PEORIA — It sounded strikingly different than the diesel roar of a modern-day D8 dozer, but the rhythmic chug emanating from the idling tractor still contained a signature element of its mechanical descendant.
When Ed Claessen fired up the engine behind the Caterpillar Visitors Center on Thursday, it was almost as if the machinery’s very DNA echoed off the glass facade — the historic sound of an operational Best 60 Tracklayer track-type tractor humming outside, its contemporary counterparts silently on display on the other side of the pane.
Claessen hauled the antique predecessor of all things Caterpillar from Minnesota to mark a celebration of the 1921-model-year machine’s namesake — Best, as in C.L. “Leo” Best, the first and longest-serving chairman of the company that has come to be known as Caterpillar Inc.
“Basically, I got it running as it is,” said Claessen, co-author of a book about Best’s vast impact on the earth-moving industry and avid vintage tractor tinkerer since 1973.
Claessen’s Best 60 hadn’t run since the 1950s when he acquired it in the early 1990s, but he got it operational with replacement of only a few small parts, he said.
That model was the invention of Leo Best, whose Best Tractor Company in California merged with Holt Manufacturing Company in 1925 to form Caterpillar Tractor Company.
Best, who is the subject of an exhibit that officially opens at the Visitors Center on Friday, became the first and longest-serving chairman of the company, working in that capacity until his death in 1951.
A Caterpillar 60 — the model that followed the merger of Best and Holt, and is essentially a rebranded Best 60 — will be on display outside the center for the next two weeks.
Current CEO and Chairman Doug Oberhelman noted Thursday in brief remarks to a crowd including Best’s grandson that the founding chairman’s business acumen proved as essential to the company’s long-term viability as breakthrough development of the track, the technology that would become the industry standard.
Best headed to Wall Street for the fledgling company’s initial public offering on Dec. 2, 1929 — weeks after a devastating stock market plunge wrought economic ruin and precipitated the Great Depression, which marked the first decade of Caterpillar’s corporate life.
“It makes my job seem a lot easier when I look at it from that perspective,” Oberhelman said.
Matt Buedel is the Journal Star business reporter. He can be reached at 686-3154 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JournoBuedel.