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How Two AEM Hall of Fame Members Survived a Ship Explosion, Separation, on Their Way to Success

The Incredible Journey of The Ferwerda Brothers, Inventors of the Gradall Excavator

The Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) Hall of Fame, a collection of leaders and innovators in the off-road equipment manufacturing industry, is currently seeking nominations for the 2021 Hall of Fame induction class. The AEM Hall of Fame recognizes every one of its 65 members have experienced very different journeys to success, however, few journeys were as interesting as that of brothers Ray and Koop Ferwerda, inventors of the Gradall Excavator.

The Ferwerda Brothers’ journey started in 1920 in The Netherlands, in the northern town of Sneek, a town today known for its canals and watersport festival. It was a time of instability in Northern Europe, as the rebuilding from the First World War was underway. That led the Ferwerda Brothers to seek better fortunes elsewhere.

“The only way to get to the United States,” said Ray K. Ferwerda, Sr, son of Koop Ferwerda, “is to get a job on a steamer.”

The brothers took a job shoveling coal and working the boiler aboard the Great Lakes-bound steamship Sardinian in 1920. However, while steaming across Lake Erie, the boiler developed problems.

“The tank blows,” said Ferwerda. “Consequently, there’s two different lifeboats. My dad got on the one going to Canada, and my uncle got aboard the one going to Ohio.

“They don’t speak any English,” Ferwerda continued. “So they had to write back to Holland saying where they were.”

The brothers were eventually reunited in Cleveland, where they worked for a dairy. The brothers eventually found the job that began to define their careers, building roads and sidewalks for a contractor in Cleveland’s eastern suburbs. Just five years after surviving the explosion of the Sardinian, the brothers had enough savings built up to start their own business, “Ferwerda Brothers Construction Company.”

In 1940, Ray Ferwerda decided to take a step back from construction, and bought a 160-acre dairy farm. At the same time, he and Koop sold some of their construction equipment to fund an idea they had: A machine to perform the time and labor-intensive task of grading roadway embankments.

The reason? Leading up to and during the Second World War, the brothers couldn’t find enough labor to help grade embankments by hand, so they need another solution.

Their vision? A machine that sits on the newly finished roadway and reaches down below the road level with either a raking or excavating bucket. An extendable boom reaching at least twenty feet out. In 1944, they filed for a patent on their “material moving device,” the Gradall.

Their biggest hurdle, however, was securing raw materials to develop their idea during the war.

“Because of the war, you couldn’t get materials like engines or steel,” said Ferwerda. “So my uncle went to Washington with this model and pictures and explained it to the Navy, which was also in charge of the Marine Corps. Consequently, it turns out, the Marine Corps was very interested.”

After securing the materials, the brothers launched the Gradall M-2400 in 1946, the first fully hydraulic excavator to enter series production in the U.S.

“They bought a place in New Philadelphia, Ohio, and started manufacturing,” said Ferwerda.

New Philadelphia is where Gradall’s main operations remain. The Ferwerda family remains involved with the company as well through Great Southern Equipment, the Tampa, Fla.-based Gradall distributor founded by Koop’s son, Ray Senior, that is currently led by Koop’s grandson Ray Junior, and his great grandson, Jack, is involved with sales.

The AEM Hall of Fame is currently seeking nominations to its 2021 induction class to join the 65 existing visionaries and leaders already inducted. An independent panel will select who will be recognized at AEM’s Annual Conference, scheduled for November 10-12 in Phoenix.

Nominations are open until June 11, 2021 and can be submitted online at this link.

About the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM)

AEM is the North America-based international trade group representing off-road equipment manufacturers and suppliers with more than 1,000 companies and more than 200 product lines in the agriculture and construction-related industry sectors worldwide. The equipment manufacturing industry in the United States supports 2.8 million jobs and contributes roughly $288 billion to the economy every year.