Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Best Tractors

In the deserts of the west, just after the turn of the century, steam and gasoline-powered tractors replaced mules as the motive power for wagon trains. Our photo shows trains pulled by two Best Round-Wheel Model 75 tractors, carrying what appeared to be half-sections of large-diameter pipe, the type used on big water projects.

The round-wheel version of the Best 75 was a bit of a rarety, as the majority of this model were built as tracked machines. Produced by the C. L. Best Company between 1914 and 1919, these machines have a lineage reaching back to the 1870s, and a heritage still alive today in Caterpillar Tractors. Best Manufacturing Company was founded by Daniel Best in 1871, but soon found itself fiercely in competition with the Holt tractor company, owned by brothers Charles, Benjamin and Frank. Soon accusations of patent infringements flew, and the two companies headed to court in 1905. As a result, they ended up deciding to merge under the Holt name in 1908 but with Best's son, Clarence Leo Best, serving as president of the San Leandro, California, factory.

The peace wasn't kept for long, and C. L. Best soon became dissatisfied with life under the thumb of the Hold Brothers. Despite the fact that the original merger had included a no-compete clause, C. L. ignored that and in 1910, left Holt with a number of their key engineers, and founded the C. L. Best Gas Traction Company in Elmhurst, California, and began to manufacture tracked and four-wheeled tractors. By far the most successful of the products was the Model 75 Tracklayer, which incorporated a front tiller wheel, introduced in 1914. Over the next five years, over seven hundred of these tractors would be manufactured, about a hundred of which were built with big 90-inch diameter steel wheels in place of the tracks. Because Best used a higher grade steel in many parts of the tractor, they gained a reputation of being tougher and more durable than their competion, the Holt 75 (which, in the tracked version, looked almost identicle). Of course, more legal collisions with Holt were inevitable, and other competitors sprung up, including Henry Ford's Fordson brand. It made for hard competition, and by 1925 Hold and Best agreed to merge once again, forming the now-famous Caterpillar Tractor Company.

Given the manufacturing dates, this puts the Los Angeles Aqueduct out of contention for the location of this photo. But, there were plenty of other large western water projects that used such equipment.

Only one round-wheel Best 75 is known to have survived, and photos can be seen on the Steel Wheels website (and big thanks to webmaster David Parfitt for the research help!).

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