On the Same Track: The Caterpillar Tractor Co.

Early California manufacturers lay the groundwork for crawler development and merge to form the Caterpillar Tractor Co.

| February 2016

  • A 1920 35-60 Best Caterpillar, built five years before Holt and Best merged.
    Image courtesy Bill Vossler
  • The Holt 1929 Model 34 hillside combine allowed side-hills to be combined where before they could not be.
    Image courtesy Bill Vossler
  • This crawler was identified in reference work as "A Holt Caterpillar."
    Image courtesy Bill Vossler
  • An early Best steam traction engine.
    Image courtesy Bill Vossler
  • A Holt Caterpillar pulling a big load in the 1920s.
    Image courtesy Bill Vossler

For the corresponding article on a rare 2-ton Holt Caterpillar crawler, read Last of the Line: Charley Wilkinson's Holt Caterpillar.

Caterpillar Tractor Co. sits astride a proud if rancorous chapter in America’s industrial past, when two rival California manufacturers were transformed into what has become a global leader.

Mill accident spurred creative process

In 1889, when Daniel Best produced his huge, three-wheeled traction engine, a highly productive career was launched. Best went on to win a total of 41 patents. But that achievement might never have happened, if not for an early misfortune. Best long claimed that if he hadn’t lost the first three fingers of his left hand in a sawmill accident, he wouldn’t have learned to use his head to develop farm products.

Best struck it rich panning gold at age 21, but his wealth was short-lived. He lost his treasure almost immediately, according to an account in San Leandro Recollections, when his boat was swamped on the Snake River under the Seven Devils peaks, and he barely saved his own life. After that he progressed through a series of ventures: He bought a canal, farmed and ran sawmills.

As he recuperated from a tangle with a saw, Best began to design and invent farm machinery, starting with a portable grain cleaner and separator that could be used in the field. He won his first patent for that invention in 1871. From there, Best went on to purchase San Leandro Plow Co. There he manufactured plows, hay presses, the Best grain cleaner and other agricultural machinery.

“Did the work of 75 mules”

Best made quality an early priority. All new models were thoroughly tested before being sold. Equipment was demonstrated for prospective customers, who were then given a free, no obligation, on-farm trial. “Repairs, rarely necessary, were promptly made,” noted the account in Recollections, “quite often by Daniel Best himself.”


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