Robert Gilmour (R.G.) LeTourneau subtitled his 1960 autobiography Mover of Men and Mountains. His statue in Peoria’s Glen Oak Park, opposite the zoo and near the tennis courts, repeats this description.
A major figure in the earth-moving industry, LeTourneau was also a Christian evangelist. As wording on the statue indicates, he sought first the kingdom of heaven. Nearly killed twice in automobile accidents and broke several times in business, he turned to the Lord and referred to himself as God’s businessman.
In 1935 LeTourneau followed Caterpillar to Peoria from Stockton, Calif., where he’d worked as a contractor. Using Best tractors (a forerunner of Caterpillar), he invented the bulldozer blades, buckets, and other attachments needed to tackle the roughest jobs building roads, irrigation systems, airfields, and dams.
He challenged himself to make machines easily do the jobs that were the toughest for men and their mules. Other contractors saw his success with his inventions and wanted to buy the items for themselves. In fact, industrialist Henry Kaiser was so impressed he bought a number of LeTourneau patents to manufacture the equipment on a larger scale. LeTourneau, however, continued to invent new solutions to earth-moving problems, quickly making earlier patents obsolete.
Finally, having gone broke several times, LeTourneau took the advice of associates who pointed out he did better as an inventor than as a contractor. He decided to focus on manufacturing.
LeTourneau, a mechanical genius, took perverse pride in confounding his engineers. They’d often show all kinds of reasons why his concepts wouldn’t work. But he succeeded. In his California days, he’d sketch out his ideas in the dust outdoors, and then promptly weld the steel. He challenged his engineers to draw freehand, shrugging aside concerns about scale.
A welding enthusiast, LeTourneau welded his first factory building in Peoria and even welded houses for employees. When his site along the river flooded, the houses were relocated to various neighborhoods in Peoria and other nearby communities where they can be found today. He also sent welded houses to Christian missions in Liberia and South America and to his factories communities in Toccoa, Ga., and Vicksburg, Miss.
LeTourneau said that his best workers were those he trained in his own classes. His vocational program taught students welding, math, mechanical drawing, blueprint reading, and machine tooling.
When World War II required greater production of his products, he also expanded into the brick buildings of the former Avery Manufacturing Co. along Northeast Adams Street and into Australia. Also during World War II, he added chaplains to his payrolls and continued his practice of reverse tithing—giving 90 percent of his profits to Christian work.
Caterpillar dealers had sold LeTourneau attachments, but after the war, Caterpillar began manufacturing its own. LeTourneau began developing his own power, but had problems.
In 1952, he sold his business to Westinghouse Air Brake Company and moved to Longview, Texas His inventive mind continued to apply itself to challenges in jungle clearing and oil drilling and to support of missionary work. His legacy continued in Peoria in the people he influenced, including such former employees and civic leaders as Merle Yontz, the recently-deceased Robert Jamieson, and the late Lew Burger.
LeTourneau’s statue, erected in 1988 on the 100th anniversary of his birth, was a gift to Peoria from WABCO retirees and “R.G.’s friends.” WABCO was one of the successor companies to run the Peoria factory, today home to Komatsu. The 12-foot bronze figure stands astride a base that recalls a dozer blade, while plaques depict his many other inventions: scrapers, haulers, drilling platforms and equipment, and missile launchers that worked in forests, mountains, jungles, oceans, and other environments around the world. AA!