Postcards from the Past

Best Traction Engines Tilled the California Sod

| September 2006

  • Best110HPEngine.jpg
    Above: A Best 110 HP engine is shown on this postcard labeled “Farming in the West – A Seventeen furrow steam Plough at Work. (On the Road of a Thousand Wonders.)”
  • DifferentBest110HPEngine.jpg
    Right: What appears to be a different Best 110 HP engine on a postcard labeled “Steam Harvester at Work in California.”
  • 725PlowingBySteam.jpg
    As well, this postcard says only, “725 Plowing by steam, Ranch life in California.” This appears to be a circa 1900 Holt Junior steam traction engine specially equipped for plowing work.
  • 1603SteamPlowing1.jpg
    This postcard showing a 110 HP Best steam traction engine is labeled simply, “1603 – Steam Plowing.”
  • 1603SteamPlowing2.jpg
    Like the postcard at top, this one is also labeled “1603 – Steam Plowing.” This could be the same engine shown at top, but without driver extensions. The front of the boiler identifies this as engine no. 181, making its date of manufacture about 1907.

  • Best110HPEngine.jpg
  • DifferentBest110HPEngine.jpg
  • 725PlowingBySteam.jpg
  • 1603SteamPlowing1.jpg
  • 1603SteamPlowing2.jpg

Pierre Bos, Marseille, France, sent us an array of vintage postcards he came across in Europe. American steam traction engines were of great interest overseas, and the batch of postcards Pierre discovered focus mostly on Best steam engines (and one Holt) at work in the California fields.

Daniel Best's Agricultural Works in San Leandro, Calif., started manufacturing engines in 1889. Various sizes were offered, from a 30 HP up to an enormous 110 HP unit. A few of these large units were equipped with 15-foot-wide wheels to keep the engines from sinking into the soft California ground. Best steam engines were used for plowing and pulling combines, and as road engines for freighting, mining and logging. Although Best engines were exported to various countries, the majority of engines remained in the California area.

In 1908, Daniel Best retired and sold Best Mfg. Co. to Ben Holt of Holt Mfg. Co. Holt operated Best Mfg. as a separate company until 1913. From 1908 to 1910, C.L. Best, Daniel's son, operated the Best Mfg. Co. for Holt, before forming the C.L. Best Gas Traction Co. In 1925 Best and Holt merged, forming the current Caterpillar Co.