Henry Ford and Benjamin Holt

Henry Ford (1863–1947) is not one of my heroes. However, I do admire the innovations he brought to the assembly line. By the beginning of the twentieth century, many manufacturers already understood the value of interchangeable parts. But Ford was the first to apply this insight to the automotive industry. Using identical parts enabled him to streamline the process, lessen turnaround time, lower costs, and pass the savings on to consumers. As a result, Ford expanded his market.

Stockton inventor and businessman Benjamin Holt (1849–1920) was a contemporary of Ford. But according to evidence I came across at the Museum last week, he apparently followed a different path.

My evidence comes from a 1919 Holt 75 tractor that volunteers and Museum personnel are currently restoring. (For more details, see the blog entries for March 23 and June 8, 2011, and February 8, 2012, below.) At this point, it sits torn apart in at least a thousand pieces. Gears—large and small—tracks, shafts, engine parts, and mountains of nuts and bolts sit on workbenches, tables, and the floor throughout the shop.

The largest piece that can still be recognized as a tractor part is its enormous frame. I've attached a photograph of the rear section. (Click here for a larger image.) Look closely at the panel on the right. See the two rectangles cut into the steel plate? The edges are jagged and rough. Workers made them with a gas torch—while the tractor was still at the factory—to make way for other parts required to make the tractor run properly. See the square slightly to the left of and above the rectangles? Same story.

Now look closely at the lower rail on the left side. Using torches, workers trimmed sections of the inside edge to make way for large chains (think bicycle chains) that did their part to propel the tractor. As with the rectangles and square, I don't see these cuts as evidence of careful planning—or of standardization needed for assembly line precision.

The evidence I see instead tells me that the Museum's Holt 75 did not take shape on an assembly line like Ford's. To a large extent, it was still handcrafted. Fitting the pieces together still required craftsmen who could apply ingenuity and brute force, and at times customize individual parts with results that might vary from one tractor to another. At Holt, an approach like Ford's still apparently awaited the future.

Someday, the Museum's Holt 75 will be fully restored and operational. Whether and how soon this privately funded project reaches that goal depends largely on the generosity of volunteer workers and monetary contributions to the San Joaquin County Historical Society, the nonprofit organization that manages the Museum. To partner with the Society and help fund this restoration, contact me (leighjohnsen@sanjoaquinhistory.org) or Executive Director David Stuart (davidstuart@sanjoaquinhistory.org).

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