Caterpillar’s first chairman was a shrewd innovator and leader.
Peoria is our headquarters, and many know our roots stretch back across the Illinois River to East Peoria and the plant Murray Baker found for the Holt Manufacturing Co. in 1909. But did you know our roots extend to a place a bit further than across the river, but across the United States… to California? San Leandro, California, to be exact. That’s where Caterpillar Tractor Co. was officially formed (Keep in mind our predecessor companies, Holt and Best, had plants in the surrounding California area and East Peoria, Illinois).
Caterpillar’s Corporate Heritage Services has all the documents of our creation: photographs of the Bests, Holts and their earliest inventions; films of our first tractor and its four horsepower; memorabilia from the first Holt service pin to a C.L. Best Manufacturing cigar cutter. But we know there’s more to the story than these items, more than the places we’ve been, and the products we make: the heart of the story is always our people.
The Best Home
We took a trip to California, to the home of C.L. Best, our first chairman, and met with his grandson, Dan Best II. The memories were fuzzy. He had seen the black-and-white photos and passed the familiar house on the street. Sure, he had heard the stories, like how his grandfather Leo would go out the side door of his home and walk to the factory every day.
Leo’s distinct, 19th-century Spanish Colonial-style home was the first brick home built in Alameda County, California. It would eventually become a California Historical Landmark, but the factory was his lab for innovation—a place where his drawings and tinkering came to life. In hindsight, it was the beginning of something big—perhaps bigger than his grandfather could have ever imagined, or would at least ever admit.
“I’m no braggart,” Leo once said when prompted to call out his career highlights. “Ask someone else.” It’s more than fair to say that Leo’s accomplishments have stood the test of time. He was Caterpillar’s first and longest-running chairman of the board. He owned more than 27 patents, and his undercarriage innovations are still present in today’s Cat equipment.
“He would be equivalent to the Henry Ford of agriculture for what he innovated,” the grandson said. “I’m very proud of what my grandfather did.” His friends used to call him Leo, but he’s best known today as C.L. Best.
C.L. only had a high school education, but when he was 13 years old, he started working for his father, Daniel Best. That’s when he honed his engineering skills.
Daniel joined a wagon train bound for Walla Walla, Washington in 1859. On the train, he worked as a stock tender and sharpshooter. Once he arrived in Washington, it was farming and lumber milling that allowed him to start gold mining in Oregon. He would go on to invent a portable grain separator and a combined harvester before relocating to what would eventually be Caterpillar’s first home, San Leandro, California, in 1886.
Just 12 years later, Daniel and C.L. teamed up to build a horseless carriage for a competition. C.L. also shared his father’s interest in gold mining, and would later enjoy hunting, horseback riding and camping in the California wilderness. Daniel retired shortly after the Holt Manufacturing Company acquired the Best Manufacturing Company in 1908.
C.L. would prove to be a shrewd innovator and leader. He oversaw research and development in San Leandro. The 30 and the 60—tractors he designed in the early 1920s—were built so well that they were still in use in the 1950s.
Back at the house, Leo’s grandson, Dan Best II, walks around inside the 2½-story home. Today, he carries on the family legacy as a customer; Cat equipment is a mainstay on the Best Ranch. His memories still weren’t clear because C.L. passed away when he was young. The host at the Peralta Best Home shows him a height chart with several names written on the wall. “There’s Dan,” she says. That’s when the memories became clear, like a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle instantly coming together: the generations connected before his eyes. iBi
Lee Fosburgh is supervisor of Caterpillar’s Corporate Heritage Services.