Each week, we will be taking a look back at the fascinating history of Burr Ridge and separating fact from fiction. This week, we bring you the back story of how International Harvester contributed to the D-Day invasion and other military engagements during the Second World War.
Jim Martin knows his Farmalls from his “blitz buggies”. As well he should: Martin grew up on International Harvester’s experimental research farm from 1940-1967. His father was a truck driver who delivered dynamite. Understandably seeking safer employment, Martin’s father was hired as a dairyman at the IH farm. The family lived on the second floor of an IH building (the first floor was his workspace). In 1950, their house was already 100 years old. The IH land at that time was bounded by Route 66 on one side and Rodgers Farm to the west.
The Farmall, as we now know, was the iconic reaper that was invented, and then re-engineered and tested at the IH site here in what became Burr Ridge. IH wasn’t only famous for its Farmalls. Like many industries during World War II, Martin recalls that the IH factory contributed to the war effort by producing small-tracked vehicles to pull Howitzers. These were called “blitz buggies.” They were tested on a dirt track near Plainfield Road. Jim recalls climbing onto a prototype of this very vehicle. The dirt test track featured a large green grandstand where IH dealers could watch IH vehicles in action. The entrance of CNH now sits on the land once occupied by the grandstand.
IH even contributed to historic French invasions (D-Day). In particular, IH’s TD18 bulldozers, the LST (landing ship tank) vessels carried TD18s to the landing sites in France. TD18s built ramps to help other vehicles land safely, according to Martin.
Many prototypes were tested at the facility for everyday farm uses. For example, for dairies, a plastic milk barrel surrounded by perforated metal housing was tried. This metal-saving, World War II-era design ultimately failed, however, due to a lack of advanced plastics at the time.
The IH farm was a bit of a celebrity itself. Martin recalls paparazzi: his childhood home is memorialized as the backdrop in many IH catalogues. Pictured below is one of those ads: the L-160 truck. Martin is the boy in the plaid shirt at right, and was paid $100 to assist in the photo shoot, which he said was staged to make the truck appear tougher than it really was. While the L-160 appears fully loaded in the photo, the load of hay is actually a small layer of hay atop a light wooden platform. This meant that the truck’s springs did not appear burdened in the photo.
Even the cows on the IH farm reached celebrity status: three stuffed cows that once were part of the Museum of Science and Industry farming exhibit originally lived at the IH farm. Mr. Martin’s father milked them!
IH, while home to Martin, was also a “home” to long-time employees, whose sense of loyalty hasn’t faded these many years. This spring Flag Creek Heritage Society hosted Martin for a presentation that felt more like a reunion: long-time Harvester residents and IH retirees shared stories, laughter and bittersweet memories. Attendees remembered IH’s response during the Korean War: creating letter campaigns for those employees who were in the service over there. Long-time Harvester residents met again like old neighbors: familiar and comfortable. Others remembered with respectful grief of the risk—and cost—of testing experimental.
No doubt: IH looms large in Burr Ridge. If you, too, enjoy the significant history of IH’s role here, the vast McCormick-International Harvester Collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society has a vast majority IH archives. As Martin aptly said, “Truckloads of pictures exist there.” Or should we say “Farmalls-full?”
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