Caterpillar Machinery Makes Tracks

75th Anniversary Caterpillar Machinery Show draws rare machines and rave reviews

1916 Holt 45

This 1916 Holt 45 was used until 1940. The 45 hp engine features a 6" bore and 7" stroke and runs at 600 rpm. The "45" sold for $2,750 new. It is owned by Philip and Leonard Johnson, Peoria, Ill.

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What's big, and yellow, and seen all over? If you were anywhere near Chillicothe, Ill., Aug. 25-27, you'd know the answer to that question: Caterpillar machinery. 

But Caterpillar aficionados know that Caterpillar equipment wasn't always yellow. At first, the standard color was gray, usually trimmed with red, or sometimes black. The change to yellow came officially Dec. 7, 1931, but even today, Caterpillar Inc. will paint its equipment any color, if the customer is willing to pay an additional fee.

The Old Fashioned Threshing Show and Caterpillar Power from the Past shows were combined to assemble the largest collection of antique Caterpillar machinery ever gathered in the Peoria area. Peoria, of course, is the international headquarters of Caterpillar Inc. Sponsors of the event included the Antique Caterpillar Machinery Owners Club (ACMOC) and the River Valley Antique Association.

Ted Holton, president of ACMOC, said the organization was founded in 1991 to foster the exchange of information and ideas about the restoration of antique Caterpillar equipment, and to preserve Caterpillar history. Today, the club has more than 2,000 members.

"One does not have to be an owner of old machinery to be a member," he said. "Some members collect literature. The club wanted to have its general meeting in the Peoria area this year because it is the 75th anniversary of the merger of Best and Holt tractor companies and the formation of Caterpillar Tractor Company."

In 1926, Holt Manufacturing Company and C.L. Best Tractor Company merged to form Caterpillar Tractor Company. Benjamin Holt, founder of Holt Manufacturing Co., had invented a tractor with self-laying tracks in 1904. He called it the "Caterpillar" and that was the name chosen for the company created by the merger.

The River Valley Antique Association suggested ACMOC's "Caterpillar Power from the Past" show be held in conjunction with River Valley's 17th annual "Old Fashioned Threshing Show" at Three Sisters Park at Chillicothe, just north of Peoria.

ACMOC sponsors an annual show of vintage Cat equipment. But this was the biggest and best so far. People attended from South America, Europe, New Zealand and Australia, as well as from throughout the U.S. More than 160 pieces of Caterpillar equipment were on display, none manufactured after 1960. Holton, a long-time Caterpillar dealer in Portland, Ore., was not surprised at the interest generated by Caterpillar equipment.

"Caterpillar is connected with doing very hard work and getting it done," he said. Although the club president has seen his share of Caterpillar equipment, even he was excited about some of the items on display.

"I've never seen a high-clearance (Model) 10 tractor with a sickle bar, both manufactured by Cat," he said, camera in hand. "Also, a Holt built in 1916. There's one here that runs."

Later, crowds gathered when the Holt Caterpillar 45 was started. Manufactured in 1916, the tractor was purchased by R.R. Johnson on May 7, 1916 at a cost of $2,750. It was used on the Johnson farm until 1940 and now is owned by brothers Leonard and Philip Johnson. The nearly 14,000-lb. 45 runs at 600 rpm, and has a 6-inch bore and 7-inch stroke. At top speed, it goes nearly 3 mph. The display of Caterpillar advertising literature also intrigued Holton. Walter Gardner, who had been employed by Holt, was in charge of advertising for Caterpillar Tractor Co. He was the older brother of Erle Stanley Gardner, although he hated to be tagged as the big brother of the author of the Perry Mason mysteries.

Gardner believed in the importance of photography in sales literature and produced outstanding advertisements, Holton said.

"Having this kind of material to give customers made the sales job so much easier," he said. "He (Gardner) was one of the most important people in the company. When they didn't make him president, he left and became president of Keystone Wire & Iron. He was so far ahead of his time that the management of Cat was afraid; they didn't know where he was going. He was a brilliant guy. The people he trained (at Caterpillar) carried on his literature and advertising policy."

One of the stars of the Caterpillar Power from the Past Show was a Holt 60 track-type tractor. It was manufactured in 1913 in Stockton, Calif. About 1,000 of the tractors were produced from 1911-16. In excellent condition, its value has been estimated at $140,000- $150,000.

A 1925 Best 60 tractor, produced just before the merger of the Best and Holt companies, also was on display. It was manufactured in San Leandro, Calif.

Several high-clearance tractors, designed for use in orchards and vegetable fields in the West, were displayed at Chillicothe. A 26 hp Model 15, manufactured in Peoria in 1932, was one of 95 produced. It was used near Barstow, Calif. A 22 hp Model 10 high clearance tractor (manufactured in Peoria in 1930) also was used in California. Of the approximately 175 Caterpillar sickle mowers produced, only two or three remain in good condition, and one was at the show. A 1931 Caterpillar Model 10 agricultural tractor, one of about 500 built, pulled it. A 5-ton Best tractor produced in 1918 was believed to have been manufactured for use in Europe during World War I. Olive drab paint still can be seen on the underside of the tractor, but it is not known whether the tractor made it overseas. Everything on it is original, even the seat. Exhibitor Dick Opdahl of Alden, Minn., recalled how, as a kid, he loved to watch Caterpillar equipment being used to construct a road.

"It was fun to stand nearby and feel the ground vibrate," he said. "I would watch the tracks go round."

His great-uncle bought a Model 15 tractor that Dick now owns. His collection also includes a 1950 D7 tractor that he's still using; an unrestored, but running 1936 RD6; and a Model 15 manufactured in 1929 and used in Medford, Minn.

Dick exhibited the latter tractor at the show. It has a cab with canvas side curtains. He bought the tractor about eight years ago and added a tow hook, replaced the smokestack with a chrome stack, replaced the rusty cab roof and ordered new side curtains. Originally, Cat owners could have ordered curtains from the parts catalog, but they were not common, Dick said.

Another exhibitor, Peter M. Holt, of San Antonio, Texas, is a descendant of Benjamin Holt. He displayed a Model 75 Holt manufactured in 1917.

A unique piece from a museum collection was displayed at the show. Sometimes in the mid-20th century, when a tractor was needed for use in the Peoria plant, scraps were gathered to assemble it. One such tractor was the Model D4 made in 1946 from scrap parts at the factory by "Frenchy," a diesel mechanic in Building MM1. The "made from scratch" D4 was used to pull "dead" tractors from the assembly line and for general duties in the shipping department. Originally a gas start, it was later converted to electric start. The present engine, built in 1954, was a service return. The tractor was used daily until its retirement in July 1985. It is on permanent display at the Wheels Of Time Museum, Peoria.

Tiny Caterpillars also had a part in the show. Three company-owned factory prototypes were on display. Erma McMaster, an antiques dealer from Hickory, Pa., had a $2,200 price tag on an unrestored Caterpillar pedal tractor manufactured by New London Metal Processing Corp. in New London, Conn.

The company actually made three models of the same tractor: pedal, electric and gas.

Thomas Gaspardo, Dana, Ill., collector of Caterpillar toys and memorabilia, had a restored version of the electric tractor on display, but it was not for sale.

The 1949 Electric Motor Driven Junior D4 Caterpillar Crawler Tractor was advertised as a toy for children between the ages of 4 and 10. The toy tractor received "No. 1 honors in Better Homes & Gardens 1950 Toy Review" according to the advertising literature. The ad also claimed, "Something your child – like every other active, fun-loving youngster in America – has dreamed about and longed for: a Caterpillar Crawler Tractor he can drive all by himself."

Thomas's toy had seen better days when he bought it. It had been painted red, and the top was caved in where kids had sat on it. He restored the vehicle – giving it a new paint job, of course; pushing out the dents, buying new track and decals, and recovering the seat. Later, he acquired a pedal version of the same tractor.

Gaspardo says some people have estimated his electric toy's value between $3,500 and $4,300. But he knows of one that sold for $5,300.

"I'm not interested in selling it," he said. "Now I'm looking for one with a gas engine. I've never run across it."

For the exhibitors at the Caterpillar Power from the Past show, their Cats are classics, no matter what their size. FC 

Dianne L. Beetler is a lifelong rural resident who enjoys writing about people with unusual collections.