Blacksmith brothers now in National Inventors Hall of Fame for famous skid-steer

Rothsay has several claims to fame,  in addition to its status as home to “the World’s Largest Prairie Chicken,” and two of its acclaimed citizens are back in the spotlight. 

The late Keller brothers.  

Cyril and Louis Keller, the brothers who invented the world’s first compact loader (later named the Bobcat® skid-steer loader), have been selected as 2023 inductees for the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

These boys, both World War II veterans and both with no formal education beyond the eighth grade, invented the compact loader in the Keller Welding Shop in Rothsay.  

Cyril Keller
Louis Keller

More than 1 million Bobcat skid-steer loaders, evolving from the Kellers’ original Rothsay design,  have been sold worldwide and are used at construction sites, farms, railyards, and seaports. 

In 2004, the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers recognized the Kellers’ skid-steer loader as a Historic Landmark. 

Cyril and Louis Keller were inducted into the Association of Equipment Manufacturers Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame in 2004.

Now, the Keller boys have national honors as inventors.  

The pair operated a small machinist-blacksmith shop in Rothsay, building and repairing machinery for local farmers. 

The Keller brothers understood that one of the disadvantages of early motorized loaders, which used steering wheels and gearshifts, was that with all wheels turning in the same direction, operating them in small spaces was nearly impossible because they required a wide area for turning around. 

This photo shows an early version of the “Bobcat,” at that time, it was billed as the “First Powered Scoop Shovel.”
Note the “Velo” name on the unit. It was Rothsay-Pelican area turkey farmer Eddie Velo who sparked the idea of the skid steer for the Keller Brothers—and the “Bobcat” that evolved

In 1956, when local farmer Eddie Velo needed a machine that could clear his turkey barn of manure and be light enough to operate on the second floor, the Kellers designed and built a solution.

In just six weeks, they created the first small, lightweight, three-wheel front-end loader in their machine shop in Rothsay,  using mechanical parts from local junkyards and bars from the old Rothsay jail for the manure fork teeth.

The Keller Self-Propelled Loader had a bucket in the front, which was operated using hydraulic foot pedals, and a motor in the back. It had two front tires, and the rear wheel was a pivoting caster that enabled sharp turns.

The loader came to the attention of Melroe Manufacturing Company (later Bobcat Company), which invited the Kellers to demonstrate their invention in their booth at the Minnesota State Fair in 1958. 

After a successful demonstration at the fair, the Melroe Manufacturing Company was awarded exclusive manufacturing rights to the machine on a royalty basis and hired the Keller brothers to refine the design and put the machine into production.

A publicity photo for Melroe manufacturing and its “Bobcat,” complete with an attractive model—consistent with the marketing of the era, probably the 1970s.

To improve on the design of the loader, a second set of drive wheels was added to the back of the loader in 1960. With this four-wheel drive, the M400 became the world’s first true skid-steer loader. “Skid-steer” describes the unique steering system, which enables the machine to turn within its own length. 

Later, the Bobcat brand name was established because of the machine’s toughness, quickness, and agility.

To think it all started in Rothsay in the 1950s,  by brothers Cyril (April 8, 1922-Oct. 28, 2020) and Louis (May 9, 1923-July 11, 2010). 

A few local footnotes: Cyril’s son Gary and his wife Lola, were Pelican area residents, and their children Justin and Kayla are Pelican High School grads in the 2000s. Gary Keller operated Keller Electric in Pelican; now retired in Florida.  

Mary Melroe, an active member of Zion Lutheran Church on Franklin Lake, is part of the extended Melroe manufacturing family.