Henry Ford thought enough of the Silver King tractors to purchase two just to tear apart and study. Of the Silver King brand, Ford is reported to have said, 'They were the best on the market at the time but had the worst marketing program of any company.'
Silver Kings were manufactured by the Fate-Root-Heath Co. beginning in 1933 in Plymouth, Ohio. Initially they were called 'Plymouths.' According to historians of the brand, J.D. Fate arrived in Plymouth in the late 1880s to begin building clay-extruding equipment for the manufacture of bricks. In 1909, Fate organized the Plymouth Truck Co. for making Plymouth trucks and sightseeing buses, and in 1910, a Plymouth car, but in 1915, the company closed.
In 1919, Fate joined with three Root brothers - John, Percy and Halse - and Charles Heath to build locomotives and reel-type grass mowers, also in the same city. Following the 1929 stock market crash, Heath urged his partners to begin building tractors, too. The company's first tractor was a three-wheeled Plymouth 10-20, powered by a 20-hp Hercules 1XA four-cylinder motor with a 3-inch bore and a 4-inch stroke. The four-speed transmission included a speed gear that topped out at 25 mph.
Silver Kings were reportedly designed for use with rubber tires, although they came with steel wheels as standard equipment; the buyer had to pay extra for the rubber tires. The tractor also was among the first to have an electrical system, including starter and lights, and it quickly gained a reputation for being easy to repair. By the mid-1930s, company engineers were working on a three-point hitch, live hydraulics and a complete hydraulic transmission.
In 1934, when the low, stable design of the four-wheeled Silver King R38 was introduced, the tractor began to attract more attention. It sported lights, a horn and a top road speed of 45 mph with its governor removed. From 1934 to 1937, the tractors were built and marketed mostly for highway mowing; each tractor came with its own 5-foot Oliver sickle-bar mower.
In 1936, the company was able to build four to five tractors a day, and in 1937, records show, 1,000 tractors were actually sold.
According to Cars, Trucks and Busses Made by Tractor Companies, by Bill Vossler, the Ohio-made Plymouth tractors turned into Silver Kings after Walter Chrysler, of Chrysler Corp., Detroit, sued Fate-Root-Heath in 1935 to keep that firm from continuing to use the 'Plymouth' name. Rather than fight an extensive court battle with a large corporation, the Ohio firm settled out of court and switched the tractor's name to 'Silver King.'
Along with the tractor's popularity as a mowing machine, the R38 was rated for pulling one 14-bottom plow. It also is known to have towed movie sets around the Warner Brothers' lot in Hollywood and to have pulled harvest wagons through California vegetable fields.
From 1933 through 1954, Fate-Root-Heath manufactured 8,600 Silver King tractors in Plymouth; between 200 and 300 were made before Chrysler's suit forced the name change. In 1954, the Fate-Root-Heath Co. sold its tractor division to Mountain State Fabricating Co. in Clarksburg, W.Va. From 1955 to 1957, 75 Silver King tractors, beginning with the 5,000 Series, were made by that firm, but then production halted, and in 1960, Mountain States closed.
Through 1966, Fate-Root-Heath continued to produce locomotives, but in 1969, the business was sold to Banner Industries, Inc., and renamed Plymouth Locomotive Works. In 1987, Plymouth employees bought out Banner in an effort to save the locomotive production, but in 1996, they sold the firm to American Hoist and Derrick Co. of Bucyrus, Ohio, and the name changed again, to Ohio Industries, Inc. In 2001, the plant and grounds were sold at public auction to a private Pennsylvania investor, and last year, small parcels of the buildings and land began to be sold to various local investors.
Today, some patterns associated with the manufacture of the Silver King tractors are in the collection of the Heritage Museum in Plymouth, and in 1989, Leon Hord of Willard, Ohio, founded the Silver King of Yesteryear Tractor Club (SKY), with a membership of 15. Today, more than 350 Silver King collectors are on the club's roster.
Each year, they gather the first weekend in August in Plymouth to celebrate their tractors; 2002 marked the 13th year and drew 80 tractors. Among them were a 1934 four-wheeled Plymouth and a 1938 three-wheeled Silver King, both owned by Frank Ousley of Plymouth. Frank says he bought his 1934 at a Horseheads, N.Y., auction and thinks it was used for vineyard or truck garden work. He only had to repaint it and put on new tires. He and his wife, Ruth, and their daughter and son-in-law, Shawn and Kevin Oney, own 25 Silver Kings, 20 of which run, and two Plymouths. Kevin and Shawn own one of the Silver Kings made and marketed as highway mowing tractors, which were the company's 'best sellers.' Their's is a yellow 1948 model, made in Plymouth, but bought by them out of West Virginia. Attached to it is its original 5-foot, Oliver sickle-bar mower, which is all-hydraulic, with a 'wobble box' that made it more effective on uneven brush along highway right of ways.
Leon Hord showed his 1936 model R-44 Silver King. It has an Isuzu diesel engine, installed in 1989 by the late Willis Camp of Beach City, Ohio. After Willis' death in 1990, Leon bought the tractor at the estate auction. It's on a 1936 chassis, he says, noting that to his knowledge the Fate-Root-Heath Co. never made a diesel, 'but it sure looks like a factory job.'
Harmon and Phaenon Sloan of Shiloh, Ohio, showed his 1936 Silver King, which was named 'Best of Show' this year, and Phaenon's three-wheeled 1948 model 42 Silver King. The Sloan's Silver Kings are part of their 'Heinz 57' collection of 11 restored tractors that date from 1921 to 1953.
Next year, in addition to holding the annual August event in Plymouth, the Silver King Club will participate in the Miami Valley Steam Threshers Association show July 17-20 in Plain City, Ohio. FC
- For more information about the Silver King of Yesteryear Tractor Club, contact Ruth Ousley, 4860 Henry Road, Plymouth, Ohio, 44865; (419) 687-6241.
- Jan Shellhouse is a freelance writer and vintage tractor enthusiast who lives in Shelby, Ohio