Rooted in Efficiency: History of Bobcat

Two farmers’ desire to work smarter sprouts a crop of labor-saving machines.

If you’ve ever seen North Dakota, you have a good mental picture of the Northern Plains: vast, flat expanses of prairie and farmland. You’d probably never guess that a small farm in the southeastern part of the state spawned a giant plant that would ease the physical labor of farmers, construction workers and DIYers around the world.

The seed for this enterprise sprouted in the 1920s, when farmer E.G. Melroe devised and manufactured an implement that efficiently picked up rows of cut grain. After 20 years of using and modifying the device, which he named the Melroe Pickup, he founded the Melroe Manufacturing Co. in 1947. E.G. Melroe died in 1955, but for more than a decade his sons would nurture the family business to produce a bumper crop of innovative machinery.

The company’s expansion began with another invention rooted in a farmer’s determination to work more efficiently. During the mid-1950s, a Minnesota turkey farmer named Eddy Velo challenged two machine shop owners, brothers Cyril and Louis Keller, to design a compact loader that would maneuver around posts and other obstacles in his barn. Using scraps from local junkyards, the Kellers devised a three-wheel machine that had two independent steering levers and a front scoop. The Kellers’ design so impressed their uncle – who happened to be a Melroe equipment dealer – that he showed it to the Melroe heirs. They bought the patent rights in 1957 and hired the Kellers to work at the company.

Turkey farmer Ed Velo poses on the 1950s-era loader that was designed for cleaning his barn. Machinists Cyril and Louis Keller built the loader from junkyard scraps, using steel jailhouse bars to create the fork tines at the front of the scoop.

The first Melroe version of the machine, called the Self-Propelled Loader, featured three wheels and a 9-hp engine. After making modifications, Melroe Manufacturing released the M-200 in 1959 and then the four-wheel M-400 in 1960. This model was the first true skid-steer loader, and it cleared the way for the future of compact-loader technology, and redirected the company’s focus toward construction and industry.

The original three-wheel Melroe Self-Propelled Loader soon morphed into the four-wheel M-400 (shown in the lead photo), the world’s first true skid-steer loader.

With the introduction of the M-440 in 1962, Melroe Manufacturing recognized that the machine merited a name that reflected its speed, power and maneuverability. A Melroe employee proposed Bobcat, a term that has since become synonymous with an entire crop of small loaders, regardless of their pedigree.

In 1969 the Melroes sold their well-grounded business to Ingersoll-Rand Co. Soon the Bobcat logo appeared on skid loaders in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and the product line expanded to include numerous attachments, mini-excavators, utility vehicles and more. The little company that sprouted from one man’s desire to make his chores easier is now the largest manufacturer in North Dakota. It provides jobs for more than 3,500 people worldwide and has helped countless others finish their own work with a lot less sweat.

You don’t need to be a licensed heavy-equipment operator to work a Bobcat skid-steer loader or mini-excavator. With a little coaching at a rental center, DIYers can lease and operate one to do their own heavy lifting, digging or trenching project.