor grader design included placing the engine over the rear axle for better visibility and less dust for the operator to contend with; high-pressure pneumatic tires for greater speed; tandem rear tires; constant mesh transmission; and hydraulic steering boosters.


Besides motor graders, Caterpillar focused on producing the base machine and purchased attachments such as pull-type scrapers and bulldozer blades until the mid-1940s. After World War II, Caterpillar rolled out the company’s own tractor-towed scrapers. Wheeled tractor scrapers got their start in 1947. By 1948, Caterpillar had designed a 15-cu-yd struck capacity prototype model, the DW21. It was introduced in 1950 and went into full production with the opening of the company’s Joliet, Ill., plant in 1951.


About the author: 
Files: 
Overlay Init