The Frank Brown Construction Company (Part 3):
Mechanization with the Caterpillar Model 60
Brian Wayne Wells
As published in the November/December 1996 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine
As related in the last two installments of this series of articles carried in the July/August and September/October 1996 issues of Belt Pulley magazine, the F.H. Brown Construction Company was founded in 1920, during the early period of the Great Road Building Boom of the 1920s. The company prospered during these years because of the huge demand for good roads. During the early years, the company used mules to built roads in Blue Earth and Waseca Counties in Minnesota; however, in 1925, the Frank Brown Company sought to reduce labor and modernize its operation by purchasing two Caterpillar Model “Sixty” crawler tractors.
Not only was 1925 a significant year for the F.H. Brown Company but it was also a pivotal year for the Caterpillar Company. On March 2, 1925, the C.L. Best Gas Traction Company merged with the Holt Manufacturing Company to form the Caterpillar Tractor Company, and the first model Sixty was sold under the Caterpillar name. Randy Leffingwell, The American Farm Tractor (Motorbooks International: Oseola, Wis., 1991), p. 56. In the years immediately following the First World War, both Holt and Best had undergone some tough sledding. Soon, however, events would emerge that would make these two California-based companies the dominate power in construction business across the nation.
Like many large established companies, Holt and Best had been producing war materials for the war effort. Also like many other companies, the end of the war would necessitate a conversion to peacetime production. Many companies failed to find a niche in the peacetime economy and were forced to close their doors. Indeed Holt and Best were among those companies that were facing dire straits with the end of the war. However, the Great Road Building Boom was to be the saving grace for Holt and Best. (Century of Change, pp. 24-27.)
The Best Company, from San Leandro, California, had started with Daniel Best manufacturing his first steam wheel-type tractor in 1889. Daniel’s son C.L. Best incorporated the business into a company in 1910. Within a few years Best was employing about 100 workers. Best steam tractors were first conceived as a power source for farms in the California area; however, these tractors never had a very large market. Only the most prosperous of farming operations could afford to buy one of these steam engines. Nonetheless, Best found a niche for its tractors in the road building and freightage areas of the economy. Best steam engines were found to be more efficient that animal power at hauling lumber, ores and supplies over marginal roads. They could haul 40 to 50 tons of material over “roads” which were difficult for animals to negotiate. ( The Caterpillar Story, produced by Caterpillar Company (Peoria, Ill. 1990) pp. 6-7.)
The Holt Company started as the Stockton Wheel Company located in Stockton, California, where they made combine harvester threshers. The first combine harvester/threshers made by Holt were ground-driven models. (An 1887 example of this ground-driven machine is presently one of the exhibits in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.) By 1890, the Stockton Wheel Company was building wheel-type steam tractors which were intended as power sources for their combines, replacing the traditional source–horses. In 1892, the Stockton Company changed its name to the Holt Manufacturing Company. The company had grown tremendously and now employed 300 people, making 200 combines and 10 steam engines annually. Holt, however, also found that the construction business offered a better market for their tractors than the agricultural area of the economy.
Holt and Best competed with each other for the California construction market through out the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and over the years their respective tractor models underwent many improvements. Under the active guidance of Benjamin Holt, the Holt Company designed and built a prototype of a track-laying tractor on November 24, 1904. Following the successful tests of this prototype in April of 1905, Holt began marketing this tractor under the name “Caterpillar” to distinguish its track-tractor from its wheel-type tractors. In 1908, Holt abandoned steam power in favor of the more efficient gasoline-powered internal combustion engine.
In 1909, Holt made a significant acquisition when they purchased the facilities of the Colean Manufacturing Company in East Peroia, Illinois. Colean was a tractor manufacturer that had not successfully made the transition from steam power to gasoline power. Consequently, the company had faded and became an acquisition target for a company with the resources available to expand into the midwestern market. Holt was that company, and with the purchase of the Colean properties, Holt broke out of the regional California market and became a nationally based company. Additionally, Peoria would eventually become the main headquarters of the company.
As noted above, both Best and Holt flourished during the First World War as they developed a worldwide market for their large track-type (or crawler) tractors. By the end of the war, both companies were known around the world for their large crawler tractors and had an international network of dealerships and exporters.
However, the uncertainty of the post-war economy threatened both companies. They both began look for solutions and saw that together they might find the niche they needed. So, in 1925, they merged to form the Caterpillar Tractor Company. The merger worked better than expected and resulted in Caterpillar dominating the construction market around the nation. This domination has continued to the present day.
The “Caterpillar” name came from the Holt side of the company. However, the management of the new company recognized that the Best Models Thirty and Sixty were superior in design to the Holt models of the same horse power range. Consequently, the Best models Thirty and Sixty were continued in production by the new company with scarcely any changes, except that the name “Caterpillar” was now embossed on the top of the radiator. Accordingly, the merger really did result in a combination of the best parts of both companies.
Leading the way as the top-of-the-line model of the new Caterpillar tractors, the new model Sixty became a very popular product. Sales of the model Sixty boomed, as all across the nation small construction companies like the F.H. Brown Company sought to mechanize the job of road building by purchasing modern equipment.
As noted elsewhere, the depression for the agricultural sector of the U.S. economy continued from 1921 until the coming of the Second World War. (See “Algoma is OK” March/April, 1995 issue of Belt Pulley Vol. 8, No. 1 p. 19.) By abandoning the agricultural market and moving to the construction market, Holt and Best were able to avoid the agricultural depression that overcame so many companies in the 1920s. Then, by merging at the right time, the two companies formed a single entity that would be able to meet the explosive demand for road building equipment that arose in the wake of the Great Road Building Boom of the 1920s. Caterpillar was the only company in the construction market with the manufacturing facilities to meet this huge demand. As a result, Caterpillar was able to enjoy a 70% increase in sales at a time when other manufacturers of tractors were engaged in drastic price wars and serious cutbacks in profits. (The American Farm Tractor pp. 56-58.)
Manufacturing capacity is useless, of course, unless the manufactured product can be sold. Another benefit of the merger was the combined sales and distribution networks that the company now enjoyed. The Gildemeister S.A.C. firm was used to distribute tractors in Chile and Peru. The Tunisian firm PARENIN was the distributer for Caterpillar in all of North Africa. Pacific Machinery operated as a distributor and dealer out of Hawaii. Domestically, Yancey Brothers of Atlanta, Georgia, and Zeigler of Minneapolis, Minnesota, distributed Caterpillar products. The Caterpillar Story pp. 28-29. Eventually, several fine dealers sprung up around the world, such as Cecil L. Walker Machinery of Belle, West Virginia. These dealers would offer sales and service of Caterpillar tractors for their respective areas.
Ziegler and many other early Caterpillar dealers used to hold “Caterpillar Schools” for owners and operators of Caterpillar tractors. These schools consisted of month-long sessions which covered the topics of: the history of the track-type tractor, and the theory, construction and maintenance of engines; and the field adjustment, operation and troubleshooting of Caterpillar tractors. One feature of the Caterpillar schools was that they promoted loyalty between the company, their employees and their customers. (Indeed, there was a tradition of cooperation between the Caterpillar workers and the management of the company which continued through good times and bad until recently, when the spirit of cooperation seems to have broken down. Although Caterpillar continues to have record high profits and the company’s stock continues to sell well on the New York Stock Exchange, since November of 1990, the company has refused to renew the labor contract of its employees and has threatened its work force with permanent replacement workers in a continuing labor dispute.)
The new Caterpillar Sixty’s purchased by the F.H. Brown Company brought much more power to the tasks of road building in Blue Earth and Waseca Counties. The Sixty’s were put to work in a number of different heavy tasks. They made short work of pulling tree stumps from the path of a prospective road. The introduction of the Sixty’s into the F.H. Brown Company also brought a new class of workers to the road crew–the heavy equipment operator, nicknamed “Cat skinners.” The same camaraderie that already existed between the muleskinners on the crew now developed between the Cat skinners. Whereas the mule skinners wore bowler hats, the Cat skinners took to wearing flat roadster-style hats. (A picture on page 28 of The Caterpillar Story which shows the 1926 class of “Caterpillar School” held at the Ziegler dealership in Minneapolis, Minnesota, reveals that many of the “students” were wearing these roadster-style hats, indicating that they were Cat skinners.)
As noted in the second installment of this article, there was generally a hierarchy among the employees of a typical road crew. The dump man was generally the highest paid employee on the road crew, with the excavating machine operator next, followed by the mule skinners, and finally the general laborers. The Cat skinners, or heavy equipment operators, created another level of the hierarchy which was inserted into the company employment hierarchy between the excavating machine operator and the mule skinners. The “Cat skinners” were given more pay than the mule skinners to reflect the fact that they had been trained at “Caterpillar Schools” like the one at the Ziegler dealership in Minneapolis.
At first, the Sixty’s replaced the mules in only the heaviest jobs. It was discovered that the “Cat” would greatly reduce the amount of time required for removing tree stumps standing in the way of the planned road. Gradually over the years, the Cats were given more tasks on the road crew including some lighter duties. For instance, when it came time to move the road camp to a new location, the Cats were even used to perform the relatively light duty of towing the buildings-on-wheels to the new location.
As the Sixty’s took on more of the work for the F.H. Brown Company, there was a reduction in the number of mules employed each year. This meant a reduction in the overall size to the road crew. This was not so evident before 1935, but events would impose some rapid changes on the company.
In June of 1935, while the crew was working on a stretch of road in Olmsted County near Rochester, Minnesota, F.H. Brown died of stroke. The sudden death of her husband put Elizabeth in a difficult situation. She was college-educated, having graduated in 1921 from Mankato Normal School in Mankato, Minnesota, with a two-year teachers certificate. Before marrying Frank, she had taught school, two years in Jackson, Minnesota, two years in Pine City, Minnesota, and two years in Little Falls, Minnesota. Still, with a large family to raise, she could not return to teaching. Furthermore, she was resolved not to let her husband’s company go out of business. With the help of her brother, Bud Nicholson, she continued to manage the company following Frank’s death. However, she and her children stayed in their home in Madison Lake, Minnesota, during the summer instead of travelling with the road crew. Bud Nicholson conducted the day-to-day operations of the crew and travelled with the crew all summer. To keep the company competitive, Bud Nicholson finished the mechanization of the F.H. Brown Company by finally replacing all the mules on the crew during the 1940s.
The little house-on-wheels, which Frank Brown had built as a summer home for his family while they travelled with road crew, was converted to a bunk house. As a bunk house, it continued to travel with the road crew each summer until 1952. In 1952, the little house-on-wheels was parked on the Brown homestead, in Madison Lake, Minnesota, where it served as home for Manze Skoog until 1960. Manse Skoog had served as blacksmith for the road crew from 1935 until 1960. Following 1960, the house was used as a storage facility and playhouse for the Brown family grandchildren at their Grandmother Elizabeth’s farm in Madison Lake.
By the 1990s, the little house-on-wheels and the blacksmith shop-on-wheels were all that remained of the structures that once formed the road camp of the F.H. Brown Construction Company. Unfortunately, the house eventually sagged under deterioration and vandalism. The porch on the house was completely rotted away. With the intent of preserving at least some of the history of the F.H. Brown Company, the Brown family, in 1993, made contact with Donald Borneke of Eagle Lake, Minnesota, a member of the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association, to have the blacksmith shop-on-wheels and the little house-on-wheels donated to the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association.
The restoration of the blacksmith shop was undertaken by John and Suzie (Krocak) Smisek and Butch and Kathy (Osborne) Krocak, all of Le Center, Minnesota. By the time of the August 1994 Pioneer Power Show, the blacksmith shop had been restored to its original appearance complete with a new coat of paint which matched the original shade of green. At the 1994 Show, the blacksmith shop-on-wheels was appropriately towed in the parade each day by John Hiniker’s 1930 Caterpillar Sixty driven by Pioneer Power board member, John Klaseus.
Elizabeth and her brother continued to operate the company until their retirement in 1964. Elizabeth Brown died at the age of 95 on December 31, 1994. The story of the little house-on-wheels was related in an article by Ted Roemer in the January 11, 1995, issue of the Lake Region Times as a tribute to Elizabeth Brown. This article was reprinted in the March 1995 issue of the Pioneer Power newsletter–The Pioneer Times–by its former editor Elaine Hein.
In the spring of 1996, the restoration of the little house-on-wheels was begun. Once again, the Smisek and Krocak families applied their considerable talents to the restoration of Frank and Elizabeth Brown’s little summer home on wheels. Dr. Frank Brown Jr. purchased new windows for the house which were designed to look like the originals. He also found an old rusted stove on his mother’s farm in Madison Lake which had originally been used by the F.H. Brown Company in one of the bunk houses. The stove was like the one used in the house. Consequently, Dr. Brown sent the stove to Michigan to have it re-plated. The stove now occupies its place in the house-on-wheels. Gertude (Brown) Suel, third child and second daughter of Frank and Elizabeth, as well as Dr. Frank Brown, served as consultants during the restoration process, especially in the selection of the right shade of yellow paint for the house and green paint for the restored porch and the trim.
Both the blacksmith shop-on-wheels and the house-on-wheels are now a permanent part of the restored road camp at the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Show. The public is able to visit the road camp during the Show conducted each year during the last weekend in August. Surrounded by the Caterpillar tractors–including John Hiniker’s model Sixty–and other equipment used during the Show, the public is able to enjoy scenes typical to the F.H. H. Brown Company after they became mechanized. In this way, the restored road camp at the Show will serve as a salute not only to the F.H. Brown Construction Company, but also to Caterpillar and all other companies across the nation who contributed to the modern roads which we all currently use.