John H. Fitch

Inventor of the Four Drive Tractor

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John Fitch portrait - circa 1914

John and tractor at Big Rapids plant 1916

JHFitch obituary

    John Henry Fitch was born on January 19, 1847 in the small farming village of Ingenheim in the German-speaking region of Alsace, France.  At the age of 7, John, his parents and three sisters, landed in New York City and then migrated directly to Oxford County, Ontario, located 10 miles south of Woodstock.  In 1865 at the age of eighteen, John went to Greenwood, Michigan to learn the millwright trade - the setting up and repair of mill operations and machinery.

    John returned to Ontario and married Harriett Cecilia Lano, an 18-year-old English girl, on January 25, 1868 in Harriston.  John and Harriett came to Antrim County, Michigan on their wedding trip in an oxen-driven sleigh.  On October 19, 1868, John filed for application under the Homestead Act for 80 acres of land in section 34 of Helena Township (now part of Custer Twp).  John received his final citizenship papers on February 16, 1875. Shortly after receiving citizenship, John moved his family near his father's farm outside of Woodstock, Ontario.

   In 1879, John and Harriett moved back to Northern Michigan to Rapid River, Kalkaska County.  On August 4, 1879, John sold his 80 acres in section 34 in Custer Township and bought 80 acres of land located in section 30 of Custer Township.   John and Harriett moved their family to this land located on Finch Creek south of Bellaire and east of Alden.  John built a sawmill on the river and then started a small town called "Fitchville" near the mill.  John prospered in Fitchville until 1881 when the spring freshet carried out his dam, cutting his power supply and left him penniless. Now age 34, John set out down the coast of West Michigan to find work.

    Before long, John gained a one-quarter interest in a sawmill in Mason County where he was employed as millwright for two years at the Foster Brothers' shingle mill near the Washington Avenue Bridge. After taking on this job, he moved his family to Ludingtonin 1882.  In 1884, John moved to Summit Township, Mason County to take charge of a sawmill. Later in the year, John  set up his own sawmill located on Kibby Creek in Summit. There was a water dam on the east branch of Kibby Creek and part of the machinery was run by water power.  John built a house near the factory and moved his family there. He caught the fever of raising peaches which was developing rapidly in the area and started a small fruit farm on his land. After inventing the three-slated peach basket, John formed the ‘Summit Basket Factory' at the sawmill in 1885 to produce his invention. This was one of the first basket factories in Mason County.  After the dam broke in 1887, he took a partner named Cargil and moved the sawmill north of Ludington to Lincoln Village on Lincoln Lake.

    On March 23, 1888, John bought 40 acres of land located on Blundell Road in Riverton Township.  He purchased this land initially as a lumber project, but he desided to clear all the timber off the land and raise peaches. He built a log house and the family moved there from Summit. John continued his work as millwright at Lincoln until the dam went out at Lincoln and ended with the thinning supply of lumber in Mason County.  After his lumbering days were over, he became a full-time fruit farmer and earned the title as "Fruit Baron" with his businesslike methods and fine orchards.  Although now a farmer, John the mechanic continued to invent helpful items. In January 1897, John was granted a patent on his neat, durable and sensible package - the folding berry crate. In December 1897, he went to Milwaukee where he made arrangements for the manufacture of his patent wrench and drill.   Around 1902, John invented a self-opening street car switch. He bought a house in Ludington that had a machine shop where John produced his street-car switch. He took it to Chicago where it was used on the busy Chicago thoroughfares.

>>>Click here to read the story of  John's Four Drive Tractor

    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." It goes on to describe his 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 feature's headline, tragedy struck as John was about to reach the grand climax of his life's work.  John died at 10:30 on Saturday morning, November 18, 1916 at a hospital in Big Rapids where he was operated upon Friday morning for a bowel obstruction.  John had dinner during a business meeting on Thursday night in Big Rapids.  He was laid to rest at Lakeview Cemetery in Ludington. John lived to the age of 69 years 10 months.