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These Caterpillars Will Never
Turn Into Butterflies

The wheels on this cat are 14 feet in diameter.
The wheels on this cat are 14 feet in diameter.

It wouldn’t take a lot of effort to start a collection of Caterpillar tractor memorabilia.

The company has been around since the late 19th century.

Anything related to Best Manufacturing, C.L. Best Tractor Co., Holt Manufacturing, Holt Bros. Manu­fac­turing, Stockton Wheel Service and/or Holt Caterpillar would qualify as collectibles related to the Caterpillar company we know today as one of the world’s largest and most successful organizations.

An early advertisement describes the wonders of a 2-ton caterpillar tractor.
An early advertisement describes the wonders of a 2-ton caterpillar tractor.

The history of the company and its employees has been consolidated into a visitor center and museum located in East Peoria, Illinois. There is a small admission fee, but the opportunity to stand next to 14-foot-tall tractor wheels is not to be missed.

A self-guided tour of the visitor center begins with a video while you sit in the bed of a massive two-and-a-half story Caterpillar mining truck. You take a virtual ride down a haul road of a mine site.

Collectors may find some of the early dishes made for the Caterpillar Company. They are similar to those made for restaurants or railroad lines.

Collectors may find some of the early dishes made for the Caterpillar Company. They are similar to those made for restaurants or railroad lines.

Once on the floor of the exhibit, you can hop onto a simulater and see first-hand what it’s like to operate a piece of equipment bigger than your average house.
You might know that Caterpillar equipment helped build San Francisco’s famed cable car system, constructed many dam sites, including those in the Pacific Northwest, and is helping to widen the Panama Canal.

Back in Daniel Best’s days, he could not have envisioned where his early inventions would lead him. In fact, in 1847 when he joined a wagon train heading west to Fort Walla Walla, Washing­ton, he was employed as an ox tender and a sharpshooter.
His father, John, however, had built a sawmill in Missouri and introduced Daniel to logging and machines.

Stay out of the way if this cat starts moving!
Stay out of the way if this cat starts moving!

Daniel ultimately joined his brother, Henry, on his ranch in Sutter County, California, where he discovered a flair for invention. Over a 43-year period, he received 41 patents, ranging from an improved washing machine to combine harvesters. In 1871, his invention of a portable grain cleaner and separator won first prize at the California State Fair. He sold his first horse-drawn combine in 1885.

When he bought the rights to build a successful steam traction engine from Remington of Woodburn, Oregon, in 1888 and started making improvements, he was on his way to building the engines for which Caterpillar would later become famous.

Meanwhile, Charles H. Holt was the first Holt to arrive on the West Coast. His father had a sawmill in New Hampshire and Charles’s three brothers worked there. In 1864, he formed C. H. Holt and Co., to produce wooden wheels for wagons and, later on, steel wheels for street cars. His younger brother, Benjamin, joined him in 1883 and in 1892 they incorporated with brother Frank as Holt Bros. Co. and also as Holt Manufacturing Company. A subsidiary, Stockton Wheel Service, was established in Stockton, California, to build the wheels.

Because of a demand for practical farm equipment, Holt began working to build first horse-drawn and then steam-powered farm machinery, Benjamin patented the first workable crawler tractor design and successfully manufactured a continuous track tractor. By the 20th century, Holt Manufac­turing was the leading manufacturer of combine harvesters in the United States and the leading California-based manufacturer of steam traction engines.

Holt Manufacturing opened a satellite facility in Walla Walla, Washington, and in 1909 purchased the facility of a defunct farm implement maker in East Peoria, Illinois. Benjamin Holt changed the name of the company to Holt Caterpillar Company and trademarked the name Caterpillar a couple of years later.

Clarence Leo Best started out working for Best Manufacturing Company, owned by his father, Daniel, and eventually became manager of their Stockton, California, plant. Best Manufacturing was acquired by Holt Manufacturing in 1908. In 1910, C.L. (his preferred title) formed his own company, C. L. Best Gas Traction Company. It was later restructured and renamed the C. L. Best Tractor Company, located in San Leandro, California.

That began the legal scrambles to see who owned what, and by the 1920s, financial problems were plaguing both Best and Holt and they shrugged off their differences and merged into the Caterpillar Tractor Company. C. L. Best was chairman of the board His company at the time was financially stronger than the market-leading Holt.
The new company’s first product line had five track-type tractors, 3 from Holt and 2 from Best. By the end of 1926, only the 2-Ton Holt and the Thirty and Sixty from Best were kept in production.

The largest Caterpillar dealership in the United States is under the ownership and management of Benjamin Holt’s great-grandson, Peter Holt, who is better known as the owner of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs basketball team.

While the company is headquartered in East Peoria, Illinois, and has plants and offices all over the world, there are still many ties to the Pacific Northwest.

***

A recent exhibit at the Caterpillar Visitor Center also featured the Dieselettes softball team, which began in 1936 as the Caterpillar Girls, sponsored by the company for which the girls also worked. The Caterpillar Girls are the oldest member-sanctioned Amateur Softball Association team in the United States.

The girls gained in athletic skills and prominence and the name was changed to the Dieselettes in the middle of the 1940 season. (No mention was made as to whether the name change reflected an objection on the part of the girls to be called caterpillar girls.) Caterpillar, which also supported a men’s softball team, discontinued its sponsorship in 1955.

The now noted championship team first became the Sunnyland Lettes and then the Pekin Lettes. They were perennial Illinois state and regional champions. While they were never ASA National Tourna­ment champions, they made seven tournament trips. Several of those tournaments included Irv Lind Florist’s Portland, Oregon, softball team.

In 1962 the Lettes played the Japanese National team with 10,000 spectators watching them play. In 1963 they set an attendance record of 122,000 for 21 home games.

More than 100 artifacts were on display at the Visitor’s Center and a documentary devoted to the team was available.

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