Caterpillar Tractors in World War I

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The World War I era represented the best of times and the worst of times for Holt Mfg. Co., originator of today’s Caterpillar tractor line. According to The Big Book of Caterpillar by Robert N. Pripps, Great Britain, France and Russia ordered more than 1,000 Caterpillars in 1914 for battlefield use. “Fortunately for the Allies,” he notes, “the Germans had delayed their decision to order Holt machines … long enough for the war to break out; all trade with the Central Powers came to a halt before more than a few Caterpillar tractors were delivered (to Germany).”

The U.S. War Department, slow to abandon animal power in military applications, placed its first order for 27 Caterpillars a year later. Ultimately, Caterpillar tractors won high praise for battlefield performance in Mexico and Europe, as the ad on the left (from a September 1918 issue of Power Farming) indicates. “Now making possible the complete motorization of U.S. Field Artillery units overseas – Holt’s greatest contribution to world welfare.”

Military contracts, however, don’t always translate into peace-time profits. At war’s end, Holt was stuck with cancelled orders and inventory that the U.S. government would not pay for. Moreover, Holt had invested extensive time in product development for military needs, work that had little peace-time value.

A postwar recession and massive debt further burdened the company, and the sudden death of Benjamin Holt in December 1920 (less than a year after the January 1920 appearance of the ad at far right in The American Thresherman & Farm Power) must have seemed the final blow … until war of another sort broke out: Henry Ford’s tractor price wars of 1922. Consolidation was the only route out of the quagmire: In 1925, Holt and competitor C.L. Best joined forces to create the Caterpillar Tractor Co.

Advertisements from many farm publications printed at the turn of the 20th century were more than mere methods to hawk tractors and farm equipment. To share those ads from days gone byFarm Collector periodically reproduces some of the most-spectacular ads used to promote farm equipment and products.

To submit a vintage advertisement for possible publication, send it to: Iron Age Ads, Farm Collector, 1503 S.W. 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609; or submit high-quality digital images by email: editor@farmcollector.com

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