Legends of the Silver King Tractors

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The R66 Model Silver King tractor could plow five acres in a day, pulling one 14-inch plow with its Hercules 3-inch-by-4-inch bore and stroke engine.
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The R38 Silver King shown here was 97 inches long, 48 inches wide, 49 inches high, and weighed 2,150 pounds. It came with either steel or low-pressure tires.
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This 1936 ad shows a Silver King tractor on rubber at work. When dealers delivered new Silver King tractors to farmers, rubber tires were always taken along, in case farmers opted to upgrade.

The Silver King tractor and Fate-Root-Heath Co.
of Plymouth, Ohio, are the stuff of legends: Did Walter Chrysler
forget to secure the rights to the “Plymouth” name? Was the Silver
King so-named because of the silver sheen of a live plant? Did Mae
West own 90 Silver Kings for use in her California vineyard? These
rumors have made excellent fodder for stories about the Silver King
tractor and its companies.

What is known is that John D. Fate was involved in several early
companies, all manufacturers of brick and drain tile, in Plymouth:
J.D. Fate Co. in 1884, Fate-Freeze in 1888 and Fate Gunsallus Co.
in 1894, reverting to J.D. Fate Co. a couple of years after each
merger. In 1909, Fate moved in a different direction, organizing
the Plymouth Truck Co. to build gasoline trucks and buses. And in
1910, the company manufactured a lone Plymouth automobile.

Back to the drawing board

More than two decades later, this single Plymouth auto would
cause problems. Like other manufacturers of the time, Plymouth
Truck Co. decided to make a car to sell, the Plymouth Gasoline
Pleasure Vehicle. Wisely, company directors took the car on a
maiden trip to New York City. Halfway there, a cylinder casting
broke, so they loaded the auto onto a railroad flatcar, themselves
into a coach car, and headed home. On the way, they decided to
limit car production to one unit.

In 1912, the company was asked to manufacture a commercial
locomotive. Locomotives quickly became the company’s most
profitable product, and trucks, buses and cars were dropped from
the offering.

In 1919, the Root Brothers Co. and the Heath Foundry combined
with the Fate Co. to form Fate-Root-Heath Co. J.D. Fate, Percy Root
and Charley Heath were the principals. The company continued to
manufacture locomotives and clay extrusion machinery.

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit FRH hard. As orders for
Plymouth locomotives dwindled to nothing, management decided they
needed a new product. In 1933, the company began manufacturing the
Plymouth tractor.

Bone of contention

Five years earlier, however, in 1928, the Chrysler Corporation
had begun producing Plymouth automobiles. When Walter Chrysler got
wind of the Plymouth tractor, he came knocking on the door of
Fate-Root-Heath in the guise of high-powered lawyers. In The
Plymouths of Ohio
, Jim Benjaminson of Walhalla, N.D. (who has
written extensively about all things Plymouth), says Miles
Christian, former president of FRH, related an amicable end to the
flap. “They discovered we had prior use of ‘Plymouth’ on trucks and
a car,” Christian related. “We wound up selling the name ‘Plymouth’
to Chrysler for only one dollar” rather than fight a large company
and court bad press. By that time, 232 Plymouth tractors had been
built.

That meant the Plymouth tractor had to be renamed. Company
executives faced each other across a boardroom table shortly after
the 1935 name-change decision, trying to come up with a new name.
In an account attributed to the late Leon Hord, longtime president
of the Silver Kings of Yesterday Club (SKY), “They thought they had
the king of all the tractors on the market, and they wanted to
change the name to King, but a ‘King’ tractor already existed.”

During the meeting, Hord continued, Charley Heath stared at the
silver-like foliage of a plant on the boardroom table, and said,
“Let’s call it Silver King.” “And that’s the way it came about,”
Hord related. All tractors built in the plant after serial no. 314
would carry the name “Silver King.”

The long decline

A total of 8,600 three-wheel and four-wheel Silver King tractors
in various model configurations were built from 1935 to 1954. But
as was the case with so many other manufacturers, eventually the
tide turned against Fate-Root-Heath Co. and the Silver King
tractor. Hord noted invention of a three-point hitch by FRH
engineers, but the company was loath to incorporate it onto the
tractors. Instead, the inventor quit and went to work for Harry
Ferguson, who perfected the mechanism and called it “The Ferguson
System.”

Also, Hord said, Charley Heath (who ran the tractor division)
wanted to get out, and nobody else wanted to take it over. “So they
sold all their rights and everything to Mountain States Fabricating
Co. in Clarksburg, W.Va.,” Hord said. Seventy-five (or 78,
depending on varying references) West Virginia Silver Kings were
made, mostly late-model four-wheelers, and a few three-wheelers,
identifiable by the serial numbers.

Fate-Root-Heath Co. was family-owned and -operated until March
1966, according to A Brief History of the Company, an
unattributed volume. Through the years, FRH also produced
sharpeners for lawn mowers and saws, for home and industrial use,
as well corn shellers. In 1966 the company was sold to Harold
Schott, and in 1969, to Banner Industries Inc., Cleveland, Ohio.
The FRH name was eventually replaced by the name Plymouth
Locomotive Works. In 1999, the factory was closed, Plymouth
Locomotives became a brand of Ohio Locomotive Crane, and everything
moved to Bucyrus, Ohio. More than 7,500 Plymouth small industrial
locomotives have been built since 1909.

And the Mae West connection? Apparently it was little more than
urban legend. According to a popular rumor, film star Mae West
supposedly kept a fleet of 90 Silver King tractors for use in her
vineyard. Richard Lyman, 2005 president of SKY, recently visited
California’s Napa Valley to follow up on the rumor, but says he
found little hard evidence. “Nobody there seemed to know anything
about it. We had been told she really liked the Silver King, and
wanted the company to continue making them.”

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several
books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372,
400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414; e-mail:
bvossler@juno.com

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