Farm Collector is supposed to be about farm stuff, right? However, rusty iron is rusty iron and I’m interested in it all, including earthmoving machinery. Maybe readers are as well, and so will enjoy this story about one of the more fascinating characters involved in earthmoving during the six decades from 1910 to 1970.
Born in 1888, Bob LeTourneau spent his first 12 years in Duluth, Minnesota, where his father built houses. Tired of Duluth’s cold winters, the family moved to Portland, Oregon, where there was a building boom in progress. At 14, Bob – 6 feet tall and 160 pounds – determined to quit school and go to work. Much against the wishes of his father, the boy started work in an iron foundry as an apprentice molder.
LeTourneau thrived on the hard work and was a fast learner, soon picking up enough to be able to do any job in the shop. Then the place burned down and he worked in foundries, survived the San Francisco earthquake, pulled stumps, worked at an electric company (where he learned to use a soldering torch), mined for gold and cleared farm land, until he injured himself badly with an axe.
While laid up, he took a correspondence course in auto mechanics, got a job at a car repair shop and became an excellent mechanic. In about 1910, he and a partner started a garage. His partner sold Regal cars and LeTourneau repaired whatever came in. Despite breaking his neck (literally) in a race car accident, LeTourneau and his business prospered. He even found time to study electricity and learned the then-new acetylene welding system.
LeTourneau married in 1917. During World War I, he worked as a ship builder at Mare Island Navy Yard in California. While there, he survived a bout of influenza.
Converting experience into business
After the war, LeTourneau ran into a tractor dealer he’d done work for in the past. He was asked to look at a Holt 75 owned by a big rancher. LeTourneau got it running, but the skeptical rancher told him to go level a 40-acre field and if the 75 was still O.K. at the end, he’d pay the repair bill and give LeTourneau $1 per hour for his work. But first he had to rebuild the worn-out Holt scraper. In the process, he learned a lot about scrapers and leveling land.
LeTourneau liked moving dirt, and California was just getting into irrigation in a big way, so in 1920 he borrowed money, bought a used Holt 60 tractor and an old scraper, and went into the land leveling business. At that time, scraper blades were controlled by air cylinders fed from a compressor on the tractor, and a man on the scraper operated the valves.
Looking for a better and cheaper way, LeTourneau remembered his electricity lessons. He bought some war surplus electric engines and generators, and rigged a generator on his tractor with electric engines on the scraper to work rack and pinion gears to move the blade. Everything was under the control of switches at the tractor operator’s hand. The modified machine was an unqualified success: It eliminated the need for the second man and left a much smoother surface.
After modifying several scrapers to his new electrical control system and selling them to other contractors, in 1922 LeTourneau found himself with a big earthmoving contract and no scraper — and not a new one to be bought in California! So he got his welder, raided his scrap pile and built his own machine that was better than any other on the market. That was the start of LeTourneau Mfg. Co.
Leading the industry
LeTourneau constantly improved his machines through the 1920s. He was the first to put rubber tires on scrapers in 1932, although he had to build his own tire molds before the reluctant tire companies would make the big, low-pressure tires he needed. As with farm tractors, the advantages of rubber tires quickly caught on and company sales for 1934 nearly tripled those of 1933.
At about that time, LeTourneau decided to quit contracting and become a full-time manufacturer. One innovative machine after another followed and sales soared, necessitating a new factory. As LeTourneau had designed his scrapers, bulldozers and dump carts primarily to work with Caterpillar tractors, and since Caterpillar had moved to Peoria, Illinois, 23 acres was bought in that city and a new factory was hurriedly put together. By the end of 1935, the new factory was cranking out LeTourneau equipment by the carload.
Full-body cast no deterrent
In 1937, R.G., as he was then known, was in a serious car accident that left him in a full-body cast. The first thing he did was design a stretcher on which he could be wheeled through his factory. He had long recognized that his rubber-tired scrapers were limited in efficiency by the slowness of the tracked tractors that pulled them, so, with time on his hands, he designed the revolutionary Tournapull. Much ridiculed at the time, the prime mover consisted of a big diesel engine jutting out in front of two huge, rubber-tired drive wheels, atop which were a driver’s seat and a control panel.
LeTourneau tried to get Caterpillar to build the thing, but the company flat-out refused the crazy idea. So, R.G. being R.G, he built it himself. A powerful electric engine in each wheel drove the Tournapull, all controls were electric push buttons or switches, and when hitched in front of a LeTourneau Carryall, it could move a full load at 15 mph, and return empty at 20 mph.
Well, the ridiculous-looking Tournapull was a hit, as was a 4-wheeled, rubber-tired bulldozer called, what else, the Tournadozer. The firm’s earth-moving machines were used by the thousands during World War II, mostly to build landing strips and roads, and the company made ammunition and other war material as well.
On the job to the end
After the war, LeTourneau designed several new products (including many for the logging industry), but in 1953 LeTourneau got an offer he couldn’t refuse for the earthmoving end of his business and sold it to Westinghouse Air Brake. However, he still had two factories and lots of ideas, so he built logging and jungle-clearing machines for five years. Then, at age 70, he got back to designing and building giant earthmovers, eventually one that could haul 360 tons.
In 1966, LeTourneau retired as company president, yielding way to his son, Richard, but continued to work every day. Then a stroke felled him in March of 1969. He died three months later at age 80.
Although R.G. LeTourneau’s company no longer exists, the large log loaders manufactured by Joy Global of Milwaukee still carry the proud old name of LeTourneau on their sides. FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at email@example.com.