World War I was one of the deadliest and most destructive episodes in human history.
But it also helped create something—Caterpillar. The company remains one of the largest companies in the world, a global brand with deep roots in Central Illinois.
Caterpillar’s history is deeply linked to the Great War, according to Lee Fosburgh, supervisor of heritage services at Caterpillar who is chiefly responsible for documenting and sharing its history. Fosburgh will speak on Caterpillar’s World War I ties March 13 at the McLean County Museum of History.
“Caterpillar really became the company it is today because of World War I,” Fosburgh said.
Caterpillar traces its origins to the 1925 merger between two California companies, Holt Manufacturing Co. and the C. L. Best Tractor Co. But that merger might not have taken place were it not for the war.
Holt’s founder invented the iconic track-type tractor for agricultural use, among other creations. He also coined the phrase Caterpillar. He’s also the one who brought the company to Central Illinois, buying an existing plant in East Peoria in 1909 with less than 20 employees.
Holt’s equipment found its first non-agriculture use during the war, pulling artillery and wagons. He sold equipment to the British, French, and Imperial Russia even before the U.S. entered the war late, in 1917.
That first non-agriculture use was a turning point for Caterpillar, Fosburgh said, setting the stage for the company’s entry into construction, road-building, and other industries.
“You can really trace the roots back to World War I as a watershed moment of where these (machines) started to slowly flip to being used for non-agriculture purposes,” Fosburgh said.
Holt’s competitor was C.L. Best and his son, Daniel Best. While Holt was focused on war effort, Best picked up domestic market share and came up with some revolutionary technology, Fosburgh said. At the end of the war, Holt was bigger but Best was more profitable.
By 1925, the merger made sense: Holt had a household name in Caterpillar, but Best had great machinery and a deeper management team. The two companies became one.
Fosburgh manages Caterpillar’s archival collections, develops company heritage messaging, and curates historical exhibits at the Caterpillar Visitors Center in Peoria.
Fosburgh said it’s important for Caterpillar to record and share its history, primary as a storytelling tool. Caterpillar’s position as a global brand is not some recent development, he said.
“A lot of people don’t really realize that over 100 years ago, our machines were on every continent but Antarctica. And now we talk about our machines are on every continent, including Antarctica,” he said.
“If you look back to the past it’ll give you an idea of how you can tell stories in the future, because in many ways it’s not all that different,” Fosburgh said.
Fosburgh’s free, public program will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 13, in the McLean County Museum of History’s Governor Fifer Courtroom in downtown Bloomington.
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