“I Was the Boy”: Part 3

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

article image
courtesy Jack Alexander
The largest sag pipe of the Los Angeles Aqueduct passes through Jawbone Canyon, shown here during construction in 1913.

In a 1953 issue of Iron-Men Album, agricultural historian F. Hal Higgins shared notes of a conversation with Paul E. Weston 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.

Continued from Part 2

“We had our troubles too, of course, on such a revolutionary job. It was hot in the summer, that Harvey House where I lived being the only livable spot and I enjoyed its food and bed as a spot of civilization on the frontier. You asked about reports by old timers who were there as to the toughness of Mojave at that time. It certainly was rugged, though as to whether it was tougher than Goldfield, Tombstone and such mining frontiers, I couldn’t say. I just saw those spots that Holt sent me to.

“I do recall that on one 11-week period at Mojave, an average of eight murders a week took place. Both the Santa Fe and the Southern railroads had stations there and the construction crews and materials made it an important spot, though the population normally was scarcely a handful of people. I think there were 12 to 15 saloons. The one that stands out in my memory was Smitty’s. This one had a feature I never saw anywhere else. If and when some greenhorn wandered into the place and offered to buy a drink for the house, Smitty had a big bell that was immediately rushed into the street and the bell shaken. That tumbled the entire population out for a rush to the Smitty bar.

“I had two different autos down at Mojave that time. One was a Mitchell and the other a Pope-Toledo. Maybe you think car service wasn’t a real problem.”

All payments to be made in gold coin

At this point, the interview shifted to other steam Holts. Weston recalled the first steam Holt Cat he delivered for farm work. The visitor reached into his files and brought out a photo copy of a Holt contract that had a longhand notation inked at top:

Shipped Dec. 21, 1906 Eng. No. 111. A52387. $5,500 Holt Brothers Improved Traction Engine. The filled-in form calls for the manufacture of one “Paddle Wheel” traction engine with 9-1/2 by 12-foot cylinder. A 600-gallon water wagon and one plow cart was also included in the order. The outfit was consigned to Golden Meadow Developing Co., Ltd., at Lockport, Louisiana. One line is interesting today: All payments to be made in Gold Coin, San Francisco or New York Exchange, to the Holt Manufacturing Company at its office, Stockton, California. Signatures at bottom of contract: Golden Meadow Dev. Co., by J. M. Jeffrey, Pres. The Holt Mfg. Co., by P. E. Weston, 21st February, 1907, Lockport, Lafourche County, Louisiana.

“I sure remember that one,” admitted Weston. “This steam Caterpillar was a duplicate of the one I took to the Los Angeles Aqueduct job a few months later. Someone had sold this Louisiana firm a wheel steam job for that floating prairie land in the delta below New Orleans. That soil is much like the peat soils of the San Joaquin delta that caused Holt to change from wide wheels to tracks, you know.

“So, a deal was fixed up for me to take this Holt steam Cat down there, set it up, start it and bring the wheel job out. I got the new Caterpillar going and was nicely started getting the wheel job ready to bring out when suddenly a river boat, which was named Peruna, came into sight and tooted a signal to me. I went over and got the news that yellow fever had broken out at Leeville, the whole area would be quarantined and this was the last boat out.

“I ran back, grabbed my bag and took that gangplank on the jump. I didn’t stop ’til I hit Los Angeles and immediately went out to Mexico to follow up Holt deals I had inaugurated there earlier. When I returned to get that wheel steam tractor out later, I missed a lot of men who had helped me earlier. Yellow fever had taken its toll.”

The conversation shifted to personalities, the human elements that made history in tractor and combined harvester development on the frontier. Weston held up his hand to reveal a missing index finger as he answered about that first Holt steam tractor. “I have that to remember it by,” he summarized.

“We had also looked in on the famous mining and freighting foundry at Angels Camp that had started 102 years earlier with the gold rush. This is Mark Twain ‘jumping frog’ territory with all the old ’49 names scattered over the map. We had missed Weston in the morning as we stopped in Stockton on the way up the slope to Angels Camp. Leaving a note on Weston’s back porch saying we would make an evening call on our way home, we were lucky in finding he had just arrived a few minutes ahead of us when we made our second call.”

Earning a reputation as a master trencherman

“I’ve just come down from Lake Tahoe where there was 6 inches of snow when I left,” Weston reported as he lounged comfortably in his red-checked Pendleton shirt. The name of Hal Thoen, a famous Holt combine engineer was mentioned.

“That Hal Thoen was a great kidder in the great open spaces manner,” recalled Weston. “I met him at Great Falls, Montana, on one trip. We were going out to some job and went over to the livery stable to get a rig. ‘Let me have that team you gave me the other day,’ Hal told the liveryman. I saw them blindfold and harness a pair of the wildest broncs I ever saw. They had two men holding each horse as they hitched them to the buckboard at the barn door. ‘Ready?’ asked the liveryman. Hal nodded, and the men holding the horses’ heads yanked off the blinds and jumped to one side as the team tore out of there like a hurricane.

“Hal just dropped the lines across the dashboard and let them run a mile or two. I was scared urine-less, while Hal was splitting with his best belly laugh in days.” The writer suddenly had a mellow recollection of the late Hal Thoen, who passed on some years back: his widow had handed over Hal’s red leather-backed Holt catalog of 1898 and two quarter leather-bound Holt catalogs with Benj. Holt’s autograph in the front of each when he had called at the office in Stockton after Hal’s funeral. Hal always had a reputation among old Holt and Caterpillar men in the combine game as a master trencherman who would call for “doubles” on all dinner items: double T-bone steaks, double French fry order, etc., through the menu.

Thoen built the first rubber-roller flax combines that suddenly changed flax threshing from the old style, pounding by steel cylinder teeth, to the squeeze-out by rubber rolls. Everybody does that now in the combines we see in flax combining in the southwest, at least. Also, the alfalfa seed growers have been turning to the use of rubber rolls to reduce injury to seed and increase germination.” FC

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.

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