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The Birth of the Tank

The title and the photo are related, really. I grew up in Stockton, California which was home at the turn of the 20th Century to Benjamin Holt and his Holt Manufacturing Company. Holt invented a moveable track on agricultural tractors to cultivate the fertile but boggy peat soil of the San Joaquin Delta. He called this system the Caterpiller.

In 1914 the British Army needed to move artillery through the mud of France and dispatched officers to the U.S. for an alternative to horses. In Stockton they met Mr. Gilmore the general manager at Holt. To demonstrate the Caterpiller system he took them to his cattle ranch near Linden, east of Stockton, where the Sierra foothills begin.

Using a Holt tractor Gilmore built an earthen dam on a creek to create a lake.

(the dam is at lower right in the photo) The British were impressed enough to buy Holt tractors as prime movers for their guns. In France, Colonel Ernest Swinton saw the tractors in action and dreamed up the idea of putting armor plate on them to assault enemy lines. The tank was born.

My father managed Gilmore’s cattle ranch in the 1940s and 1950s when Greenlaw Grupe (pronounced GROUP-ee) owned it. Dad told me the story then. Grupe trucked in sand, built a bathhouse and shelter, and added a boat dock. On Sundays in the summer we drove out to the lake for picnics and swimming and boating. It was the one day a week I could drink strawberry soda. We returned to town bloated with hot dogs, potato chips, and sugar. Mom hosed us down in the yard to clean off the sand.

The photo is of me (blowing up the balloon) and Bert Sandman standing on the dam built by the Holt tractor that inspired the tank. Hardly the stuff for a History Channel interview, but perfect for a blog.

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