Cletrac Farming in West Virginia
Brian Wayne Wells
As published in an issue of the
Hart-Parr/Oliver Collectors Magazine
The summer of 1996 issue of the Hart-Parr/Oliver Collectors Magazine carried, on page 47, an advertisement for the 11th Annual West Virginia Pumpkin Festival to be held in Milton, West Virginia, on October 4, 5 & 6, 1996. The Pumpkin Festival annually attracts 30,000 visitors to Milton for the three-day event. For the last four years, the author and his family have attended the Festival to enjoy the bluegrass music and clogging performed on the stage, and to stock up on jars of apple butter, pumpkin butter and sorghum molasses which are made on the grounds during the Festival. At the 1995 Pumpkin Festival, the author (an avid antique tractor buff now living in Hurricane, West Virginia, only 10 miles from Milton) took note of the only restored antique tractor on display at the Festival–a Model HG Cletrac crawler tractor–and wondered if the hobby of antique tractor collecting had come at last to West Virginia.
The plan to invite antique tractor collectors to the 1996 Pumpkin Festival was the idea of HPOCA member, Richard Andrew (Andy) Blackwood, of Milton, West Virginia. As it turned out, Andy happened to be the owner of the Cletrac Model HG (Serial No. 19GA588) which was the sole antique tractor displayed at the 1995 Pumpkin Festival. Andy paid for the advertisement in the Summer and Fall issues of the HPOCA Collector magazine himself in an effort to organize the local antique tractor collectors of the area. This represents the first attempt to bring the nation’s fastest growing hobby to southern West Virginia. To be sure, the West Virginia State Farm Museum located in the Ohio River Valley at Point Pleasant, West Virginia, has been organized since 1975 and attracts a crowd of about 2,000 to 3,000 on the same weekend as the Pumpkin Festival. However, located in the Ohio River Valley, the Farm Museum tends to be as much an Ohio show as a West Virginia show. Organizing an exhibit of antique tractor collectors at the 1996 Pumpkin Festival would be a celebration of West Virginia agriculture.
Unlike Ohio, which is one of the premier states in the nation with regard to agriculture and antique tractor collecting, West Virginia has been slow to develop organized antique tractor collecting probably because the topography of West Virginia has always been inhospitable toward agriculture. There is an absolute lack of any large amount of level ground suitable for raising crops. What level space exists is limited to the small, irregular fields located in small valleys, called “hollows.”
Because of the limited amount of arable land, agriculture in the south western part of West Virginia historically has been subsistence-type farming where much of the produce grown on the farm was consumed on the farm. A family’s main income would be derived from work off the farm. Even in modern times, farming remains only a supplement to the family income. Farmers would farm only in the evenings and on weekends for some additional support for the family; their main income would be derived from work in the coal mines or in other industries of the area. Indeed, since the Great Depression of the 1930s, overall, agriculture has steadily declined in importance. Only apples, peaches and tobacco have maintained their production levels in West Virginia. (Otis Rice, West Virginia: A History, [University of Kentucky Press: Lexington, 1985] p. 179.)
Obviously, then, this small-scale farming did not provide much basis for investment in modern farm machinery. Horses and mules tended to be the main source of power on West Virgina farms much later than they were in the midwest where farms were larger. When West Virginia farmers sought tractors for their farming operations, they tended to look toward small, wide-front tractors which would allow them to negotiate the hills, and they liked tractors with a low center of gravity which would not roll over easily when working on sloping land. Consequently, Ford 8Ns and Ferguson TO-20s were very popular with the state’s farmers, and the tall, tricycle-style tractors of the midwest were not common on West Virginia farms.
There was, however, another tractor which became relatively popular in the state because of its stability and low-profile. That tractor was the Cletrac Model HG crawler, originally designed for the Cleveland Tractor Company by Chief Engineer James George Hazellet. Luther Hatfield, of Milton, West Virginia, remembers that the wide stance of the Cletrac HG made the little crawler popular with his fellow West Virginia farmers in the late 1940s. Not only did they enjoy the stability of the Cletrac tractor with a four-point stance, as with a Ford 8N or a Ferguson TO-20, but further, the drive tracks on each side of the Cletrac put much more of the driving surface of the tractor on the ground at any one time than was ever possible with any wheel-style tractor. This would tend to prevent the tractor from sliding downhill when the Cletrac was headed across the face of a slope of land. Furthermore, the little Model HG of the Cletrac line offered a crawler tractor in just the right horsepower range (11.14 hp at the drawbar and 17.59 at the belt pulley) and the right price range ($915 in 1940 and $960 under price restrictions imposed during the war, which would not be lifted until mid-1946) that was attractive to a great number of West Virginia farmers.
One such Cletrac HG rolled off the assembly line in late-November of 1945 with the serial number 19GA588 (hereinafter referred to as “No. 588”).
In previous years, No. 588 might have been held in stock at the Cleveland Tractor Company’s factory located at 19300 Euclid Avenue in the eastern part of Cleveland, Ohio, until a local Cletrac dealer either arrived to pick up the tractor or made his own arrangements to have the tractor shipped straight from the factory to his dealership.
However, since the sale of the Cleveland Tractor Company to the Oliver Farm Equipment Company on October 31, 1944, the Cleveland Tractor Company had been able to take advantage of the Oliver Company branch-house distribution system. Therefore, instead of being parked in the yard in Cleveland, No. 588 was immediately loaded onto a flatbed railroad car to await shipment to the Oliver Company branch house in Columbus, Ohio. (The branch house system is advertised and discussed in the 1948 Oliver promotional movie Acres of Power, available on VHS Video Tape #1 from the Floyd County Historical Society.)
The merger of Cletrac with Oliver also brought other changes which were not too popular with Cletrac fans of those days. Traditionally, all Cletrac tractors were painted Cletrac orange (PPG/Ditzler 60583, Dupont #017H or Martin-Senour 99L-1952). However, Oliver Company executives determined that although the larger models of Cletrac tractors would remain orange, beginning in late 1945, the Model HG would be painted green (Martin-Senour 99L-8746) to be more closely identified with the rest of the Oliver farm machinery. As Landis Zimmerman reports, however, died-in-the-wool Cletrac buyers could still order their HG painted in the traditional Cletrac orange for an extra $15.00. Sales of HGs with the original orange paint must have been brisk, because the picture on the rear cover of the Spring 1995 issue of the Hart-Parr/Oliver Collector magazine reveals an HG still with its traditional orange paint. (This picture was originally taken at the 1948 Illinois State Fair.)
Consequently, when No. 588 was loaded onto the railroad flatbed car on that cold November day in 1945, dressed in the new Cletrac green with accents of yellow and red trim and appropriate decals, it was among the first of the HGs which bore the new color. A series of railroad cars, each loaded cheek-by-jowl with Cletrac crawlers of various sizes, including No. 588, were coupled to a New York Central Railroad steam-engine headed down the old C.C.C. & St. Louis single-line track toward Columbus, Ohio. Arriving in Columbus, the train ground to a stop at the Columbus freight station. The section of cars, including the flatbed car with No. 588, was unhooked and placed on a siding track. The next morning, a steam-powered switching locomotive, from the Columbus freight yard, with its tender loaded with coal for the day’s work, coupled up to the flatbed cars containing the Cletrac tractors. The switching engine then reversed direction and pulled the cars slowly out of the freight yard. Soon the flatbed car containing No. 588 found itself parked on the track behind the Oliver branch house at Phillippi Road in Columbus. The work force at the Columbus branch house would then begin unloading No. 588 and the other Cletrac tractors. Here, all the Cletrac equipment, including No. 588, would be held together with other Oliver farm equipment until ordered by an Oliver dealership. The Columbus branch house served Oliver dealerships in the states of Ohio and West Virginia. As such, the branch house received Oliver farm machines from the main Oliver plant in Charles City, Iowa; from the South Bend, Indiana, Oliver Plant #1 and Plant #2; and from all the other Oliver factories around the nation. (Consistent HPOCA readers will remember that the Oliver 100 Series Plowmaster plow was made in South Bend Plant # 1. [See the Spring 1995 issue of Hart-Parr/Oliver Collector p. 8.]). The farm equipment would be distributed to dealerships in Ohio and West Virginia as orders came in from dealerships in those two states.
In 1946, the farm machinery did not have long to wait at the branch house. Farmers who had been unable to obtain new farm machinery during the Second World War were now hungrily buying whatever machinery became available on the market. The sudden release of this pent-up demand meant that farm machinery did not linger long at the branch house or the dealership. After the first of the new year of 1946, the Columbus branch house received just such an order for Oliver machinery, including at least one Cletrac HG crawler, from a newly established Oliver dealership–the Earl Owens dealership–in Milton, West Virginia (1940 pop. 1,641).
Accordingly, No. 588, along with some other machinery, was loaded onto another flatbed railroad car by the workers at the Columbus branch house, destined for West Virginia. Once at the Columbus freight yard, the flatbed car was made a part of a Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C.& O.) train heading down the double tracks straight south to Portsmouth, Ohio, where the train would cross the high railroad bridge over the Ohio River and enter Kentucky. (Thomas W. Dixon Jr., Chesapeake & Ohio: Allegheny Subdivision [C. & O. Historical Society: Alderson, West Virginia 1985] p. 138.)
Once in Kentucky, the train passed through the countryside dotted with black-painted tobacco drying barns. The vertical siding boards on these barns were intentionally set apart to allow air to flow freely in and out of the barn.
Occasionally, an open door on these barns would allow one to peak inside at the tobacco leaves hanging upside down in rows on racks in the barn.
Now and then, one side of a barn would have “Mail Pouch” printed in large yellow letters on a blue background. Most of these advertisements for Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company, makers of Mail Pouch chewing tobacco from Wheeling, West Virginia, were the lifetime work of Harley W. Warwick, an artist who worked for Bloch Brothers until 1990 painting this advertisement on the sides of barns from Illinois to Maryland.
At the small rail junction town of Meville, Kentucky, the flatbed car with No. 588 was merged with another C.& O. train on the very busy C.& O. double line headed east to West Virginia. As the C.& O. headed east to the small town of Milton, West Virginia, it would meet a considerable number of west-bound steam engines pulling countless numbers of hopper cars loaded with coal. Not long after crossing the Kentucky/West Virginia line at Ashland, Kentucky, the train pulled into the railroad siding south of Milton. Now, the C.& O. steam engine un-coupled the cars to be delivered to Milton, including the flatbed containing No. 588. Then the engine pushed the cars up the spur leading toward Milton. Once across the bridge over the Mud River, the steam engine parked the cars beside the old depot located on Main Street.
Better known as the home of the internationally famous Blenko Glass Company, Milton, West Virginia, had no farm equipment dealers until 1946 when Earl Owens started selling Oliver farm equipment. Earl’s sister, Emma Lene (Owens) Harshbarger, now aged 93, remembers that Earl became educated in business at a very early age by opening a gas station in 1916. He became a proficient auto mechanic. Later, as his business grew, Earl hired other skilled mechanics. Local resident George Wilson remembers that one of the mechanics working at Earl Owens was Fremont Hicks. In the 1930s, Earl moved his growing business to the newly-constructed Harshbarger building at 1115 Main Street in Milton. Earl noted the vigorous demand for farm machinery following the Second World War. It seemed the proper time to expand his business into selling farm eqipment.
In 1946, No. 588 and all of the machinery on the flatbed railroad car represented the first deliveries of new farm machinery to Milton. It was also the first time that farmers in the Milton area had a chance to see the new HG dressed in Cletrac green, rather than the traditional Cletrac orange.
From the start, there was a flurry of excitement about the green little Cletrac HG tractors. This excitement translated itself into sales for a number of years after 1946. In 1948, Earl Owens sold a Cletrac HG to Josh Jordan for use on his 149-acre tobacco and beef farming operation near Milton. Although Josh Jordan worked the midnight shift at the International Nickel Company (later called Huntington Alloy), he farmed during the day using the HG to put up hay for the beef herd. The Jordan family’s Cletrac HG is still being used on the home farm by Josh’s youngest son Steve. Right from the start, Earl Owens found that the Cletrac HGs were good sellers in West Virginia. The HGs did not remain at the dealership very long before they were sold.
One farmer who came to the Earl Owens dealership took a very serious look at the No. 588. In the end, he decided to buy No. 588; however, he requested that the dealership install the optional rear belt pulley attachment. The employees at the Earl Owens dealership obliged, and soon the tractor with its belt attachment was delivered to the home of the farmer. The name of the farmer who first bought No. 588 is not currently known, but the tractor was employed on his farm for about seven years, performing both drawbar and belt work for what was most likely a typically small-farming operation in southern West Virginia.
It is known that No. 588 reappeared in 1953 on the used machinery lot of Rish Equipment, an International Harvester dealership located at the corner of Patrick Street and Kanawha Boulevard in Charleston, West Virginia, 30 miles east of Milton. (Rish Equipment still serves West Virginia, specializing in construction equipment from its present location in St. Albans, 10 miles west of Charleston.) At that time, Don Stevens was a sales representative at Rish Equipment and also farmed a sizeable acreage at his home in the unincorporated rural community of Colloden, West Virginia, located about 24 miles west of Charleston. The little Cletrac sitting on the dealership lot caught Don’s eye and he purchased the tractor for use on his farm. It was on the Don Stevens’ farm that No. 588 first caught the attention of Clyde Miller, grandfather of Andy Blackwood. Clyde realized that the little Cletrac was ideally suited for his small farming operation near another unincorporated village, Lesage, West Virginia. Accordingly, he purchased No. 588 from Don Stevens in 1954 and brought the tractor to his farm on Union Ridge.
Clyde, the middle son of three sons of J.R. (Burt) and Flora (Stevens) Miller, had grown up on his parents’ 140-acre apple farm. Cultivating and raising apples kept the whole family, including Loren, the eldest son, and Keith, the youngest son, busy all year long, but it was a good life. Burt and Flora were able to obtain a Delco generator and batteries for their house. Consequently, as early as the mid-1920s, the Millers were able to enjoy the convenience of electric lights in their country home at a time much earlier than rural homes in other areas of the nation. After high school, Clyde took night classes and received sufficient education to teach school prior to 1925; however, he found work more to his liking as manager of the service department at the Fourth Avenue Ford truck dealership in Huntington, West Virginia, where he was working in 1925 when he married Ollice Clark. Together they purchased a 6-acre farm on Union Ridge, close to Clyde’s parents’ farm. The three-room house was small for a family, but was equipped with a Delco generator and batteries for steady electric power to the house.
Clyde and Ollice continued to help out at the Miller apple farm, especially during busy times of the year. Often Ollice was assigned the task of driving the large 1½ ton International Harvester truck around the farm and to town with the harvest at the end of the year.
Ollice was generally not afraid to take on any task. Once while the house was being remodelled and the roof had been partially removed, a rain storm threatened. Ollice quickly grabbed a hammer and crawled up onto the roof of the house and nailed down a plastic tarpaulin to protect the exposed roof. The arrival of the full force of the storm did not deter her until the task on the slippery roof was done.
On their own farm, Ollice raised about 200 baby chicks each year. She loved her chickens and used to spend a great deal of time in the brooder house (sometimes overnight) caring for them in the early spring when they were vulnerable. In the late summer, she would sell most of the chickens as fryers; however, some chickens were retained to serve as laying hens throughout the winter. Each day she would go to the henhouse to collect the eggs, bring them to the house for cleaning, package them up in 30-dozen cartons and load them into the family’s Chevrolet pickup to be taken directly to local grocery stores, such as Watkin’s Grocery in Guyandotte. Although she had to buy her own feed, grit and even straw bedding for the chickens, she was able to make a profit at something she enjoyed.
Clyde raised a few head of beef cattle from which he would sell the calves each year to supplement the family income. Clyde and Ollice also had a couple of milk cows. As a result, the family enjoyed a steady supply of milk, beef, eggs and chicken for the kitchen table even in the hardest of times during the depression. In the summer, they worked hard to put aside hay in the haymow. The barn was embedded in the bank of a hill such that the back side of the first floor of the barn was actually underground.
Over the years, Clyde and Ollice had three girls, Betty, Glenna-Jean, and Winalee. As the family grew, Clyde and Ollice enlarged their house to make room for the growing family. The farm itself also grew. Upon the death of Clyde’s father, Burt Miller, in 1936, the Miller apple farm was divided into three equal pieces, pursuant to Burt Miller’s final will and testament. Clyde inherited the 44 acres of his father’s land which adjoined his and Ollice’s own farm on Union Ridge. Loren and Keith kept the apple farm running on the two pieces of land that they inherited. Both Loren and Keith now also had full-time jobs off the farm.
With the coming of the Second World War, Clyde went to work at the International Nickel plant in Huntington, West Virginia. There he worked in the research lab and was responsible for the invention and development of machinery used in the testing of the products at the plant. International Nickel boomed during the war, but at the end of the war, the company was forced to downsize. Clyde, however, was lucky enough to get his old job back at the Ford truck dealership in Huntington. After a couple of years at Ford he went back to his job at International Nickel and had accumulated 27 years at the plant by the time he retired in 1970. Meanwhile, the farm provided security to the family in these times of change. Clyde and Ollice’s three daughters grew up and married and started families of their own. The youngest, Winalee, married Dave Blackwood and eventually had a family consisting of three sons and twin daughters. The oldest son was Richard (Andy) Blackwood.
When the little Cletrac arrived on the Clyde Miller farm in 1954, many of the more laborious jobs were made easier. One of the main jobs performed by the tractor was mowing, raking and baling hay for the cattle. Generally, Ollice was the driver of the tractor during many of these summertime activities. The little crawler was easy to operate once a person became familiar with the process of steering by means of clutch/brake levers. After the hay had been baled, the little tractor would be unhitched from the baler and hitched to a wagon, and then No. 588 would clatter along to the fields with the wagon so the bales could be picked up before it rained on them. The wide stance and surefootedness of the little HG was appreciated while pulling a load of bales across the face of a hill on the way back to the barn. Once at the barn, the bales would be lifted into the haymow, ten bales at a time, by means of a set of hay forks and a hay rope.
Sometimes No. 588 was called upon to perform a special duty. Clyde and Ollice had a number of ponds built on their farm to collect the large amounts of water required for the cattle and for spraying apples. On one occasion, a tractor with a backhoe attached was employed to do the digging for one of the ponds. While attempting to negotiate a wet area in order to find the right location from which to dig a pond, the tractor and backhoe sunk into the mud up to its axles. It was so far into the ground that although the engine remained running, the spinning of the radiator fan of the engine sent showers of water upwards and back from the engine. Never fear, however, the Miller’s little Cletrac was called upon to pull the heavy backhoe out of the quagmire. Hitched to a long cable which ran through a snatch block or set of pulleys temporarily attached to a nearby tree, the surefooted HG slowly pulled the much heavier backhoe out of the quagmire.
Watching this whole process with astonishment were the Miller’s grandchildren–including Andy Blackwood. He was fascinated by the sight and developed an admiration for his grandparent’s little Cletrac HG that would last his whole life. As he grew, Andy would learn to operate the little Cletrac while helping with the chores and pulling large logs out of the woodlot on his grandparents’ farm. Following the death of Clyde Miller at the age of 91 in 1993, Ollice moved from the farm into the town of Milton. Given his continuing interest in old tractors, it seemed most natural to his grandmother that No. 588 would become Andy’s, and so it did. Andy currently owns a series of Hart-Parr/Oliver tractors which he is in the process of restoring. Nonetheless, his first restoration project–Number 588–remains Andy’s favorite tractor because it was originally owned by his grandparents, Clyde and Ollice (Clark) Miller. Andy has painted the tractor twice during its restoration and continues to make improvements to the restoration of the little HG. Andy has relied on the fine network of HPOCA members he has met to obtain decals and other parts necxessary to complete the restoration.
It is hoped that the restoration of the Miller/Blackwood Cletrac and its association with the Pumpkin Festival will serve not only as a source of information and interest to the public regarding the people who designed and made the Cletrac Model HG tractor, but will also introduce the public to the particular niche the HG filled in West Virginia agriculture.