Building the Unstoppables

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The Trackson

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In the early years of the last century, during the first years of tractor-building, tractor companies - hundreds of them - searched for a type of tractor that would not only set them apart from the competition, but would sell. Unfortunately, the wide variety merely confused farmers, as R. V. Brown of Freeport, Ill., wrote in Farm Implements magazine in 1917, 'There is one big step to be recognized and made and that is standardization. It should awaken all tractor concerns, especially the new and small ones, who try to present something vastly different. Picture the menagerie of autos that first appeared. Today, ask a schoolboy to sketch one. All autos are pretty much alike. He has a conception of an auto. He has no such conception of a gas tractor, there are so many species, just recently I watched a tractor. It was one of the new species just out, and looked as if it were hitched front end to the plow. All troublesome machinery was inconveniently placed between the drive wheels. About every time the farmer stopped he had to get a crowbar and lift the thing ahead before he could insert the crank to start it. This was only one of the errors in designing the thing. The farmer was having some trouble, which necessitated many stops. Three out of four of the stops found a spoke interfering with cranking and meant more crowbar work.'

None of these unusual types of tractors survived very long, because of competition, poor manufacturing, or simply because they were not designed properly for farm use. As one farmer wrote to Tractor And Implement, 'You would think they might come out to the fields once in a while and actually see what we need.'

Occasionally, however, manufacturers stumbled across an idea that not only took root, but flourished, and eventually led to a type of standardization of tractors. One of those ideas was for tractors with tank-type treads.

These gained credibility due to World War I. Tractor-related magazines of the day - Farm Implements, Farm Implement & Tractor, Literary Digest, Gas Power - all showed pictures at one time or another of allied tanks crawling across enemy lines, the treads of this brand-new type of fighting machine prominently kicking up dust. An article in a 1917 issue of Farm Implements, 'Army Tanks In A Sham Battle,' tells the tale of how Captain Moffett, Commandant of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, started using a tank-tread, the 'type of propulsion identical with the method of getting over rough ground that makes the English 'tanks' so valuable in offensive work. An endless steel track is laid down on the ground and over this the machine pulls itself on smooth steel rail. Ground irregularities do not matter. One track may be going over a log, while that on the other side is down in a hollow.' The article also tells how the tread reacts to weather: 'The ground was covered with puddles of water and everywhere the slippery, sticky clay soil made venturing forth an invitation to a fall. Nevertheless, the ... tractor, undaunted, stolidly crept along over the slimy field, through the mud puddles, water and sticky clay without its progress in the least retarded. This is a remarkable performance ... (and shows that the) tractor could successfully operate over soft ground on which men were slipping and falling constantly.'

Reading this, it is not difficult to understand the eagerness with which tractor-manufacturing companies leapt into making 'Tank-Tread' - or tracklayer - tractors: if it could operate on the war-torn battlegrounds of Europe, amidst poor weather and shell and shot and fury, it must really be tough and strong. Why couldn't it work in a farmer's field? Tractor companies, some brand-new, some experienced, hopped on the tank-tread bandwagon.

Tank-treads came in two types that might be called rear-drive and four-wheel drive. In other words, the rear-drive treads were hooked only to the rear wheels (and were often called half-treads), while the four-wheel drive used rear and front wheels.

The first company to use the name 'Tank-Tread' was probably the Pan Motor Company of St. Cloud, Minn., in 1917, although other tank-tread-type tractors were on the market at least two years earlier. If it had been up to Pan, started and run by Samuel Pandolfo Jr., the tank-tread tractor might never have survived, because his tank-tread tractor was a scam. Though his advertising screamed 'The Pan Tank-Tread Tractor Which Will Win The War!' the machine never worked, despite his claim in a St. Cloud newspaper: 'In spite of everything that has been said against us because of our claims for the tank-tread tractor, it is running and it is a success. It is not only a success, it is the best caterpillar-type tractor so far designed and developed.' (See 'Fraud!' in the January 2000 issue of Farm Collector.)

Another early tank-tread was made by the Acme Harvesting Machine Co., of Peoria, Ill. It was sold in 1918 and 1919, and according to C. H. Wendel in Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, 'had a unique arrangement for converting back and forth from wheels to tracks.' The Acme 12-25 and its tracked partner were identical tractors. Unfortunately, Acme parts were open to the dirt in the fields, and farmers - along with many other tractor companies - had quickly learned how fast that ground down vital parts of tractors. Acme learned the hard way, and flamed out shortly after it started.

Bates tank-tread tractors were some of the longest-lived in the business. Their model C was produced beginning in 1915, and lasted for three years. It was replaced by the Model D and later Model F, which they made from 1922-1937. Another of the Bates longest-lasting treaded tractors was the Bates Steel Mule.

One of the few companies that actually called its tractors 'Tank-Treads' was the Scientific Farming Machinery Company of Minneapolis, which named their tracklaying tractor the 'Tank-Tread X 25-50.' Later it was renamed the Mark IV. It does not take a genius to figure out that certain tractor designs in these early years were lifted from those of other tractors (or just as often, the designer of one tractor moved to another company and designed essentially the same tractor there as he had elsewhere, making a few changes, and adding a different name.) Such was the case with the Tank-Tread X/Mark IV. As Wendel writes, 'The tractor itself is suspiciously similar to the Bates Steel Mule.' It's often difficult, in these cases, to determine which came first. Often one of the companies went out of business so quickly that the true ownership of the design was never challenged and, in the long run, didn't matter.

Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company, the same one that eventually made the Waterloo Boy tractor, which became the first tractor in the John Deere line, manufactured a 'catapillar,' as they called it, in 1913. It used the same basic design as the Waterloo Boy tractor that was in production at the time, but the tank-tread tractor never got past the starting gate. It is unclear why.

As in building most new products, the final form of the tank-tread was not arrived at immediately. Rather, different types of designs were created as in-the-field experiments. One example is the tractor made by the Joliet Oil Tractor Company of Joliet, Ill., which entered the market in 1912 with its half tank-tread tractor designed to bridge the gap between the horse and the tractor. Like a horse, the tractor could be operated from the implement it was pulling by the use of reins or special telescoping arms. Joliet's tractor was notable because it had only a single rear track centered under the machine, which made the machine unstable and easily tipped.

Buckeye Manufacturing Company of Anderson, Ind., manufactured both rear-wheel drive and four-wheel drive tank tread tractors. It appears they took an existing tractor, the Buckeye, and added half-tracks on the rear wheels as early as 1916. Wendel writes that this 'nifty little halftrack outfit called the Buckeye, Jr., ... was compact and still capable of excellent tractive power.' In 1917 Buckeye made its first full-tread tractor, the 'Chain Tread,' with fancy pinstripes and lettering. A year later, the company followed with its Trundaar 20-35. Each of these tank-tread tractors improved on the design of each other. In 1920, Buckeye made the Trundaar 25-40. But one obstacle the company couldn't make it over was the agricultural depression, which stalled and killed the company in 1922. The 25-40 was the company's final production model.

Cletrac was the brand name of tank-tread tractors made by Cleveland Tractor Company of Cleveland. Cleveland's first entry into the tank-tread market was its first tractor, a full-tread 'Cleveland Motor Plow,' sold under the motto, 'Geared to the ground.' The company made numerous full-tread crawlers until 1941, when it disappeared, probably due to wartime materiel demands.

One of the earliest and oddest-looking tank-treads was the Model K crawler made by Gile Tractor & Engine Co. of Ludington, Mich., starting in 1916. The company, like so many tractor-manufacturing companies, went out of business shortly after 1920.

A quick check of the records shows that California was the breeding place for many 'Tank-Tread' tractor types, doubtless due to the success of two of the major players in the business, Holt and Best companies. Many of these smaller companies, like Homer Laughlin Engine Corporation of Los Angeles, failed because they came in existence at the wrong time. Homer produced its Laughlin 10-20 in 1919-1920; Union Tool Corporation of Torrance, Calif., which made its Sure-Grip in 1921 and 1922; Union Tractor Company of San Francisco, which made its Union Bulldog in 1917; and Yuba Manufacturing Company in Marysville, Calif., which built the Yuba Ball Tread tractors from 1916-1921. (For more, on the Yuba Ball Tread Tractor, see 'Let's Talk Rusty Iron,' page 32.) These were arguably the years of the fiercest competition ever found among tractor builders, due to the large number of companies. The other wild card was the onslaught of the sudden agricultural depression in 1920, which ended the hopes of these fledgling track-tread companies.

Though Holt Manufacturing Company of Stockton, Calif., might not be a household name, it (along with the C. L. Best Gas Traction Company of San Leandro, California) was truly the forerunner of today's final form of the tank-tread tractor. Holt brought their first successful half-track tractor out in 1909, though Holt had patented parts of it 18 years earlier, and had built steam versions in the early 1900s. The company's 1909 version looked like the marriage between the front half of an old-time tractor, and a rear half of futuristic tracklayer, and was invented primarily because of the boggy soil in that area of California. Holt's additional claim to fame was the naming of their 60 HP half tank-tread tractor a 'Caterpillar' in 1912, which became the name of the future company.

C. L. Best Gas Traction Company invented their first tank-tread in 1912, although it, like the tractors of the other companies mentioned here, were not called tank-treads until after the United States entry into World War I in 1916. Holt and Best, as Wendel says, 'merged and created the Caterpillar Tractor Company on April 25, 1925.'

By that time, everybody was impressed with this new type of tractor, the famous 'tank-tread' tractors, also known as crawlers, tracklayers, or Caterpillars. It became clear that they were more than another experimental tractor intended to separate farmers from their hard-earned money. Though they never became as popular in the farmers' fields as companies would have liked, it was obvious they had many uses, and were not another aberration to be tossed on the junkpile of history. Tank-tread tractors were here to stay.

Bill Vossler is a frequent Contibutor to Farm Collector.

'As in building most new products, the final form of the tank-tread was not arrived at immediately. Rather, different types of designs were created as in-the-field experiments.'