Four Drive Tractor Company

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FDTC logo 1916

Ludington News - Incorporate

Ludington News - FDTC to Big Rapids

Four Drive Tractor Plant postcard

FDTC Plant - Big Rapids

Motor Age photo

Motor Age March 1916

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    In the Summer of 1915, John H. Fitch organized and incorporated ‘The Four-Drive Tractor Company’ for $50,000, of which $27,010 was paid in capital. Ludington, Michigan was stated in the articles of incorporation as the principal place of business, but that could be amended if desired.

    The officers of the company were as follows:

  • John H. Fitch - President

  • Elbert J. Jenkins of Big Rapids -Vice President [register of deeds and a prominent member of the Big Rapids Chamber of Commerce].

  • Clay F. Olmstead of Ludington - Secretary

  • Richard J. Fitch (John's son) - Treasurer

    The members of the board of directors were:

  • George Fitch (John's brother)

  • Dr. William Taylor of Ludington

  • C.E. Logan of Quenemo, KS

    Secretary Clay Olmstead stated on the morning of the incorporation, "The board of directors has voted to accept the proposition most favorable to the concern regardless of the city from which it comes. We have pledged ourselves to act without prejudice toward any one place."  The company had several good propositions concerning the location of the manufacture of the tractors from four or five men in Ludington, three from Pentwater, one from Big Rapids and one from Quenemo, Kansas.  

    On September 16, 1915, the directors increased capitalization to $200,000.

    The Big Rapids, Michigan board of trade decided that the manufacture of the machine would prove of value to Big Rapids. The board gave the company an offer that it could not refuse. In exchange for moving the company to Big Rapids, it would be given a new building, land and free light and power for five years. In early 1916, ground was broken for the factory on Maple Street east of the Grand Rapids & Indiana railroad tracks. The board of trade financed the construction of the 45' x 200' brick building with a 30' x 40' L-shaped addition for the blacksmith department at a cost of $10,000. The company also acquired five acres of land at the junction of the Pere Marquette and Grand Rapids & Indiana railroads.

    The Big Rapids board of trade also took over all the stock that the company wanted to dispose of at the time. The contract between the company and Big Rapids allowed the company to start with the employment of eight men, with an increase to 80 within five years. The salaries of the men were not made mandatory; the only requirement was that those who were employed shall be given full time work.

    The machine shop was turned over to the company while the building was being constructed. John moved to Big Rapids to take care of his new company, leaving his family in Riverton to take care of the farm.

    After Motor Age magazine of Chicago published a story on the stump-climbing tractor in March 1916, literally hundreds of letters poured into the Big Rapids post office. Inquiries came from every state in the country and every first-class foreign nation. French, English and even Russian firms wrote for information regarding the new machine.  Management mapped out plans for covering a large selling area and as soon as the necessary materials arrived, they would begin distributing the tractors.

    machinery at the Four Drive Tractor Company plantIn April, the company moved into the building, which consisted of machinery and equipment enough for the manufacture of five or six machines a day. World War I caused a great delay in the arrival of raw materials, but the company did not get discouraged over the impossibility of filling orders. They had taken the best possible measures for making the delay profitable and spent every minute perfecting the machine. New parts received rigorous testing - including having the tractor climb an outside wall of the building - in order to make the endurance qualities of the tractor as permanent as possible. They provided for the installation of Timken roller bearings in the rear axle and it worked without a hitch. The Company also commenced a long relationship with the Cotta Transmission Corporation of Rockford, IL in the implementation of a special three-speed Cotta transmission. The Oliver Plow Company of South Bend, Indiana sent up one of their plows for a work-out with the tractor, and the combination turned over a patch of ground in no time at all.

    The Pioneer Herald of Big Rapids ran a large, front-page story of John and his four drive tractor in their Progress Edition in the late summer of 1916. The article opened by stating, "In the Four Drive Tractor Company, Big Rapids has an infant industry of great promise. With an almost limitless market in the comparatively new filed, the prospects of the organization defy prophecy." It continues, "The story of the inventor-president of the Four Drive Tractor Company, Mr. J.H. Fitch, and of his machine which walks over stumps and climbs eighteen inch curbs, reads like a romance." The article goes on to describe John's setbacks and failures and how he persevered to invent his tractor and form the company.

    John spent his entire time at the factory in Big Rapids working early and late so that his tractor might be made perfect and placed on the market. Arrangements were made to rush work through the winter of 1916 and to have the tractors on the market in large numbers by the spring of 1917.

   In an ironic twist of the Pioneer Herald's headline, tragedy struck as John was about to reach the grand climax of his life's work.  John became stricken with a bowel obstruction and died on November 18, 1916.

    After John suddenly passed away, Elbert Jenkins became the President and Albin Johnson was named as Secretary. The company continued to make improvements on the tractor in order to fill orders that were placed in 1916. The company finally received the materials needed for construction and produced tractors starting in 1917; however, the company struggled financially during the first few years.

Four Drive Tractor driven by Albin Johnson climbing a wall at the plant in Big Rapids    The Four Drive Tractor Company secured a solid footing during 1919 because of various improvements that were made to the tractor and the company. These changes lead to the firm selling its entire 1920 output before the year started. The changes concerning the company was that it had emerged from trusteeship.

    The trusteeship was brought about because of the former inability to meet current obligation running up to $30,000 or more. The two men placed in charge inaugurated a policy of paying for everything as it was bought and of selling the output for cash. This way, they had assurance that the business was taking care of itself, and that the stockholders had reason to know that cash was not being lost because there was no cash income except from sales. The company was finally paying its first dividend on preferred stock from earnings with a rate of 7% per year. The proceeds from the sale of this stock went to pay the floating debt and to make possible the discharge of the trustees as well as to purchase additional machinery, which was expected to increase production. The only concern of the company was being able to produce all the tractors that had already been ordered.

    By 1919, the company established an Foreign Department at 15-25 Whitehall Street in New York City (later the Export Department was located at 15 Moore Street in New York City) to arrange for the sale of tractors to individuals and governments in foreign countries. The tractors were manufactured at the factory in Big Rapids and then were shipped from the factory to the purchaser by railroad and then by cargo ship to the largest shipping port in that country.

    There is not much known about the company during the 1920's but it appears that the company was having some finanical difficulties even though many tractors were sold all over the world.

   A flyer promoting the company was published just before an annual stockholders meeting on Monday, January 12, 1920, probably to entice new financial interest in the firm which was experiencing financial problems at least a year earlier, according to a brief account found in the Pioneer's year-end review of 1919.

    That account briefly stated: "Jan. 7. - Trust mortgage filed for creditors of Four Drive Tractor Co. ; accounts payable listed at $29,273.78."

    Under the headline "The Four Drive Tractor is Going Strong," the flyer reads:

    "Four years have passed since the Four Drive tractor first interested the people of Big Rapids. Since that time a factory has been constructed and a large addition built. The company has passed through the vicissitudes usually incident to the swing of a new industry. Days of experiment and struggle have come and gone."

    "At the beginning of 1920 the Four Drive stands in a favorable position. The experimenting is done. The tractor is standardized. It is giving splendid satisfaction in the field. It is a good machine; many users and dealers regard it as the best on the market. Its motor burns oil. And my, how it pulls!"

    "The judgment of the men in charge is that the Four Drive has gone by the period of trial. Of late it has been making some money. The earnings are not large, but they give promise that, with production on a quantity basis, the earnings can be put up to a gratifying point. A dividend is now being paid to the holders of preferred stock. This stock is preferred for a 7 percent dividend, and the dividend on this stock must be paid when the company is making a net profit. It is estimated that the present net profit is between $2,000 and $3,000 per month on present production."

    "The demand for the Four Drive tractor is way beyond the present power to produce. A contract has been made which absorbs all the probable production for 1920. The problem is one of production and management."

    "The policy of the present management is to build upon accomplishment rather than upon promises and hopes. The accomplishments of the past year lend solidity to the belief in the future of Big Rapids' newest industry."

    The flyer closed with a listing of the company's directors and company logo. The directors at that time were:

  • G.H. Lynch of Big Rapids, president

  • A.V. Young of Big Rapids, vice president and treasurer

  • W.A. Stillwell of Big Rapids, secretary

  • J.G. Martz of Big Rapids

  • William Taylor of Ludington

  • F.H. McKay of Ithaca, MI

  • Otto Sanderhoff of Alma, MI.

       An article found in the October 23, 1922 edition of the Pioneer, pointed to continued financial difficulties for the them six-year-old business. That article promulgates a denial from Big Rapids Savings Bank of charges brought in circuit court by 11 local businessmen - investors in the Four Drive Tractor Company.

    The lengthy article explained that the 11 men charged that they had loaned Four Drive $12,000 with the understanding that the bank would repay them from tractor sales. The bank denied any such agreement and instead used sales of the tractor to help pay off other debts owed by the firm. The 11 men involved in the lawsuit were Dr. Lynch, A.V. Young, W.A. Stillwell, J.G. Martz, George F. Fairman, C.P. Judson, R.C. Stewart, G. Masselick, Fred Hood, George A. Wright and E.G. Hopkins.

    Bank officials admitted that "the plaintiffs had recently demanded that the bank repay them $12,000 with full interest but aver such a claim is an afterthought and is stale and that if the plaintiffs had a right to demand the same they would have made their demands in August 1920 and would not have waited until 1922 when the company had become insolvent..."

    Attorneys representing the bank asked the court to dismiss the case, but further records of the case have not been uncovered to determine the finality of the issue or the future solvency of the firm.

    An article from a Big Rapids newspaper reported that in September 1928, sales representative Evart W. Bogart set sail from New York on a four-month trip to French possessions to set up and instruct operators with the Fitch Four Drive Tractor. He went to Havre, France and then to Paris to meet with the French representative of the Four Drive Tractor Company. The two men planned to go to Morocco, Algeria, Casablanca and other French colonies in Africa. The tractors had been sold to these colonies for many years and Mr. Bogart had several more on the ship with him.

     The company continued to produce tractors in 1929 and probably early 1930. The exact date that the Four Drive Tractor Company ceased operations or to whom all assets of the company were sold is unknown at this point in time. In all likelihood, the financially troubled company folded operations after the stock market crashed in October 1929.