The American Industrial Revolution can be traced to countless innovators. They were ordinary people with a simple idea willing to take a risk.
Innumerable dreams were shattered, but many persevered and realized great success. These untold accomplishments were the building blocks that forged America’s prominence.
Beginning. One of these success stories can be traced to a common brickyard worker, J.D. Fate and his business partner. The pair moved from Pennsylvania to the north central Ohio community of Plymouth in the late 1800s.
The community promised help to build a factory. In exchange, jobs were provided to the local residents.
The Fate and Gunsaullus Co. started building clay extruding machinery for brick production.
In 1982, Fate bought out his partner to form the J.D. Fate Company. Fate started a number of different enterprises.
Plymouth. In 1909, he launched the Plymouth Truck Company. They built trucks using the trade name Plymouth. After building fewer than 200 trucks and one automobile, the company folded in 1915 due to modest success.
The truck company’s failure was attributed to another Fate enterprise – building locomotives. This development set the stage for the company’s primary product, Plymouth Locomotives.
In 1919, Fate joined with Root-Heath Manufacturing Company to form Fate-Root-Heath.
Another failure. The company prospered until the economic crash leading up to the Great Depression.
By the early 1930s, orders for the big locomotives had slowed dramatically. The company’s brain trust formulated a plan to keep their factory running.
With Plymouth’s location in fertile farm country, making an affordable farm tractor was the chosen course of action.
The company’s manufacturing capabilities could handle the new tractor production line. The engineers’ expertise, however, was designing locomotives, consequently the first tractors were big and awkward.
Farmers rejected the large beasts preferring a smaller more agile tractor.
With the Great Depression, engineering jobs were scarce. Engineers showed up at the manufacturing facility which brought new ideas for a lighter and more powerful farm tractor.
New tractor. A new and innovative work-horse resulted – the Plymouth Tractor.
The company had targeted a niche market – the 60 acre or smaller farm. The tractor’s one-bottom-plow rating could plow five acres in a 10-hour day.
The machine was also well suited as a backup tractor for larger farms. The tractor sported a four-speed transmission with a top road speed of 25 mph. It was dressed out in highly resistant silver with contrasting blue wheels.
Another innovative engineer came to Fate-Root-Heath, Luke Briggs. He was a farmer who had built his own tractor using an automobile engine and a Ford Model T truck axle.
His single front-wheel tractor caught the attention of Charlie Heath, so Briggs was offered a job on the spot. Within weeks Luke Briggs was appointed superintendent of the Fate-Root-Heath tractor division.
Rubber tires. The most revolutionary aspect of the Plymouth tractor was its design to use rubber tires. Many of the tractors in those days were the steel wheel version.
When the company delivered a new tractor, they always took a set of rubber tire wheels along. Luke Briggs recounted delivery people seldom returned to the factory with the rubber tire wheels. In fact, many steel wheels rusted away along fence lines.
Models. The original Plymouth tractor line offered four models: R-38, R-44, S-38 and S-44. The model number was identified by the tread width and wheel type. For example, a model R-38 tractor had 38-inch tread and was equipped with rubber tires.
The company eventually expanded to offer 10 model numbers to describe two basic tractors. Sometime during the 1940s, the tractor’s model number changed every year even if there were no changes to the tractor.
Controversy. The Chrysler Corporation had marketed an automobile with the trade name Plymouth since 1928. It did not seem to bother Chrysler when a locomotive carried the Plymouth name, but when those tractors scurried along the road at 25 mph, that was a different story.
In 1934, the Fate-Root-Heath Company and Chrysler Corporation drew up battle lines over the use of the Plymouth name. Fortunately, Fate-Root-Heath had used the name on their one and only automobile built in 1910.
When Chrysler’s team of corporate lawyers learned that a car was manufactured with the Plymouth name prior to their first use, they quickly returned to Detroit.
A deal was eventually struck where Chrysler bought the Plymouth name from Fate-Root-Heath for $1.
New name. When the Plymouth name was relinquished to Chrysler, the company had to rename their tractor. A number of different ideas were hashed around. With the tractor being silver and the proud manufacturers claiming their tractor as “king,” Charles Heath settled on the name “Silver King.”
All tractors built after serial number 314 carried the Silver King name.
New ideas. By 1936 the tractor business was brisk. Luke Briggs incorporated a number of innovative ideas into the Silver King. He designed a three-wheel version that resembled his own tractor. He used a swinging drawbar that was attached to the frame.
With the tractor design suitable for row cropping, he designed a unique steering arrangement using levers and chains. This made for a bulky appendage that extended out in front of the radiator.
The tractor’s popularity grew through its versatility. The Silver King was a powerful little tractor with a high road speed.
One version that used the bull and pinion gear sets allowed the tractor to travel up to 45 mph.
Uses. They worked well for highway mowing. They were found in movie sets in Hollywood, Calif. Vegetable growers in California found their slow first gear suitable for workers as they picked. The completed load could be hauled to market or storage with the empty wagon returning quickly to the fields.
They were also popular around industrial facilities such as the Willis Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio.
At the peak of production, a tractor rolled off the assembly line every 30 minutes. The highest production year for the Silver King was 1937 with 1,000 tractors being built.
Engine. In 1938, the company revamped the tractor’s design with a streamlined front using a rounded grill. The bulky front appendage remained for the steering mechanism, however.
The early models were equipped with a Climax engine. The Hercules engine was used until 1939 and by 1940 the Continental engine became the engine of choice.
At the onset of World War II, the government’s demand for industrial related equipment dictated that Fate-Root-Heath’s production capacity be concentrated on locomotives. After the war, the orders for locomotives continued strong creating less emphasis on tractor production.
Although engineers in the tractor division were constantly developing new innovations, support by the parent company was waning.
Engineers with the tractor division started moving on. Many of the assembly line workers were farmers, so there was no shortage of ideas for improvements.
Out-of-business. By 1954, the management of Fate-Root-Heath decided to give up the tractor division. The tooling was subsequently sent to the Mountain State Fabricating Company of Clarksburg, W.Va. This company had sprung up during the war through government contracting, but was now struggling to stay in business.
Unfortunately, the here-to-fore successful Silver King tractor could not keep Mountain States in business. Mountain States built approximately 75 tractors before returning the remaining parts to Plymouth, Ohio.
Fate-Root-Heath turned their backs on the tractor business forever and hauled the parts off to a local junkyard. It is estimated that 8,700 tractors were built with the Silver King and Plymouth name.
This modest success story is a true testament to the company’s contribution to improved farming equipment and America’s industrial revolution.
(Fred Hendricks owns SunShower Acres, Ltd. of Longmont, Colo. SunShower Acres provides genetic consulting services and related breeding products for dairy farmers. Hendricks is an avid “toy farmer” and a freelance writer.)
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