By Fred Reicker
While a installs a to attract a new generation of manufacturers, a history book recalls a time over a century ago when a family-owned business based on Davis Street helped revolutionize agriculture and earth-moving.
“Making Tracks” by Ed and Sue Claessen tells how Daniel Best and his son, Clarence Leo (C. L.) created steam, diesel and gas-powered tractors that replaced horse power and trasnsformed many industries.
Like a corporate whodunit, the book also details the rivalry between the Bests and their chief rival, the Holt Manufacturing Company of Stockton, that led to a legal feud on which affected the fates of both companies.
"Making Tracks" is a business saga that began in Iowa and ended in Peoria by way of San Leandro. And it all began with one man.
The Prodigal Son
Daniel Best was born in Tuscarawas County, Ohio on March 20, 1838. Over his father’s objections, Daniel left the family farm in 1859 and joined a wagon train as a stock tender and sharpshooter to seek his fortune on the Pacific Coast. The small game he bagged along the way went into the communal pot.
Daniel drifted through Washington and Oregon for a few years, trying his hand at mining, farming and lumbering as markets and finances dictated.
Then in 1868, a life-altering event occurred. A lumber mill saw sliced off three fingers. “If he hadn’t lost his fingers," the authors wrote, "he wouldn’t have used his head.”
Seven-fingered Daniel headed south and joined three brothers near Yuba City. They grew grain but had to take it to town for cleaning and separating, which hurt profits. Seeing an opportunity, Daniel invented and patented a portable separator which did the “dirty work” on the farm, saving his brothers time and money.
To raise funds to expand production, Daniel sold a half interest in the machine. After it won a First Prize at the 1871 State Fair, orders jumped and he built a factory at Marysville..
Now married, Daniel and his wife Meta moved to Oregon where he struck it poor in an ill-fated mining venture, barely managing to salvage the family's finances. It was in Oregon that the couple welcomed their new son, Clarence Leo (C.L.), into the world on April 21, 1878.
The mining debacle sent Daniel back to agriculture. He and a partner began manufacturing the grain cleaner and separator at a plant in Albany, Oregon. Healthy sales led them to establish another outlet in Oakland and an assembly plant at Third and Washington Streets.
The move to San Leandro
Then the police changed the fortunes of two cities. When police complained about machines being stored on local streets, Daniel left town.
He bought the San Leandro Plow Works in Block 50 on Davis Street and established the Daniel Best Agricultural Works. (Note: OSIsoft, which is installing the fiber optic loop, is an occupant of the former Best/Caterpillar property, as are F.H.Dailey Chevrolet and the Wells Fargo Bank Operations Center.)
After selling his business interests in Oregon, Daniel settled his family in what was to become “The Daniel Best House” on the corner of Clarke and W. Estudillo, within an easy walk to the new plant.
He plunged into his next major venture—combining his stationary separator-cleaner technology with a harvester. The machine’s unique features won accolades from farmers and their appreciation for boosting profitability.
Steam versus Horsepower
Emboldened by his success, Best tackled the need for even greater mechanization.
On the huge California farms of the late 1800s, 40 horses straining in a cumbersome bridle to pull a harvester was a common sight. The logistics to support these teams and related costs were huge and “the toll on the animals was considerable,” as the book notes.
Aware that steam power was being used in other applications around the country, Best bought the rights to manufacture a steam tractor which an Oregon engineer had brought to San Leandro for a demonstration.
He set about improving and adding heft to the design until he had a machine capable of pulling a combine. He sold his first unit in 1889 for $4,500.
The company’s 1891 catalogue touted 30-, 40- and 50- horsepower models. The 40-hp. unit weighed nine tons. Its spoked rear wheels were 7 ½ ft. in diameter and 26 inches across. A 110- hp. behemoth later joined the lineup. Photos show these steam contraptions spewing dense clouds of smoke from their stacks, but that was before spare-the-air days.
Best traction machines soon earned a sterling reputation on western farms, in the forests of the Northwest and at mining sites as distant as Siberia.
But in the wings-- the internal combustion engine, which Best saw as the inevitable replacement for the steam traction machine and its minimum crew size of four.
He first developed and patented a single-cylinder, four-stroke horizontal gas engine. Models ranging from 2- hp. up to 40- hp. soon joined the company’s product line, the smaller units suitable for household and small jobs on the farm, the larger for manufacturing plants and pump stations.
A gasoline-powered traction machine made its debut in 1896, and in a tug of war “hauled the steam (traction) machine around the block,” according to the July 4 San Leandro Reporter.
Meanwhile, Clarence Leo (C.L.) Best, who as a teen had immersed himself in all aspects of the business, officially joined the company as buyer in in 1897.
He was named superintendent a year later. It was now incorporated as the Best Manufacturing Company to reflect its more diverse business.
But the growing enterprise did not have the field to itself, and the turn of the century saw the San Leandro firm enter a long struggle with a Stockton rival.
“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 Two, the Bests begin to tangle with rival Holts.)