100 Years of Tracked Tractors

2004 Tulare Antique Farm Equipment Show celebrates 100 years of tracked tractors

| August/September 2004

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.


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