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San Leandro's 'Best' Factory Falls, Rises

The father-son team who transformed the tractor industry and San Leandro stumbled and clawed through the ups and downs of business.

 

(This is the second article in a three-part series based on “Making Tracks,” a book by Ed and Sue Claessen. They tell how Daniel Best and his son, Clarence Leo (C. L.) created steam, diesel and gas-powered tractors that transformed many industries -- and San Leandro. Part One recounted .)

By Fred Reicker

By the turn of the century Daniel Best was in his '60s and the tractor business was proving an increasingly tough row to hoe.

Particularly nettlesome was the larger Holt Manufacturing Company, an arch-rival based in Stockton that was in essentially the same business.

A patent-infringement suit filed by Best set off a years of legal battles that took a financial toll on both contestants. 

In 1908, facing a poor economy and escalating costs, Daniel Best, then 70, threw in the towel and accepted a buyout offer from Holt worth an estimated $325,000.

This must have been exhilarating for Holt Vice President Ben C. Holt.

In earlier internal correspondence, he speculated that if the purchase were completed, Holt Manufacturing Company “would be so strong that we could crush outside competition.”

Under the deal, two-thirds interest in the new company went to the Holt management group. Daniel's son and successor, C.L. Best, retained a one-third interest and the patent-infringement suit was dropped. Daniel Best retired.  

C.L. was elected president of the Holt-controlled Best Manufacturing Company. But this was not a happy union. By 1910, C.L felt that his authority had been so undercut that he resigned.

Oakland gladly welcomed C.L . He built a 30,000 sq. ft. plant on a 10-acre site in the Elmhurst District. It was to the General Office and Works for the C.L. Best Gas Traction Co., Inc.

But C.L. needed financial help. He had forfeited an estimated $50,000 interest in the Holt-controlled Best Manufacturing when he resigned.

Two-thirds of C.L. new financing came from investors in the Woodland area. This was to be fateful down the road.

C.L.'s new plant turned out gasoline-powered, round-wheel machines ranging from 25- to 70-hp. The company boasted that its own steel castings were used in the machines instead of the inferior cast grey iron used in others. The overall quality C.L. built into his machines won numerous top awards at the State Fair.

While C.L. saw the advantages of a self-laying track system vs. oversized drive wheels back in 1907, he knew that the nascent technology required substantial refining and testing before it would be accepted by farmers.

A machine that met C.L.’s ever higher standards, The New “C.L.B.” 70 H.P. Track Engine, rolled out of the Elmhurst plant in 1912. It was the first Best track- layer offered to the public and won a First Premium and a Gold medal at the 1913 State Fair. Still, C.L. continued to refine the track- laying system until, according to the authors, “he perfected the design that would become the industry standard”.

On the legal front in 1913, C.L. Best prevailed in another joust with Holt, this over the use of the Best name. Holt, which owned and used the Best name in San Leandro, claimed that C.L.’s use of the Best name in his Oakland company, and the proximity of the two operations, had created “considerable confusion of mail, telephone and wire orders.”

C L.’s attorney summed it up thusly: “I defended C.L. on the grounds that he had something entirely new, as his firm name indicated—gas. Holt still had a big steam outfit; Best a small gasoline rig. We licked ‘em. It cost Holt a lot.”

But 1913 was not an auspicious year for San Leandro.

The city was rocked by Holt’s subsequent decision to close its San Leandro plant and move manufacturing to Stockton. A heartbreaking fire marked Holt’s departure from the city. A building housing the models of machines associated with Daniel Best’s patents was destroyed.

Because it was masonry and supposedly “fireproof” a family member speculated that the fire was arson. BART’s downtown station stands on the building’s site.

Ironically, Holt’s San Leandro property was available as the Best company was outgrowing its Elmhurst complex.

The board had already decided to move the business elsewhere when Daniel Best urged C.L to consider San Leandro.

C.L. agreed if the city would help finance $20,000 of the $30,000 needed to buy the Holt property.

Daniel helped organize a fund-raiser in which residents contributed $14,000, and secured the balance from other sources. The deal was done, and demolition of the original Best buildings began in June 1916.

A new, 60,000 sq. ft. plant opened in the fall of 1916 with an initial workforce of 200 earning $17,000 a month in total payroll.

But C.L. Best was struggling with the costs of relocation, product development and a new  patent infringement suit filed by Holt that was to drag on for almost four years.

The investors in Woodland, who had provided two-thirds of the financing for the Best Gas Traction Company, were now disenchanted with their venture.

The company was vulnerable.

Making Tracks” is written by Ed and Sue Claessen and can be purchased for $35.  It is also available in the library. Fred Reicker is a former member and chair of the San Leandro Library and Historical Commission.

(In Part Three, a sewing machine salesman buys Best.)

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