Walls of the Baker basement office covered with reminders of a busy life

Holt of Stockton


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Peorian recalls life as Salesman, District Representative, Dealer, Branch Manager, Promoter, Financier, Manufacturer, in Aultman, Colean, Buffalo Pitts, Autos and Caterpillars



(Ed. note: We are always glad to hear from Mr. F. Hal Higgins of 90 Grand View Place, Walnut Creek, Calif. We think he is the greatest living Agricultural Historian. Periodically he makes an interesting contribution to the ALBUM. You will get a little idea of his genuine interest in us by reading the following note.

'Dear Editor: Been busier than the proverbial feline on the metal roof on a July noon, but each time I pick up my copy of your Publication, I promise to take a couple hours and put together something that has turned up from the steam engine world that might interest your readers. When Mr. Baker hauled out a picture of himself swinging a scythe at one of the old time threshmen's days in Illinois, I knew your Corn Belt Boys could understand that. Also, his place in the history of modern as well as old farm equipment is secure. He is not only a 'big boy' in his home town but a giant in any list of men who built this modern mechanized U. S.

'Drop in when you get out this way, editors and steam tractor fans.')

Noting the July-August issue in the morning mail at my old address. please change to my mew spot out at 90 Grand View Place. Walnut Creek, Calif. The carpenters and plumbers are making a lot of noise below me as I write. I should have my new office ready in two weeks. Then, I will have my ten truck loads of files, books, catalogs, photos and notes so I can find anything I want on any phase of the farm equipment industry from mule-train days to diesels.

Noting you have had mostly letters from old steam fans who worked out on the threshing outfits as they moved around the 'rings', I thought your readers might like to meet a veteran from the sales, dealer and manufacturing end. I refer to Murray M. Baker of Peoria, who was breezing past his 80th birthday and visiting his dentist with orders to 'fix them up for another ten years' when I interviewed him at his beautiful home up on the 'Arrived' side of Moss Avenue when I was back in the Corn Belt recently. Mr. Baker is the man who is today the biggest stockholder in the Caterpillar Tractor Company and was the big influence in bringing it to Peoria when the California firm decided the automobile had started a road building trend that called far their tractors to get over near the center of the market. That was back in 1909, the same year the Holts sold the Los Angeles Aqueduct engineers 28 Caterpillars to haul the materials and equipment over mountains and desert to southern California on the biggest water development of any city up to that time. Hence, the engineering world was full of talk of the Holt 'Caterpillar' at this time, and Holt's were beginning to get orders from all over the world.

I found Mr. Baker as keen and bright as I had known him 25 years earlier. His basement office runs clear across the house with filing cabinets and desk neatly arranged to permit his keen mind and nimble fingers to locate the answers in documents and publications as fast as I asked questions. What about catalogs on these old steam threshing engines he had handled? He came up with the smaller 'price lists' for The Aultman Company for 1900, 1902, and 1904; Buffalo Pitts Company for 1904, 1905, 1906, and 1908; Colean Manufacturing Company, 1904; Reeves and Co., 1900; M. Rumely, 1906.

Pliny Holt at the controls in January, 1905, as the first Holt Caterpillar poses for its picture that appeared on the cover of American Thresherman and Implement News early in that year. The Holts had reached the conclusion that they 'had something' after studying and working one of their standard steam wheel jobs with a set of 'platform wheels', as they called them at first, over the 'round' wheels. Then they designed and built this first Holt Caterpillar. Pliny, nephew of President 'Uncle Ben', went over to Minneapolis and started his Northern Holt with parts to be built at Stockton. But M. M. Baker at Peoria coaxed him down to Peoria to see the Colean plant in 1908 and engineered the deal that brought the Holts together again and made Peoria the eastern factory location of the California Company. Photo from F. Hal Higgins

High, Wide and Handsome was the final step of Holts to keep their traction engine on top of the soft peat soil of the San Joaquin Delta farm lands. Here is a width of36 feet 8 inches with overhead supports to keep the wheels from breaking the axles. Even then, they sometimes got stuck, and most of the engine power went to move the huge 15-20 ton tractors. The next step was the crawler, an old British and U. S. idea that reached back to 1770 in the British patent office with New York, Pennsylvania, California, Illinois, Kansas, Ohio and other area inventors adding a little to it from 1858 up to Lombard in Maine in 1901. Holts were the first to put it over for the farmer as a practical machine, however. Photo from the collection of F. Hal Higgins

The walls of the Baker basement office were covered with reminders of a busy life that spanned achievements in rough fields that had laid the groundwork for the modern miracle of United States mechanism that lifted a nation to the position of Conqueror of Hunger in an under-nourished world that has been half starved throughout history. There were local, company and national tributes to a man Who had done things in the business and industrial world in the traditional free enterprise manner of keen competition and service based on business methods to serve the public with more efficient tools to produce food, fiber and do heavy construction work more efficiently.

Mr. Murray M. Baker (left) receiving his honorary Doctor of Law degree from the President of Bradley University last June. Mr. Baker, now past 80, came up from thresherman to dealer to manufacturer to his status as No. 1 citizen of Peoria, III. Photo from F. Hal Higgins

'Dinner in honor of Murray M. Baker, Forty Years with Caterpillar' was the tittle on one beautifully printed silk cord tied menu-program with the honored guests portrait on the first page. Besides mentioning his continuous service as a director through four decades that included two world wars that saw his factory product revolutionize land warfare via the tank in World War I and the tractor attachment known as the bulldozer in World War II, his unselfish work for community, state and nation was mentioned. Only recently, the writer was told by another Peorian the State of Indiana had a problem of buying up scattered farm lands around a lake to make a state park. Mr. Murray Baker owned one of these farms but refused to sell. He merely deeded the farm to the State of Indiana without payment in order to help put the deal through to make a neighboring state a better place in which to live.