A look back at early manufacturers of crawler tractors

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Even though we can’t be sure who built the first successful crawler tractor, Alvin Lombard or Ben Holt, the endless, lag-type traction tread that both men used was quickly recognized as being, in certain soil conditions, superior to wheels.

Soft or sandy soils, rough terrain, and steep grades that were difficult or impossible for horses or heavy wheeled tractors were duck soup for machines equipped with caterpillar-type tracks.

The list of early manufacturers who jumped on the crawler band wagon between 1910 and 1920 includes such well-known names as Holt’s Caterpillar, the Best, Monarch’s Neverslip and Lightfoot, and Cleveland Tractor Company’s Cletrac.

There were also lesser known marques like Bullock Creeping Grip, Yuba Ball Tread, Leavitt, Killen-Strait, Tom Thumb, Bates Steel Mule, and the Trundaar.

Dayton-Dowd’s Leader needed a 50-foot turning circle while the neat Bear 25-35 could turn in only 6 feet.

Other crawlers

Some other crawlers of the time were the Austin, Bean Track Pull, Belt Rail, the J.T. made in Cleveland, and the Oliver 12-20 Model B and 15-30 Model A built by the Oliver Tractor Co. of Knoxville, Tennessee (no connection to the Oliver Chilled Plow Company).

Oliver bragged that both engines used Rajah spark plugs, apparently a big selling point back then. Other crawler-type tractors that came briefly onto the scene prior to 1920 were the Franklin, Gile, Hackney, Hicks, Homer-Laughlin, Keystone, Linn, Pan, Sullivan and Union.

So a lot of manufacturers (and probably some speculators) decided there was money to be made with caterpillar-type tractors.

But back to crawler conversions; fortunately there weren’t too many of these devices built, but on the other hand they aren’t very well documented either.

Probably the most well-known track conversion of the 1920s was the Trackson, built by Full Crawler Co. (apparently at some time later the name was changed to Trackson Company) which was started in 1922 in Milwaukee, with Arnie Frahlic listed as owner, although the driving force behind the firm seems to have been the chief engineer, Walter Stiemke.

Tractor prices

The year 1922 was the same year Henry cut the price of his Fordson tractor to $395, while at the time the cheapest Caterpillar, a T35, forerunner of the 2 Ton, cost $2,350, and the Bates Model F was $1,785, while the 2-ton Cletrac W ran $1,345.

Nowhere have I been able to find the cost of a Trackson crawler attachment for a Fordson, but I’d have to guess that in those days it wouldn’t run much more than $300 or $400 In the 1927 Road Builders’ Directory, the Full-Crawler ad claims the Trackson-Fordson “is the lowest priced, most economically operated 2-ton Crawler tractor on the market.”

The Directory is aimed at road contractors and shows scenes of Trackson-Fordsons performing such jobs as pushing dirt with a Baker back filler blade, or pulling a road plow, a hand slip scoop, a fresno scraper and a road grader.

One picture has the Trackson pulling a loaded dump truck out of the mud.

The ad tells prospective buyers that, “Speed, drawbar power, and mobility are the most important factors in this work, where the Trackson equipped Fordson excels.

This equipment retains the original Fordson speeds, giving a flexibility of power from 1-8 mph, increases drawbar power greatly by eliminating slipping of the drive wheels, can be turned completely around in its own length, and has such a great traction area that it can operate on loose soft ground or mud, without loss of power or footing.”

Different wheels

In place of the stock rear wheels, a pair of cast iron, open spoked sprockets, of about the same diameter as the original wheels, were substituted. The Fordson front wheels and axle were removed and the front of the track frame attached to the front axle pivot.

The weight of the frame was carried on three double road wheels on each side of the tractor. The track ran around the rear sprockets and the front idlers which were about the same size as the original front wheels, giving the top of the track a rakish forward slant.

A large brake drum was attached to the inside of each rear sprocket upon which external, contracting brake shoes operated.

These shoes were activated by linkage to the original steering arm so that turning the Fordson’s steering wheel applied either the right or left brake, causing the machine to turn.

A hand brake was provided to operate both brakes at the same time for stopping. Some of the pictures show a support roller under the top of the track, between the front idler and the rear sprocket, but this must have been an option since it’s not on all machines.

Before long Trackson was making the conversion kits for McCormick-Deering 10-20 and maybe the 15-30, although I don’t recall ever seeing one of the larger machines so equipped, the Case C and L models, and possibly others as well.

Many of these Trackson conversions were used on tractor powered road graders, as well as in other situations where the traction of crawler tracks was desired.

Handy tractors

The Trackson-Fordson and the others appear to have been handy little tractors, being compact and with plenty of power, and I’m sure they were quite a bit cheaper than other crawlers, but I wonder how those exposed steering brakes worked in heavy mud conditions.

During the early 1930s Trackson built side-boom pipe laying attachments for Caterpillar and developed the Cat-mounted Traxcavator cable bucket loader. Before long, Caterpillar was Trackson’s biggest customer, and in 1951 the Trackson Co. was bought out by Cat, who continued to make the Traxcavator for a few more years.

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

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