American Inventors Best and Holt Rivals: Part 1

Competition between early industrialists ultimately results in birth of Caterpillar

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Tracks for the first transcontinental railroad met in Promontory, Utah Territory, in 1869.

Two family names – Holt and Best – are inexorably linked to the great name of Caterpillar, the Caterpillar tractor and Caterpillar Inc. of Peoria, Illinois. As the Industrial Revolution developed around the world, the Holts and Bests took their places alongside other great men of ingenuity, ambition and charismatic leadership who launched great industries: Deere, McCormick, Deering, Oliver, Ford, Massey and Harris. These visionary leaders mechanized American agriculture and, in the process, they also changed our way of life.

The opening of the American West

America of the mid-1800s would be virtually unrecognizable to most of us today. The Civil War had not yet been fought and slavery remained a fact of life in this country. Rail transportation was only available along the East Coast. The “golden spike” was driven in Promontory, Utah, in 1869, celebrating completion of America’s first transcontinental railroad. The first commercial telegraph message was sent in 1844. The telephone was invented in 1876 and the light bulb in 1879. The U.S. was on the verge of rapid expansion.

map of California with lots of text and elevation markers

In January 1848, carpenter James Marshall was building a waterwheel-powered sawmill for John A. Sutter on the American River in California’s Sacramento Valley. When he discovered a pea-sized nugget of gold in Sutter’s Creek, he showed Sutter his find. Sutter made Marshall promise to keep the discovery a secret, but the news leaked out. Within a few days, boats filled with people headed up the Sacramento River. San Francisco became a ghost town, as many residents headed for the hills in search of gold.

By the end of the summer of 1848, the news had spread from the West Coast to the East Coast, to Mexico and even Hawaii. Newspapers claimed men had become rich overnight just by reaching down and picking up nuggets. People from all walks of life set out for California. By January 1849, a full-scale gold rush was on and the year was permanently etched in the nation’s consciousness by thousands of prospectors dubbed Forty-Niners.

group of nine miners, five sitting, four standing

To reach the goldfields, an East Coast Forty-Niner could take a boat to Panama, cross the isthmus on foot and then catch another boat to San Francisco. The longer sea voyage around Cape Horn offered an alternative. The cheapest route was overland by wagon train along the famous Oregon Trail. The overland trip would take about six months in the summer and was virtually impossible at any other time of the year. While some members of the Best family pursued mining, the Holts were not prospectors. The lure of the West and its opportunities created by the population explosion there beckoned members of both families.

Grain cleaners give Best Mfg. Co. its start in business

Little is known about the European heritage of the John Best family. Records dating to 1830 show them first in Ohio, then Missouri and finally in Iowa. John was a sawmiller and lumberman until he arrived in Iowa. There, he used the profits from sale of the family sawmills to purchase 400 acres of Iowa farmland near Vincennes and Keokuk.

In 1852, John’s oldest child, 19-year-old Samuel, traveled to Oregon, taking up work he had known in Ohio and Missouri: sawmilling. Samuel sent letters back to the family extolling the benefits of life in the West. The next to go, in 1859, was 21-year-old Daniel, working his way to Washington as a wagon train guard and meat hunter.

man facing left with beard and mustache wearing gray suit

Daniel settled first in Walla Walla, just across the state line from Oregon. There, and later in several other Washington and Oregon locations, he owned and operated sawmills. Two more Best brothers, Henry and Zechariah, went West in 1861, to the Marysville-Yuba City area of central California. They took up wheat farming, a trade they knew something about from their days in Iowa. In 1870, Daniel moved to Marysville to help his brothers with what had become a vast wheat farm. When Henry became ill, Daniel took over operation of the farm.

During the harvest, Daniel Best was annoyed by the requirement to haul the threshed grain to a grain-cleaning establishment in Marysville. There, a mechanical device winnowed the grain and fanned away the chaff. This, he felt, not only consumed valuable time, but represented a substantial expense in the cost of hauling and cleaning. That winter, Best set about making his own grain cleaner.

In fact, he built three of them, all portable, to do custom cleaning at neighboring farms. He also made horse-powered treadmills to go with the units. The next fall, the three Best brothers brought in about $200 per machine per day, a handsome sum in that time. The profits provided the seed money for Daniel to start Best Mfg. Co., which began producing the newly patented grain cleaners in earnest. By 1884, the company had purchased new quarters in San Leandro, California.

Birth of Daniel Best’s inspiration: The Traveling Combined Harvester

The dry California climate and stump-free, level terrain was well-suited to the use of “headers” to harvest grain. The header used a cutter bar and reel, similar to that used in the binder, but cut only the head, leaving most of the stalk. A drive wheel (called a ground wheel) drove the pitman arm, reel and draper (conveyor). To avoid disturbing the crop, the machine was pushed by horses, sometimes as many as eight.

The driver stood on a platform at the rear of the machine. Besides controlling the horses, he was provided with a steering wheel and a brake. The cut grain was carried up the elevator and deposited in a wagon pulled alongside. The grain was then taken to a thresher. Although header harvesting required more horses, fewer men were needed than for traditional binder harvesting. A good header operation could harvest 40 acres in a long, hot day.

Best’s next idea was to combine the header with his portable cleaning machine. All that was then needed was addition of a threshing mechanism. This resulted in what Best called his Traveling Combined Harvester. By the fall of 1885, he had sold the first six of these machines, forerunners of what would become known as the combine.

Would-be accountant shifts gears to launch C.H. Holt & Co.

In 1635, Nicholas Holt left his home in England, bound for Massachusetts, where he farmed and ran a sawmill. Nicholas’ descendants gradually migrated north to New Hampshire and the hardwood lumber business, providing wood for wagon and carriage construction. By the time of the gold rush in 1849, descendant William Holt and his wife were the parents of four sons (William Jr., Frank, Charles and Benjamin) and four daughters.

At age 20 in 1864, Charles Holt made his way to San Francisco by steamship from New York by way of Cape Horn, a journey of at least four months’ duration. Holt had been promised an accountant’s job in San Francisco, but by the time he arrived, his would-be employer had gone bankrupt.

Holt found work teaching accounting while keeping books for a general merchandise store in the evenings. Noticing the burgeoning need for horse-drawn conveyances in prosperous northern California, he established his own business, C.H. Holt & Co., a hardwood importer, on Beale Street in San Francisco, with a goal of importing hardwoods from the family business back east.

man with mustache and wearing suit

Lumber cut in Ohio was shipped to New Hampshire for seasoning and used to produce axles, tongues and wheels. These were then shipped around Cape Horn to C.H. Holt & Co. By 1871, the company had been renamed Holt Brothers, as Charles’ three brothers had signed on.

Cross-country business creates unique revenue streams

The company’s first challenge was weather-related. California’s hot and dry climate caused further drying of the wood, which by then had been made into wheels. That caused the spokes to shrink, and the rims came off. To correct the problem, in 1883 the company was relocated to Stockton, an area of extremely low humidity. There, the lumber was fully seasoned before it was used to build wheels, correcting the problem.

At the same time, the company’s name was again changed, to Stockton Wheel Co. The youngest Holt brother, Benjamin, was made president. The oldest brother, William, stayed in San Francisco to handle the imports. Brother Frank returned to New Hampshire to run that part of the business, while Charles and Benjamin, along with William’s son, Pliny, moved to Stockton.

In the days before the value of the federal government’s currency was tied to gold or silver, the Holts, by receiving payment for their products in California gold, then shipping the gold back east and converting it to paper money, made tremendous profits on both the wood and the gold, sometimes as much as 300 percent. With ample cash for expansion and product development, it was only natural that their woodworking talents would soon be turned to production of a Holt traveling combined harvester.

By late 1883, the Holt brothers’ Stockton Wheel Co. was manufacturing wagon wheels, freight wagons, harness, wagon hardware and mining equipment. Brothers Benjamin and Charles bought out the interests of their two brothers shortly after the company arrived in Stockton. Charles ran the financial side of the business, while Benjamin handled manufacturing and development. Ben was quick to see the labor-saving potential of what he called “the traveling thrasher.”

steam crawler machine on three treads with large steam vent on top

Innovative link-belt chain fuels rapid expansion for Holt Mfg. Co.

Two years after moving to Stockton, the Holts expanded into combine production. They bought up several promising patents and built new manufacturing facilities. Their first combine, which was sold in 1886, had a 14-foot header and a 21-inch threshing cylinder. The mechanism was driven by power supplied by the unit’s wheels, transmitted by a link-belt chain.

Other combine makers used gears to transmit power from the wheels, but that caused two problems. The gears wore rapidly in dusty conditions, and team run-aways, which were not uncommon, caused over-speeding of the threshing mechanism, often driving it to destruction.

To operate the combines, teams of 25 to 40 horses were required. Controlling such a menagerie was often a superhuman task. A sharp noise, or even a change in noise, could spook the team. Hornet nests, snakes or a flock of quail could send the team into a panic. Many drivers and horses were injured or killed.
Ben Holt’s chain drive for the main element of the power transmission system solved both the gear wear and over-speed problems. Not only was his “link belt” drive quieter and more efficient than the gear system, if a run-away did occur, the chain would break, preventing further damage to the drive and the threshing mechanism. The chain could be repaired by simply replacing the failed link. This application of the link-belt chain drive brought prominence to the Holt combine – and 90 percent of the West Coast trade.

In 1891, Holt introduced a self-leveling combine that made hillside operations possible. This feature, as much as the chain drive, accounted for the popularity of the Holt machine. In 1892, signaling a new focus, Stockton Wheel Co. became Holt Mfg. Co.

California booms with rapid growth in mining, farming and manufacturing

By the end of the 19th century, California – especially the area inland from San Francisco – had become one of the most prosperous places in the world, driven by mining and agriculture and countless supporting businesses. Transportation was mostly by riverboat and giant wagon trains. Some wagon trains were pulled by as many as 40 mules, although rail transport was rapidly expanding.

In the San Joaquin Valley near Stockton, farms expanded rapidly. Wheat ranches of 40,000 or more acres were not uncommon. One had a field 17 miles long. Plowmen and harvesters would camp overnight at the far end and return the next day. Vast numbers of draft animals were required (one large ranch reportedly had more than 1,000 horses and mules). Four- and five-team horse powers provided power for threshing machines; larger ranches used stationary steam engines.

The city of Stockton became a hotbed of implement manufacture. Many of the implements produced there were specifically designed for use in that area. Besides the vast level wheat fields of the Central Valley, some of the best farmland was in the Sacramento River delta.

A half million acres was drained by the delta. The soil was extremely rich with peat created by the decomposition of tule plants and alluvial deposits. But the delta’s spongy soil left it largely unexploited. A series of drainage ditches was built there by horses shod with “tule shoes” 1 foot or more in diameter, pulling wagons and implements with extra-wide wheels.

steam engine stuck in mud with three men attempting to get it out with wood…

Going head-to-head in their own backyards

By the close of the 19th century, the Holts and the Bests had established prosperous businesses in two California cities just 50 miles apart. Both companies had entered the harvester business. The first Best combine was sold in 1885. The Holt brothers followed with their first harvester in 1886.

Daniel Best was an inveterate inventor, with several patents unrelated to harvesters (including one for a washing machine). In the intervening years, he took in business partners in both Oregon and in Oakland, California. In Oakland, his cleaner/harvester manufacturing operations spilled over into the streets around the factory. Complaints from the police prompted Best to move to larger quarters. In late 1886, he purchased San Leandro (California) Plow Co., and relocated all operations there.

While Holt’s combine depended on the link-belt drive to protect the mechanism, Best’s claim to combine fame hinged not on the drive mechanism, but on a fan-governor. In the event of a bolting team, increasing fan speed absorbed so much power that the machine could not over-speed (input power goes up as the square of speed).

Holt takes the edge in harvester wars

When the temperature of water is raised to 212 degrees Fahrenheit (at sea level), it expands to 1,600 times the original volume. If the vapor is confined, pressure increases rapidly. Harnessing that water vapor pressure is the fundamental activity of the steam engine. In the last half of the 19th century, the perfection of the Bessemer steel-making process made lighter-weight steam engines possible. Given the overwhelming amount of animal power required by West Coast farms, development of mechanical power was inevitable. Practical farm steam engines began to be available in the late 1840s.

Marquis de Lafayette Remington of Woodburn, Oregon, was one of the pioneer steam engine builders in the western states. His traction engine had a single front wheel (with steam power steering) that made it quite maneuverable for its size. It used a vertical boiler, rather than the more conventional horizontal boiler common to railroad engines. The vertical boiler was set aft between the two 8-foot drive wheels. Compared to horizontal boilers, the positioning of the vertical boiler helped minimize the stress resulting from twisting and jostling on uneven ground.

Remington had gotten to know Daniel Best when Best was in the lumber business in Oregon. When Remington’s engine factory in Woodburn burned down, he sold his engine patents and got out of the business. That is when Remington decided to drive his remaining steam traction engine the 600 miles to San Leandro. Proving (possibly for the first time) the adage that working hardware makes the best engineering proposal, Daniel Best bought the rights to the Remington engine on the spot.

The Remington engine was quickly improved and upgraded and put to work in substantial numbers in logging and farming applications. Daniel Best also integrated his steam engine with the combine. The steam engine provided motive power, and also, by a flexible pipe, provided steam for a separate motor that drove the cutting, threshing and cleaning mechanisms. The first Best engine and the first Best steam-powered combine were delivered in 1889.

By 1890, only three West Coast harvester companies remained: Stockton Wheel Company (Holt), Daniel Best Agricultural Works, and Stockton Combined Harvester and Agricultural Works (a conglomeration of several combine makers). With his jump to the steam harvester, Best garnered the majority of the market. Holt responded with a steam development of his own. Holt’s first engine was sold in 1890. It featured a link-belt drive instead of gears. Holt also integrated his steam engine with his combine. Thereafter, the Best factory concentrated mostly on steam engines, while Holt vigorously pursued the production of combines, outproducing Best eight to one in that field. FC

In the next issue of Farm Collector, the competition between two California manufacturers moves to a new level with the launch of the crawler tractor.

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