Legends of the Silver King Tractors

Multifaceted company generates tractor with enduring appeal

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The R66 Model Silver King tractor could plow five acres in a day, pulling one 14-inch plow with its Hercules 3-inch-by-4-inch bore and stroke engine.

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The Silver King tractor and Fate-Root-Heath Co. of Plymouth, Ohio, are the stuff of legends: Did Walter Chrysler forget to secure the rights to the "Plymouth" name? Was the Silver King so-named because of the silver sheen of a live plant? Did Mae West own 90 Silver Kings for use in her California vineyard? These rumors have made excellent fodder for stories about the Silver King tractor and its companies.

What is known is that John D. Fate was involved in several early companies, all manufacturers of brick and drain tile, in Plymouth: J.D. Fate Co. in 1884, Fate-Freeze in 1888 and Fate Gunsallus Co. in 1894, reverting to J.D. Fate Co. a couple of years after each merger. In 1909, Fate moved in a different direction, organizing the Plymouth Truck Co. to build gasoline trucks and buses. And in 1910, the company manufactured a lone Plymouth automobile.

Back to the drawing board

More than two decades later, this single Plymouth auto would cause problems. Like other manufacturers of the time, Plymouth Truck Co. decided to make a car to sell, the Plymouth Gasoline Pleasure Vehicle. Wisely, company directors took the car on a maiden trip to New York City. Halfway there, a cylinder casting broke, so they loaded the auto onto a railroad flatcar, themselves into a coach car, and headed home. On the way, they decided to limit car production to one unit.

In 1912, the company was asked to manufacture a commercial locomotive. Locomotives quickly became the company's most profitable product, and trucks, buses and cars were dropped from the offering.

In 1919, the Root Brothers Co. and the Heath Foundry combined with the Fate Co. to form Fate-Root-Heath Co. J.D. Fate, Percy Root and Charley Heath were the principals. The company continued to manufacture locomotives and clay extrusion machinery.

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit FRH hard. As orders for Plymouth locomotives dwindled to nothing, management decided they needed a new product. In 1933, the company began manufacturing the Plymouth tractor.

Bone of contention

Five years earlier, however, in 1928, the Chrysler Corporation had begun producing Plymouth automobiles. When Walter Chrysler got wind of the Plymouth tractor, he came knocking on the door of Fate-Root-Heath in the guise of high-powered lawyers. In The Plymouths of Ohio, Jim Benjaminson of Walhalla, N.D. (who has written extensively about all things Plymouth), says Miles Christian, former president of FRH, related an amicable end to the flap. "They discovered we had prior use of 'Plymouth' on trucks and a car," Christian related. "We wound up selling the name 'Plymouth' to Chrysler for only one dollar" rather than fight a large company and court bad press. By that time, 232 Plymouth tractors had been built.

That meant the Plymouth tractor had to be renamed. Company executives faced each other across a boardroom table shortly after the 1935 name-change decision, trying to come up with a new name. In an account attributed to the late Leon Hord, longtime president of the Silver Kings of Yesterday Club (SKY), "They thought they had the king of all the tractors on the market, and they wanted to change the name to King, but a 'King' tractor already existed."

During the meeting, Hord continued, Charley Heath stared at the silver-like foliage of a plant on the boardroom table, and said, "Let's call it Silver King." "And that's the way it came about," Hord related. All tractors built in the plant after serial no. 314 would carry the name "Silver King."

The long decline

A total of 8,600 three-wheel and four-wheel Silver King tractors in various model configurations were built from 1935 to 1954. But as was the case with so many other manufacturers, eventually the tide turned against Fate-Root-Heath Co. and the Silver King tractor. Hord noted invention of a three-point hitch by FRH engineers, but the company was loath to incorporate it onto the tractors. Instead, the inventor quit and went to work for Harry Ferguson, who perfected the mechanism and called it "The Ferguson System."

Also, Hord said, Charley Heath (who ran the tractor division) wanted to get out, and nobody else wanted to take it over. "So they sold all their rights and everything to Mountain States Fabricating Co. in Clarksburg, W.Va.," Hord said. Seventy-five (or 78, depending on varying references) West Virginia Silver Kings were made, mostly late-model four-wheelers, and a few three-wheelers, identifiable by the serial numbers.

Fate-Root-Heath Co. was family-owned and -operated until March 1966, according to A Brief History of the Company, an unattributed volume. Through the years, FRH also produced sharpeners for lawn mowers and saws, for home and industrial use, as well corn shellers. In 1966 the company was sold to Harold Schott, and in 1969, to Banner Industries Inc., Cleveland, Ohio. The FRH name was eventually replaced by the name Plymouth Locomotive Works. In 1999, the factory was closed, Plymouth Locomotives became a brand of Ohio Locomotive Crane, and everything moved to Bucyrus, Ohio. More than 7,500 Plymouth small industrial locomotives have been built since 1909.

And the Mae West connection? Apparently it was little more than urban legend. According to a popular rumor, film star Mae West supposedly kept a fleet of 90 Silver King tractors for use in her vineyard. Richard Lyman, 2005 president of SKY, recently visited California's Napa Valley to follow up on the rumor, but says he found little hard evidence. "Nobody there seemed to know anything about it. We had been told she really liked the Silver King, and wanted the company to continue making them."

- Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414; e-mail: bvossler@juno.com