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Lee Fosburgh keeps Caterpillar's archives — from antique tractors to Cat hats

Duckfoot cultivating for morning glory control with caterpillar Diesel D2 tractor and John Deere 11½ cover crop cultivator on April 11, 1939. No other caption information available. (AP Photo)
Duckfoot cultivating for morning glory control with caterpillar Diesel D2 tractor and John Deere 11½ cover crop cultivator on April 11, 1939. No other caption information available. (AP Photo)

Like other multinational corporations, Caterpillar Inc. maintains an extensive archive of records and materials that date back to the years before the company was formed in 1925.

Lee Fosburgh, going into his tenth year as the chief archivist, explains the process of collecting and organizing company history.

“The model here is stuff comes in; you process that stuff and then you have an output of that stuff, either by providing information requests to employees or our dealers or by supporting storymaking that takes different forms such as in social media,” said Fosburgh, whose formal title is supervisor of corporate heritage services.

One example of that storymaking is an ongoing YouTube series called “Digging Into History” where Fosburgh and fellow Caterpillar employee Rusty Dunn relate different aspects of company history in short-form videos. A recent installment featured celebrities like John Wayne and Clark Gable using Cat equipment.

Caterpillar’s archival collection now includes over 1 million hard-copy photographs and over 100,000 digital images, noted Fosburgh.

After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the Caterpillar Visitors Center in Downtown Peoria is open again. That means planning for future exhibits has begun, he said.

“We’re at an early stage but a World War II exhibit focused on the home front is being planned for January 2023,” said Fosburgh.

That exhibit would include a tribute to former Caterpillar president Bob Gilmore, a WWII bomber pilot, who passed away last year at the age of 100, he said.

Caterpillar has a story to tell in WWII—both in military operations that took place overseas and in maintaining production at home. When men went off to war in the 1940s, women played a big role in keeping Caterpillar factories operating, said Fosburgh, estimating that 30 to 40 percent of Caterpillar’s workers were women during WWII.

“One part of the plant—where they made aluminum engines-- was made up of 90 percent women,” he said.

“Women also entered the workplace in World War I and we have images of that,” said Fosburgh, referring to the Holt factory that operated in East Peoria at that time.

After WWI, women generally went back to the home after the war but, after WWII, while a lot of women returned home, a lot stayed on, he said. “There were a lot of professional jobs, particularly in research and development, where women stayed on the job,” said Fosburgh.

While the U.S. government recognized the importance of earthmoving equipment in WWII—clearing beaches, building air strips and preparing roads, the war had marked importance in the company’s history, he said.

“Before the war we made products in Peoria and to a lesser extent in San Leandro, Calif. After the war—within five to 10 years—we had plants across the globe,” said Fosburgh.

While Caterpillar’s archive also includes an antique machine collection and documents that date from the origin of the firm to the present, not everything in that collection relates to the production of machines.

“We recently received a collection of over 1,000 Cat hats dating from the 1960s to the 1990s from an employee,” Fosburgh said.

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Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.