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The Big Book
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Voyageur PressA 1926 Caterpillar Sixty.
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Cat Sixty

Comparison to Small Insect’s Movement Inspired a Tractor Giant

Big pictures evoke the massiveness and power of Caterpillar crawler tractors over the last century in The Big Book of Caterpillar, a new book from Voyageur Press. The inside cover photo alone (from the Eastman Collection, University of California-Davis) transports one back to a time when huge steam traction engines developed by the Best and Holt family companies ruled the logging industry.

Author Robert N. Pripps, photographer Andrew Morland, and stunning archival photos take the reader through more than a century of developments at Caterpillar – from its family-owned company roots to its status as a multinational giant with a diverse product line.

‘Cat’ enthusiasts who are also baseball fans receive a bonus: The forward of The Big Book is written by Bob Feller, Baseball Hall of Famer, whose Cat collection now numbers eight tractors.

The first chapter traces the interesting history of the Best and Holt family-owned operations, beginning in the late 1800s. The C.L. Best Gas Tractor Company and the Holt Manufacturing Company would later be consolidated to form the Caterpillar Tractor Company in 1925.

The Best family business actually began when Daniel, C.L. Best’s father, established a portable grain cleaning business in northern California in 1871. Daniel later combined a header with the portable cleaner. ‘All that was then needed was to add a threshing mechanism,’ Pripps writes. This resulted in Best’s ‘Traveling Combined Harvester,’ six of which were sold by fall 1885. This machine was a forerunner of the combine.

The Holt story began with Charles Holt’s horse-drawn conveyance business in San Francisco in 1869, which grew into a wooden wheel business and later a combine manufacturing operation in Stockton, Calif. The Holt brothers, including Benjamin (president of the Stockton Wheel Company), sold their first combine in 1886.

Over the years, the Best and Holt companies would make improvements on their combines and enjoy sales growth with each advance. Competition between the companies heated up with the advent of the steam engine. Best took the lead, however, when fortuitous events allowed it to snap up the rights to the Remington steam traction engine. Best quickly paired the engine with its combine and delivered its first steam-powered combine in 1889.

Just a year later, Holt would also sell an integrated steam engine and combine. But, Holt’s next development would change history.

In 1904, Benjamin Holt tested a new track-type tractor in the boggy land of California’s Sacramento River Delta. Pripps describes how Benjamin bolted wooden blocks to two link chains to make each track for his first tracked steamer. He also made clutches for each track to facilitate turning.

‘By declutching the track on the inside of a turn, the front wheel would bring the 40,000-pound monster around, aided by the thrust of the outside track,’ writes Pripps.

A spectator watching the test and seeing the big tractor maneuver the wet ground commented to Holt, ‘She crawls along like a caterpillar.’ Holt reportedly replied, ‘Caterpillar she is!’ He later registered the name as his trademark and the name remains today. The Holts fiercely defended the name. The Big Book relates how C.L. Best (Daniel’s son) was sued for trademark infringement for using the term ‘caterpillar’ in advertising. As a result, he adopted the term ‘tracklayer.’

The Big Book goes on to tell of the intense competition between the Best and Holt companies, including discussion of patent infringement litigation and, later, financial problems that led to the consolidation of the two companies in 1925.

At the same time, Pripps and Morland feature the big tractors that brought the companies to this point. The Holt Caterpillar Model 60, for example, was so popular among Eastern Europeans that it attracted the interest of the Austrian and German militaries just prior to World War I. Pripps reports that when the war broke out, ‘all trade with the Central Powers came to a halt before more than a few Caterpillar tractors were delivered.’ But soon, the Allies began ordering more than a thousand Caterpillars for their war efforts.

The Big Book traces the development of gas-powered and diesel-powered tractors through the decades, including the gas-powered Twenty, the first machine produced after the Caterpillar Tractor Company was formed in 1925.

Special attention is paid to the Caterpillar tractors used in various ‘New Deal’ construction projects, as well as in World War II and the building of the Alcan Highway. Archival photos of the Alaskan highway project, in particular, reveal the extreme conditions under which Cat machines toiled. Seventy percent of the bulldozers and graders used in that project was supplied by Cat.

Cat enthusiasts will also find numerous profiles on prominent Caterpillar collectors and a chapter on the company’s ongoing history, including more recent tractor models such as the Challenger 85D.

The Big Book is a must for any serious Cat collector. But even those unfamiliar with the company’s history and its line of tractors and equipment will be impressed by this book’s photographs – photographs which illustrate the power and beauty of the massive machines that transformed much of the world’s landscape.

The Big Book of Caterpillar, Robert N. Pripps and Andrew Morland; Voyageur Press, 2000; ISBN 0-89658-366-X; 208 pages, hard cover $39.95. For information, contact Voyageur Press, 123 N. Second St., P.O. Box 338, Stillwater, MN 55082; (651) 430-2210; www

Lynn Grooms is an independent writer based in Middleton, Wis. She is a frequent contributor to Ag Retailer and Seed & Crops Digest, and her articles have been featured in several agricultural publications. Grooms recently completed a history of Allis-Chalmers farm tractors which will be published by Voyageur Press, Stillwater, Minn.

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