Friday, January 25, 2019

The Tree/Stump Remover That Broke the Groves

Weldon Field yanks a tree out of the ground – roots and all. (County of Orange photo)
Along with the Post Brothers plow and the Carroll Beet Dump, Weldon Field’s stump remover is one of the most historically significant pieces of heavy agricultural equipment in Orange County’s history. This custom-built tree-removing machine fell off everyone’s radar screen for a few decades, but perhaps at least a small version of it has resurfaced.

In the 1930s, fruit and nut groves dominated Orange County’s landscape and economy, and the removal of sick or dying trees was an important step in the agricultural process. Young mechanic and Orange High School graduate Weldon Lane Field (1908-1990) grew up in McPherson – now part of Orange – and spent countless hours helping his citrus rancher father dig up trees. As he did, he came to envision a mobile device that could tear trees from the ground, roots and all, saving hundreds of man hours each year.

He initially built the device for is father to use, but the elder Field found all the levers too complicated and it fell to the young inventor to operate it himself. 
Weldon Field and wife Mildred, 1937. (Orange Public Library photo)
Field bought a Caterpillar crawler tractor and began to deconstruct and rebuild it to match his vision. He modeled his machine after a boot jack. To the tractor frame and engine he added a large V-shaped pulling implement, ten heavy cables, two huge “duck feet”, connecting gears, old car parts, wooden-spoked wheels, a transmission lock-out, and other bits and pieces.

"Once the tree was caught within the steel V, the machine's approximately sixty-ton force lifted it straight up from the ground,” wrote Francesca Russello Ammon, in her book, Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape. “Then the operator would use a shovel and chain to pull up any roots that had broken off during the process. Beginning in the late 1930s, Field applied his stump puller to the removal of trees damaged by disease, gophers, or frost in Orange, Los Angeles, and Riverside Counties."

Field himself described his first stump puller in a 1977 interview with Fullerton College student Anne Riley:
"Well, it practically amounted to an overgrown sawhorse that sat on the ground. It was about twelve feet high... Then I had six 5/8ths cables in it fastened to a sixty-to-one whorm reduction gear that was powered with a 1926 Dodge motor. I figured I had about fifty ton lift, and I used an inch and 3/8ths chain and hook around a tree to pull it. Eventually, I made a bigger, wider sawhorse and put in eight lines, and I figured I had about sixty ton lift with that."
In the groves, a group including Field (right), stands with his machine. (County of Orange photo)
“The period after World War II offered even greater opportunities for his stump puller." writes Ammon. "As Field recalled, ‘I pull the old seedling walnuts when they were taking out the walnut trees around here and putting in citrus. I pulled a lot of those with it. Then eventually I pulled the citrus trees out for houses.’"

 The process, including uprooting, clean-up and grading the land, generally cost developers about a dollar per tree.
Weldon Field with his tree puller at the U.C. South Coast Field Station, 1970. (O.C. Register photo)
The population boom of the 1950s and early 1960s saw the conversion of Orange County from a primarily agricultural area into suburbia. Driving this change was a high demand for housing, a disease called “quick decline” destroying orange groves, and new modes of tax assessment that punished farmers for farming.

By the time Field retired, around 1963, he figured he’d torn out 350,000 trees with the machine – most of them citrus.

In 1970, Field brought the machine (and himself) out of retirement to remove experimental trees at the University of California’s South Coast Field Station in Santa Ana. It may have been used there for a number of years.
(L to R): HB&P Ranger Rich Huffnagle, GSA’s Bob Erskine and Manuel Garcia with tree puller at a County of Orange facility, Fall 1994. (Orange County Archives photo)
Field died in 1990, and four years later the Orange County Harbors Beaches and Parks Department (HB&P) acquired his stump remover. An article in the Orange County Environmental Management Agency’s Nov. 1994 newsletter, Inside EMA, noted some of the machine’s interesting features: “…In place of a dipstick, the engine has a float to indicate the engine oil level. There are also markings on the frame that indicated when the tree and stump remover was serviced and how much Weldon charged to remove trees. … George Key Ranch and areas around what is now Heritage Hill Historical Park also used Weldon’s services to remove diseased and dead trees.”

The article then gives us a hint as to the agency’s plans for the stump puller: “In cooperation with GSA/Transportation, Supervising Park Ranger Rich Huffnagle of HB&P/Coastal Facilities expects the [machine] to once again be operational and put on display at a county historical park.”

Over the years, HB&P morphed into OC Parks, and officials with that agency, including the Historical Parks division, seemed to have no idea that they’d ever even owned such a device. Had the machine gone missing or sold for scrap? Or was it right under the nose of someone who just didn’t know what it was?
Stump Puller seen in Victorville, California in 1996. (Photo by Richard Walker)
As recently as 2018, during a visit to the Orange County Archives, OC Parks Historic Resource Specialist Justin Sikora mentioned a similar machine that was stashed around the corner from the old Bennett House at the County’s Heritage Hill Historical Park in Lake Forest. A few days later, he sent a photo of the machine. At first, it seemed like a small version of a stump puller, but it turned out to be a hand-built deep well irrigation pump puller.

In 1996, vintage tractor enthusiast Richard Walker was at an auction in Victorville, and took several photos of a “shopbuilt stump puller mounted on a Caterpillar 22 crawler tractor, designed and built by mechanical master Weldon Field, of Orange...” The stump puller was not part of the auction and seemed to belong to the collector of farm equipment on whose property the auction was being held. 
Almost but not quite: Irrigation pump puller at Heritage Hill. (Photo by J. Sikora)
Was the machine donated to the County the same one seen in Victorville? We might need better photos of both to be sure. Walker writes, "Over the years Weldon fabricated several stump pullers on crawler tractors. The 22 was his last. I believe a previous version was built on an earlier Cat 30."

[Article updated 1/29/2019. Thanks to Richard Walker for answering some of the questions raised in the earlier version of this post.]