Silver King Tractors
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The History Of Plymouth And Silver King Tractors
Compiled by SKY Tractor Club, Plymouth, Ohio
During the great industrial revolution of the United States many people and small communities played a key part in the history of developing the transportation and agricultural industries. They helped to guide, develop and in some cases inspire such corporations as Ford, Chrysler, Massey Ferguson and John Deere. Quite often the little people with the big ideas are lost in the shuffle, but in Plymouth, Ohio a group of antique tractor collectors called the Silver Kings of Yesteryear Tractor Club is promoting what it knows of the Fate-Root-Heath Company's contribution to the history of agriculture. A brief history of the beginnings of the Fate-Root-Heath Company, manufacturer of the Plymouth and Silver King tractor, will set the stage for the role the company played in the revolutionizing of the development of the farm tractor as we know it today.
In the late 1800s, Pennsylvania brickyard worker J.D.Fate and his business partner were attracted to Plymouth, in north central Ohio, by the community's promise to help them found an industry that would bring jobs to the area. In 1882 the Fate & Gunsaullus Co. began building clay extruding machinery for making brick. In 1892 Fate bought out his partner and formed the J.D.Fate Company, still making clay machinery.
In 1909 Fate organized the Plymouth Truck Company, building motor trucks under the name "Plymouth". The organization wasn't a great success and the Plymouth Truck Company went out of business in 1915, after building fewer than 200 trucks and a single Plymouth passenger car.
Part of the failure of the Plymouth truck and car business may have been the success of another of J.D.Fate's enterprises. About the same time the trucks were being built, a clay machinery customer asked Fate if he could build a machine that would replace the mules then being used to move rail cars around the rail yard of his plant. Fate's yard locomotive proved to be very successful, and laid the foundation for what would become the company's primary product, Plymouth Locomotives.
In 1919 Fate joined with Root-Heath Manufacturing Company and formed the Fate-Root-Heath Co. The new organization continued to build clay machinery, yard locomotives and added a line of sharpening equipment for reel type grass mowers. Business was good and the company prospered until the economic crash of 1929.
By the early 1930s orders for expensive locomotives had slowed to a trickle. In order to keep the factory doors open, Fate-Root-Heath needed a product that was cheap enough that people could afford to buy in quantity. The town of Plymouth was located in the middle of prime Ohio farm land; a farm tractor would be a natural addition to the product line. A tractor was well within the company's engineering and production capabilities. Charles Heath, general manager of the company at that time, presented the idea of building a farm tractor to get the company through the depression. An employee recalls, "Charlie was the kingpin of the operation. When Charlie hollered, everyone jumped, from the president on down". So the company set out to build a farm tractor. The first tractors were designed by the company's locomotive engineers, and looked it.
Floyd Carter, chief engineer of the locomotive department, designed a huge, heavy affair powered by a big, slow speed Climax engine. This was just the kind of tractor farmers were turning away from in favor of lighter, more maneuverable machines. What was needed was a small, light inexpensive tractor.
Trials and Transitions
Like all jobs in those days of the great depression, engineering positions were in short supply. Engineers came to Fate-Root-Heath from various parts of the country seeking employment and bringing with them new ideas on how farm tractors should be designed. Several new engineers were hired, and design work was begun on a new tractor. An innovative new tractor resulted - the Plymouth. The company had defined its niche in the farm tractor market and designed a machine "built for the acre or less farm, but with a definite place as an auxiliary tractor on the larger farm". The new machine was light, used a small, high speed motor, and had a four speed transmission. The original Plymouth was powered by a Hercules IXB engine (starting in 1940, some Silver Kings used a Continental L-head engine). It was a one plow standard tread tractor that could plow all of 5 acres in a ten hour day. Its four speed transmission allowed a top speed of an unheard of 25 mph. Fate-Root-Heath engineers were using the transmission on their other products.
The Plymouth tractors were painted silver, with blue wheels for contrast. The tractor weighed 2100 pounds and could be ordered in two different tread widths, 38 and 44 inches.
Soon another new engineer came to Fate-Root-heath. Luke B. Biggs was a farmer who had built his own tractor, using an automobile engine and a Ford truck rear axle. One of the more original features of Mr. Biggs' tractor was its single front wheel. Mr. Biggs showed Charles Heath a photo of his home built tractor, and was offered a job on the spot. Within a week of that first meeting, Luke B. Biggs brought his farming and tractor building experience to work with him at Fate-Root-Heath in the tractor department. Within a few weeks he was made superintendent of the tractor division.
The most revolutionary feature of the new Plymouth tractor was that it was the first tractor ever to be designed from the ground up to use rubber tires. "We put some on steel wheels," recalled Mr. Biggs, "but when we delivered a tractor we always took along a set of rubber for the farmer to try. I don't recall ever bringing a set of rubber tires back to the plant after they had been demonstrated. There were a lot of steel wheels left to rust along the fence rows." Though the company sales literature heavily promoted the use of rubber tires, steel wheels were the standard equipment and rubber had to be purchased at extra cost.
Chrysler Corporation had been using the Plymouth trademark name for their automobile since 1928. Apparently Chrysler had no complaint with the Plymouth name on locomotives, but seeing little tractors buzzing down the road at 25 mph with Plymouth on them was too much. In 1934 Fate-Root-Heath and Chrysler tangled over the use of the name. That single Plymouth car built back in 1910, before Chrysler Corporation even existed, saved the day for Fate-Root-Heath. Chrysler's high powered lawyers were sent packing back to Detroit with their tails between their legs and Chrysler was forced to buy the right to use the Plymouth name from Fate-Root-Heath, reportedly paying one dollar for it. All tractors built in the plant after serial number 314 would carry the name Silver King.
The Development of the Silver King Tractor
By 1936 the tractor business was booming. Tractors were going out the door at the rate of four or five a day. Mr. Biggs and his crew had developed a three wheeled tractor that borrowed heavily from his own homemade design. The tractor employed a swinging drawbar that was attached to the frame 18 inches ahead of the rear axle center line. In turns, the forward attachment of the drawbar allowed the load being pulled to pull the front wheels into the turn, eliminating the need for turning brakes. Designed as a row crop cultivator tractor, the three wheeled model featured a unique steering arrangement of levers and chains that formed a bulky appendage located out in front of the radiator. This steering gear, though ugly, was effective and cheap to manufacture.
The low, stable design of the four wheel Silver King along with the lights and horn available, made it popular for a variety of uses. The Works Progress Administration was paving highways and spending more time and money on keeping them mowed. The Silver Kings made perfect highway mowers. The little tractors had plenty of power on the job, and with their rubber tires and high road speed, they could get to and from the work area quickly. With optional bull and pinion gear sets, the tractors would travel at speeds up to 45 mph. They were also popular in Hollywood, being used to tow movie sets around the lots of Warner Brothers and other companies. It has been said that popular actress Mae West was so impressed by these, that she purchased several for her vineyard. California vegetable growers liked them because in first gear they could tow a wagon through the field slowly enough for the pickers to keep up with it, and then haul the loaded wagon over the roads to collection points at high speeds, wasting little precious harvest time. Many manufacturing concerns used Silver King industrial tractors also.
Plymouth engineers were at work developing live hydraulics, a three point hitch, and a completely hydraulic transmission in the late 1930s. Silver Kings were the first tractor to come out with a starter, lights and rubber tires. All the while the innovative little tractor was attracting attention from all quarters. Henry Ford bought several, and stated that "The Silver King is the best tractor on the market." The engineers entertained interested visits from the likes of Harry Ferguson, and a John Deere sales manager was heard to say the Silver King was, "The best made, poorest sold tractor of its time."
Throughout the late 1930s the tractors rolled off the assembly line at a pace that did more than just keep Fate-Root-Heath out of bankruptcy. The assembly line had been fine tuned and when all the necessary parts were available, a tractor could be turned out every 30 minutes. The year 1937 was the best ever for Silver King production, with over 1000 tractors being built. Never again would the company build that many tractors in one year.
World War II brought a huge demand of Plymouth locomotives. The company worked nearly at capacity building locomotives and other war material. Because of the demands of the War Department, tractor production slowed to a trickle for the duration.
After the war, the long denied need for tractors had dozens of companies scrambling to meet the demand. At Fate-Root-Heath, the demand for locomotives was just as strong, and the competition less fierce. Tractor production continued, but the tractor division had much less support from the company management than it had enjoyed in the 1930s. Building locomotives was, after all, the company's principal business. They had entered the tractor market as a way to keep the doors open through the depression. In the flush post-war business environment there was no longer any need for the tractor division.
The End of an Era
Engineers in the tractor division were constantly at work improving the Silver King, even as support from above was eroding. Finally in 1954, Fate-Root-Heath management ran out of tolerance for the tractor division. Parts and tooling were sent to the Mountain State Fabrication Company in Clarksburg, West Virginia in February of that year. Mountain State had sprung up during the war, doing government work, and was now struggling to keep its doors open just as Fate-Root-Heath had decades before.
Mountain State restarted the serial number series at 50000 and built approximately 75 tractors. Of these "West Virginia" (also called Mountain State) Silver Kings, there were a few three wheelers, the majority being the late model four wheelers. Unfortunately, even a successful product like the Silver King couldn't keep Mountain State in business. Mountain State sent the remaining parts back to Plymouth were they were sent to a local junkyard, and Fate-Root-Heath washed its hands of the tractor business forever. Approximately 8700 Silver King and Plymouth tractors had been built.
The Fate-Root-Heath Company remained family owned and operated until March of 1966. It was then sold to Harold Schott, and in 1969 it became a wholly owned division of Banner Industries, Inc. of Cleveland, Ohio and renamed the Plymouth Locomotive Works. In 1987, employees of the Plymouth Locomotive Works, Banner International Inc. and Plymouth Supply Company purchased the operation from Banner, and a new employee owned company was born, and the name changed to Locomotive International, Inc. On December 9, 1996 after 9 years of employee ownership, the shareholders voted to sell their interest in the company to American Hoist and Derrick of Bucyrus, Ohio. The name was changed to Plymouth Industries, Inc. and the firm continues to manufacture industrial locomotives, lift trucks and ceramic extrusion machinery.
Today Silver King tractors are remembered fondly by the farmers who farmed with them, the men who built them, and the people of Plymouth, Ohio whose economy was sustained by the little silver tractors through the depths of the depression.
Records and Silver King history that existed at the Plymouth factory have all been lost or destroyed. All information was gathered through interviews with Silver King owners and past employees.