Antique Caterpillar Machinery Playing in the Dirt

Antique Caterpillar machinery converges at annual threshermen's reunion.


Above: It took four hand-wheels to manage the Cat Model No. 10 Motor Patrol’s grading functions.

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Engines growled as cleated grousers gripped the ground in tractor demonstrations that literally moved the earth at the 2004 Antique Caterpillar Machinery Owners Club's (ACMOC) National Summer Show last August. Yellow, grey and black track-laying machines crawled all over the Rough and Tumble Engineers Historical Association's (RTEHA) Kinzers, Pa., show grounds with demonstrations of grading, bull-dozing, plowing and digging.

"We were glad to be hosted by Rough and Tumble during their annual Threshermen's Reunion," explains Bill Rudicill, ACMOC president. "We move our summer show around because it is easier to do that than move the equipment around." While it is true that Caterpillar made a number of smaller tractors from the beginning in 1925 to about 1960 (the year at which the organization draws its "vintage" line), even small crawlers can tip the scales at close to 10,000 pounds. "Weight like that is difficult, or at least expensive, to haul over great distances, so the show moves around," Bill says. "And we get to see all kinds of other machines when we are hosted by another group."

ACMOC (headquartered in Peoria, Ill., with about 3,000 members worldwide) originated in Oregon in the early 1990s with 10 committed enthusiasts. "Several of us would bring our Cats to the annual show in Brooks (Ore.)," Harry Cruchelow recalls, in explaining the club's origins. "In 1990, there were 10 of us, which was the right number to incorporate as a non-profit in Oregon."

The group's purpose is to encourage and support restoration of Caterpillar machinery, and preserve the company's history. "We also included Holt and Best machinery," Harry adds. "When they got together, that was really the beginning of Caterpillar."

Cats to work the land

Today, Caterpillar equipment is most readily associated with large, diesel-powered, heavy-duty construction equipment - machines that build dams and interstate highways. In the beginning, however, the company's founders built machines that could work the Western landscape: massive combine harvesters first pulled by 26 horses, and later by Holt or Best steam-powered traction engines.

The steam engines were heavy, and it was difficult to achieve the traction required to pull the monstrous harvesters, and other super-sized tillage tools, while maintaining enough flotation to keep the machines from bogging down in soft loam. The solution was found in replacing cleated steel wheels with tracks. Eventually steam gave way to gasoline engines, and gasoline engines later gave way to diesel engines.

By the time Benjamin Holt and Daniel Best joined forces in 1908, both were supplying large farms with enough pulling power that road builders, loggers, freighters and others looking for a versatile prime mover took note. The combination of brute strength and flotation made the track-laying machines excellent for pulling long trains of lumber wagons, skidding logs or pulling road graders and other earth moving equipment.

In 1910, C.L. Best (Daniel's son) went into business building tractors. By 1912 his Best Tracklayers competed directly with Holt's machines in most markets. The Caterpillar Tractor Co. was formed when they joined forces in 1925.

Eventually, the crawlers were fitted with front blades evolving into self-contained dozers. Although Caterpillar equipment is still used on many large farms to pull multi-shank, deep-ripping subsoil plows, articulated four-wheel-drive machines, or new rubber-tracked agricultural tractors, have for the most part replaced the slower crawlers in the field.

Several interesting, agriculturally oriented Caterpillar tractors were at the 2004 summer show, including a 1956 Model D4 orchard crawler owned by Larry Maasdam of Clarion, Iowa. According to Larry, the D4 is just one of the many unusual high-crop and orchard-style agricultural tractors (of all brands) in his collection, but it is one of his favorite Cats. Orchard tractors were built low and streamlined to slip between rows of trees and beneath fruit-bearing branches. As useful as this style of tractor was for grove management, it was of little value to truck farmers who needed something with a lot of ground clearance. Caterpillar's solution to that problem was the high-clearance crawler.

Alex and Pat Sosik brought their beautifully restored 1930 high-clearance Cat Model Ten crawler to the show and were met with smiles and nods of appreciation. "I redid the works, and painted her up nice," Alex says. "Now it makes me nervous hauling because if she ever got hit, I might never get 'er back." Alex is rightfully anxious: The Cat high-clearance tractor is a rare crawler. "I believe there were about 300 total high-clear models built by Cat," Alex says. "Of course, others were modified into high-clear by their owners." Alex found his high-crop tractor in New York, where it may have been used on a truck farm. Other high-clearance Caterpillars, custom modified for nursery and truck farm work in New Jersey, were in attendance at the show, along with Tim Durkin's 1932 Model Ten High-Clearance.

The Hewitt Bros. Logging Co. brought several beautifully restored Caterpillar crawlers to Kinzers from Uncasville, Conn., including a pair with two different but striking cabs. "Both (cabs) were Cat products," William Hewitt explains. "One was built onto the tractor, and the other was sold as an attachment." The logging company's 1934 Model Thirty-Five crawler was equipped with a completely enclosed wooden cab to keep the operator out of the weather, while the 1929 Model Thirty's top was more reminiscent of what might be installed on a horse-drawn buggy.

The Hewitt brothers' collection included several other winch-equipped tractors that would have been very comfortable grubbing logs out of the forest, were they ever to see real work again. "We spent quite a bit of time and money on the restorations," William explains as he wipes a late August rain from the beautifully varnished wood on the Model Thirty-Five's cab. "Their working days are over."

David Wintermute, Annandale, N.J., also had several machines at the event. His soil-shattering demonstrations with an original-condition 1940 Cat Model R-5 and subsoil plow were truly amazing. This 64 hp, 4-cylinder, gasoline engine-powered tractor had no problem pulling the unnamed plow's single 2-foot-long shank through the Lancaster County subsoil. The plow raised and lowered with a rope-trip mechanism, and as the shank plunged through the top-soil, the tractor only growled a little louder.

Tools such as these were used to shatter the hardpan that developed up to 3 feet below the soil's surface, particularly in California's vast Central Valley, where flood irrigation was practiced. As recently as the late 1970s, huge farming operations in California's Central Valley used D9 Cats to pull 15-foot-wide subsoil plows with four or five shanks.

It wasn't all about farm or forest Cats at the 2004 ACMOC summer show, however. There was plenty of Caterpillar construction equipment on hand to wow show-goers with beautiful restorations and dirty demonstrations.

Prime movers and dirt pushers

A number of Cats and Cat-pulled implements were put to the test at the Rough and Tumble dirt pile located at the northeast corner of the grounds. For example, Chris Landeck used his 1945 Model D4 to pull friend Chris Withington's Cat Twenty-Two grader. The Connecticut-based pair worked feverishly to keep the surface of the giant-sized sandbox smooth, but it was a lost cause when Gary Risk hooked his 1944 D2 with ice tracks to a small Henry Model G1 scraper and started digging 4-foot wide trenches. Gary has a few Cat tractors, but he really enjoys playing with the scrapers. "Most people have never seen scrapers this small," Gary says. "It is amazing how much dirt you can move with them." Gary also demonstrated a Sears Roebuck tumble-pan-type scraper behind his 1929 Cat Fifteen.

Dozer enthusiasts found a plentiful supply of the front-bladed beasts, including several that demonstrated their capabilities in the dirt pile. For example, Rueben Brubaker had his 1954 hydraulic dozer-equipped Cat D4 on hand, and Alan Smith displayed his 1958 Model 955 track loader. But none of the dozers pleased the crowds as much as Bill Glenn's D2 with hydraulic blade. Bill worked his little Cat hard to maintain some order in the demonstration area, and he always had an audience.

Ken Avery's meticulously restored 1922 Best 30 crawler was also a crowd favorite. The well-aged piece of iron looked better than brand new, from the beautifully polished brass and copper fuel system to the bright red grousers on the machine's like-new tracks. Even the varnished wood seat frame was unmarred. When folks refer to a piece of machinery as a work of art, Ken's Best crawler would have to set the standard. It is hard to believe that this machine once served duty as a prime mover - and survived.

Several vintage self-propelled road graders were shown, including a 1952 Model No. 212 motor grader owned by Norm Schuldts, and a beautifully restored 1935 Cat Model No. 11 Auto Patrol motor grader. David Wintermute's 1931 Cat Model No. 10 Motor Patrol grader - part crawler and part wheel-grader - drew quite a crowd. This machine consists of a Caterpillar Ten crawler with the grader's superstructure and chassis bolted to the front, complete with steereable front wheels. In spite of the nearly perfect restoration, David used the machine to smooth the parade grounds to a fine finish once all of the cleated machines had passed. In addition to the self-propelled graders, early pull-type graders and terracers of all conditions were on display.

Crawling ahead

According to Bill Rudicill, ACMOC is a growing concern. He attributes that in part to Caterpillar's nearly universal brand recognition, and in part to the sandbox appeal of the equipment. "When we were kids, we played with toy Cats," Bill says with a confident smile. "As we got older, our toys got a little bigger." Bill should know: He's made a business of playing with Cats. His Petersburg, Ky., sand and gravel business uses Cat equipment almost exclusively.

- This year's ACMOC Summer Show will be held in conjunction with the Carstens 1880 Farmstead 23rd Annual Show in Shelby, Iowa, Sept. 9-11. For more information: Antique Caterpillar Machinery Owners Club, P.O. Box 2220, East Peoria, IL 61611; online at

Oscar "Hank" Will III is an old-iron collector and freelance writer and photographer who retired from farming in 1999. He splits his time between his home in Gettysburg, Pa., and his farm in East Andover, N.H. Contact him at 243 W. Broadway, Gettysburg, PA 17325; (717) 337-6068; e-mail