CATERPILLAR TRACTOR COMPANY VS. THE ILLINOIS RIVER
 

Although Peoria in its history has had many kinds of industries, for many years it seemed that it was a one industry town, employing many hundreds of people at the Caterpillar Tractor Company. In the 1980’s there was a big move to downsize the company, and the volume of workers declined greatly. Now in the 21st Century, the company continues to make quality products and still shows a profit while many other similar industries continue to struggle. In the beginning of Big Yellow’s inception, as well as in later years when its ability to carry out production was in jeopardy, many thought the power of nature, namely the Illinois River might put under Caterpillar and other businesses along the river banks.

One man who experienced the promise of a new company and its struggles with the Illinois River was my Grandpa. He was born in 1875 and died in 1963, and thus, witnessed a lot of growth and progress in this the River City. I would like to share his experience in his own words.

I was working for Acme Harvester Co. when the company began to show signs of slowing business and nearing bankruptcy. The manufacturing of machines was almost at a stand-still, only the foundry was producing and selling castings to outside companies. In 1917 I applied at the Holt Manufacturing Co. for employment in their office for cost accounting work, but I was told at that time they were in need of an accountant who could install a workable cost accounting system in the plant. This required an accounting expert which was beyond my experience and ability, and so I got no job there at the time. However, in April of 1918, a job in their cost accounting department opened up, and I started working there.

In that year, World War I was at its height and Holt Co. had government contracts for many of their tractors for the War Department, and the plant was practically run by army officers and government men as supervisors and inspectors. All employees were required to wear an identification badge of some kind to enter the plant. While the actual labor costs on parts and labor were estimated mostly by the manufacturing departments, we in cost accounting figured out and supplied the material costs.

In the 1920’s and the end of World War I, there were various changes in my work there as new ideas in the department were introduced. In 1925, Murray M. Baker, Manager of the Holt Co., went to California to consult with the C. L. Best Co. of San Leandro, makers of the caterpillar type tractors. This resulted with the two companies merging to form the Caterpillar Tractor Company. It was decided that the manufacturing plant should be built in Peoria. So the expansion plans and building a new Peoria plant was started with new factory and office buildings. This almost stopped and the Peoria plant plans discouraged when in 1927, after heavy rains over the East Peoria area, the Farm Creek which flowed from the hills back of town, overflowed its banks, flooding the land in back of the factory and flooded through the plant. It caused great damage, buckling up wood block floors, scattering blocks everywhere and damaging machines and motors. The Best Co. almost withdrew from the Peoria idea, if such disasters were to happen again from this overflowing creek. The Peoria authorities saved the day. They quickly started to end any further flood threats by excavating a new deep channel down to the river and build dikes to prevent overflow again. So we saw the Caterpillar Tractor Co. continue to build and expand to the west and to the south toward East Peoria, and to become the immense plant it is today.

As we can remember, the years of the 1930’s brought us the years of depression and business recession, with manufacturing plants almost to the shutting down point. Many men were laid off and idled at Caterpillar, and a lot of office employees were out and all were subject to reduction in salary. But it seemed that the work I was doing was important enough to keep me on the job. I was never laid off or lost time, but I suffered two cuts in salary which was hard to take in those hard times and with my large family (8 children) to support. These salaries were all adjusted and increased in later years, and the early 1940’s were good to me. However, as I was growing too old in years, and therefore, I was among the first group to retire in 1945 when the retirement rule was adopted.

Caterpillar Tractor Co. was not yet safe from the power of the Illinois River. A near disastrous event happened in May of 1943. As the Caterpillar folks put it, "come hell or high water," the company never expected either, but got plenty of each for more than one week starting May 20th when the Illinois River went on a rampage and soared to a flood crest of 17 feet above normal, when heavy spring rains raised the river to flood stage. More than 15,000 Caterpillar employees battled weakened levies and reinforced them with over a million and a half sand bags. Over 250 pieces of earth-moving equipment were rushed to the most critical areas and operated 24 hours per day until the crisis had passed on Sunday, May 23rd. the first line of defense was the dike. Here the men working in unending, twisting lines, lugged 75 pound sacks of sand to strengthen weak spots that developed. The top of the dike was raised four to six feet by the never ending stream of men who blocked windows, doors, manhole covers and over 300 other openings in the 70 acre plant. Four wells were bulk-headed to protect drinking water.

One major problem of the near disaster was material procurement. There was no time for priority ratings and red tape. The office of Defense Transportation and Illinois State Highway Department lifted the speed limit restrictions on materials, and equipment was pouring into Caterpillar. The hours of men working on flood control was divided into 12 hour shifts, and the levies were divided into sections comparable to war time battle zones. When trouble was discovered, bucket lines were instantly formed and sand bags would literally fly to the spot. Thousands of gallons of coffee and soup, food, cigarettes and candy were provided free to flood workers. In the first week, workers consumed over 154,000 sandwiches, 5,080 gallons of hot coffee, 101,500 cups of soup and 5,200 packages of cigarettes. The entire force of 142 restaurant employees worked in 12-hour shifts starting on Saturday, May 22, and was maintained until Friday, May 28th. Night was turn into day by nine Caterpillar Diesel Electric Generator Sets. Four Caterpillar first aid stations were set up on a levee to protect workers. About five miles of levee along the river had to be patrolled and protected. This description covers only a small portion of the great story of the battle with the flood.

Office workers had their troubles too. Record files, stationary, and desks were all raised to safe levels throughout the plant in case the water might enter. Many employees were sent home and only departments vital to the flood control worked unceasingly. Personnel worked in three shifts. They cooperated with East Peoria and State Police on traffic problems, and answered frantic calls from flood workers’ wives about the safety of their husbands. Those in Purchasing too were working fast and furiously. All this meant much work also coming up for the Cost Department, and my job of keeping this mass of material and labor expense on the flood expense account set up. Thousands of items had to be acquired almost over night to help stem the flood waters. There were hundreds of small items, but to mention one of the larger purchases, sand bags. They were first ordered by the thousands and later they were order in 40,000 lots from a dozen different cities, numbering 1,700,000. I remember only once being sent home, when early in the flood emergency it was thought there might be a breakthrough, and we were all sent home at noon, as they feared we might not be able to leave the building later.

All of this recording of events may not be of much interest to those who read this. My life has been uneventful as far as interesting life stories go, only the life of any family man with his work. I have tried to record something which will tell other generations about conditions in life during my generation, hoping those to come will have greater opportunities in life.

As I read my grandpa’s words and visualized what it must have been like during those days of the 1943 Flooding Disaster, I have to admire how these men and women worked to help their company survive. They helped save many from the flooding along the banks of the Illinois River. It was my grandpa’s wish that we in the later generations would have greater opportunities in life, and I think that it was because of their willingness to sacrifice and do their best that we have been able to enjoy the fruits of what Caterpillar and other companies have brought to the Peoria Community and Central Illinois.

Submitted by Cheryl J. Rimington Criss

 

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