Caterpillar Tractors and Dozers on the Prowl

Caterpillar tractors work hard at the Tri-State Gas Engine & Tractor Show in Portland, Ind.

A 1929 Caterpillar Model 15 Motor Patrol grader from the collection of Jim Leonard.

A 1929 Caterpillar Model 15 Motor Patrol grader from the collection of Jim Leonard.

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These big cats did not slink toward their target stealthily as do the big cats in the wilds of Africa. No, these arrived chained down to prime movers. Then, when they reached their destination, they were unchained and unleashed. They came to life in earth-shaking roars. They crawled down off their mighty trailers, pivoted and began to move away from the crowd. Proud, powerful and ready for action, these big Caterpillar bulldozers, graders and pan tractors aligned themselves in neat rows like beauty pageant contestants. 

Others came attired in their work clothes. They were big, powerful machines ready for any task. Like coal miners and construction workers, they were ready to go.

The 2010 Tri-State Gas Engine & Tractor Assn. show in Portland, Ind., featured two major tractor lines: Massey-Harris and Caterpillar. And what a turnout they had! On Saturday of the show weekend, there were nearly 300 feature tractors on site. The club did not keep a separate account of exhibits, but they did display the two features in separate areas. Massey-Harris stood proud on the fairgrounds; Caterpillar occupied the recently purchased show grounds just to the east.

Diverse Massey feature
There were probably more Massey-Harris pieces on display than Caterpillar, but not by many. With a bright red finish and yellow wheels, tractors in the Massey feature made for a colorful exhibit. The display included many tractor models as well as a varied line-up of farm equipment. Among the highlights: a self-propelled 2-row corn picker that looked better than new.

There was also a good showing of combines, both pull-type and self-propelled, including a rare 48-inch-cut pull-type. David Hudson, Portland, saved it from demolition at a scrap yard. It was indeed fencerow material, but it had been reclaimed. You might often see a 42-inch-cut Allis-Chalmers or International Harvester, but you almost never see a small-cut Massey-Harris.

Merger spawns powerhouse
Back to Caterpillar. The Caterpillar Tractor Co. was formed by the consolidation of two track-laying tractor companies, Holt Mfg. Co. and C.L. Best Gas Tractor Co. Benjamin Holt built a factory in Stockton, Calif., to build tractors for the fertile soils there. His first track-laying tractor was a steam-powered unit introduced in 1890. Other models were designed and sold during the following years.

In 1904, Holt began testing a rear-track for his steam traction engine. He used two metal link belts to serve as endless tracks, one for each side of the engine. He mounted wooded blocks at intervals along the track as support platforms. During a test, Holt and two friends – painter John Shepard and photographer Charles Clements – watched the machine’s performance. Clements was fascinated by the track’s motion as it moved around the drive sprocket and front idler wheel. As it traversed over the top, the engine moved in an unusual motion, which Clements described as being similar to a caterpillar crawling. Holt eventually patented use of the Caterpillar name.

In 1908, Holt bought the Daniel Best Agricultural Works. Holt used the Best design to produce gas-powered track-laying tractors. His early tractors were half-track machines that used a front wheel to turn the vehicle. In 1909, Holt bought the Colean Mfg. Co., Peoria, Ill., as a Midwestern production center.

One year later, in 1910, Daniel Best’s son, C.L. Best, started his own enterprise, C.L. Best Gas Traction Engine Co., in Elmhurst, Calif., to manufacture track-laying tractors. His first efforts, like the Holt tractor, were half-track machines that used a front wheel for steering purposes. Soon though, Best machines were fully tracked and used differential brakes to control steering.

In 1918, Best sold a Model 75 tractor that was full track, weighed about 28,000 lbs., and was powered by a 4-cylinder engine with a 7 3/4- by 9-inch bore and stroke. It was rated at 40 hp on the drawbar and 70 hp on the belt. This tractor was in production for only two years.

Both companies dominated in the crawler category. In 1925, Holt and Best consolidated to form Caterpillar Tractor Co. The earliest Caterpillar tractors carried that name, and the image of a caterpillar was cast into the radiator.

Increased mobility pushes roadwork
In the very beginning, Caterpillar focused on farm machinery but as automobiles became more prevalent, roads became a necessity. Caterpillar changed its production line to include bulldozers, pull-type graders, wheeled tractors and pans, industrial engines and other products.

Early bulldozers used cable to lift and lower the dozer blade. When pulling a scraper pan, two rear winches were used to operate the cable-controlled pans. They even mounted a road grader on the front of a smaller dozer to fill that niche of the market.

Caterpillar diesel engines were available commercially for sources of industrial power. One example of that was a fully restored Link Belt Shovel powered by a Caterpillar industrial diesel engine.

An extensive collection of Caterpillar equipment was on display at Portland, many of the Cats were brought by members of the Antique Caterpillar Machinery Owners Club. It was thrilling to see such a large variety of models and styles of tractors and dozers, and such a wide array of construction equipment.

Old iron goes to work
The Tri-State club typically sets aside a field for demonstrations. This year, the club had a large pile of dirt brought in so Caterpillar owners could demonstrate their tractors and equipment. Their goal was to move the pile of dirt onto the grounds and build a road halfway across the field. Cat tractors and scraper pans moved dirt; dozers pushed, shoved and leveled the roadway; and tractors with plows loosened the roadway while rippers loosened the dirt. Then dozers once again moved onto the grounds to level the roadway, making it passable.

Tractors and dozers worked every day of the show. When the show was over, every machine that had come to work had been tried and tested. Most of the dirt pile had been moved and the roadway was partially completed. Temperatures every day were extremely hot, so observers moved in and out of the area all day. It was simply too hot to stay all day. But most important for show participants was the thrill of watching those big machines work, and for the owners, a chance to work their machines.

If you are interested in construction equipment and the art of road construction and you have the opportunity to be a participant at an event featuring Caterpillar equipment, pack your bags and go: You will not be disappointed. FC 

For more information: Antique Caterpillar Machinery Owners Club, 7501 N. University St., Suite 119, Peoria, IL 61614; (309) 691-5002; online at www.acmoc.org
James N. Boblenz grew up on a farm near New Bloomington, Ohio. He now lives in Marion, Ohio, and is interested in antique farm equipment, particularly rare and lesser-known tractors and related items. E-mail him at jboblenz@aol.com.