Cleveland Tractor Company: Ohio Family Starts and Ends with Cletrac

What started as the White Sewing Machine Company grew to manufacture crawler tractors

| July 2010

The earliest White tractor was a wheeled motor plow, from about 1912.

The earliest White tractor was a wheeled motor plow, from about 1912.

The story of the Cleveland Tractor Company is the story of the gifted and inventive family of Thomas H. White and his sons, Thomas II, Rollin, Windsor, Clarence and Walter. Thomas White started White Sewing Machine Company in Cleveland in 1866. The company also manufactured roller skates and bicycles, and by 1899 produced 10,000 bicycles per year. But bigger things lay ahead.

The Whites and Tractors

By 1912, Rollin and Clarence White turned their design prowess toward development of a motor plow and Cleveland Motor Plow Company “Their design was revolutionary,” said C.H. Wendel in Oliver Hart-Parr. “It incorporated the implement as an integral part of the tractor.”

These White-made wheeled tractors went through multiple design changes. “They never saw more than very limited production,” Wendel noted, “if in fact they ever went beyond a few prototypes.” A patent for “Power-Propelled Agricultural Machinery” was applied for in 1912.

Beginning in 1914, Rollin spent months developing a crawler tractor at an older brother’s pineapple plantation in Hawaii. By January 1916 he was finished. The 1912 patent request was granted in 1918, but by then, everything had changed at the White company. Wheeled tractors had been abandoned, the Cleveland Model R crawler had come and gone, Cleveland Model H was in full production and the company’s name had been changed to Cleveland Tractor Company. “White finally concluded that the crawler design would be ideal for farm work,” Wendel wrote, “especially since this design compacted the soil far less than conventional wheel-type tractors.”

Out of this came the controlled differential steering mechanism, called Tru-Traction. “This essential design would forever remain with the Cletrac design,” Wendel noted, “despite numerous modifications and improvements.”

An Early Trio: The R, H and W

The Cleveland Model R was followed in 1917 by the Cleveland Model H. These Cleveland models were clearly aimed at farmers, as demonstrated by prominent Cleveland displays at power farming demonstrations. Company literature proclaimed that the crawler “travels on top of the soil – doesn’t sink or pack.” The design was fairly well established, Wendel said, including use (on some models) of a front-mounted belt pulley.