The Little Cletrac

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This article appeared in EDGE&TA Branch 3 News, July/Aug. 1990, and is reprinted with permission. It was submitted by Ken Robison, 20531 Black Road, Los Gatos,California95030.

It took a circuitous route from the Cleveland Tractor Company factory by rail around the Great Lakes to Winnipeg, then south across the plains to Topeka. At each railhead a few more of its identical siblings were unloaded. The train went west next through the Rockies, northwest to Portland and finally arrived in San Jose, California in the spring of 1927. The Chairman of Bean Spray Company had been at odds with Benjamin Holt and this year was selling Cletrac rather than Caterpillar crawlers. Bean Company made a full line of sprayers and their own one cylinder engines, but had a display room of tractors as well.

John Ellsworth was in his eighties. The fruit trees on his sixty acres were mature and demanded more work now. He wished to turn the whole business over to his son Fred, but first a new tractor was needed. The old Titan of pre-World War I vintage was cumbersome, clumsy and a 'man-killer' to start. It had been used originally when the land was wheat, not orchard.

John and his son cranked up the Star and drove to San Jose and for several hours haggled with the salesman. Finally, the sale was completed. A Cletrac 20 with optional belt pulley was to be delivered free for $865.00 cash. The bulldog Mack with its chain drive and hard rubber tires took the good part of a day to carry the tractor to its new owners in Saratoga. The first job demanded of it was to pull the old Titan out of the shed to its final resting place under a one hundred year old oak.

The prune and apricot trees were on the slopes, the cherry and walnut trees on the twenty acres of level land close to the house. The orchards were disced twice a year and dragged smooth just before each harvest. The drag was simply a redwood plank weighted with rocks from the creek. Dragging made picking easier off the ground for prunes and walnuts and for a level surface for the ladder pickers on the cherries and apricots.

It was the walnuts which required the most work from the Cletrac. The walnut trees had to be irrigated. This was accomplished by pulling a heavy v-shaped plow down the center of a row making a two foot by one foot dike. Like contour lines on a map the dikes had to connect to hold the water. At each meeting point the driver had to dismount and winch up the plow, drive to the next starting point and lower the plow. When they were complete, the temporary holding ponds were ready for water. The tractor was backed up to the creek bank and a flat belt connected from the drive pulley behind the seat to the big centrifugal pump on the water's edge. A six inch pipe carried water from the deep hole in the creek, which doubled as a swimming hole, to the trees. Often trout would be sucked right through the plumbing into the small lakes around the trees and a little girl could be seen picking up fish to take home to her mother, Fred's sister, for a special dinner treat. For a full week the '20' ran at full throttle pumping water. A model T gas tank tied on the crawler track served as an auxiliary fuel tank to allow the engine to run at night without refueling.

At harvest time the walnuts had to be shaken from the trees. The tractor was backed up to a tree, and the flat pulley was replaced with an eccentric one. A like pulley was attached to the tree trunk with a chain wrapped in leather and the belt pulled tight. At half engine speed, the tree would give up every nut. Each tree was shaken and picked in turn so as not to run over any of the bounty.

The Cletrac worked for nearly thirty years, through the depression years, and the second World War. There was an endless list of chores for it. If it wasn't pulling out stumps from dead trees, it was pulling the sprayer through the orchards to rid the fruit of insects or fungi. It pulled the neighbor's 1935 Ford out of the creek one winter when the driver picked a poor crossing spot. If a fellow orchardist needed help it was there to assist. One spring the discing was delayed a week. The family cat 'Lady Claire' had her kittens in the tractor tool box. Work resumed as soon as a more suitable nursery was found.

At first light on a spring morning in 1953 the putt-putta-putta-putt could be heard as the Cletrac pulled the six foot offset disc down the rows of trees near the house. A small boy was soon out to watch and see the machine which was making the noise. The four cylinders labored at each turn at the end of a row, the brakes squeeked as they assisted the turn, then the sound faded until the turn was made at the far end of the row. Then back again in a few minutes it came, the driver always conscious of the boy.

One day the boy heard a pounding coming from the tractor shed. Upon his arrival there he found his great uncle Fred trying to loosen a large bolt on the tractor axle. No amount of leverage seemed to loosen the stubborn bolt. The boy asked if he could help. He took the wrench, flipped it over and quickly unscrewed the bolt. 'It's left-handed thread' said the boy to his uncle. His great uncle replied, 'I am too old for this anymore.'

It was 1956. The profits were low on the fruit and walnuts due to competition from the growers in the San Joaquin Valley and property taxes in Santa Clara County were higher each year. The land was sold for the Merrivale Subdivision for what seemed then a lot of money. The trees were bulldozed one by one into piles and burned. A few veterans were saved to die a slow death in the overwatered front yard of a new house or to be filled full of nails for a kid's tree house in the back yard.

Only three acres and the home were saved from the developer. The tractor was stolen, taken right out of the shed without anyone hearing a sound! Perhaps it was stolen by one of the men surveying the land, or by a construction worker or a thief who knew the value of the machine. It was never seen again.

Author's Note: This tale, originally written for an English assignment, is a compilation of several people and events. The little girl, however, was really my mother, and I was the boy standing at the end of the row who got a wave and a wink from the man on the little Cletrac.