Farm Horizons, June 2012

Claessens tell the other side of the history of Caterpillar, win two Midwest Book Awards

By Jennifer Kotila

Ed and Sue Claessen of Waverly came back from the Midwest Book Awards gala May 9 as award-winning authors two times over for their book “Making Tracks: C.L. Best and the Caterpillar Tractor Company.”

The Claessens placed first in the biography and history categories, the only categories in which they entered the book for the contest.

The awards are sponsored by the Midwest Independent Publishers Association, and each book is judged on creativity in content and execution, overall quality, and its unique contribution to its subject area.

When the Claessens were told about the contest, they did not give it much thought, Ed said.

But, as they were touring Minnesota and California for book signings, “We received a lot of positive feedback from people who bought the book, and thought, let’s try it,” Ed said.

The Claessens said they are both very pleased with the awards, and fortunate to have won two.

“Even being chosen as a top-three finalist was an honor,” Sue said. “Then to win – it was fun and exciting.”

Ed noted there were quite a few books entered in the categories of biography and history.

Before the award ceremony was a social hour in which the authors could meet each other and the books were all on display.

“We were up against some really tough books,” Sue said.

However, Ed said that after reviewing the judges’ critique sheets, it really wasn’t a competition.

The book earned 156 out of 160 points in the biography category, and 126 out of 160 points in the history category.

One judge came up to the Claessens following the ceremony and told them the book needs to go further (as in reaching a wider audience), Ed said.

One judge commented on the critique sheet that she could tell the book was a labor of love for the Claessens, and they had a real passion for the subject, Sue said.

The judges also were complimentary regarding the format and photos used in the book.

Another judge was surprised how good the story was, considering the subject of the book, and noted she had learned something.

“It’s nice to get acknowledged from people chosen to judge and really critically look at the book,” Sue said.

Interest in Caterpillars leads to a good story

“In 1973, I bought my first one (Caterpillar tractor),” Ed said. He has done his share of road grading and excavating over the years. “The state of Minnesota had given Vietnam veterans a bonus – that’s what I spent it on.”

The purchase of that 1930 Caterpillar 60 led to nearly 40 years of restoring tractors, and researching the Caterpillar Tractor Company and C.L. Best’s role in making it successful. Ed became good friends with the Best family during that time, learning interesting facts about the company many people did not know.

Because C.L. Best’s grandson felt it was important for others to know who his grandfather was and what he did, and Ed had all the knowledge from years of research, he asked Ed to write it all down.

The Claessens started writing “Making Tracks” in 2006, and it took more than five years to complete and be published, including many additional hours of research in order to get the story right.

The importance of ‘Making Tracks’

When Ed became interested in finding out all he could about Caterpillars and the history of the company, he did not find much information about Best, his tractors before Caterpillar, or his company.

However, the Caterpillar Tractor Company came into existence in 1925, when the C.L. Best Gas Traction Company absorbed the Holt Manufacturing Company after Best bought controlling interest of the Holt Manufacturing Company, Ed said.

Before that, Caterpillar had been used as a trade name for tractors made by the Holt Manufacturing Company, after someone noticed how the tracks made the machine move like a caterpillar during a demonstration in 1905 or 1906, explained Ed.

Through their research, the Claessens found that the only thing that came from Holt after the companies were merged was the name Caterpillar. The technology and vision for the future came from Best, Sue explained.

Although Best served as chairman of the board for Caterpillar until his death in 1951, the history of the Caterpillar Company was not clear about his contributions.

However, the Holt side of the business was readily available, along with its history, Ed said.

Why? “Because of his (Best’s) personality. Best was shy and retiring, never calling attention to himself. He was more interested in the production line, the customer, and the stockholder,” Ed theorized.

For instance, when Best was approached for his biography, which was being collected from all board members of the Caterpillar company in 1940, he said, “Ask someone else; I’m not a braggart,” Sue said.

“He never bragged about his accomplishments, that’s why they just fell away,” Ed said.

During his research on the Caterpillar tractor company, Ed met C.L. Best’s grandson, Dan, while on a trip to California in 1994.

The following year, when Ed went to California again, he was invited to meet C.L.’s son, also named Dan.

The Bests were impressed with Ed’s knowledge of their father and grandfather, as well as the technology of the tractors built by C.L., and invited him to visit whenever in California.

That began a long friendship, with Ed visiting the Bests when he made his yearly California trip.

Finally, in 2004, Best’s grandson approached Ed, telling him something should really be done with the information he had about his grandfather.

The following year, on their annual visit, Ed and Sue agreed to write a book about all that had been learned.

“They were confident that I could do the writing, and Ed knew the technical aspects of the tractors,” Sue said. “Sometimes it was hard to meld them together, because I wanted a good story along with the technical aspects.”

However, the Bests felt that their side of the history of Caterpillar would be controversial.

“C.L.’s son said, from the beginning, ‘whatever you say – make sure you can back it up,’” Ed noted.

That is why the book is footnoted really well, Sue said.

Although Ed knew a lot about C.L. and his tractors, there was still a lot of research to be done, and most of the information they needed was in California, where many of the primary sources about Best and the history of his companies were located.

“So, it was a lot of trips,” Sue said.

The Claessens visited various university libraries, the national archives, read newspaper articles about Best’s companies, and waded through lawsuits and counter-suits regarding patent rights, Sue said.

Throughout the process, the Claessens learned a lot about the importance of good research, and keeping good records, Sue noted.

The Claessens began writing in 2006, and had a completed manuscript by June 2010.

Unfortunately, C.L.’s son passed away in 2008, before the book was finished.

“Although C.L.’s son never saw the manuscript, he knew we were on the right track,” Sue said.

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