“I Was the Boy”: Part 1

Retired Holt engineer-serviceman looks back half a century from his California ranch to recall his role in steam and gas tractor history.

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courtesy Library of Congress
The Cascades – shown here as a diagonal scar crossing the foothill just left of center – are the terminal structures of two aqueducts built and operated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

In a 1953 issue of Iron-Men Album, agricultural historian F. Hal Higgins shared notes of a conversation with a retiree who had worked for Holt Mfg. Co. in the early 1900s. Higgins, who witnessed firsthand the development of mechanized agriculture in the U.S., got his start as a news editor for Caterpillar Tractor Co. in 1925.

The focus of Higgins’ interview, Paul E. Weston, worked for Holt in the early 1900s. The company sent him to the Mojave Desert in California to demonstrate Holt’s first steam Caterpillar and sell the Los Angeles Aqueduct engineers on the merits of this new-style tractor, saying it could beat mules in freighting equipment and supplies to construction camps building the system that would bring water to fast-growing Los Angeles.

Playing a key role in that effort, Weston represented Holt Mfg. Co. at every step from trial demonstration to sale and delivery of 28 more Holt Caterpillar tractors and trains of wagons for freighting across the desert. His reminiscences, first published in 1953, showcase a pivotal period in American agriculture – and in his life.

(Editor’s Note: We are always more than pleased to get an article from the Agricultural Historian, F. Hal Higgins. We are happy to present Hal’s letter and article.)

Dear Editor:

Having uncovered this key personality, Paul Weston, recently in Stockton where he is enjoying the mellow years of one of the most important lives in the mechanization of agriculture, heavy construction, road building, etc., I thought your readers might like to meet him through your columns. You know, of course, that today the old Holt firm he was with in this frontier selling-servicing is one of the main roots of the Caterpillar Tractor Company, whose crawlers have gone to two world wars and revolutionized land war strategy as a mere side issue in defense of their country from their regular jobs of farming, road building, oil field developing, etc.

I tried to give your readers a bit of personality in this place in order to try to get over to them the kind of men it took to win this frontier in agriculture and make it blossom to support the big populations that have come in since. Also, maybe it will help the fellows from the level corn, cotton and wheat belts to understand why and how the crawler, or track-type, tractor developed. It went where wheels wouldn’t because of soft, sandy, steep, frozen terrain.

The idea is as old as wheels on tractors, of course, as Edgeworth in England got a track patent for steam engines as early as 1770 and spent 20 years developing his crawler engine ‘to perfection’. But not until Lombard in Maine in 1901 patented his Steam Logging Machine did it get too much practical application in spite of wars and big development outfits giving it trials and boosts from time to time, from the Crimean War of the mid-1850s on to modern times.

Minnis and Parvin of Pennsylvania both gave the track-type idea for ‘steam plows’ a lot of time, labor and publicity soon after the Civil War. Minnis gave Iowa a big show late in 1869 in breaking up a lot of virgin pasture within sight of the new Iowa Agricultural College at Ames. Parvin appeared both in Illinois and California from 1871 to 1873 and progressed as far as exhibits at Illinois State Fairs, factory in Illinois and at least one sale in California for land breaking. They were just too far ahead of metallurgy and farm capital, however.

To those who take too seriously the words of a song, ‘Till The Sands of the Desert Grow Cold’, this scene from the historic and revolutionary Los Angeles Aqueduct construction job is a reminder that it could and did get bitterly cold in winter, especially in the mountain altitudes where the Holt Caterpillar hauled equipment and materials up steep grades and over waterless areas to cut costs of freighting and start the ‘big un-hitch’ of animal power in favor of mechanical power for freighting over rail-less areas in heavy construction.

I’ll soon give you a short letter and copies of old logging pictures I gathered up the other day when Lloyd Burr and I took a day off and went up to Angels Camp to see the big logging Best and that old threshing you used on your cover a year or more ago when we were arguing over its pedigree. B. B. Brown could not get away to help us, but I will have him look over my pictures of both sides and see if he still sticks to his Owens, Lane & Dyer in identification. Your correspondent from Florida backed up Brown on this, I recall. Now we will try to clinch or disprove their verdicts.

Very truly,

F. Hal Higgins

Read the interview in Part 2

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