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Book explores Caterpillar family tree

Jack Alexander’s new book, “The California Combined Harvester,” has brought new attention to the Gilroy author’s book “The Caterpillar’s Roots,” revised in 2010 and now in its fifth printing.

The book tells the story of tractors developed between 1889 and 1925 by Daniel C.L. Best and Benjamin Holt, and calls attention to the fact that the history of farm machinery got its start in California. Daniel Best built his first tractor in 1889, and the Best Manufacturing Co. built tractors until 1913. Benjamin Holt built his first tractor in 1890, and the Holt Manufacturing Co. built tractors until 1925. Leo Best founded the C.L. Best Gas Tractor Co. in 1910, and built tractors until 1925.

Key Points

• “The Caterpillar’s Roots” was revised in 2010 and is in its fifth printing.

• Best and Holt companies became The Caterpillar Tractor Co.

• Other Pacific Coast steam tractor engines were built prior to 1889.


Between 1889 and 1925, the Best and Holt companies transitioned from building tractors with steam engines to tractors using gas engines, and also transitioned from building tractors that used wheels to tractors that used tracks. The Best and Holt companies ceased to exist in May 1925 through the consolidation of the Best and Holt companies and the formation of The Caterpillar Tractor Co. At that time, the Holt and Best family names were both eliminated from being part of the new company name.

Mr. De Lafayette Remington, Wood-burn, Ore., built his first steam engine tractor, named the “Rough and Ready,” in 1888, and sold the rights to Daniel Best of San Leandro, Calif. In 1889, four of the Best-Remington engines were produced at the Daniel Best Agricultural Works and sold to California wheat farmers for plowing and pulling combined harvesters.

The Best engine became the most successful of the Pacific Coast steam traction engines.

Pacific Coast engines

Other Pacific Coast engines were built prior to 1889, and information on these engines can be found in Alexander’s book, “The First American Farm Tractors.”

One such invention was by Jesse Overton of San Jose, who at the 1857 California Industrial Exhibition, demonstrated a working model of his “Steam Wagon.”

Of this effort the March 12, 1858, California Farmer wrote: “The famous Overton Steam Wagon at Sacramento is nearly completed. It is the most substantial piece of mechanical labor and ingenuity; its heavy frame, with the engines on the body, its ponderous wheels, the spear of the tongue resembling the head of an anaconda, as it projects forward of the wheels, gives the whole carriage the appearance of some war engine.”

In telling this compelling story of the Best and Holt tractors, Alexander has used archived material surviving Best and Holt company records, including correspondence, company photographs and company publications.

Carefully researched, it includes interviews conducted by F. Hal Higgins from the 1940s to the 1970s. Higgins is a renowned California agricultural historian who interviewed many of the Best and Holt company principals.

The company that was formed in 1925, The Caterpillar Tractor Co., now Caterpillar Inc. or just Cat, today produces more than tractors, and provides world-recognized products.

This is an accurately reported book that machinery, antique and history buffs will want to read about the family tree of The Caterpillar Tractor Co.

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THE CAT’S ROOTS: This is the cover of the book “The Caterpillar’s Roots,” which was revised in 2010 and is in its fifth printing. The book tells the story of tractors developed between 1889 and 1925 by Daniel C.L. Best and Benjamin Holt, and calls attention to the fact that the history of farm machinery got its start in California.

This article published in the August, 2010 edition of CALIFORNIA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.