Keller used his gift, saw Bobcat succeed

At Louis Keller’s funeral in Stirum, from left, son Joe drove the seventh Keller Self-Propelled Loader and brother Cyril drove the very first loader built at Melroe Co. Each took a bucketful of soil and filled in Louis’ grave. The rest was done by a gravedigger who only uses Bobcat equipment. photo courtesy of Ernie Feland

The legacy Louis Keller left for his family is one his son, Joe, has been documenting for the last 12 years. The inventor died July 11 in Fargo after a battle with cancer. His, and older brother, Cyril's, beginnings were humble in the town of Rothsay, Minn. The Keller brothers invented the Keller Self-Propelled Loader, which eventually evolved into the Bobcat Skid-Steer Loader.

"Cyril always said that God gave a gift to everyone, and they were using their gift as best they could," said Joe, who resides in Wahpeton. "Either you can imagine how something can be built or you can't. Dad had the ability to know how something works mechanically."

Those mechanics were used as a final tribute to Louis at his burial July 11. Cyril used the very first loader built at Melroe Co., the M60, and Joe used the seventh of the seven Keller loaders to fill in Louis' grave. This loader was featured at the 1958 Minnesota State fair and began the relationship between the Keller and Melroe families.

Many family members took a shovelful of dirt from a Bobcat loader to place in the Keller or Melroe loaders. Joe found a gravedigger who only used Bobcat equipment in Britton, S.D., and made sure he left his Bobcat out during the graveside service. Joe said having the three loaders lined up at the gravesite was an appropriate goodbye.

Louis had found his calling and did what he wanted — inventing and seeing the Bobcat succeed.

As a youngster, Joe said Louis learned from his father, but was mainly self-taught. Louis and Cyril each only graduated the eighth grade, but went on to repair farm equipment like their father. When he was 20, Louis was drafted into the Army, Cyril joined the Navy, and both fought in World War II. After the war, Louis moved to Rothsay and started a repair shop for local farmers.

"I think I made $450 that first year," he said in a PBS documentary about Bobcat.

On the side, Louis would tinker with inventions and in 1948, he made a snowblower for a tractor. Soon after, he made a walk-behind snowblower called The Janitor.

Many were impressed with his repair expertise and he soon became overwhelmed with business, so he called Cyril to help. Keller Welding and Repair soon became Keller Manufacturing.

When local turkey farmer Eddie Velo asked whether they could build a machine small enough to maneuver in a pole barn and light enough to operate on the second level, the Keller brothers got to work. Six weeks later, the Keller Self-Propelled Loader was born.

The loader worked so well that their uncle, a Melroe equipment dealer, pitched their product to the Melroe Co., Gwinner. The Kellers applied for the patent on the loader in 1957, received it shortly after and the Melroes invited them take it to the 1958 Minnesota State Fair. From there, it only took four years to transform the original three-wheeled model into the M400 four-wheeled version known as the Bobcat. Louis soon moved his family to Gwinner so he could work for the Melroe Co. Cyril stayed in Rothsay to be a salesman for the company.

Growing up around his father's inventions, Joe said he often took for granted what was in his father's machine shop.

"I grew up thinking everyone had a Bobcat, had a machine shop in the backyard," he said.

It wasn't until he knew the great impact his father's and uncle's invention had on the world that he realized how important the Bobcat was. The curator of the South Dakota Agricultural Museum in Brookings once told him, "The tractor replaced the horse and oxen, and the Bobcat replaced the pitchfork and wheelbarrow." When his sister, Marilyn, visited the Vatican in 1998 and saw a Bobcat in an alleyway, Joe began his journey to record his father's and uncle's fascinating history.

"I realized this changed the world," Joe said. "And we need to preserve the history. If someone as close as we are don't do it, it won't happen."

Joe definitely considers Louis his inspiration, especially since Joe is an engineer working for 3M in Brookings. His early experiences on the farm outside Gwinner helped Joe realize he wanted to build things. For example, at age 13, Joe and his brothers had a small hand in building the Mini-Bob, which Louis built in his machine shop after he'd retired from the Melroe Co. It was 3 feet wide and eventually became the M371 Bobcat. They took the Mini-Bob to the Melroe 1970 Dealer's Convention in Phoenix and in one weekend they walked away with 850 orders.

Louis never let the success of the Bobcat go to his head. His humble beginnings in Rothsay never left him as he journeyed through life working to make mechanical advances in the best interest of everyone.

Although Louis is gone, Joe holds on to the fact he can still see his father whenever he sees a Bobcat.

"How many people can drive down the road and wave to your dad even though he's gone?" he said.

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