Oct 14, 2023

Manure inspired Minnesota brothers to create the Bobcat skid steer

FORMAN, N.D. — Cleaning barns and ridding them of manure has been a labor intensive job for farmers and ranchers alike for decades. But in 1956, inspiration struck two Minnesota brothers, revolutionizing the ag equipment industry and making it what it is today.

Louis and Cyril Keller both served in World War II and hoped to farm when they got back to the states. But fate had other plans. The brothers went into business together in the 1950s and opened a machinist and blacksmith shop in Rothsay, Minnesota. They were approached by a farmer who wanted a piece of equipment that was light enough to be lifted on the second floor of his turkey barn and small enough to get into the tight spaces to clean the barn's manure-covered floor. He also requested it be self propelled.

The brothers had their work cut out for them, as there was nothing of the sort on the market at the time. After many sleepless nights, they had finally put together the Keller loader. Farmers were hesitant about the machine at first, as it had no steering wheel and that was not customary at the time. But after demonstrating it, their product spoke for itself. One turkey farmer stated he didn't need a toy, he needed something to clean barns with when first laying his eyes on the loader. His tune quickly changed after watching the demonstration.

"He bought two of them. So he bought two just because of that demonstration. You had to demonstrate it or you could not sell it," Joe Keller, the son of Louis Keller and the nephew of Cyril Keller, said.

James Toyne began working for the Keller brothers in 1956 as a welder. He couldn't believe at the time that the loader would have the demand it did.

"Louis used to come into the lunch room with this one right here and spin around as we were eating lunch. I remember one day he said, ‘What do you guys think? A machine like this complete with a bucket would sell for $2,000?’ I thought oh boy and kinda doubted it, that was a lot of money. We were wrong," Toyne said.

The success of the loader was noticed by Melroe Manufacturing Company, known as Bobcat today. The company invited the brothers to the 1957 Minnesota State Fair to demonstrate their machinery. The demonstration was successful, and it was there that Melroe Manufacturing Company won the exclusive manufacturing rights to the machine and hired the Keller brothers to refine the design and put the machine into production.

The machine is now known as the Bobcat Skid Steer and accounts for 40% of the global market for skid steers.

Both brothers had no formal schooling past the eighth grade, but hold six patents in the United States and have made a long lasting impact with their inventions — so much so that they were selected as 2023 inductees into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Edmund Schillinger began working for the Keller Brothers in 1956. He said seeing their product's impact on the world today has been extremely rewarding. Cyril Keller died Oct. 28, 2020, at the age of 98, and Louie Keller died July 11, 2010, at the age of 87.

"I grew up with the Bobcat and the Keller brothers," Schillinger said, adding about their induction into the Inventors Hall of Fame: "It is well deserved."

While cleaning the barn may not be a fun-filled task, there is no doubt that the Keller brothers have made the chore more bearable.

"The tractor replaced the horse and oxen. The Bobcat replaced the pitchfork and wheelbarrow," Keller said.

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