One Lucky Lessmann

Rare Power Shovel goes back to work


Top: With the loader arms fully retracted and slightly raised, Don Retzlaff takes Brutus out for a demonstration.

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When Don Retzlaff saw a Lessmann Mfg. Co. Model H-5 Power Shovel at the salvage yard, he jumped at the chance to buy it. "It looked like nothing I had ever seen before, but I recognized all of the Ford truck parts," Don says. "I love old Fords, so I was pretty sure I could make it useful again." He had it hauled to his Upper Marlboro, Md., home, and after getting a coat of Ford blue paint, the Lessmann is as unusual as it is functional.

Don is experienced when it comes to restoring Ford vehicles and old tractors. Since moving to the country decades ago, he has fooled with everything from Ford Mustangs to John Deere crawlers to Allis-Chalmers tractors and more. "I like all different kinds of farm machines," Don says, jumping into the seat of his 1965 Allis-Chalmers D-14. "But Ford vehicles from the 1950s, especially trucks with flathead V-8 engines, really interest me." The Lessmann, combining the blue oval brand with a piece of useful and unique machinery, seems to have been made for Don.

Lessmann's Power Shovel

As early as 1923, Herbert Lessmann, Des Moines, Iowa, designed a loading attachment for tractors consisting of a pair of parallel loader arms (booms, in some references) that, like most loaders at the time, attached to the tractor through a special frame. The rear of the loader arms pivoted at their attachment points, while the front of the loader arms straddled a crane-like tower. Lessmann's loading attachment employed a mechanical winch (instead of hydraulics) to raise the loader arms up along the tower. Through the 1920s and 1930s, Lessmann made improvements to the loader attachment, including a patented bucket trip mechanism and, eventually, hydraulic controls.

In the early years, Lessmann Mfg. Co., Blair Mfg. Co., Frank G. Hough Co. and others focused principally on fitting loaders to the Fordson tractor. According to Lessmann and even some Ford enthusiasts, Herbert F. Lessmann was an acquaintance of Henry Ford. For Lessmann, one consequence of that friendship may have been preferential treatment by Ford: Lessmann may have been privy to dimensional drawings enabling him to more easily build loaders for Ford tractors as they evolved. A number of Lessmann-equipped Fords of several different vintages have been found. However, Lessmann-equipped Minneapolis-Moline tractors also exist, and likely there are others in collections and salvage yards.

Although it has not been possible to document the claim of a tight relationship between Herbert Lessmann and Henry Ford, it is interesting to note that, very early on, Blair and later Hough added International Harvester, Allis-Chalmers and Case to the tractor brands they built loaders for. In fact, in Hough corporate documents, Frank G. Hough noted the importance of offering products for as many different tractor makes and models as fiscally possible. Of course, Hough's business thrived, where Lessmann's is little known. In either case, by the late 1930s most tractor manufacturers built industrial versions of their farm tractors often fitted with heavy-duty front axles, more suited to loader work - but even then, loader manufacturers were thinking about building purpose-designed integrated wheel loaders.

The Frank G. Hough Co. literally tipped the loader world on its side in 1939 with the release of the first integrated wheel loader, which they called Payloader. Although Hough released a second integrated Payloader in a few years, World War II stalled further integrated wheel loader development until the mid-1940s. Not until late in that decade did Herbert Lessmann put together an integrated wheel loader design of his own. He called it the Power Shovel and it was constructed largely of Ford truck parts.

The oral history of Lessmann Mfg. suggests that due to Herbert's relationship with Ford, he was able to procure axles, transmissions, engines and other parts to build his Power Shovel wheel loader. While this seems plausible, there was also a Ford truck plant in Des Moines, so perhaps the relationship was simply a conventional OEM business arrangement. Most tractor manufacturers and engine builders, including Ford, routinely provided assemblies to other companies for machines that didn't compete directly with their own products. While the exact nature of Herbert's relationship with Ford may never be known, it is clear the Power Shovel was built with Ford truck drive train and chassis components.

Lessmann's Power Shovel consisted of a fairly conventional heavy steel industrial tractor chassis to which a very unique loader was attached. The tractor had a heavy front grille with the name Lessmann cast into it. The fabricated heavy-duty front axle was fitted with Ford truck hubs and, like many industrial tractors, it featured truck front tires as well. The tractor used a 100-hp flathead Ford V-8 engine, a 4-speed heavy-duty truck transmission (with super low) and clutch and a Ford F-6 truck's rear axle. Rather than turn the drive wheels directly, the rear axle shafts turned pinion gears, which in turn engaged bull gears, which then rotated the drive hubs. This pinion-gear and bull-gear final drive was typical at the time on tractors with double gear reduction after the transmission, although by the early 1950s, heavy equipment employed planetary gear reduction in the final drives.

Lessmann built their tractors using a heavy-duty (and heavy) frame designed to withstand the stress of serious loader work. A counterbalance in the form of a several-hundred-pound piece of iron attached beneath the operator's platform behind the rear axle kept the machine stable and its drive wheels in firm contact with the ground. An engine-driven pump attached to the crankshaft supplied enough live hydraulic capacity to supply the three circuits and six cylinders required to operate the loader. As component-built conventional as the Lessmann tractor is, its loader is anything but.

While other manufacturers concentrated on loader lift-arm geometry to increase bucket breakout forces and lift heights, Herbert Lessmann had a truly innovative idea. Rather than use rigid arms on either side of the tractor to lift the bucket, he employed two-piece pivoting lift-arms that allowed the operator to use hydraulic pressure to change the boom geometry to suit. Lessmann's design made it possible to extend the bucket higher for ease of loading large dump trucks, and to excavate in front of the tractor with the machine standing still. While innovative and functionally useful, the articulated loader arm design never really caught on.

Power Shovel enthusiasts say the machine was built from 1951 to 1953. On March 9, 1951, Lessmann applied for a patent on what he called a Loader Machine, which details the significance of his tractor with integrated loader. The patent was awarded on Dec. 25, 1956. Interestingly, the assignee on the patent was not Lessmann Mfg. Co.: The patent was assigned to A.C. Anderson Inc., a maker of sickle bar mowers and other tractor attachments. Herbert Lessmann's relationship with A.C. Anderson is unclear, and the fate of the Power Shovel is not known.

A Power Shovel named Brutus

"Brutus came from Virginia, but I found him in Maryland," Don explains about his Lessmann Power Shovel. "It was owned by the state highway department and was originally painted orange or red." By the time Don got the tractor, though, it showed mostly the colors of rust, dirt and grease, but that didn't deter him. In spite of its looks, the Lessmann was fairly complete and didn't need much work to get it running safely. And most of the critical components were straight out of Ford's parts book.

"Once we got the flathead running well, we had to be able to stop the tractor," Don says. "So I gave it a brake job." Normally a brake job on a Ford F-5 or F-6 truck wouldn't have given Don much trouble, but with the Lessmann, one rear brake cylinder was shot and needed to be replaced. Unfortunately, the brake cylinders are located behind a cast cover, part of the tractor's final drive. "I tried everything I could think of to get at it," Don says, shaking his head. "I finally had to cut holes in the hub to get the job done." Once he had access, the cylinders, still available at the local parts store, were easy to install.

The tractor's hydraulic system was intact except for some leaks and rotten hoses. After replacing all of the hoses and rebuilding leaking cylinders, the Lessmann loader was operational. "I thought the bucket was too narrow to be of much use," Don points out. "So I welded extensions on either side and lengthened the cutting edge." The unusual loader is remarkably tight for its 50-plus years of age. Don believes the machine spent its working life loading bulk materials in the highway department yard rather than performing heavy excavating work.

Satisfied the tractor was in good mechanical condition, Don sandblasted and painted it. "I chose Ford Blue because I like the color," Don says. Once the painting was completed, "Brutus" (the Lessmann's new name) was stenciled on the sides of the loader arms. Don has done plenty of vehicle body restoration over the years and is quick to point out that he didn't bother to fill the rust pits and block the tin before applying the finish coats. Because Brutus will be put to work, Don prefers to let those badges of honor shine through.

Brutus has been put back to work around the Retzlaff place primarily to move and lift things. Don has also used the machine as a tall scaffold when he made repairs to a windmill. As anyone with a loader knows, once you have one, you wonder how you ever got along without it. Don feels the same way, but he is especially pleased that his grandchildren love to ride with him on Brutus.

Flatheads and other fascinations

"Maybe, just maybe, my love of those flathead Fords comes from my first car being a 1940 Ford flathead V-8," Don says with a wink. "My second car was 1951 Ford flathead V-8, next car was 1953 Ford Victoria flathead V-8 and on and on and on." Even today, Don uses a 1952 flathead V-8 powered Ford pickup truck he restored to showroom condition as his daily driver. "I love the rumble of the exhaust," Don says, "especially with dual pipes and a pair of cherry bomb mufflers." But Don has more than flathead Fords in his collection.

A quick glance in the sheds reveals a 1939 Oliver 70 row crop tractor, 1953 Allis-Chalmers WD-45 tractor, 1949 John Deere B and a John Deere 1010 diesel track loader among others. Several other vehicles are tucked away here and there, including a Harley Davidson golf cart, an old Ford F-5 truck and a lovely Ford Thunderbird. A few flathead Ford V-8 engines are stashed among the vehicles too, just in case Don needs a spare.

Don enjoys collecting, but he believes in using what he collects. For example, when he and his wife, Lorraine, acquired land in the mountains of West Virginia, he purchased the John Deere 1010 track loader specifically to help with improvements. "I had to replace the rollers in the undercarriage," Don says. "And I gave it the custom camouflage paint job to hide it on the property." That tractor not only cut roads and cleared a mountaintop building site, it also managed to survive unmolested during long periods of isolated abandonment.

Lorraine and Don have been into collecting (and using) more than just cars and tractors over the years. Some of the other family passions include Aladdin lamps, player pianos and old furniture. "What good is it to have all this stuff if you can't use it?" Lorraine asks. "We always tried to make junk with a 'Q' out of junk with a 'K.'" Brutus may well be just their latest effort to that end.

- For more information:
Don Retzlaff, 12211 Wallace Lane, Upper Marlboro, MD 20772; (301) 868-9065; e-mail:

Oscar "Hank" Will III is an old-iron collector and freelance writer and photographer. He splits his time between his home in Gettysburg, Pa., and his farm in East Andover, N.H. Write him at 243 W. Broadway, Gettysburg, PA 17325l (717) 337-6068; e-mail: