The Little Cletrac

By Staff

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

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

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

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.

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