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

LeTourneau LCC-1

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

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.

4/19/2016 1:57:15 PM

The company is gone but his influence is still very much with us. From LeTourneau University in TX to LeTourneau Christian Center in NY his name and his principals are with us. He was the first to see welding as a way to build machines, not just repair castings. He insisted that his employees work a shorter work week then the companies around him. There are two good biography available "Mover of Mountains and Men” and "God runs my business" BTW after 6th grade he was home schooled. As a multi-millionaire, LeTourneau gave 90% of his profit to God's work

4/19/2016 1:02:04 PM

I remember Tournapulls in the very early 1950s moving dirt for a highway in southeast Kansas when I was a young teenager. Quite a sight to see big earth moving scrapers being pulled by tractors with NO Front wheels. Thanks for the memories. LeTournea has a college down in TX and a museum within the college. I hope to go down someday.

4/19/2016 10:14:58 AM

He was also a fantastic Christian who chose to only live on about 10% of his income and gave the other 90% away to Charities and Missionary Activities across the globe.