It all started with turkey manure.
In 1957, brothers Cyril and Louis Keller of Rothsay, Minnesota, invented the first skid-steer, in response to a turkey producer’s need to clean out his barn, and ultimately disrupted the construction equipment market with their compact loader.
Cyril and Louis owned and operated Keller Manufacturing in Rothsay, a fabricating and repair shop. Local farmers often called on the inventive brothers to repair equipment such as plows, diggers and cultivators. They also manufactured snowblowers, plowshares and hay wagons.
One such customer, Eddie Velo who was a pioneer in the turkey industry, turned to the brothers in 1956 for their help. Velo was going from small flocks to a large production and needed a piece of equipment that could clean up large amounts of manure around posts set every eight feet apart in his two-story barns. The standard loader tractors at the time were too large, had limited maneuverability and were too heavy to operate on the second floor of his barn.
Cyril Keller, 97, of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and his nephew, Joe Keller, Wahpeton, North Dakota, recalled over a phone interview this week the history of the first Keller Loader. Joe Keller’s father, Louis Keller, passed in 2010 at the age of 87.
“It took a little time to work out the design,” Cyril Keller said. “Eddie agreed to pay a fair price if the loader worked, and if it didn’t work, he would just pay for the materials and we were out our time.”
That first prototype was a small, three-wheeled machine with a belt-driven transmission. It consisted of mostly manufactured parts, car wheels, a 6.6hp Kohler engine and a transmission from a Plymouth, and a few scrap parts from unusual sources.
“We were having trouble with the teeth bending on the manure fork, and were trying to work out a solution when our local police officer stopped by the shop,” said Cyril. “He left and came back in a little while with bars from the old jail. They were made of high carbon steel so they wouldn’t bend.” Problem solved.
The small loader’s left and right wheels were designed to act independently and were steered by left and right levers, rather than a steering wheel allowing the machine to skid when steered in opposite directions. “The center of the machine went around itself, and that’s what made it so important,” Cyril said.
The Kellers followed Eddie’s use of the loader, making only minor changes and modifying from a belt to a patented clutch drive system. By late 1958, six more Keller loaders were built and sold to area poultry farms, but the brothers were having trouble finding funding to mass produce their invention. With only one loader left, they were invited by Les Melroe of Melroe Manufacturing Company, Gwinner, North Dakota, to exhibit in the Melroe booth at the 1958 Minnesota State Fair.
Interest in the skid-steer was so great after the fair, Keller said, that Melroe offered to manufacture the loader, and it was agreed that Melroe would have exclusive manufacturing rights and pay the brothers on a royalty basis. The brothers also joined the company with Louis working on developing and refining the loader design and Cyril hitting the road selling.
“I traveled 50 to 60,000 miles per year in my pickup with the loader, setting up dealers and training them how to operate the machine,” Louis Keller said. “They couldn’t sell it without knowing how to use it. Once I demonstrated and they actually operated it, the sales guys were happy because then they were just bringing in the commissions. It worked out perfect.”
As Cyril traveled across North America and Europe, the loader grew in popularity, and market demands began to shape the machine. “I was listening to the farmers and the operators,” Cyril said. “I would give that feedback to Louis who would improve the designs based on customer input.”
The first Melroe Self Propelled Loader, M60, “complete with 9.2 HP engine” sold for $1,390 with four available attachments including a utility scoop, manure fork, rotary snow plow and sweeper. The Keller brothers received $15 royalty on each machine sale until about 1980 when the duration of the patent ended, said Joe Keller.
Melroe Company continued to improve and change the design and color. The third model loader introduced in 1960 was the Melroe M400, the first four-wheel drive skid-steer. The change from three to four wheels improved maneuverability on rough terrain. M400 had a decal featuring both the Melroe oval and the Farmhand brand to broaden its Midwest distribution network.
In 1962, the M440 Melroe Bobcat®, the first model with the Bobcat name, was introduced. The updated white design had enclosed drive compartments, double acting cylinders and most importantly, the 70/30 back-to-front weight distribution required to make it turn easily, according to Joe Keller.
“Without a load, the front end skids easily and with a full load, the rear skids easily,” he said. “This made the M440 the first true skid-steer loader.”
The white color was chosen as a strategy to pursue new markets: fertilizer and dairy. White hid fertilizer dust and signified cleanliness for the dairy market. The bobcat name, originated by advertising agent Lynn Bickett, was born after he looked up the bobcat’s – the animal – description in the dictionary as “tough, quick, and agile.”
The Keller brothers built seven loaders in 1957-58, and by 1969, the company built its 10,000th loader. Louis Keller’s 371 model, nicknamed “Mini-Bob,” was unveiled at the 1970 Dealers Convention in Phoenix Arizona. IronSearch® Buyers Guide for Farm Equipment, 2019 edition, shows this model’s list price in 1971 was $4,729.
Cyril Keller, who retired from Bobcat company in 1984, recently toured the Gwinner, North Dakota manufacturing facility where several of his grandchildren are employed. He was there to witness the assembly line that now produces one Bobcat skid-steer every 12.5 minutes, Cyril Keller said.
Louis Keller worked for Bobcat until 1969, when he quit to work on other inventions, including the 371 “Mini-Bob,” at his shop on his farm north of Cogswell, North Dakota. Louis passed in 2010 at 87 years old, having patented several innovative products including the first single stage ribbon auger snowblower. He also designed a number of attachments for the skid-steer, as well as the Loegering Tire Crawler Track, said his son, Joe Keller.
In 1988 and 1991, Fortune magazine named the Bobcat skid-steer loader one of “America’s Best 100 Products,” according to the Bobcat website. In 1999, Cyril and Louis Keller were inducted into the Association of Equipment Manufacturers Hall of Fame.
Today, those early Bobcats can be worth upwards of $1,500 according to Iron Solutions’ IronGuides®, the blue book for used ag and construction equipment values.
Current values for a wide variety of skid steers can be found at IronAppraiser.com. Advertised listings for over 2,000 skid-steers from Bobcat, Cat, Deere, Kubota and more are available at IronSearch.com
All because one farmer had manure problems.
- Phone interview with Cyril Keller and Joe Keller
- http://www.skidsteerhistory.com/ by Joe Keller
- Photos reprinted with permission from Joe Keller, skidsteerhistory.com