What started as the White Sewing Machine Company grew to manufacture crawler tractors
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.
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.”
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.
The tracks were driven through differentials and planetary gears, according to Randy Leffingwell in The American Farm Tractor. “To steer the tractor,” he explained, “track brakes were pulled against the main gears to slow one side while the other pulled.” Other patents piled up in 1918 for track design, main frame, traction frame and multiple-cylinder engine.
The third Cleveland crawler model, launched in 1918, was the Model W. Essentially a Model H with improvements, it used a larger Weidely engine of 4- by 5-1/2-inch bore and stroke, compared to the earlier 3-3/4- by 5-1/2-inch bore and stroke. The model’s high clearance allowed its use in live crops. This crawler ended the string of models named after Rollin H. White (R, H, W) and the Cleveland name. In 1922, the Model W became the first track-style tractor to be tested in the Nebraska Tractor Tests.
In about 1918, the Cleveland name morphed into Cletrac with production of the Cletrac Model F. The revolutionary crawler was designed for cultivating and other row-crop duties. “Evidence of its unique design,” Wendel wrote in Oliver Hart-Parr, “is shown in the adjustable height and width of this tractor. When reduced to its narrowest width, the Model F could operate between corn rows ... and raise and widen the tractor to straddle other crops,” the first crawler to incorporate that revolutionary design, plus a top-sprocket design familiar in more modern machines.
“Cletrac Model F is the tractor farmers everywhere have been waiting for since the beginning of the tractor industry,” ads proclaimed. “A tractor that actually replaces the horse and mule, that will do all the work on the average farm and yet sells at a price the average farmer can afford to pay.”
The Agricultural Depression of the early 1920s caused many farm machinery manufacturers to stagger, but it didn’t faze Cleveland Tractor Company, according to a 1920 article in Farm Implements & Tractors. Headlined “Cletrac Popular at Kansas City,” the article said the tractor’s price was cut $200, and the Cletrac “was one of the important centers of attraction at the great show at Kansas City.” An advertising blitz ensued, with ad placements in 70 leading agricultural magazines. The response was tremendous, said G.B. Sharpe, Cletrac’s assistant sales manager, with standing room only at the booth for the entire show.
“Orders for approximately 50 (railroad) carloads were taken at the show,” according to an account in Farm Implement News. Sale of 500 tractors would be “a good week in any tractor factory, but considering the Agricultural Depression,” the writer noted, “(it was) a magnificent week.” Cletrac quickly expanded into other markets, including golf courses and city parks. Week-long Cletrac schools gave farmers instruction in operation and maintenance.
Contests between machines kept Cletrac in the public eye. An armored tank and a Cletrac vied in a competition held on “the roughest land and steep banks” near Lake Superior. According to Farm Implements & Tractors, the Cletrac driver “went everywhere the tank went, and then took to the ice-covered slopes and left the tank behind. …”
Every tractor company tried to show how easy its equipment was to use, and Cletrac was no different. In a photo printed in Farm Implements & Tractors, an 11-year-old boy shown driving a Cletrac was called an experienced hand. “During the past season (Honore Griffen) took care of 40 acres of oranges on rocky bench land without damaging a single tree,” the caption read, “and saved his father upwards of a thousand dollars in labor alone.”
New models — the Model 20 and Model 30 — were introduced in 1926. The 20 was merely a heavier 12-20, while the 30 was the largest of the 1926 Cletrac line, and was sold through 1930.
In 1933, Cletrac was one of the first tractor manufacturers to offer a diesel model, Robert N. Pripps said in Oliver Tractors. “The tractors were rather stark and functional in appearance,” he said, “until styled in 1937 by industrial designer Lawrence Blazey.”
“Beginning in 1938,” Wendel wrote in Encyclopedia of American Farm Implements & Antiques, “Cletrac offered certain models in various track gauges to better accommodate the various row widths used in different farming areas. One wheel-type model — the General GG — was offered from 1938 to 1941.”
Cletrac introduced a crawler with rubber tracks in 1940, but the technology of the era could not deliver a stable rubber track, so the tracks stretched. “Recognizing the problems with this design,” Wendel said, “Cletrac voluntarily recalled the rubber-track machines already in the field and retrofitted them with standard steel tracks.”
During World War II, the company developed a high-speed tractor and scout car for U.S. Army use. However, by 1944, low profits and high research costs forced the sale of Cleveland Tractor Company to Oliver Farm Equipment Company. What was essentially the same Cletrac equipment continued to be manufactured under the name Oliver-Cletrac.
In 1962, White Motor Corp., Cleveland, purchased Oliver’s Cleveland Crawler Tractor Company, and moved the operation to Charles City, Iowa, until production was stopped in 1965. Thus, Cletrac was invented by the White family, became an essential part of its history, was sold, but eventually came back into the fold decades later with a different name. In all, about 75 different models of Cletracs were built. FC
Read about Thomas H. White’s sons’ steam-powered car: “The White Brothers Make a Run at Steam Car.”
Read about a Minnesota collector who restored two Oliver-Cletrac tractors: “Pair of Cletrac Crawlers Joins Old Iron Collection.”
Read about a contemporary advertising take on summer uses for tractors from the assistant advertising manager of Cleveland Tractor Company: “‘Summer Uses’ for Cletrac Tractors.”
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; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.