100 Years of Tracked Tractors

By Staff
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Doug Veerkamp's 1929 Caterpillar 60 at the 2004 California Antique Farm Equipment Show, celebrating 100 years of track-type tractors.
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Tom madden's circa- 1917 Holt experimental No. 11679
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The oldest surviving Holt-track type tractor, 25 HP 1908 No. 1004.
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John (left) and Mike Boyaji an with their 1912 Holt 30 No. 5018.
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Mike and Here Burris' 1918 Holt 45 No. 20871.
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Greg Anrade's 1928 Caterpillar L20, serial no. L1024.
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Dick and Carson Wiley's 1917 C.L. Best 40 HP Tracklayer, serial no. 538D.
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Neil Wollesen's 1914 Holt 30 No. 5296, is 'Tired but Still Running.
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Doug Veerkamp's 1929 Caterpillar 60, serial no. 5076A, received a factory diesel conversion in 1934.

By 1904, Holt steam traction engines had been working the California landscape for 14 years. Employed for freighting and farming duties, Holt steamers found a ready market in California’s booming agricultural industry. Crop farmers in the state embraced the revolution in mechanized farming, but the soft soil endemic to large tracts of California’s agricultural land proved difficult for the large and heavy machines to navigate, even with oversized drivers fitted to provide floatation. Intent on overcoming this obstacle, Benjamin Holt, president of The Holt Manufacturing Co., Stockton, Calif., had been looking for a suitable solution  On Nov. 24, 1904, Holt began testing a modified version of the company’s 40 HP Junior steam traction engine. In place of the standard set of rear drivers, Holt’s test mule, Holt Mo. 77, was instead equipped with a set of linked tracks faced with wood-block treads. Holt ran No. 77 through a series of trials on land out-side of Stockton, and satisfied with the results, Holt embarked on a course of mechanical development that ultimately changed the face of agricultural and construction mechanization. The age of tracked tractors was born.

Fast-forward to 2003, and Holt’s tracked machine, the ‘Caterpillar’ (a term coined by a company photographer in 1905), was almost 100 years old. Although heavily developed and improved, the basic mechanical foundation Holt laid out in 1904 ultimately built an empire in the form of Caterpillar Inc., Peoria, Ill., the world’s largest manufacturer of construction and mining equipment. Fifteen hundred miles away in California where it all began, a small group of collectors and restorers started planning a celebration of Holt’s singular contribution to the mechanization of America.

100 Years on Tracks
As host to the annual California Antique Farm Equipment Show, the International Agri-Center, Tulare, Calif., is well known to devotees of old engines and tractors. In 12 short years, the Agri-Center’s annual antique farm show has become something of a mecca for the West Coast’s old-iron community, every year drawing for public display hundreds of antique farm engines, tractors and related equipment.

In common with most antique engine and tractor shows, the people working behind the scenes at Tulare are volunteers, and every year a new person volunteers to chair the annual show. For 2004, that person was Richard Paggi.

In mid-2003, Doug Peltzer (volunteer exhibitor relations director) contacted Richard after talking with Caterpillar collectors Larry Masden, Ron Miller and Ed Akins. The trio, all members of the Antique Caterpillar Machinery Owners Club (ACMOC, or ‘The Cat Group,’ as it’s generally called), alerted Peltzer to the fact 2004 would celebrate the 100th anniversary of Holt’s first tracked machine. They wanted to see tracked tractors featured at the 2004 show, and they pitched the idea to Doug. ‘I thought it was a great idea,’ Doug says, ‘and I put them together with Paggi.’ Richard agreed the anniversary would be a unique opportunity to enhance the show, and with that the wheels for ‘ 100 Years on Tracks’ were put in motion.

Tracking the Machines
On April 17, 2004, less than a year after those initial discussions, an eager crowd of attendees poured into the Agri-Center grounds for the 12th Annual California Antique Farm Equipment Show. Greeting the crowd were some 135 tracked machines, ranging from the oldest-known surviving Holt to post-World War II Caterpillars of varying stripe, and just about every model in between, including products from C.L. Best Gas Traction Co., Cleveland Tractor Co. (Cletrac) and other aspirants to the tracked tractor industry.

On hand for the show was the oldest-known Holt tracked tractor, the 25 HP 1908 No. 1004. The city of Los Angeles purchased the first production model, No. 1003, for work on the city’s aqueduct system. No. 1001 and No. 1002, built in 1906 and 1908 respectively, were experimental mules.

Currently owned by the Joseph A. Heidrick Sr. Foundation, Woodland, Calif., No. 1004 was originally sold to a group of farmers outside of Stockton, where it was presumably put to work in the field. At some later date, it was traded to Tenco Tractor in Sacramento, Calif., which for many decades was the largest Caterpillar dealer in California. No. 1004 stayed in Tenco’s possession until the mid-1980s, when Tenco, by way of a drawing, sold it to Joseph A. Heidrick Sr.

Another early machine was John and Mike Boyajizan’s 1912 Holt 30 No. 5018, the oldest surviving 30 known and the only surviving first-series Holt 30. As with No. 1004, the Boyajian’s Holt is powered by an Aurora four-cylinder engine. Holt, evidently wary of having its name identified with unproven gas engine technology, in 1906 established the Aurora Engine Co. in Stockton to develop and manufacture engines for its intended line of tractors. Perhaps because of this wariness, the early Holt engines are absent the bold, block-lettered ‘Holt’ cast into engine crankcases beginning about 1913.

Remarkably, the Boyajians have done little to No. 5018 since acquiring it in 1985. The previous owners restored the Holt in the early 1970s, and it was in running condition when purchased by the Boyajians. ‘We’ve kind of gone through and done things to improve it, and we haven’t had to do much, but we wish they would have left it all original,’ John Boyajian says, noting the brothers’ preference for original machinery. It should be noted that of the five remaining Holt 30s, the Boyajians’ have two: No. 5018 and a circa 1914 Holt 30 awaiting restoration.

Tired but Still Running
Neil Wollesen’s 1914 Holt 30 No. 5296 – the fourth from the last Holt 30 built – was yet another of the five surviving Holt 30s on hand. Purchased used by Neil’s grandfather in 1919, No. 5296 has been in the Wollesen family ever since. Neil’s Holt clearly saw hard use in its early life, evidenced by invoices Neil owns detailing a cylinder rebore and transmission work the Holt received before being purchased by the Wollesens in 1919. Unlike the Boyajians’ No. 5018, which has no transmission, Neil’s Holt is equipped with a two-speed transmission. Interestingly, Neil owns an original parts book that shows the two-speed transmission (which became available starting with Holt 30 No. 5110) was optional, and second gear could be ordered in either a higher or lower ratio than first gear. ‘You had the option of higher or lower to satisfy whether you were using it for freighting versus farming,’ Neil notes.

In 1928, a new Caterpillar 30 replaced No. 5298. Placed to the side and removed from the daily grind of farm work, No. 5298 occasionally powered a belt-driven circular saw. ‘As a kid, I remember they used it a couple of days every year whenever they were cutting firewood for the woodstove,’ Neil says. ‘It’s been sitting in that same spot since 1929.’

Neil’s Holt is particularly remarkable for the simple fact he was still working on it the morning he loaded up for the show. Neil started reviving the Holt years ago, but general obligations limited his progress. But when the Boyajians called and told him about the upcoming show, Neil committed himself to having the Holt running in time for the Tulare show. ‘The engine was still running reasonably well, but the magneto had some problems and a bunch of carbon flaked in the cylinder, so when you started it up carbon would hold a valve open,’ Neil says. The tracks were also in need of attention, but Neil persevered, and on March 29, 2004, Holt No. 5296 moved under its own power for the first time in 75 years. In honor of the episode, Neil nicknamed the machine, ‘Tired but Still Running.’

Definitely not tired, and certainly running, the 1917 Best 40 HP Tracklayer in the collection of father-and-son team Dick and Carson Wiley was a stunning example of a model that cemented the rivalry between C.L. Best Gas Traction Co. and Holt. The Best 40 was the company’s first tracked tractor to work without the benefit of a front tiller wheel, and it laid the foundation for the success that followed with the popular Best 60.

The Wileys have owned their Best 40, serial no. 538D, since 1993, and according to Carson it was fairly complete when found. Frank Horn Jr. purchased the Best new in 1917, subsequently putting it to work on a wheat farm pulling a plow and a combine harvester. When the Wileys discovered the Best in 1988, they expressed their interest in buying it from the Horns. ‘It was sitting behind a barn on a rock pile,’ Carson says, ‘and the last time anyone could remember them using it was in 1941. It took five years to get them to sell it to us.’

The Wileys treated the Best to a year-long restoration, which Carson says ‘was pretty straightforward. The tractor wasn’t abused or anything.’ Even so, he notes the tractor must have seen some hard use in its early life, as it came with receipts detailing extensive work done in 1918, including replacing the engine’s pistons. At the time work was done, the Best dealer sent the Horns a letter demanding compensation for labor on the engine work, noting that Best’s warranty covered parts, but not labor. The Wileys’ still have that letter.

Holt and Best continued development of their tracked machines, and both companies built test mules to work out problems with each new design. Tom Madden owns one of these units, Holt No. 11679, and its construction presents more than a few interesting features. Tom says his machine, which was built about 1917, is the second of seven made, and that it’s ‘the earliest top-seat (meaning the seat doesn’t hang off the tail), non-tiller design known.’

Sharing features more in common with Caterpillar’s later 5-Ton and 10-Ton models, the tractor is equipped with a foot clutch and has steering clutches and brakes built into the steering tiller. However, Tom says it doesn’t have a single part in common with the later 5-Ton or 10-Ton units. Individual parts have ‘20000’ stamped on them, and every major casting has ‘Holt’ cast into it. The tractor was built in Holt’s Peoria factory, but the engine is not a Holt, and Tom doesn’t know who made it. He’s convinced the engine (which he estimates to be a 30 to 40 HP unit) was built for commercial truck service.

Tom bought the Holt from the Fred Heidrick Sr. collection in 2002 and says the machine clearly saw a lot of abuse, but not a lot of running time. He estimates the engine had no more than 200 to 400 hours on it, noting the cylinders had no perceptible wear when they pulled the head for inspection. Torn says all the engine bearings were good, the timing gears looked new, and all the track idlers and sprockets were perfect. The machine’s single pedal shows no wear. ‘My theory is this was beat up as a test mule,’ Tom says. ‘The undercarriage was beat to death.’

Caterpillar restoration expert Don Hunter conducted the bulk of the Holt’s restoration, and John Hahn built the unit’s new seat box using the original as a pattern. Restoration started in the summer of 2003, and the Tulare show was the experimental first public showing.

Diesel Decisions
Throughout the first two decades of the 1900s, gasoline- and kerosene-burning engines were the favored engines of tractor manufacturers. While diesel engines were used in a variety of other applications, their use in tractors had been extremely limited. As diesel engine technology improved, however, Caterpillar’s interest in the design grew. Caterpillar began experimenting with diesels in earnest in the mid-1920s, and in 1931 the company offered a diesel-powered version of its successful gas-powered 60.

In 1933, Caterpillar began offering diesel conversions for owners of gas-powered 60s, and Doug Veerkamp’s 1929 Caterpillar 60, serial no. 5076A, is one of those units. A Caterpillar fan to the core, Doug has 25 different Cats in his collection, and the diesel 60 was a machine he’d wanted to own.

Doug’s 60 was converted in 1934, and its engine, serial no. 1C502, was only the second of the four-cylinder diesel D7700 series conversion engines built. Doug says the 60 was a runner when he bought it 12 years ago, but it was showing the wear earned from years of farming. Once bought, he didn’t worry about getting to it quickly, parking it comfortably under a tree behind his shop to await the day he’d give it his attention. That day was almost 12 years in coming.

‘We tore into it about six weeks before the show and did a frame up,’ Doug matter-of-factly says. It helped that the engine was sound, and in fact Doug says they never even pulled a cylinder head. It also helped that the tracks were in good shape, as was the transmission. The majority of the restoration revolved around cleaning, repainting and replacing the tractor’s sheet metal. That included replacing the fenders, the track roller guards and the swing frame guards. Although not originally so equipped, Doug added an accurate reproduction canopy crafted by George Rankin (who also did the sheet metal work). Doug credits Ed Brown and Ray Smith, who he calls two of his best mechanics, with the rest of the work.

Another important machine was Greg Andrade’s 1929 Caterpillar L20, serial no. L1024. Not altogether rare, Greg’s L20 is important for representing the first new product produced after the merger of C.L. Best and Holt in 1925. Introduced in 1927, the L20 was part of the Cat line-up for five years.

Greg’s L20 spent its early life working in a walnut orchard, and when Greg bought it five years ago it was still sporting a damaged fender, pruned decades ago when it was hit by the belt-driven linkage once attached to the tractor for shaking walnuts from the trees.

Greg launched into his restoration about eight months before the Tulare show, replacing all the sheet metal, re-coring the radiator and rebuilding the cylinder heads. The pistons and rings are original, as are the crankshaft bearings, which only needed re-shimming to go back in service. ‘What I didn’t do -and should have done – was had the gas tank hot dipped,’ Greg says. Accumulated sludge and varnish in the tank plagued Greg at Tulare, when the fuel line clogged up every time Greg ran the L20. ‘It cost a damn lot to restore,’ Greg says, and it’s still missing one important item: the belt pulley, which was unique to this model. ‘If anyone has the belt pulley for this tractor, I’d love to talk to them.’

Cat Fans
Not surprisingly, owners of Caterpillar/Holt/Best tracked tractors are an enthusiastic bunch, firmly dedicated to the history and preservation of their machinery. As with many groups within the old-iron collective, owners and fans of these early machines help each other out as a matter of course – without keeping score or any thought of compensation.

That underlying fact explains the complete success of ‘100 Years on Tracks,’ as owners sought out and helped each other prepare their machines for the show. They loaned their time, their trailers and their collective talents to ensure the show’s success, never asking for recognition. Talking to organizers and exhibitors, you’ll never hear them mention their own contributions, only the contributions of their fellow volunteers. Combine that trait of selfless commitment and singular equipment, and you have a recipe for success, the kind of success witness by ‘100 Years on Tracks.’

Hat Trick
In 1975, northern California Caterpillar dealer Tenco Tractor decided to dispose of several old tractors it had accumulated as trade-ins. According to author and historical consultant Lorry Dunning, Davis, Calif., Tenco contacted Heidrick Farms and Wallace Farms (the two largest farming operations in Yolo County, Calif.) for a ‘hat draw.’

Joe Heidrick Sr. and Fred Heidrick Jr. represented Heidrick Farms, and Jack Wallace represented Wallace Farms. Four tractors were in the hat: a 1908 Holt 25 No. 1004; 1917 Holt experimental No. 11679; 1933 Caterpillar diesel 50, serial no. 1E-20; and 1925 Caterpillar 30, serial no. S-3701. The Holt 25 was built in Stockton, the Cat 30 in San Leandro, Calif., and the Holt experimental and diesel 50 were built in Peoria, III.

Joe Heidrick Sr. drew the Holt 25 and Fred Jr. drew the Holt experimental for Heidrick Farms. Jack Wallace drew the Cat 50 and Cat 30 for Wallace Farms. After the draw. Jack decided the tractors he drew would be better placed in the Heidrick collection, so he gave his Cat 50 ticket to Joe Sr. and the Cat 30 ticket to Fred Jr.

In 1990, Heidrick Farms split into Joseph Heidrick Enterprises and Heidrick Farms, resulting in the creation of the Joseph A. Heidrick Sr. Foundation and the Heidrick Ag History Center, both in Woodland, Calif.

Today, the Holt 25 and diesel 50 are in the Joseph A. Heidrick Sr. Foundation. In 2003, Fred Jr. sold the Holt experimental to Tom Madden, Paso Robles, Calif. The Cat 30’s location is unknown.

– Holt Manufacturing Co.:
In 1890, while working with his brother, Charles, at the Stockton Wheel Co., Benjamin Holt introduced his first steam traction engine. In 1892, Benjamin split off and formed the Holt Manufacturing Co., concentrating on the manufacture of steam traction engines. Between 1890 and 1904, Holt Manufacturing produced about 130 steam-powered tractors.

After successful trials with No. 77 in 1904 and early 1905, Holt moved ahead with plans to offer a track-type tractor. According to Eric. C. Orlemann’s The Caterpillar Century, Holt company photographer Charles Clements coined the term ‘Caterpillar’ in early 1905 after watching Holt’s experimental machine lope across a field during trials. Holt trademarked the name in 1910.

In 1906, Holt established the Aurora Engine Co. in Stockton, Calif., to develop gas engines. The manufacture of steam engines ended about this time as Holt concentrated on tracked tractors.

In 1909, Holt secured a newer and larger manufacturing facility when it bought the site of the former Colean Manufacturing Co. in East Peoria, III. Holt reorganized as the Holt Caterpillar Co., with headquarters at its new plant in Peoria. Manufacturing also continued in Holt’s old plant in Stockton.

– Best Manufacturing Co.: In 1889, Daniel Best’s The Best Manufacturing Co., San Leandro, Calif., introduced its first steam-traction engine. Based on Marquis de Lafayette’s ‘Rough and Ready’ steam traction engine of 1885, the 50 HP Best found immediate favor, and by 1897 the company offered a powerful 110 HP steam traction engine capable of pulling the ever larger combines Best also manufactured.

Best and Holt competed head-to-head for California’s market in steamers and combines. According to Orlemann, in 1905, Best filed suit against Holt for infringing Best’s patented power take-off design. The suit was wrapped up in the courts for the next three years, and before it could be settled, Best sold his business to Holt in 1908. Terms of the sale included the provision that Best’s son, Clarence Leo Best, be named president of Holt’s San Leandro facilities. The purchase of Best gave Holt a virtual lock on the lucrative California tractor and combine market, at least in terms of local manufacture and supply.

– C.L. Best Gas Traction Co.: In 1910, Clarence Leo Best left Holt and established the C.L. Best Gas Traction Co. in Elmhurst, Calif. The company manufactured traditional wheel-type tractors at first, but in 1912 introduced its own track-type tractor, the 70 HP Tracklayer.

– Caterpillar Tractor Co.: The fortunes of Holt and C.L. Best grew rapidly, and once again the Holt and Best names vied for market supremacy. During World War I, Holt landed contracts to supply tractors to the U.S. government. When the war ended in 1918, so did government orders for Holt machines, and Holt found itself scrambling to shift from a military to a civilian market.

Best, on the other hand, was suffering from the explosion in tractor manufacturers and the subsequent competition in the tractor market. In 1925, the Holt Manufacturing Co. and the C.L. Best Gas Traction Co. merged, forming the Caterpillar Tractor Co., Peoria, Ill. The rest, as they say, is history.

To learn more about the history of Caterpillar tractors, check out Eric C. Orlemann’s Caterpillar Chronicle: The History of the World’s Greatest Earthmovers, or his recently released The Caterpillar Century, honoring 100 years of Caterpillar. Also check out Bob LaVoie’s photo archives, Caterpillar Ten Photo Archive and Caterpillar D-8 1933-74 Photo Archive, Including Diesel 75 and RD-8.

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