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Robert Gilmore LeTourneau was born on November 30, 1888, in Richford, Vermont, in the United States of America. Traditional education held little interest for LeTourneau and in 1902, at the age of 14, he left school. He moved from Vermont to Duluth, Minnesota, then to Portland, Oregon where he began to work as an apprentice iron monger at the East Portland Iron Works. While learning the foundry and machinist trades, he studied mechanics from an International Correspondence Schools course that had been given to him, though he never completed any official assignments. He later moved to San Francisco, where he was employed at the Yerba Buena Power Plant and learned welding skills and became familiar with the application of electricity. In 1909, he moved to Stockton, California. During this time, LeTourneau worked at a number of jobs including wood cutter, farm hand, miner and carpenter’s laborer, acquiring a sound knowledge of the manual trades that would prove invaluable in later life.
In 1911, LeTourneau was employed at the Superior Garage in Stockton, California, where he learned about vehicle mechanics and later became half-owner of the business. In 1917, he married Evelyn Peterson, the daughter of a draying company owner from Minnesota. Refused military service because of permanent neck injuries sustained in a car racing accident, LeTourneau worked during World War I as a maintenance assistant at the Mare Island Navy Yard in California, where he was trained as an electrical machinist and improved his welding skills. After the war, LeTourneau returned to Stockton and discovered the Superior Garage business had failed. In order to repay his portion of the debts, he took a job repairing a Holt crawler tractor, and was then employed by the tractor owner to level 40 acres using the tractor and a towed scraper.
This type of work appealed to LeTourneau and in January of 1920, he purchased a used Holt tractor and, with a hired scraper, commenced business as a land leveling contractor. In May of 1921, he purchased a plot of land in Stockton, California, and established a small engineering workshop, where he designed and built several types of scrapers. Combining contracting and earthmoving equipment manufacturing, his business soon began to expand and, in 1929, his business interests were incorporated in California as R. G. LeTourneau, Inc.
LeTourneau completed many earthmoving projects during the 1920’s and early 1930’s, including the Boulder Highway to Hoover Dam in Nevada, the Marysville Levees, Orange County Dam and the Newhall Cut-off in California. In 1933, LeTourneau retired from contracting to devote his attention to the manufacturing of earthmoving equipment. In 1935, he built a manufacturing plant in Peoria, Illinois, and the continued expansion of his business saw the establishment of manufacturing plants in Toccoa, Georgia in 1938; Rydalmere, Australia in 1941; Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1942, and Longview, Texas in 1945.
The LeTourneau name became synonymous with earthmoving worldwide. R. G. LeTourneau was largely responsible for the invention and development of many types of earthmoving machines that are in wide use today. He designed and built machines using technology that was years, and sometimes decades, ahead of his time, and became recognized worldwide as a leader in the development and manufacture of heavy equipment. The use of rubber tires in earthmoving; numerous improvements relating to scrapers; the development of low pressure heavy-duty rubber tires; the two-wheeled tractor unit (Tournapull); electric wheel drive, and mobile offshore drilling platforms, are all attributed to R. G. LeTourneau’s ingenuity. During his lifetime, he held hundreds of patents on inventions relating to earthmoving equipment, manufacturing processes and machine tools. His factories supplied 70 percent of all heavy earthmoving equipment used by the Allied armed forces during World War II. LeTourneau also pioneered numerous manufacturing processes and the development of specialized machine tools.
LeTourneau and family in Tournavista, Peru
LeTourneau was a firm believer in the effectiveness of practical instruction combined with classroom studies and, in 1946, he purchased an unused military hospital, accompanying land and buildings in Longview, Texas. There he established the LeTourneau Technical Institute to provide sound technical and mechanical training, traditional college courses, and training for missionary technicians based on the philosophy of combining work, education and Christian testimony. The LeTourneau Technical Institute became a college in its own right in 1961 and eventually gained university status to become LeTourneau University. LeTourneau University is still in operation today, offering liberal arts and engineering courses with a strong Christian influence.
In 1952, LeTourneau began a development project in Liberia with the diverse goals of colonization, land development, agriculture, livestock, evangelism and philanthropic activities. In 1953, LeTourneau sold his entire earthmoving equipment line to the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. He then applied his ingenuity to the development and perfection of the electric wheel drive concept. In 1954, a colonization project with similar objectives to those in Liberia, was established in Peru, South America. In 1958, at the age of 70, LeTourneau re-entered the earthmoving equipment manufacturing business, offering contractors a range of high capacity earthmoving, transportation, and materials handling machines based on the revolutionary electric wheel drive system he had developed.
R. G. LeTourneau held many respected positions throughout his life as a Christian layman, including leader of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, president of the Christian Business Men’s Association and President of the International Gideon Society. Throughout his career, he was the recipient of more than 30 awards and honors relating to engineering, manufacturing, and the development of heavy equipment. In 1936, he was presented with the Appreciation of Service Achievement 1931-1935 by Six Companies Incorporated for supplying earthmoving equipment to the Boulder Dam project. Recognition of service to the earthmoving industry later came from many other contractors within the industry and, in February 1958, R. G. LeTourneau was presented with the Beavers Award at the third annual awards dinner of the Beavers, an association of leaders in the heavy construction industry. In presenting the award to R. G. LeTourneau, Beavers president George H. Atkinson of the highly respected U.S. contractors, Guy F. Atkinson Company of San Francisco, said: “There is hardly any phase of the vast industry that has not benefited and advanced through the products of Mr. LeTourneau’s inventive genius.”
R. G. LeTourneau maintained an active role in his company as president and chairman of the board from 1929 until 1966. He also held the position of chief engineer, personally working alongside his engineers and employees throughout his working life. Having spent his entire life around earthmoving equipment, LeTourneau was just as likely to be seen at the controls of one of his machines, as he was to be seen attending to corporate matters. It was well known that he much preferred the former.
In 1965, I.C.S. finally awarded R. G. LeTourneau his diploma in engineering, 50 years after he studied the course. LeTourneau was 76 years old at the time and, in accepting the diploma, jovially remarked to executive assistant, Nels Stjernstrom: “So now I’ve got a diploma. Now I’m educated.” (Source: “Stjernstrom files”, LeTourneau archives, Longview)
In 1966, at the age of 77, R. G. LeTourneau handed over presidency of his company to his son, Richard H. LeTourneau. R. G. LeTourneau continued to work each day and could always be found at the drawing board in his modest office, designing new ways to move larger loads faster and more economically.
R. G. LeTourneau shunned the high-life often associated with successful businessmen, preferring to spend his time at the drawing board with the engineers designing new machinery, or out on the factory floor overseeing his employees building heavy equipment. Being a man of great Christian commitment and dedication, for 30 years he flew thousands of miles each week to maintain Christian speaking engagements around the United States and overseas.
In March 1969, R. G. LeTourneau suffered a severe stroke from which he never recovered. He died on 1 June, 1969, at the age of 80. He was survived by his only daughter, Louise Dick and four sons, Richard, Roy, Ted and Ben.
Known throughout the construction world as ‘The Dean of Earthmoving’, R. G. LeTourneau is considered to this day to have been the world’s greatest inventor of earthmoving and materials handling equipment. Few manufacturers of that era had such a profound effect upon the art of earthmoving as did R. G. LeTourneau. Just two years prior to his death, R. G. LeTourneau recorded his thoughts about the future of earthmoving equipment: “Within the next few years construction machinery will grow bigger and bigger, and more and more powerful. Instead of “tons” of capacity, they’ll all be in “hundreds of tons” and instead of hundreds of horsepower, they’ll all be rated in “thousands” of horsepower. We’re already seeing it in big hauling units in the mines, and believe me, when the contractor and mining companies start looking for bigger and more profitable hauling units and earthmoving equipment, I’m going to be right there, the firstest with the mostest.” (Source: NOW, February 1971).
"Before dedicating his work to manufacturing he was a large contractor, building many roads and dams throughout California as well as the road through Hoover Dam (you can still see the original road off to the side as you come up from the South on Hwy. 93" source. LeTourneau was the one of the first to utilize gas, and later electric welding techniques in manufacturing.