One Lucky Lessmann

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Top: With the loader arms fully retracted and slightly raised, Don Retzlaff takes Brutus out for a demonstration.
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Above: The gear-change lever, parking brake lever, brake pedal and clutch pedal are all directly out of the early 1950s Ford truck parts catalog. Don added the foot throttle when he discovered the tractor’s belt-driven governor was no longer functional, and removed the hand throttle in the process.
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Above: Don Retzlaff’s Lessmann Power Shovel, before restoration and after years of exposure.
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Above: Detail of the Lessmann’s cast grille. Note the number F1770 in the casting just above the hydraulic pump.
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Left: The Power Shovel’s serial number plate identifies it as Model H-5.
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Right: When the Lessmann Power Shovel’s loader arms are extended, the machine has considerably more reach and less excavation ability. This configuration is perfect for stripping bulk material such as road salt from a steep-sided pile.
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Above: Detail view of Don’s beloved Ford flathead V-8. This engine makes about 100 hp in the Lessmann Power Shovel.
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Below: This mid-1960s Allis-Chalmers D-14 earns its keep as a mower tractor.
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Right: Detail of the Ford engine’s add-on governor. If operational, a belt from the crankshaft would spin flyweights inside the rpm-regulating device, which in turn would cause the lever (with the eye in the end) to change the carburetor’s butterfly angle (with missing linkage in place) thus regulating the amount of fuel and air available to the engine.
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Above: This lovely grille belongs to Don’s 1939 Oliver 70 row crop tractor.
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Above: Although Don really likes the flathead V-8 in his 1952 Ford pickup, the truck’s grille is also striking – if not slightly ferocious looking.
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Right: Herbert Lessmann designed and built loaders for Fordson tractors as illustrated here from the late 1920s. This early device utilizes the winch mounted on the rear of the tractor to raise and lower the loader with cables. The bucket used a trip-latch mechanism for dumping.

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.

The oral history of Lessmann Mfg. suggests that due to Herbert’s
relationship with Ford, he was able to procure axles,
transmissions, engines and other parts to build his Power Shovel
wheel loader. While this seems plausible, there was also a Ford
truck plant in Des Moines, so perhaps the relationship was simply a
conventional OEM business arrangement. Most tractor manufacturers
and engine builders, including Ford, routinely provided assemblies
to other companies for machines that didn’t compete directly with
their own products. While the exact nature of Herbert’s
relationship with Ford may never be known, it is clear the Power
Shovel was built with Ford truck drive train and chassis
components.

Lessmann’s Power Shovel consisted of a fairly conventional heavy
steel industrial tractor chassis to which a very unique loader was
attached. The tractor had a heavy front grille with the name
Lessmann cast into it. The fabricated heavy-duty front axle was
fitted with Ford truck hubs and, like many industrial tractors, it
featured truck front tires as well. The tractor used a 100-hp
flathead Ford V-8 engine, a 4-speed heavy-duty truck transmission
(with super low) and clutch and a Ford F-6 truck’s rear axle.
Rather than turn the drive wheels directly, the rear axle shafts
turned pinion gears, which in turn engaged bull gears, which then
rotated the drive hubs. This pinion-gear and bull-gear final drive
was typical at the time on tractors with double gear reduction
after the transmission, although by the early 1950s, heavy
equipment employed planetary gear reduction in the final
drives.

Lessmann built their tractors using a heavy-duty (and heavy)
frame designed to withstand the stress of serious loader work. A
counterbalance in the form of a several-hundred-pound piece of iron
attached beneath the operator’s platform behind the rear axle kept
the machine stable and its drive wheels in firm contact with the
ground. An engine-driven pump attached to the crankshaft supplied
enough live hydraulic capacity to supply the three circuits and six
cylinders required to operate the loader. As component-built
conventional as the Lessmann tractor is, its loader is anything
but.

While other manufacturers concentrated on loader lift-arm
geometry to increase bucket breakout forces and lift heights,
Herbert Lessmann had a truly innovative idea. Rather than use rigid
arms on either side of the tractor to lift the bucket, he employed
two-piece pivoting lift-arms that allowed the operator to use
hydraulic pressure to change the boom geometry to suit. Lessmann’s
design made it possible to extend the bucket higher for ease of
loading large dump trucks, and to excavate in front of the tractor
with the machine standing still. While innovative and functionally
useful, the articulated loader arm design never really caught
on.

Power Shovel enthusiasts say the machine was built from 1951 to
1953. On March 9, 1951, Lessmann applied for a patent on what he
called a Loader Machine, which details the significance of his
tractor with integrated loader. The patent was awarded on Dec. 25,
1956. Interestingly, the assignee on the patent was not Lessmann
Mfg. Co.: The patent was assigned to A.C. Anderson Inc., a maker of
sickle bar mowers and other tractor attachments. Herbert Lessmann’s
relationship with A.C. Anderson is unclear, and the fate of the
Power Shovel is not known.

A Power Shovel named Brutus

“Brutus came from Virginia, but I found him in Maryland,” Don
explains about his Lessmann Power Shovel. “It was owned by the
state highway department and was originally painted orange or red.”
By the time Don got the tractor, though, it showed mostly the
colors of rust, dirt and grease, but that didn’t deter him. In
spite of its looks, the Lessmann was fairly complete and didn’t
need much work to get it running safely. And most of the critical
components were straight out of Ford’s parts book.

“Once we got the flathead running well, we had to be able to
stop the tractor,” Don says. “So I gave it a brake job.” Normally a
brake job on a Ford F-5 or F-6 truck wouldn’t have given Don much
trouble, but with the Lessmann, one rear brake cylinder was shot
and needed to be replaced. Unfortunately, the brake cylinders are
located behind a cast cover, part of the tractor’s final drive. “I
tried everything I could think of to get at it,” Don says, shaking
his head. “I finally had to cut holes in the hub to get the job
done.” Once he had access, the cylinders, still available at the
local parts store, were easy to install.

The tractor’s hydraulic system was intact except for some leaks
and rotten hoses. After replacing all of the hoses and rebuilding
leaking cylinders, the Lessmann loader was operational. “I thought
the bucket was too narrow to be of much use,” Don points out. “So I
welded extensions on either side and lengthened the cutting edge.”
The unusual loader is remarkably tight for its 50-plus years of
age. Don believes the machine spent its working life loading bulk
materials in the highway department yard rather than performing
heavy excavating work.

Satisfied the tractor was in good mechanical condition, Don
sandblasted and painted it. “I chose Ford Blue because I like the
color,” Don says. Once the painting was completed, “Brutus” (the
Lessmann’s new name) was stenciled on the sides of the loader arms.
Don has done plenty of vehicle body restoration over the years and
is quick to point out that he didn’t bother to fill the rust pits
and block the tin before applying the finish coats. Because Brutus
will be put to work, Don prefers to let those badges of honor shine
through.

Brutus has been put back to work around the Retzlaff place
primarily to move and lift things. Don has also used the machine as
a tall scaffold when he made repairs to a windmill. As anyone with
a loader knows, once you have one, you wonder how you ever got
along without it. Don feels the same way, but he is especially
pleased that his grandchildren love to ride with him on Brutus.

Flatheads and other fascinations

“Maybe, just maybe, my love of those flathead Fords comes from
my first car being a 1940 Ford flathead V-8,” Don says with a wink.
“My second car was 1951 Ford flathead V-8, next car was 1953 Ford
Victoria flathead V-8 and on and on and on.” Even today, Don uses a
1952 flathead V-8 powered Ford pickup truck he restored to showroom
condition as his daily driver. “I love the rumble of the exhaust,”
Don says, “especially with dual pipes and a pair of cherry bomb
mufflers.” But Don has more than flathead Fords in his
collection.

A quick glance in the sheds reveals a 1939 Oliver 70 row crop
tractor, 1953 Allis-Chalmers WD-45 tractor, 1949 John Deere B and a
John Deere 1010 diesel track loader among others. Several other
vehicles are tucked away here and there, including a Harley
Davidson golf cart, an old Ford F-5 truck and a lovely Ford
Thunderbird. A few flathead Ford V-8 engines are stashed among the
vehicles too, just in case Don needs a spare.

Don enjoys collecting, but he believes in using what he
collects. For example, when he and his wife, Lorraine, acquired
land in the mountains of West Virginia, he purchased the John Deere
1010 track loader specifically to help with improvements. “I had to
replace the rollers in the undercarriage,” Don says. “And I gave it
the custom camouflage paint job to hide it on the property.” That
tractor not only cut roads and cleared a mountaintop building site,
it also managed to survive unmolested during long periods of
isolated abandonment.

Lorraine and Don have been into collecting (and using) more than
just cars and tractors over the years. Some of the other family
passions include Aladdin lamps, player pianos and old furniture.
“What good is it to have all this stuff if you can’t use it?”
Lorraine asks. “We always tried to make junk with a ‘Q’ out of junk
with a ‘K.'” Brutus may well be just their latest effort to that
end.

For more information:
Don Retzlaff, 12211 Wallace Lane, Upper Marlboro, MD 20772;
(301) 868-9065; e-mail: rmeflyr@comcast.net

Oscar “Hank” Will III is an old-iron collector and freelance
writer and photographer. He splits his time between his home in
Gettysburg, Pa., and his farm in East Andover, N.H. Write him at
243 W. Broadway, Gettysburg, PA 17325l (717) 337-6068; e-mail:
willo@gettysburg.edu

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