Caterpillar Model Fifteen

On Dec. 5, 2020, Discovery Park of America’s newest permanent exhibit, AgriCulture: Innovating for Our Survival, will open to the general public. This eye-opening display will give guests of all ages a better understanding of how food, fuel and fiber get from the farm to consumers and the significance scientific innovation plays in the modern agricultural industry.

While the exhibit will shed light on the latest and greatest in agricultural technology, it will also illuminate the lesser-known history of farm machinery over the last 150 years. This will be accomplished through the inclusion of several machines that have been on display at Discovery Park since its inception as well as a few newcomers – most notably a 1927 Caterpillar Model Fifteen, one of a series of tractors that redefined the American farm.

In 1907, Benjamin Holt, a wheel maker in Stockton, Calif., noted that the soft alluvial soils surrounding the San Joaquin River in California’s Central Valley were often impassible by heavy steam-powered tractors, which sank deep into the ground or became stuck on rolling terrain. Mimicking a technique that he had witnessed in England four years prior, Holt developed a tractor with a system of endless steel platforms, which we now recognize as continuous track, which allowed the weight of the tractor to be distributed across a larger area, causing the machine to float across the surface much like a snowshoe on unconsolidated snow. This design also prevented the tractor from compacting the soil too tightly, which was detrimental to row crops. A photographer hired to document the prototype noted that the machine crawled across the earth like a caterpillar – and thus, the brand was born.

In 1910, Holt purchased the defunct Colean Manufacturing Company facility in Peoria, Ill., a city that would host Caterpillar Inc.’s headquarters until 2017. Holt’s nephew, Pliny Holt, managed the facility in its infancy. After the outbreak of World War I, Holt Manufacturing Company shifted all of its focus away from agricultural equipment to facilitate the production of military equipment, including artillery tractors equipped with continuous track, which many historians have credited as an essential advancement on the Allies’ path to victory in 1918. During the war, C.L. Best Tractor Company, a competitor that Holt had frequently encountered in courtrooms over the previous decade over trademark infringement, took the lead in domestic farm equipment sales. Nevertheless, both companies took massive losses in the recession of 1920-21. In 1925, after 20 years of rivalry and at the urging of investors, Holt Manufacturing Company and C.L. Best Tractor Company merged to form Caterpillar Tractor Co.

The two companies consolidated their product lines to offer only five “crawler” type tractors, including the new company’s first original line – the Caterpillar Model Fifteen. Weighing in at 4,500lbs, the relatively compact and lightweight Model Fifteen was equipped with a four-cylinder gasoline engine employing three forward gears and one reverse.

With the assistance of Robert Weunch, Discovery Park of America acquired the 1927 Model Fifteen in a dilapidated state in 2014 from Robert Lavoie. Union City natives and brothers David and Jeff Ursery began working to restore the piece to its original functionality and charm. The Ursery brothers began by disassembling the tractor to bare parts and determining which parts were salvageable and which would need to be completely rebuilt. Some of the irreparable pieces were milled at local tool and dye shops, while others are parts from newer tractors that have been modified to function on the Model Fifteen. Enough of the original paint remained to formulate a new coat, and faded emblems were deciphered by examining vintage photos and diagrams of tractors from the same production line.

On Nov. 10, 2020, the tractor was delivered to its new permanent location in the Simmons Bank Ag Center by Buddy’s Wrecker Service, where it will inspire children and adults to see beyond their understanding of the American farm for years to come.