On the Same Track: The Caterpillar Tractor Co.

Early California manufacturers lay the groundwork for crawler development and merge to form the Caterpillar Tractor Co.

1920 Caterpillar

A 1920 35-60 Best Caterpillar, built five years before Holt and Best merged.

Image courtesy Bill Vossler

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For the corresponding article on a rare 2-ton Holt Caterpillar crawler, read Last of the Line: Charley Wilkinson's Holt Caterpillar.

Caterpillar Tractor Co. sits astride a proud if rancorous chapter in America’s industrial past, when two rival California manufacturers were transformed into what has become a global leader.

Mill accident spurred creative process

In 1889, when Daniel Best produced his huge, three-wheeled traction engine, a highly productive career was launched. Best went on to win a total of 41 patents. But that achievement might never have happened, if not for an early misfortune. Best long claimed that if he hadn’t lost the first three fingers of his left hand in a sawmill accident, he wouldn’t have learned to use his head to develop farm products.

Best struck it rich panning gold at age 21, but his wealth was short-lived. He lost his treasure almost immediately, according to an account in San Leandro Recollections, when his boat was swamped on the Snake River under the Seven Devils peaks, and he barely saved his own life. After that he progressed through a series of ventures: He bought a canal, farmed and ran sawmills.

As he recuperated from a tangle with a saw, Best began to design and invent farm machinery, starting with a portable grain cleaner and separator that could be used in the field. He won his first patent for that invention in 1871. From there, Best went on to purchase San Leandro Plow Co. There he manufactured plows, hay presses, the Best grain cleaner and other agricultural machinery.

“Did the work of 75 mules”

Best made quality an early priority. All new models were thoroughly tested before being sold. Equipment was demonstrated for prospective customers, who were then given a free, no obligation, on-farm trial. “Repairs, rarely necessary, were promptly made,” noted the account in Recollections, “quite often by Daniel Best himself.”

After seeing a steam traction engine in action, Best was quick to recognize its potential impact on agriculture. In 1889, he won a patent for a “traveling combined harvester” powered by a steam traction engine. “The traction engine pulled the combine faster and over rougher terrain than teams could,” noted Recollections, “and it supplied steam to power an auxiliary engine on the harvester.” Meanwhile, the combine cut its own fuel as it went along. Best claimed the 11-ton traction engine, with 8-foot drive wheels, “did the work of 75 mules for the cost of the barley consumed.”

First in the state

The year 1890 delivered another triumph for Best. That year, his steam traction engine won first prize at the California State Fair. Launching what would become a bitter rivalry, that achievement won little regard from brothers Benjamin and Charles Holt. The Holts marked a milestone of their own that year: sale of their first steam traction engine.

Best went on to invent a gasoline engine, winning first prize at the 1891 California State Fair. Other inventions followed, and he soon held patents for a washing machine and a duplex gasoline engine for streetcars. He tested the latter on a track he built for that purpose in San Leandro.

In 1893, Best pulled off a publicity stunt that foretold the future. Staging a tug-of-war between his steam engine and his experimental gasoline engine, Best shocked onlookers. “Hooked back to back,” reported The San Leandro Reporter, “the newer, gas model hauled the steam engine around the block.” The newly renamed Best Mfg. Co. was soon filling international orders.

In 1908, at age 70, the man with 41 patents to his name retired – and sold his interest in his company to his longtime rival, Holt Mfg. Co.

A new era for Best

Best’s son, Leo, remained involved in the family business. For two years he worked for Holt Mfg. Co., but in 1910 broke away, organizing C.L. Best Gas Traction Engine Co. The fledgling company’s line included his newly invented gasoline tractor and the piece that won him his first patent, a side-hill harvester.

By 1913, Best was producing steam traction engines in three sizes as well as crawlers, starting with the Best 75, featuring self-laying track. Capable of maneuvering soft ground and less likely to compact soil than wheeled tractors, crawlers found a strong market in the West. Best soon surpassed Holt as the pre-eminent producer of tracklayers.

Holt launches Caterpillar

Based in Stockton, California, Holt Mfg. Co. was the first to make practical use of caterpillar-style track, and the first, in 1910, to use the name, “Caterpillar.”

Brothers Benjamin and Charles Holt began their business careers in hardwood lumber in New Hampshire in the 1850s. Later they sold wagon wheels and then manufactured wagons, buggies, sleighs and a variety of hardware, says Reynold M. Wik in Benjamin Holt and Caterpillar: Tracks and Combines.

But the lure of the West was great. Eventually the Holts moved to California, where, railroad pamphlets said, “fertile soil would produce 60 bushels of wheat to the acre and grow watermelons three feet long.”

In 1884 Benjamin Holt, the more mechanically gifted brother, saw farmers cutting wheat and stacking it for threshing. To save labor, he invented a “combined harvester.” The brothers sold their first unit in 1886. Though early models were loud and troublesome, the Holts made continual improvements. By 1916, Holt combines harvested 90 percent of all grain produced on the West Coast.

By 1890, the Holts had turned their attention to steam traction engines, even generating sales in foreign markets. One year later, the company released its version of a side-hill harvester. The harvester was part of a diverse output that included railroad cars, streetcars, steamboat boilers, Fresno scrapers, mining cars and wagons. The Holts also sold lumber, leather belting, chain, iron, wrenches, forges, bench planes, mandrels, nails, bolts, harrow teeth, oil and grease.

Answer to California’s peat

But their great venture was launched by a conversation with landowner Charles Moreing in 1894. According to C.H. Wendel in The Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, Moreing described his San Joaquin Valley land as nothing more than large areas of soft peat that defied conventional steam tractors. Holt’s answer was an engine with wheels 7-1/2 feet in diameter and 6 feet wide, mounted in threes on each side of the engine. The cumbersome machine worked 44 feet of ground in one pass.

The weight of steam traction engines remained problematic. Like the Bests before them, the Holts added more wheels with more area for soft earth, but the monstrous machines were expensive and unwieldy. As Wendel notes, “These considerations brought Benjamin Holt around to the idea of a ‘treadmill’ type of machine to pick up and lay its own broad base as it traveled ... as if it were a portable railroad,” a machine that had been attempted hundreds of times before, but never successfully.

On Nov. 24, 1904, the wheels were removed from Holt steam traction engine No. 77. Tracks were installed on each side, creating the first Caterpillar tractor. A subsequent test showed imperfections, driving Holt back to the drawing board. When the invention finally worked as conceived, Holt jumped up and down, shouting, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!”

“Walks right along with the harvester”

The Caterpillar met enthusiastic reviews. “In a tract where a man could not walk without sinking to his knees and where tule-shod horses could not be used,” reported Farm Implement News in 1905, “the new steam traction engine was operated without a perceptible impression in the ground.” Ground once deemed useless could finally be put into production.

Though the tracklayer was intended to solve a local problem, its utility soon found broad appeal. From Farm Implement News: “It is predicted that with the new device, it will be possible to work any of the soft lands of the reclaimed districts and bring into cultivation thousands of acres of rich areas that are now unproductive.”

The tracks were variously called platform wheels, mud turtle wheels, railroad wheels, treadmill wheels, paddle wheels and finally, caterpillar wheels. Holt used the name Caterpillar in 1904, but did not register it as a trademark until six years later. 

Tracklayers represented significant innovation, but the real breakthrough was gasoline. On Dec. 4, 1906, an entry in the company secretary’s diary noted, “Tried the new gasoline traction engine today. She is a grand success. Walks right along with harvester.”  

Gas engines deemed “a passing fad”

The company’s stockholders, however, were not impressed. Believing the gasoline engine to be little more than a passing fad, stockholders balked at any talk of producing them. The Holts staged an end run, launching Aurora Engine Co. to manufacture engines exclusively for Holt machinery.

The gasoline engine of 1910 was an admittedly tough customer, notorious for being hard to start and hard to shut down. Hart-Parr, for instance, dispatched factory-trained workers to train customers in the 19 steps needed to start their engine and the 13 needed to stop them. In 1910, Holt put 12 men on the road to teach customers basic engine operation, hoping to put an end to a practice in which some farmers ran their machines all night rather than tackle the steps needed to shut down the engine.

But Holt finally got its gasoline engines right. In 1908, the company bought out rival Best Mfg., consolidating the market. On April 25, 1925, C.L. Best Gas Traction Engine Co. and Holt Mfg. Co. merged, forming Caterpillar Tractor Co. The names Best and Holt soon disappeared from tractors forever. FC

Sources: San Leandro Recollections, a series of pamphlets and oral histories; 50 Years on Tracks, Caterpillar Tractor Co.; Benjamin Holt and Caterpillar: Tracks and Combines, by Reynold M. Wik; The Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, by C.H. Wendel.                  


Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email.