The Man Who Was C.L. Best

Early Caterpillar employee’s recollections capture Best’s competitive grit.

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C.L. Best

Caterpillar Tractor Co. was all of two years old in 1925, when the company hired F. Hal Higgins as a news editor. Higgins moved to California, where he would work for Caterpillar from 1927 to 1933. In 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, he left Caterpillar to launch a freelance career in agriculture journalism that would go on to span five decades.

This account of early Best history, originally published in Iron Men Album (later Steam Traction) in 1952, gives a glimpse of C.L. Best, son of company founder Daniel Best. C.L. Best was chairman of the Caterpillar board from 1925 until his death in 1951. Higgins attended Best’s funeral and later wrote this account:

“I went over to the funeral of C.L. Best (Best died Sept. 22, 1951), chairman of the board of Caterpillar Tractor Co., and the man who unhitched more oxen and mules in the western woods and ranches than any other man.

“Best was 73. He was born at Albany, Oregon, where his father, Daniel Best, was a pattern maker at the Cherry Iron Works for a few years after he began building grain cleaners at Marysville in 1871. I stopped in at Slate’s ranch just south of Albany one day in 1944 and got old Nathaniel Slate, then 92, to check his memory and records on the Bests when they were at Albany.

Dan Best was a pattern maker and a good one,” Slate said. “I had him help me get up a combine in 1882. That was when we found out it would take a field full of horses and mules to pull it and began talking steam traction engines. Young Leo Best was out to the ranch with his father a time or two. He must have been 6 or
8 at that time.

“The Bests went back to California in 1885 and began building their grain cleaners, combines and steam traction engines,” Slate continued. “Dan knew Remington (Marquis de Lafayette Remington) who had a shop up the road at Woodburn, of course. Remington took a boiler and made a steam tractor in 1885, and three years later built a bigger one he named ‘Rough and Ready’ and took it down to San Leandro for demonstrations at the Best plant.

“They worked out a deal that sold Best the right to build under Remington patents for the entire Pacific coast,” Slate recalled. “Remington told his steam tractor story in a full page in the Pacific Rural Press, illustrated with portrait of himself and three-column cut of the Best-built Remington pulling a Best combine.”

“Clarence Leo Best grew up in the steam tractor industry, starting in his father’s factory as soon as he was through high school and a few terms in a San Francisco engineering college,” Higgins wrote. “I met him first in 1927 when I came out from Chicago to join the Caterpillar advertising staff as news editor. Hence, I have had a nodding acquaintance with him ever since and was granted an interview to go over some old Best catalogs and settle some questions on pioneering Best tractor history only five or six years ago.

“C.L. (he never cared for the Clarence Leo handle given him by fond parents) always wore a hat in the office. I caught him in a reminiscent mood that afternoon. He went over a 1906 Best catalog carefully, pointing out drawings he had made for this catalog after he had gone into ‘Dad’s factory’ on completion of his engineering course across the bay.

A natural born salesman

“C.L. chuckled as he recounted how he had delivered, demonstrated and closed a deal for one of the Best 110hp steam logging tractors. “This young fellow had bought the outfit without letting his father know that he was breaking away from the safe-and-sure oxen and horses,” C.L. recalled. “So, when I landed at the mill, way up in the shadow of Mt. Shasta in northern California, the old man called his son into his office and preceded to give him a bad half hour as he called him all the kinds of foul language a lifetime of frontier logging had taught him.

“The son came around to me and tried to cancel the order. I did a lot of thinking that night without any real sleep as I figured out what to do the next morning. Here I was, out to prove to Dad that I could sell his tractors. I was plenty fresh and cocky. But I had a lot of Dad’s steel, labor and capital tied up in this deal with 400 miles between factory and me.

“Right after breakfast, I fired up the bright new Best 110, hitched on the special Best logging trucks and started driving in circles from mill pond to the woods and back. No one was loading and unloading: I was just going through the motions of filling my part of the contract. That went on for three hours when the buyer came out and okayed the deal. You can imagine how I was stepping when I got back to the factory and reported to Dad with a signed check.”

Putting it all on the line

In another anecdote, Higgins gives a glimpse of C.L. Best’s competitive grit.

“Both [Daniel Best and his son C.L. Best] knew their products and had supreme faith in them because they knew their buyers and what they wanted in something that would do their work and stand up to the job. “Frank Cornell, Cat Deere dealer at Salinas until he retired in the late 1940s, recounted [to Higgins] his days with the Best factory as service man and then branch manager at Los Angeles at the time of the pre-World War I tractor shows. ‘Every tractor being offered on the Coast was there,’ Cornell said, ‘but we in the Best camp knew of only two: Holt (the enemy) and Best. We would work all night to get our latest model ready for the trials next day.

“C.L. was right at my elbow as I drove the last and deepest stretch of gang plowing,’ Cornell recounted. ‘I could smell the clutch starting to burn and muttered, ‘We can’t do it without burnin’ out the clutch,’ I pleaded. ‘Keep the (expletive deleted) going!’ I heard in my ear above the engine. We made it to the end, but the clutch was sure gone.”

“I went over to the funeral of C.L. Best, chairman of the board of Caterpillar Tractor Co., and the man who unhitched more oxen and mules in the western woods and ranches than any other man.” – Freelance journalist F. Hal Higgins, 1952

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