Last of the Line: Charley Wilkinson’s Holt Caterpillar

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A close-up of the Caterpillar name on Charley Wilkinson’s 1926 2-Ton Holt Caterpillar.
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Charley’s 1926 2-Ton Holt Caterpillar on display.
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Charley with another of his tracklayers, a D-2.
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Charley aboard his 1926 2-Ton Holt Caterpillar.
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The 2-Ton Holt Caterpillar after extensive restoration.
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This was among the final models produced under the Holt and Caterpillar names.
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Charley and Joyce Wilkinson with another piece from their collection: a rare 10-15 Gibson tractor.

Old iron comes second nature to Charley Wilkinson, Selma, Iowa. “I started with horses, because when I was young we farmed with them,” he says. “I went with my father on threshing runs, and because we lived on dirt roads, my parents drove the horse-drawn school buses we rode to school. Horses were followed by iron-wheeled tractors. I’ve always just liked the old iron. I don’t want to see any of it sent to the salvage yard.”

Which is probably why, today, he has a collection of 10 antique crawlers: five restored and five waiting in the wings. “Now that I’m retired,” Charley says with a laugh, “maybe I’ll have more time to do it.”

A preference for crawlers

Charley’s father-in-law, Ira Dobyns, had an RD-4 Caterpillar. “In 1971, he gave it to my wife,” he says. “She promptly gave it to my son, and it was sitting outside long enough that the engine got stuck, and then we got it back. I’m in the process of redoing it right now.”

Charley’s 1926 Holt Caterpillar 2-Ton is among his favorites, at least partly because it is one of the few models produced under both the Holt and Caterpillar names. As C.H. Wendel writes in Farm Tractors 1890-1980, “By 1927 the Holt and Best trade names had disappeared as a pair of powerhouse tractor manufacturers. C.L. Best Gas Traction Co., of San Leandro, California, and Holt Mfg. Co., of Stockton, California, had run onto hard times, gave up their competitive ways, and on March 2, 1925, united to form Caterpillar Tractor Co.”

Charley first saw the 2-Ton at a 2005 auction. “I just got the bug,” he says, “and I bought it.” His wife, Joyce, didn’t see it coming. “I was really surprised when he bought it. I expected him to bring something home for our farming operation,” she says with a laugh.

Restored from the ground up

The 1926 2-Ton was not in very good condition. “It was kind of a basket case when I got it,” Charley says. “But I wanted it because it’s a forerunner of today’s Caterpillar.”

Charley tore it down, removed the tracks and the sprocket, and reworked and built up the front idler bearings. He made brass bushings for the front idler and built up the tracks. The rails had worn through the bushings onto the pins that hold the tractor together. “Those pins are a job to get out,” he says, “not like the newer ones that you just unbolt and take apart. These you just had to beat out.”

On top of that, the governor was fouled and needed work. It turned out to be the biggest challenge in restoring the machine. Charley had repair books for the 2-Ton, and an owner’s manual. “But that’s not much to go on,” he says. “Sometimes you just pick up a piece and wonder, ‘Where does this one go?’”

The engine turned over, but it didn’t have any compression, so work was needed there. After that, Charley sandblasted and painted the relic. “And now I have a lot of fun with it,” he says, “unless you crank it wrong. If you don’t hold the crank right, it will kick back and break your arm. We call it ‘kicking backward.’ A lot of those old engines kick if the timing isn’t right or it’s firing too quick, which they don’t do often, especially if the timing is right.”

The key is getting your hand right on the crank before cranking. “You put your fingers under the crank when you pull it over on compression,” he says. “Don’t have your hand on top of the crank, because that’s when it will kick back, and possibly break your arm.”

Sharing a common interest

Joyce is an active partner in Charley’s restoration projects. “I always helped on our farm, driving the machinery and working alongside Charley all the time,” she says, “so it just seemed natural to help with restoring them.”

Cleaning the machines is her specialty area. “They always needed to be cleaned before Charley painted them,” she says. “I help with whatever else he needs, maybe lifting, or anywhere smaller hands or fingers are needed. I’m not a mechanic.”

Charley says her involvement really makes the hobby fun. “She gets right out there and digs into the grease with me,” he says. “That’s when you have fun, when you’re both interested in the same thing. And she knows a lot about these machines, too.”

Small enough to haul

For Charley, the 2-Ton Holt’s rarity is part of its appeal. “There are not very many of them around,” he says, “and that’s why we like it. It’s one of a kind at the Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers Reunion (in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa). Only 8,565 of them were made to start with.”

Driving the old beast is a particular challenge. The 2-Ton doesn’t have a steering wheel, just a two-handed lever for steering. “We bought it because it’s small and we can take it to shows,” he says. “Even though it weighs 4,000 pounds, that’s a lot less than a lot of Caterpillar-type machines. They’re so big that they’re too hard to haul.”

With a collection that includes two D-4s, one RD-4, four D-2s, one D-15 and two Twenty-Two crawlers, Charley has carved out a niche. “We just enjoy them,” he says. “We don’t use them for anything in particular, and only start them up once in a while, but we still enjoy them. I just don’t like to see them go to the junkyard.” FC

For the history of the Caterpillar Tractor Co., read On the Same Track: The Caterpillar Tractor Co.

For more information: Charley Wilkinson, 1268 278th Blvd., Selma, IA 52588; (641) 919-7111; email.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email.

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