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The Once Mighty Velie

Early industrialist family, Velie, shared ties with the Deere family and built cars, trucks and tractors.

| February 2012

  • Velie Biltwel Tractor
    The neat looking 1918 Biltwel tractor. Compare it to the crude Avery, OilPull, International or Case tractors of the day.
    Courtesy Chuck Hoaglund of the Official Velie Register
  • Velie Emblem

  • Velie Biltwel 12-24 Tractor
    Front and rear view of the circa 1918 Velie Biltwel 12-24 Tractor.
    Courtesy Chuck Hoaglund of the Official Velie Register
  • 1918 Velie Truck
    Factory photo of a circa 1918 Velie truck.
  • 1923 Velie Four-Door Sedan
    This 1923 Velie four-door sedan was "...the most choicely appointed car of its field, complete in its equipment, even to such niceties as the vanity case, smoking set and flower vase."

  • Velie Biltwel Tractor
  • Velie Emblem
  • Velie Biltwel 12-24 Tractor
  • 1918 Velie Truck
  • 1923 Velie Four-Door Sedan

One of the lesser known tractor names among rusty iron collectors (although it may be familiar to vintage car enthusiasts) is Velie. Dedicated students of the history of Deere & Co. have undoubtedly heard the name as well. Information about the Velie tractor is scarce, but I’ll tell you what I know (which isn’t much) about the tractor and the Velie company.

Joining the family business

In May 1860, John Deere’s 20-year-old daughter, Emma, married 30-year-old Stephen H. Velie, a Rock Island, Ill., businessman. Three years later, Velie joined the Deere family business, still a small local firm, and worked closely with his brother-in-law, Charles Deere, for the next 32 years. Deere & Co. was incorporated in 1868, with Velie as secretary and chief financial officer, a post he held until his death in 1895, by which time the firm had become a major farm equipment manufacturer.

Emma and Stephen had three sons, Stephen H. Jr., Charles and Willard L., all of whom were closely associated with Deere & Co. throughout their lives. Stephen Jr. worked for many years at the Kansas City branch, becoming manager in 1904, while Charles spent most of his long career at the Minneapolis branch. The youngest, Willard, worked for Deere from 1890 to 1900 before leaving to start Velie Carriage Co. The only Velie son to serve on the Deere & Co. board of directors, Willard was elected to that post after his father’s death in ’95 and stayed on the board for many years, resigning in 1921.

Striking out on his own

Popular lore has it that Willard Velie saw his first automobile when Hi Henry’s Minstrel Show (it’s unclear whether the minstrels traveled by auto, an unlikely occurrence at the time, or used one in their act) came to town in May 1901, but he continued to build buggies and carriages until July 2, 1908, when Velie Motor Vehicle Co. was incorporated. His first car, the 1909 Model A, was well built and had a 4-cylinder, 30 hp engine. The Velie was a success, with more than 500 cars sold the first year at $1,750 ($41,160 today) each. In 1910, Velie used a Lycoming engine, but started building his own power plants in 1911.



In 1911, Velie began building a successful line of motor trucks. At about that time, the U.S. Army was exploring the possibility of using motor trucks to supply units in the field. The first test, which started Feb. 8, 1912, covered 1,509 miles from Washington, D.C., southwest to Atlanta, and then northwest across Tennessee and Kentucky to Fort Benjamin Harrison near Indianapolis. Four trucks (White, Autocar, FWD and Sampson) made the initial run. The Sampson burned out its rod bearings after only 39 miles and was sent back, but the other three slogged on through the mud with many breakdowns, finally reaching Fort Benjamin Harrison on March 28.

Although not considered a great success (especially by cavalrymen), trucks were given another test. This time, a provisional regiment would march from Dubuque, Iowa, to Sparta, Wis., and was to be wholly supplied by truck. The original FWD, White and the Sampson (now repaired) joined three additional 1-1/2 ton trucks (a Kelly-Springfield, a Mack and a Kato) as well as six 3-ton models (one each from White, Packard, Graham, FWD, Saurer and Velie). Again the test results weren’t great, but none of the troops starved and trucks were later used with great success by General Pershing in Mexico. When the U.S. became involved in World War I in France, thousands of trucks were used, many of which were Velies.



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