Fergus Falls man and his brother invented the popular machine
Cyril “Cy” Keller, of Fergus Falls, has a display of farm toys with a singular focus: The decorative wall shelves in his Fergus Falls home bear only replicas of the four-wheel drive Bobcat, and with good reason. Keller and his brother, Louis, invented it.
Their story starts on the family’s farm near Tintah where the brothers and their 12 siblings helped their parents with the farm’s chores and crops. It was the Depression, but they never really knew how tough the times were, Cy said.
“We were milking 35 head by hand,” he said. “If we a few of us milked three or four cows each, it took little time to get the job done … We never knew it was tough times because we had plenty. We had our milk, we had our food and our meat. All we needed was flour.”
They gained the know-how and inquisitive, inventive skills needed to make things work using the materials they had available. Those qualities were an important basis for the brothers’ work developing machinery.
It is said that Louis possessed a natural mechanic skill to make things work. He eventually started a blacksmith shop in Rothsay.
Cy’s journey took a longer route. Although, as the oldest son, Cy would’ve taken over the farm, he instead joined the Navy. Cy expected to be drafted soon, but he joined several cousins who wanted to be part of the U.S. sea forces.
When asked what skills he could bring to the ship, Cy told the officers he was raised on a farm and helped with the livestock including butchering. They made him a cook. He was stationed in Saipan which had been taken over by the U.S. Airstrips were made, and the site became a pilot training ground.
“It was quite an air show as they practiced their moves,” he said.
Once the atomic bombs had been dropped, the ship made its way back to its California base, and Cy boarded a train for home.
Since his younger brother took over the farm, he moved to Fergus Falls and worked at the Fergus Falls Foundry where castings were made for manufacturing companies. He met his wife, Myrtle and shortly after they married. His uncle, Anton Christianson, asked Cy to work for him at his Elbow Lake implement dealership.
The couple had just built a new home when Louis made an offer for the brothers to work together at Louis’ blacksmith shop in Rothsay.
Plowshares were the main item made at the shop, Cy said. They would take two old plowshares and create one new one. The key was tempered steel.
But one day, their production took a break after listening to the problems turkey farmer Eddie Velo was having cleaning barns.
Velo had a growing business that included 10 two-story barns. Each barn had support poles placed 8 feet apart which made cleaning a nightmare. Tractors with loader attachments couldn’t maneuver between the poles. He had to rely on employees using shovels and wheelbarrows to move the manure from the barn walls to the center aisle where it could be moved by the tractors.
It was a time-consuming and back-breaking endeavor.
The Kellers were up to the challenge. Using the farm know-how they gathered growing up on the family’s Tintah farm coupled with their shop equipment, the two set out to create a machine for the task.
“We understood mechanics very well, and we had our ideas of how to make things work,” Cy said.
Their ingenuity got its roots from their own farm experience. They were products of the Depression, although they never really knew how tough times were, he said. With their 12 siblings, they helped their parents care for the livestock and work the fields.
They honed their inventive mechanical skills using the materials they had to make their own farm machinery work well. That same know-how was applied to Velo’s machine.
Louis was pretty good at figuring things out, Cy said. Together they made quite a team and began to construct a machine that could pivot. It took a few tries, but they eventually built something that could move in its center using a set of pulleys and belts. The machine used a 5-horsepower motor and had a fork end front with 5/8ths inch rods that were 18-inches long.
There were a few bugs to iron out. The pulley and belt design gave way to a new clutch drive transmission. But soon Velo was making successful trial runs in his barns.
While the machine moved easily around the poles, the tines in the loader fork bent. The brothers went back to the drawing board and contemplated how to make it better when the town’s cop came up with the answer. He brought the boys rods from his jail. The metal was strong and proved to be the answer.
“We welded a washer on the back side, and it worked,” he said. “…We needed something like that when I was a kid.”
They made about six more for other farmers, but they had no means to mass produce the machines.
Then one fateful day, Les Melroe visited the Keller boys’ uncle in Elbow Lake. They discussed the new machine that was built in Rothsay. Melroe met the boys, saw their work and also saw an opportunity. He asked them to bring the machine to the Melroe booth at the 1958 Minnesota State Fair.
Armed with 1,000 flyers describing their machine, the brothers set off, with one of their units, to the fair. When they weren’t demonstrating the machine’s abilities, they were handing out flyers to the many interested potential customers.
Melroe was impressed. He struck a deal with the Kellers. The Kellers would come to Gwinner, N.D. to work for Melroe Manufacturing Company, charged with developing the machine further. Melroe would pay a royalty to the Kellers for each loader built. That fall the brothers rented an apartment in town and continued to develop the machine, which was named the Melroe Self-Propelled Loader. They left their blacksmith shop in the hands of a family friend until the business was sold.
Cy traveled for the company and moved to Fergus Falls.
The original machine the brothers built is on display at the Otter Tail County Historical Museum. And, although Cy’s Bobcat replicas aren’t for play, each is a symbol of the ingenuity of two brothers who used skill and inventiveness to create the machine.
As the 95-year-old discussed his life, he simply said, “I’ve been blessed.”