R.G. LeTourneau: The Man Who Moved the Earth

The story of R.G. LeTourneau, one of the more influential people involved in the earthmoving industry.

| May 2016

  • A LeTourneau LCC-1 Sno-Train that was built in the mid-1950s for the U.S. Army. It is now exhibited at the Yukon Transportation Museum in Whitehorse, Yukon.
    Farm Collector archives
  • R.G. LeTourneau.
    Farm Collector archives
  • This well used C-Tournapull demonstrates its ability to still dig and carry a load at a 2012 old equipment show in Laukaa, Finland.
    Farm Collector archives
  • A C-Tournapull owned by Carl Bolander & Sons Co., Minneapolis, at work on the Chicago Great Western Railroad right-of-way in 1951.
    Farm Collector archives
  • This Tournadozer, also owned by Bolander & Sons and at work on the same job, fills around a culvert as a CGW freight train whizzes by.
    Farm Collector archives

Farm Collector is supposed to be about farm stuff, right? However, rusty iron is rusty iron and I’m interested in it all, including earthmoving machinery. Maybe readers are as well, and so will enjoy this story about one of the more fascinating characters involved in earthmoving during the six decades from 1910 to 1970.

Born in 1888, Bob LeTourneau spent his first 12 years in Duluth, Minnesota, where his father built houses. Tired of Duluth’s cold winters, the family moved to Portland, Oregon, where there was a building boom in progress. At 14, Bob – 6 feet tall and 160 pounds – determined to quit school and go to work. Much against the wishes of his father, the boy started work in an iron foundry as an apprentice molder.

LeTourneau thrived on the hard work and was a fast learner, soon picking up enough to be able to do any job in the shop. Then the place burned down and he worked in foundries, survived the San Francisco earthquake, pulled stumps, worked at an electric company (where he learned to use a soldering torch), mined for gold and cleared farm land, until he injured himself badly with an axe.

While laid up, he took a correspondence course in auto mechanics, got a job at a car repair shop and became an excellent mechanic. In about 1910, he and a partner started a garage. His partner sold Regal cars and LeTourneau repaired whatever came in. Despite breaking his neck (literally) in a race car accident, LeTourneau and his business prospered. He even found time to study electricity and learned the then-new acetylene welding system.

LeTourneau married in 1917. During World War I, he worked as a ship builder at Mare Island Navy Yard in California. While there, he survived a bout of influenza.

Converting experience into business

After the war, LeTourneau ran into a tractor dealer he’d done work for in the past. He was asked to look at a Holt 75 owned by a big rancher. LeTourneau got it running, but the skeptical rancher told him to go level a 40-acre field and if the 75 was still O.K. at the end, he’d pay the repair bill and give LeTourneau $1 per hour for his work. But first he had to rebuild the worn-out Holt scraper. In the process, he learned a lot about scrapers and leveling land.

4/14/2018 8:35:05 PM

Interesting - the building that RG Letourneau constructed across the river from Caterpillar in Peoria many years ago, has the R.G. Letourneau name formed into the brickwork at the street frontage. That building was part of a deal where RG sold his earthmoving division to the Westinghouse group in the 1950s. The building was then part of the Letourneau - Westinghouse company. Later, the building became the headquarters for WABCO, which was the name change after the Letourneau-Westinghouse name was retired. Wabco was bought out by Dresser. Dresser was bought out by Komatsu. Each name change has had a new sign mounted over the subject brickwork . Today, following the deal where Joy Global was purchased by Komatsu, the Letourneau name is again proudly a part of the Komatsu America head office complex. (Most likely still covered by the Komatsu sign.)

1/6/2018 2:51:56 PM

fdew - there’s a lot of RG’s influences still left in the former Longview Tx and Peoria Is, now Komatsu plants

1/6/2018 2:51:54 PM

fdew there’s a lot of RH’s spirit left in the old LeTourneau plants that are now Komatsu plants... Longview and Peoria


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