On the hill above church and just inside the gate to Garin Park are remnants of a rusty old tractor, its iconic yellow paint long gone, sitting in dry weeds among a collection of crumbling antique farm implements. It’s highly likely that my dad assembled or machined parts for its diesel engine early in his 47 year career at Caterpillar’s San Leandro factory and where I spent several summers in the 1950’s earning college tuition.
Caterpillar’s origin dates back to the late 19th century when Benjamin Holt’s Stockton Wheel Works joined with Daniel Best’s San Leandro Plow Works. The companies built steam-driven wheeled tractors and harvesters to replace cumbersome 40 horse teams used to draw harvesting equipment on California’s huge Central Valley farms. Around 1906 Best and Holt developed the now familiar “crawler” tractor that ran on continuous metal-belted tracks instead of wheels. The new tractor’s dubbed “Caterpillars” were immediately successful as all-terrain, all weather haulers and graders and were responsible in a significant way for the expansion of farming, creating the roadbed for the national highway system and for countless construction projects early in 20th Century America.
As with most new positive technologies, the familiar domestic tracked workhorse with roots in San Leandro unfortunately also had a dark side. The crawler tractor was the forerunner of highly efficient armed armored machines that forever changed the face of warfare. Although Holt and Best didn’t build tanks they did prosper by making thousands of tractors for hauling artillery, ammunition and supplies during the World Wars.
Caterpillar Tractor Company flourishes today as a multibillion dollar multinational company headquartered in Peoria, IL. The San Leandro plant closed in 1981 after 99 years of operation. An archway from the original factory still stands on the site on Davis Street; a highway and high school in Stockton commemorate Benjamin Holt’s legacy; and a rusty old “Cat” slowly returns to the earth on a hillside in Hayward. -Bill