One Lucky Lessmann

Rare Power Shovel goes back to work


| December 2005



DonRetzlaff_Brutus.jpg

Top: With the loader arms fully retracted and slightly raised, Don Retzlaff takes Brutus out for a demonstration.

When Don Retzlaff saw a Lessmann Mfg. Co. Model H-5 Power Shovel at the salvage yard, he jumped at the chance to buy it. "It looked like nothing I had ever seen before, but I recognized all of the Ford truck parts," Don says. "I love old Fords, so I was pretty sure I could make it useful again." He had it hauled to his Upper Marlboro, Md., home, and after getting a coat of Ford blue paint, the Lessmann is as unusual as it is functional.

Don is experienced when it comes to restoring Ford vehicles and old tractors. Since moving to the country decades ago, he has fooled with everything from Ford Mustangs to John Deere crawlers to Allis-Chalmers tractors and more. "I like all different kinds of farm machines," Don says, jumping into the seat of his 1965 Allis-Chalmers D-14. "But Ford vehicles from the 1950s, especially trucks with flathead V-8 engines, really interest me." The Lessmann, combining the blue oval brand with a piece of useful and unique machinery, seems to have been made for Don.

Lessmann's Power Shovel

As early as 1923, Herbert Lessmann, Des Moines, Iowa, designed a loading attachment for tractors consisting of a pair of parallel loader arms (booms, in some references) that, like most loaders at the time, attached to the tractor through a special frame. The rear of the loader arms pivoted at their attachment points, while the front of the loader arms straddled a crane-like tower. Lessmann's loading attachment employed a mechanical winch (instead of hydraulics) to raise the loader arms up along the tower. Through the 1920s and 1930s, Lessmann made improvements to the loader attachment, including a patented bucket trip mechanism and, eventually, hydraulic controls.

In the early years, Lessmann Mfg. Co., Blair Mfg. Co., Frank G. Hough Co. and others focused principally on fitting loaders to the Fordson tractor. According to Lessmann and even some Ford enthusiasts, Herbert F. Lessmann was an acquaintance of Henry Ford. For Lessmann, one consequence of that friendship may have been preferential treatment by Ford: Lessmann may have been privy to dimensional drawings enabling him to more easily build loaders for Ford tractors as they evolved. A number of Lessmann-equipped Fords of several different vintages have been found. However, Lessmann-equipped Minneapolis-Moline tractors also exist, and likely there are others in collections and salvage yards.

Although it has not been possible to document the claim of a tight relationship between Herbert Lessmann and Henry Ford, it is interesting to note that, very early on, Blair and later Hough added International Harvester, Allis-Chalmers and Case to the tractor brands they built loaders for. In fact, in Hough corporate documents, Frank G. Hough noted the importance of offering products for as many different tractor makes and models as fiscally possible. Of course, Hough's business thrived, where Lessmann's is little known. In either case, by the late 1930s most tractor manufacturers built industrial versions of their farm tractors often fitted with heavy-duty front axles, more suited to loader work - but even then, loader manufacturers were thinking about building purpose-designed integrated wheel loaders.

The Frank G. Hough Co. literally tipped the loader world on its side in 1939 with the release of the first integrated wheel loader, which they called Payloader. Although Hough released a second integrated Payloader in a few years, World War II stalled further integrated wheel loader development until the mid-1940s. Not until late in that decade did Herbert Lessmann put together an integrated wheel loader design of his own. He called it the Power Shovel and it was constructed largely of Ford truck parts.