A Utopian Vision for “Tournapull,” Georgia: R. G. LeTourneau’s Pioneering Machines

This was originally written for the spring 2015 issue of the Athens Historian.

Everett E Henderson Jr
University of Florida

Figure 1. R.G. LeTourneau Co. of Georgia, Toccoa, Georgia, photograph (detail), custom welding van in front of a Tournalayer at the LeTourneau plant circa 1945, courtesy of the Margaret Estes Library, LeTourneau University, Longview, Texas, Robert G. LeTourneau Collection.

Figure 1. R.G. LeTourneau Co. of Georgia, Toccoa, Georgia, photograph (detail), custom welding van in front of a Tournalayer at the LeTourneau plant circa 1945, courtesy of the Margaret Estes Library, LeTourneau University, Longview, Texas, Robert G. LeTourneau Collection.

Robert Gilmore “R.G.” LeTourneau developed his earthmoving equipment company in Stockton, California in the early 1920s and then followed the Caterpillar Machinery and Equipment Company to Peoria, Illinois in 1935. LeTourneau made the scraper blades for the Caterpillar equipment as the designs of his own earthmoving equipment evolved. While in Peoria, LeTourneau would search for locations to establish new plants and would expand to Toccoa, Georgia; Vicksburg, Mississippi and Longview, Texas. Stockton and Peoria were well established cities upon his arrival. He wished to develop a plant in a new location that would allow for his Four-Point Program which supplied machinery, established a community, provided food and promoted Christianity among the local people. LeTourneau was drawn to Toccoa because of the philosophy of the already established Toccoa Falls Institute (now Toccoa Falls College) which promoted a Christian foundation in conjunction with technical training. LeTourneau met Dr. Richard A. Forrest and decided that Toccoa, Georgia was an excellent site; LeTourneau’s beliefs were parallel to Forrest’s as they both had strong Christian foundations and a wish for a pragmatic technical education. Another reason for locating the plant in Toccoa was to “provide a source from which to draw intelligent, well-educated young men for employment in (the) plant.”[1]

While developing and patenting his new technology, LeTourneau needed to train his employees in the new processes. Electrical arc-welding was a new process that LeTourneau witnessed as it came into being at the turn of the century and he would contribute to the evolution of the process as he developed new techniques for welding. He preferred the construction method of welding the connections of his complex “Rube Goldberg-like” machines rather than using the then ubiquitous and time-consuming process of riveted connections. Robert Gilmore LeTourneau was called “Bob” in California, but when he moved to Peoria his employees began calling him “R.G.” because they thought it stood for Rube Goldberg. The complexity of his machines is reflected in this name change. Rivets required more design time to create the connections of the cast sections. He would often repair and fine-tune his equipment in-situ and he developed portable welding equipment that would fit within automobiles in order to reach his massive machines as shown in Figure 1.

LeTourneau was focused on creating mammoth-sized machines not just to make small projects easier but rather to tackle large projects. To create the machines LeTourneau developed the infrastructure for and invented several machines and construction processes to help established communities near his plants creating roads, dairies, home-sites, homes, and utilities. He would essentially have to develop tools to make these machines; there were no machines large enough to create the needed components for these large machines. In Peoria he invented a metal system which was used to establish a small community of around 38 prefabricated all-steel homes.[2] The metal panels were shaped with a large panel-press that he developed; he then welded the sections together to form the structural panel system as seen in Figure 2. When LeTourneau expanded his company to Toccoa, he essentially had a new slate with which to work; he used the immense amount of pine-covered land to develop his plant and test his machines. To test the earthmoving machines LeTourneau shaped the earth and created a dam to form Lake Louise which was named after his daughter. The Louise Farming Company would also bear her name and a dairy was established to provide affordable food for LeTourneau’s employees. LeTourneau demonstrated pride in his creations by giving them his name. He is best known for using “Tourna-” as the prefix on much of his machinery, components, and even a few places such as two of his colonies named Tournata, Liberia and Tournavista, Peru; his employees even referred to themselves with pride as Tournahands.[iv]

Figure 2. Photograph of the construction of a steel building panel in a jig, Peoria, Illinois, circa 1938. Courtesy of the Margaret Estes Library, LeTourneau University, Longview, Texas Robert G. LeTourneau Collection.

Figure 2. Photograph of the construction of a steel building panel in a jig, Peoria, Illinois, circa 1938. Courtesy of the Margaret Estes Library, LeTourneau University, Longview, Texas Robert G. LeTourneau Collection.

LeTourneau went into the earth moving business to test his machines. Nobody wished to buy untested radical-looking machines and LeTourneau had to prove their value by becoming a contractor himself. Once he began the process, he realized that he was “forced to build (his) own machines to build (his) own machines.”[3] The scale of the new machines was so large that standard manufacturing tools would not work; LeTourneau discovered that there was no manufacturer that made industrial equipment large enough. This habit of making the tool to make the thing was established early in LeTourneau’s career. He did not hesitate to make an attempt at a solution and appeared to have little fear of failure. Many of the unsuccessful machines would be set aside because their designed use did not work as planned, yet he would later revisit the machines when new tasks arose. Designing machines to be components of other machines allowed for new combinations to be formed. LeTourneau believed that there were no bad ideas; rather the idea may have just been used in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One of LeTourneau’s machines was the patented “Two-Wheel Tractor” seen in Figure 3. LeTourneau took great pride in this tractor, even as it became a source of amusement for his competitors; they would ask what happened to the other wheels? Confident that his invention was efficient he would name the tractor the Tournapull. The Tournapull would go through many different versions as he fine-tuned the design. What he created was a machine that was simple in its concept yet remained multifunctional as different components could be added to perform different tasks. The Tournapull became the foundation of many of his machines even though it could not operate alone. The Tournapull could not balance or carry itself on its two wheels without the aid of the attached rear section of the machine.

Figure 3. R.G. LeTourneau. 1946. Two-Wheel Tractor. US Patent 2,454,070, filed April 22, 1946 and issued Nov. 16, 1948.

Figure 3. R.G. LeTourneau. 1946. Two-Wheel Tractor. US Patent 2,454,070, filed April 22, 1946 and issued Nov. 16, 1948.

LeTourneau called the area around Lake Louise “Tournapull,” Georgia because he showed pride in this plant. The LeTourneau plant was located three miles north/east of the center of Toccoa and Lake Louise was another half mile. During the opening celebration of the new plant the atmosphere was energetic as “(m)any visitors at the LeTourneau plant, as they watch ’R.G.’ go about his business, come to feel they are seeing a man who is developing a new ‘Utopia’ to show the entire nation how a Christian ideal can become a concrete fact.”[4] While LeTourneau did not set out solely to establish Tournapull as “utopian,” underpinnings of a utopian ideal were certainly present as they were perceived by the visitors. LeTourneau’s communities shared common beliefs in family and Christianity, solidarity of work, a technical education, and a striving toward the use of technology to produce machines that would make work and life easier – often at the push of a button.

The community of Tournapull, Georgia would be shaped not only with LeTourneau’s earthmoving equipment but also with his patented steel building panel. The Tournapull Housing Corporation was formed to provide employees housing at an affordable cost in 1941.[5] The panel would form parts of the plant as well as several different housing types as well as LeTourneau’s own home (Figure 4). R.G. LeTourneau’s wife Evelyn LeTourneau would contribute to the ultimate design and location of their own Tournapull home. Mrs. LeTourneau was adamant about protecting the large pine trees around the home as she knew the large earthmovers that prepared the ground for the new home were capable of damaging the trees with little effort. Their house featured a welded steel mantle above the fireplace and curved glass block wall. The metal panels could be welded together on-site as well as prefabricated at the plant and then delivered. The larger construction projects would use the portable welding equipment whereas the smaller homes would be prefabricated and delivered to the site. Since the panels were rigid construction they did not require a secondary structural system for support. The sandwiched steel panels were the structure and the finished skin of the interior and exterior.

Figure 4. R.G. LeTourneau’s own all-steel home. The home has been demolished. Albert W. Lorimer, God Runs My Business, the Story of R.G. LeTourneau: Farmhand, Master Molder, Garage Mechanic, Laborer, Inventor, Manufacturer, Industrialist, Christian Business Man, and Lay Evangelist (New York: Revell, 1941).

Figure 4. R.G. LeTourneau’s own all-steel home. The home has been demolished.
Albert W. Lorimer, God Runs My Business, the Story of R.G. LeTourneau: Farmhand, Master Molder, Garage Mechanic, Laborer, Inventor, Manufacturer, Industrialist, Christian Business Man, and Lay Evangelist (New York: Revell, 1941).

An all-steel hangar that housed an engine shop and school was formed adjacent to the plant at the R.G. Letourneau Field in 1940 to house LeTourneau’s planes which he used to travel from plant to plant and to his numerous speaking engagements (Figure 5). LeTourneau appreciated the luxury of the airplane because it saved him time. He believed he could always regain lost money but it was impossible to regain lost time.

Figure 5. All-Steel Hangar at R.G. LeTourneau Field. Toccoa, Georgia, circa 1940. Courtesy of the Margaret Estes Library, LeTourneau University, Longview, Texas Robert G. LeTourneau Collection.

Figure 5. All-Steel Hangar at R.G. LeTourneau Field. Toccoa, Georgia, circa 1940. Courtesy of the Margaret Estes Library, LeTourneau University, Longview, Texas Robert G. LeTourneau Collection.

Dedicated all-steel educational facilities were created at Toccoa Falls Institute after the earth was cleared, leveled, and shaped with LeTourneau’s earthmoving equipment (Figure 6). The simple modern lines of the architecture stood apart from the traditional construction at the time; the flat roof, white color, and minimal style mimicked the International Style’s simple logic. The only decorative elements present were the inherent patterns produced by the formation of the steel panel which repeated throughout the interior walls and exterior facade. The pressed pattern while appearing decorative in reality provided structural rigidity to the panel. The larger dormitory buildings require a taller parapet that resembled a continuous band at the top that allowed for the flat roof to have a slight slope to provide drainage.

Figure 6. All-steel dormitories at Toccoa Falls Institute – Toccoa, Georgia. Postcard circa 1940s, collection of the author.

Figure 6. All-steel dormitories at Toccoa Falls Institute – Toccoa, Georgia. Postcard circa 1940s, collection of the author.

Another tool that illustrates R.G. LeTourneau’s philosophy of “making the tool to make the thing” was the Tournapull Apart-Home roll-over jig (Figure 7). The jig allowed for metal panels to be held securely in place while they were connected by welds; this was LeTourneau’s preferred method of connecting the assembled 12-gauge steel sandwich panels to one another. The jig allowed the floor and roof welds to be connected without welding directly overhead because the entire building could be rotated with the jig. Once the Apart-Homes were welded solid they were essentially a monolithic unit. The prefabricated Tournapull Apart-Homes were built at the LeTourneau plant and delivered to the site as prefabricated apartments using a flatbed truck and a Tournacrane. The Tournapull Apart-Homes were delivered by rail to other locations such as the LeTourneau community in Vicksburg, Mississippi which had a railroad tracks leading directly to the plant situated near the Mississippi River. Some of the first homes at the Vicksburg LeTourneau plant were the Apart-Homes; a cast concrete Tournalaid home community would be developed later. LeTourneau’s plants were sited close to rail-transportation as can be seen in the background of the Tournapull Apart-Home jig in Figure 7. This allowed for materials, machines, and even finished homes to be loaded, unloaded, and delivered with ease.

Figure 7. The Tournapull Apart-Home roll-over jig in Toccoa, Georgia, photograph, 1942. Margaret Estes Library, LeTourneau University, Longview, Texas Robert G. LeTourneau Collection.

Figure 7. The Tournapull Apart-Home roll-over jig in Toccoa, Georgia, photograph, 1942. Margaret Estes Library, LeTourneau University, Longview, Texas Robert G. LeTourneau Collection.

The small Apart-Home plan allowed for easy transport, but it was essentially a one-room apartment (Figure 8). The design used a roll-away Murphy bed that was stored in the closet so that the multi-purpose living room could be used. The integrated kitchen was a prefabricated Murphy Cabranette Kitchen made of enameled steel. The kitchen unit included a sink, electric refrigerator, electric stove, and storage. The hygienic surfaces of the Apart-Home and kitchen appeared as one unit since the white all-steel home’s walls and ceiling were steel like the kitchen unit. The interior space was less than 300 square feet, and the plan design was more comparable to a hotel room than an apartment. The roof and floor panels were thicker versions of the wall panels and they were also filled with vermiculite insulation. A patented system was designed to keep thermal bridging from occurring.[6] Steel being a good conductor would have let the exterior temperatures radiate through the panels if they were directly connected to one another with steel.

Figure 8. First Tournapull Apart-Home (caption). Plan detail. NOW vol. 6, no.39 (February 13, 1942).

Figure 8. First Tournapull Apart-Home (caption). Plan detail. NOW vol. 6, no.39 (February 13, 1942).

The Tournapull Apart-Homes were originally designed for a single worker or newly married couple. A community of larger all-steel larger homes had already been established when the smaller Apart-Home arrived by truck to the community site. A Tournacrane can be seen to the right of Figure 9 and it was positioned to lift the home off the truck and place it on its constructed foundation. Since the home was monolithic, a continuous footing was not required to support the structure. The Tournapull Apart-Homes were delivered with an electric power pole attached at the roof and plumbing ready for quick connections as can be seen in Figure 10. The efficient Apart-Homes were used in several different applications from homes, hotel units and even the Toccoa Chamber of Commerce.

Figure 9. Photograph of a Tournapull Apart-Home in Toccoa, Georgia, 1942. Margaret Estes Library, LeTourneau University, Longview, Texas Robert G. LeTourneau Collection. Note the dimple-like ten-square panel design which brought the visual scale of the home down as opposed to the larger pattern.

Figure 9. Photograph of a Tournapull Apart-Home in Toccoa, Georgia, 1942. Margaret Estes Library, LeTourneau University, Longview, Texas Robert G. LeTourneau Collection. Note the dimple-like ten-square panel design which brought the visual scale of the home down as opposed to the larger pattern.

Another prefabricated structure created with the panel system was an all-steel radio station with the call letters WRLC which stood for the “Robert LeTourneau Company.” The radio station, spear-headed by Mrs. LeTourneau, went on the air May 1, 1941 and promoted as “the only all-steel radio studio structure in America.”[7] The six-inch space between the pressed panels was filled with vermiculite like the previously constructed all-steel structures. The station was equipped with a Gates transmitter and studio equipment; an adjacent 175 foot tower was used to broadcast the signal.

Figure 10. Tournapull Houses Toccoa Chamber of Commerce (caption). “Toccoa’s Chamber of Commerce organized last year is housed in a LeTourneau one-room steel dwelling leased from Tournapull Housing Corp. In photo are Henry Hunt, chamber secretary, and Mrs. Josephine Andrews Edsall, stenographer. The office is located on the Sage and Tugalo streets corner of Courthouse Square.” NOW, vol. 10, no. 41 (February 22, 1946).

Figure 10. Tournapull Houses Toccoa Chamber of Commerce (caption). “Toccoa’s Chamber of Commerce organized last year is housed in a LeTourneau one-room steel dwelling leased from Tournapull Housing Corp. In photo are Henry Hunt, chamber secretary, and Mrs. Josephine Andrews Edsall, stenographer. The office is located on the Sage and Tugalo streets corner of Courthouse Square.” NOW, vol. 10, no. 41 (February 22, 1946).

The footprint of the radio station measured 36’ x 40’ and formed a 1400 square foot building (Figures 11 and 12). After the assembly of the prefabricated building at the factory, it was then delivered and fitted-out on site with exterior architectural elements, windows and doors, and equipment. The curved glass-block wall, overhang, and columns were installed after the building was positioned. The curved glass wall reflects the design of LeTourneau’s own all-steel home. The call letters were later changed to WLET which reflected the “LeT” logo the company used at the time.[8]

Figure 11. Toccoa’s Radio Station WRLC was welded together at the LeTourneau plant and carried to its site by crane.

Figure 11. Toccoa’s Radio Station WRLC was welded together at the LeTourneau plant and carried to its site by crane.

Figure 12. The all-steel Christian Radio Station WRLC being delivered to the site with LeTourneau cranes. “An All-Steel Station in Georgia,” Broadcasting: The Weekly News Magazine of Radio, broadcasting advertising, vol. 21, no. 21 (July 7, 1941): 41. Washington D.C.

Figure 12. The all-steel Christian Radio Station WRLC being delivered to the site with LeTourneau cranes. “An All-Steel Station in Georgia,” Broadcasting: The Weekly News Magazine of Radio, broadcasting advertising, vol. 21, no. 21 (July 7, 1941): 41. Washington D.C.

In 1938, when the Toccoa, Georgia plant was established, LeTourneau quickly began developing a conference center for Christians to gather in a natural setting. This was LeTourneau’s first dedicated religious structure to be designed and built with his machines (Figure 13). He created the conference center to sit at the edge of the newly formed Lake Louise. R.G. LeTourneau’s wife Evelyn LeTourneau is credited with the design of the Lake Louise Hotel which was also referred to as the Christian Conference Center.[9] This building was designed to be a star-shaped all-steel structure with a 120’ self-supporting steel dome at the center. The dome enclosed the auditorium and seated 1,700 people. The Lake Louise Conference Center and Hotel grounds remains a large master planned Christian venue; most of LeTourneau’s other projects were additive in their conception and not master-planned from the beginning. LeTourneau sculpted the mountains and valleys for the hotel site with his large earthmoving equipment. He used large presses to create modular double-skin steel panels for the radiating arms of the hotel and curved panels for the central dome structure.
The plan for the hotel and conference center was designed as if eight bars were symmetrically radiating from the center dome with one of the bars removed creating an asymmetrical seven-pointed star and the missing bar forming the entrance to the dome.[10] The hotel was welded together on-site with steel sandwich panels that were assembled in the plant. LeTourneau created special welding vans in order to weld on location as well as repair and fine-tune equipment. The Tournapull, Georgia site allowed for a sprawling development because there was much undeveloped land and little existing infrastructure. The conference center plan evolved slightly over the years and the remaining steel panel bars have been roofed with conventional roofing. It exists today as the Georgia Baptist Conference Center.

Figure 13. Caption: Camp Lake Louise Opens - Sunday June 2, (1940), opening services were held at the new hotel at Camp Lake Louise, Toccoa. Visitors had a chance to see the many new developments, as well as hear many inspiring messages. The completed building is shown above; the audience is shown below seated in the central lobby of the hotel.  Photograph from LeTourneau’s in-house publication NOW vol. 5, no. 3 (June 7, 1940).  Note: R.G. LeTourneau is seated in the front left row fourth from the right. When LeTourneau was racecar mechanic in Stockton, he was involved in a serious wreck on a racetrack and broke his neck which left his head with a permanent tilt.

Figure 13. Caption: Camp Lake Louise Opens – Sunday June 2, (1940), opening services were held at the new hotel at Camp Lake Louise, Toccoa. Visitors had a chance to see the many new developments, as well as hear many inspiring messages. The completed building is shown above; the audience is shown below seated in the central lobby of the hotel. Photograph from LeTourneau’s in-house publication NOW vol. 5, no. 3 (June 7, 1940). Note: R.G. LeTourneau is seated in the front left row fourth from the right. When LeTourneau was race car mechanic in Stockton, he was involved in a serious wreck on a racetrack and broke his neck which left his head with a permanent tilt.

Shown in Figure 14, between the radiating all-steel arms of the convention center / hotel, are four buildings that were added by the United States military as the facility was used as a convalescent home for military personnel after World War II. The military additions have been removed and the facility has been renovated, but the overall plan of the facility remains in-tact. In the Figure 14 postcard, the aerial reveals LeTourneau’s fondness for documenting and understanding his plants and communities from a bird’s-eye view. His planes were machines for viewing as well as transportation. He photographed his plants and his namesake colonies from his airplanes. He and his wife discovered the site for LeTourneau University as they were circling the site for the Longview, Texas plant. The site for new university was adjacent to the plant. The ability to view the earth from above allowed LeTourneau to understand spaces from his own perspective and expand his own perception of space. LeTourneau taught himself and create through his own developed practice and theory. He would self-publish and distribute the photographs of the plants in his newsletter he named NOW.[11] LeTourneau was a proponent of self-education; he would study technical or biblical information until he could apply it to his own life.

[12] Note: The NOW publication is an in-house publication begun by LeTourneau for internal distribution and evolved to become distributed externally by mail for those who requested the publication. The publication is carried on by LeTourneau University (1936-present). The name of LeTourneau’s self-publication NOW is derived from 2 Corinthians 6:2 “Behold, NOW is the accepted time; behold NOW is the day for salvation.” Note: NOW emphasis is LeTourneau’s.

Figure 14. Postcard caption: “Hotel and Conference Grounds on Lake Louise, Toccoa, Ga.” Circa 1945, collection of the author.  Caption on reverse:  “Hotel Lake Louise and Conference Grounds: World’s only all-steel hotel, nestled in 5,000 acres of Georgia’s most beautiful pine-covered hills, on the shore of an artificial lake, made and owned by R.G. LeTourneau Company, Swimming, boating, fishing, tennis. Accommodations and Christian environment for approximately 300 guests. Located on Highway 123, Toccoa, Ga.”

Figure 14. Postcard caption: “Hotel and Conference Grounds on Lake Louise, Toccoa, Ga.” Circa 1945, collection of the author. Caption on reverse: “Hotel Lake Louise and Conference Grounds: World’s only all-steel hotel, nestled in 5,000 acres of Georgia’s most beautiful pine-covered hills, on the shore of an artificial lake, made and owned by R.G. LeTourneau Company, Swimming, boating, fishing, tennis. Accommodations and Christian environment for approximately 300 guests. Located on Highway 123, Toccoa, Ga.”

Much of LeTourneau’s earthmoving equipment was designed to work with his patented two-wheeled Tournapull. He was continually inventing new ways in which to make work easier and faster; he believed that his employees should work faster but not harder. He would often create machines and then fine-tune them by reshaping them with a torch and welding machine as new situations arose. LeTourneau’s first attempt at casting concrete homes began with a mold in a form that resembled an igloo. The patent design for the igloo had a double concrete skin with a hollow cavity that could be filled with insulation.[13] After concluding that the curved home would be impractical, he proceeded to design the Tournalayer which was an all-inclusive house-casting system. The house itself would be carried to the site with a Tournalayer which was a large form-moving machine that attached to a Tournapull (Figure 15). While LeTourneau was filing for the patent in 1946, the Tournalayer was busy casting the LeTourneau housing community in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Tournalayer was designed to be disassembled and loaded onto both a train for long distance delivery. A Tournalayer was loaded onto a train and a ship for delivery to Argentina in January of 1947.

Figure 15. R.G. LeTourneau. 1946. Mobile Form and Transport for Cast Structures. US Patent 2,593,465, filed May 17, 1946 and issued April 22, 1952.

Figure 15. R.G. LeTourneau. 1946. Mobile Form and Transport for Cast Structures. US Patent 2,593,465, filed May 17, 1946 and issued April 22, 1952.

The collapsible inner molds can be seen behind the outer molds in Figure 16 as the two are being aligned to cast a home. The Tournalayer lifted the outer mold and placed it over the inner mold after steel reinforcement and frames for the openings were installed. The Tournapull would provide the power to run the electric motors, pulleys, and cables that lifted the molds. While the Tournalayer “automated” the construction process of homes, the sequence of operations necessary to form the home was actually quite complex.

Figure 16. Tournalayer No. 2, photograph, 1946.  Margaret Estes Library, LeTourneau University, Longview, Texas, Robert G. LeTourneau Collection.

Figure 16. Tournalayer No. 2, photograph, 1946. Margaret Estes Library, LeTourneau University, Longview, Texas, Robert G. LeTourneau Collection.

The posed photograph in Figure 17 reveals the backside of a Tournalayer while the Tournapull is concealed by the Toccoa welding van. The forms are shown lifted and being transported within the Tournalayer frame. A large Tournalayer community was not created in Toccoa, but Tournalayers were demonstrated and created several houses there. The first Toccoa, Georgia Tournalaid home was painted the same bright yellow color as LeTourneau’s earthmoving equipment.[14] LeTourneau’s earlier all-steel homes in Peoria were also depicted in the same equipment yellow in LeTourneau’s brochure The Carefree Home.[15] Later homes would be painted white, but the first ones were depicted as being equipment yellow. LeTourneau created earthmoving machines side-by-side in the same plant as the homes which were pragmatic machines for living. The craftsmen who made the Tournapull also formed their own all-steel homes in the same plant, using the same tools. While many of the tools used to create the machines were modern, the complex machines were essentially hand-crafted.

Figure 17.  R.G. LeTourneau Co. of Georgia, Toccoa, Georgia, photograph, custom welding van in front of a Tournalayer at the  LeTourneau plant circa 1945. Courtesy of the Margaret Estes Library, LeTourneau University, Longview, Texas, Robert G. LeTourneau Collection. A detail of this photograph is located in Figure 1.

Figure 17. R.G. LeTourneau Co. of Georgia, Toccoa, Georgia, photograph, custom welding van in front of a Tournalayer at the
LeTourneau plant circa 1945. Courtesy of the Margaret Estes Library, LeTourneau University, Longview, Texas, Robert G. LeTourneau Collection. A detail of this photograph is located in Figure 1.

While LeTourneau was not an architect, he did design the Tournalayer as a flexible tool to be used by architects as it could create numerous forms. LeTourneau was influenced by the architectural ideas of the time. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian house, for example, would permeate the construction industry as it rationalized flat roofs, simple geometric forms, and radiant heating in the floors. R. G. LeTourneau’s son Richard L. LeTourneau would be chosen to lead the Tournalayer division in Toccoa, Georgia and then Longview, Texas. The paper that Richard presented to the New Mexico Society of Professional Engineers at the University of New Mexico Engineering College on April 2, 1948 listed qualities that the Tournalaid architecture could represent. He wrote that architecture “must be recognized (and) that contemporary architecture represents a way of living that has transformed the home from its role as mere shelter into the center of existence. Thus, architecture has become more functional, more utilitarian and more casually beautiful.” [16] Richard’s view was focused on the construction method as he saw the machine and the forms as components that architects could use to their own ends. Richard stated that “(W)e have developed an extremely flexible building method in order to permit unlimited freedom of architectural treatment.”[17] The ability to remain flexible was designed into the mechanical reproduction of the prefabricated homes.

The Tournalayer was not an attempt to dictate a specific style, but rather a machine to produce shapes that could be used as architectural components. The recommended designs were modern in that the flat roof was emphasized to lessen wasted space with the ability to provide a recreational space on the roof as a sun deck, roof garden or terrace. Richard L. LeTourneau was aware of the Usonian home and mentioned it as one of the “extremely modern” “architectural trends” that the buyers demand. While the flat roof was recommended it was not the only option presented. Prospective homeowners could choose from “the cape cod, the modern colonial, the Spanish or the extremely modern Usonian-type house” according to the paper.[18]

The “Toccoa plant was used as the experimental plant for the company, and as such could not be expected to show a profit similar to the Peoria operation.”[19] The steel housing panels would be similar in Toccoa as those in Peoria, but the form of the application of the panels in the housing design continued to evolve. LeTourneau described them as: “all-steel construction, hermetically sealed and air-conditioned, with a six-inch insulated space between inside and outside walls, providing almost perfect protection against the heat of summer and the cold of winter. These houses are fire, earthquake, termite, and almost bomb proof. The walls both outside and inside are painted, and the appearance is modern and attractive.”[20]

Figure 18. LeTourneau’s Baby Tournalayer, 1951, Toccoa, Georgia, photograph, courtesy of Dale Hardy of LeTourneau Technologies and R.G. LeTourneau Heritage Center.

Figure 18. LeTourneau’s Baby Tournalayer, 1951, Toccoa, Georgia, photograph, courtesy of Dale Hardy of LeTourneau Technologies and R.G. LeTourneau Heritage Center.

LeTourneau manufactured the next building construction tool named the Baby Tournalayer in the experimental Toccoa plant and used his nearby hotel site to demonstrate it to clients. LeTourneau first established the hotel site by with the placement of Tournapull Apart-Homes, but decided to cast 3 small concrete homes at the site in order to show the process to contractors who purchased one of the two Baby Tournalayers to construct small homes for North African Arabs in French Morocco (Figures 18 and 19).

Figure 19. “LeTourneau’s Baby Tournalayer Under Way to Motel Site,” 1951, Toccoa, Ga., photograph, courtesy of Dale Hardy of LeTourneau Technologies and R.G. LeTourneau Heritage Center. LeTourneau’s Baby Tournalayer is shown traveling to the motel site to cast the three rooms.

Figure 19. “LeTourneau’s Baby Tournalayer Under Way to Motel Site,” 1951, Toccoa, Ga., photograph, courtesy of Dale Hardy of LeTourneau Technologies and R.G. LeTourneau Heritage Center. LeTourneau’s Baby Tournalayer is shown traveling to the motel site to cast the three rooms.

The LeTourneau Company would publicize the two new Baby Tournalayers by sensationalizing the cast room structure as being “atomic-bomb-proof” (Figure 20). Close to the Toccoa plant, earthmoving equipment cut the earth; the Tournalayer would lay the room units and the earth would be replaced atop the cast concrete structures. The rooms were ventilated through the earth creating cross ventilation through the front door. Windows were left out of the front of the concrete structures to support the concept of the buried hotel rooms as being “bomb-proof.” The low construction cost was promoted as being less than ten percent of standard construction costs.

Precedent for LeTourneau’s desire to have exceedingly strong buildings can be traced back to his earlier experiences. LeTourneau, while living in San Francisco, witnessed one of the most significant earthquakes in history on April 18, 1906. He was in a building that was shaken to the ground and rendered uninhabitable. This experience influenced his thoughts on construction methods as he wished to create buildings that were not just durable, but would far exceed standard construction standards. He designed his homes as did his equipment by creating industrial strength buildings.

The LeTourneau Company understood that it could control what the press reported by forming press clips that highlighted the machines capabilities as well as the products created with the machines. The press clip in Figure 20 highlights how LeTourneau’s machines could sculpt the earth by moving a mountain and rapidly construct durable shelters. While the Cold War is reflected in the atomic nature of the press coverage (figure 21), it was unlikely that the bomb-proof aspect of the concrete construction would have been put to the test. The concrete rooms were created primarily as demonstrations of the machine’s capabilities.

Figure 20. “Nation’s First Atomic-Bomb-Proof Tourist Motel,” circa 1951, Toccoa, Georgia, press clip, courtesy of Dale Hardy of LeTourneau Technologies and R.G. LeTourneau Heritage Center.

Figure 20. “Nation’s First Atomic-Bomb-Proof Tourist Motel,” circa 1951, Toccoa, Georgia, press clip, courtesy of Dale Hardy of LeTourneau Technologies and R.G. LeTourneau Heritage Center.

R.G. LeTourneau changed the shape of Toccoa, Georgia with both his industrial technology and his ideas about how to live in the first half of the 20th century. Utopian underpinnings were perceived by the visitors at the “Tournapull,” Georgia plant opening. While LeTourneau did not directly define what he understood utopia to mean for himself, it is clear that his Four-Point System was intended to develop community by providing and creating machines, promote self-sufficiency, establish a community of “Tournapull,” and promoted Christianity. An inseparable aspect of LeTourneau’s life was the connection between business and religion as it became a motivating factor in many of his decisions. R.G. LeTourneau’s early Christian roots and his experience with materials and processes formed a synergy as he built communities with his machines. LeTourneau’s professional affiliations included the Christian Businessmen’s Committee International, the National Association of Evangelicals, Business Men’s Evangelistic Clubs, and Gideon’s president for the year 1940. LeTourneau actively blended economic conservatism and religion; as he believed, they belonged together and strengthened one another. On September 27, 1940 LeTourneau was interviewed by Robert Ripley of Ripley’s “Believe-it-or-not” for a radio broadcast. The interview reiterated what R.G. LeTourneau stated early in his career: that he donated 90 percent of his profits to charity. The foundation that he established “supports a number of foreign missions and employs twelve evangelists, who travel over the country and speak in churches. We send out 1,500,000 pamphlets every month. And we have a publication called NOW which is mailed, free for the asking, to 80,000 people weekly.”[21]

R.G. LeTourneau represented a unique balance between industrial equipment manufacturing, utopian architectural endeavors, and evangelical pursuits. His legacy in “Tournapull,” Georgia remains a source of interest for Georgians as well as historians.

Figure 21. Andrew Sparks, “You Rest in Peace… Six Feet Under… in Georgia’s First Atomic-Bomb-Proof Tourist Court.” The Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine (September 29 1951). Three covered Tournalayer units were laid individually then covered with earth and faced with a concrete masonry wall to retain the earth infill. Vegitation was intended to take over the earth infill.

Figure 21. Andrew Sparks, “You Rest in Peace… Six Feet Under… in Georgia’s First Atomic-Bomb-Proof Tourist Court.” The Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine (September 29 1951). Three covered Tournalayer units were laid individually then covered with earth and faced with a concrete masonry wall to retain the earth infill. Vegitation was intended to take over the earth infill.

Endnotes:

[1] Lorimer, 126.
[2] Richard L. LeTourneau, “An Advanced Method of House Building: A Paper Delivered to the New Mexico Society of Professional Engineers and the University of New Mexico Engineering College” (April 2, 1948): 5. Courtesy of the Margaret Estes Library, LeTourneau University, Longview, Texas, Robert G. LeTourneau Collection.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Robert Haralson Selby, “Earthmovers in World War II: R.G. LeTourneau and his Machines” (PhD dissertation, Case Western University, 1971), 122. Note: Selby worked closely with LeTourneau on this dissertation and would later work at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas.
[6] Lorimer, 96.
[7] Andrew Sparks, “You Rest in Peace… Six Feet Under… in Georgia’s First Atomic-Bomb-Proof Tourist Court,” The Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine (September 29, 1951).
[8] The Carefree Home: Enduring Quality in Small Houses (Form No. H-400-E – 8-38, August 1938). Courtesy of Dale Hardy of R.G. LeTourneau Heritage Center, and LeTourneau Technologies, Longview, Texas.
[9] R.G. LeTourneau. 1943. Building Construction. US Patent 2,469,603, filed Feb. 15, 1943 and issued May 10, 1949. Note: This experimental system was tested in Vicksburg, Mississippi where two of these houses were constructed.
[10] Donald F Ackland, Moving Heaven and Earth: The Story of R.G. LeTourneau: Inventor, Designer, Manufacturer, Preacher (New York: Iverson Ford Associates, 1949), 144. Note: The building would be used by the United States in World War II as a military convalescent center for returning servicemen.
[11] Note: The plan of the bars remains, but one more of the arms has been removed to provide access and parking. An early pressed steel panel dome system was designed and patented by LeTourneau in 1940.
[12] Norman B. Rohrer, The Remarkable Story of Mom LeTourneau (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1985), 81. Note: Mr. And Mrs. LeTourneau would be called Mom and Pop by the students of LeTourneau Tech which is now LeTourneau University.
[13] “An All-Steel Station in Georgia,” Broadcasting: The Weekly News Magazine of Radio, broadcasting advertising, vol. 21, no. 21 (July 7, 1941): 41. Washington D.C.
[14] R.G. LeTourneau. 1939. Insulated Panel Brace. US Patent 2,252,012, filed Aug. 23, 1939 and issued Aug. 12, 1941.
[15] Lorimer, 96.
[16] Lorimer, 121.
[17] R.G. LeTourneau, Mover of Men and Mountains: The Autobiography of R.G. LeTourneau (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1960), 136.
[18] R.G. LeTourneau, Mover of Men and Mountains: The Autobiography of R.G. LeTourneau (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1960), 250.
LeTourneau’s Four-Point Program would later be developed for his colonies in Tournavista, Peru and Tournata, Liberia as well.
[19] Albert W Lorimer, God Runs My Business, the Story of R.G. LeTourneau: Farmhand, Master Molder, Garage Mechanic, Laborer, Inventor, Manufacturer, Industrialist, Christian Business Man, and Lay Evangelist (New York; Revell, 1941), 97.
[20] R.G. LeTourneau. 1938. Steel Building Panel. US Patent 2,180,830, filed Jan. 7, 1938 and issued Nov. 21, 1939.
[21] E.C. “Ish” Loflin phone interview by Everett E Henderson Jr. 13 August 2011. Ish worked for R.G. LeTourneau at the Vicksburg plant as an engineer after the Tournalaid homes were placed.

Advertisements

7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

7 responses to “A Utopian Vision for “Tournapull,” Georgia: R. G. LeTourneau’s Pioneering Machines

  1. Susan Miller

    Oh yeah! Go Everett…He was an interesting guy!

    Sent from Fox Point

    • Thanks so much for letting me know. This is great to know.

      • You are welcome. I actually found your blog post because the Journal Star article made me curious for more information. Thanks for the comprehensive posting. I’m a librarian and I enjoy well-written historical information.

  2. Jodie and Bill Collier

    This is awesome, enjoyed this very much…have lived in Toccoa all my life, but never knew all of the story. Mr. LeTourneau was an amazing man and very smart individual!!

  3. Ken Harper

    Thanks for sharing this article. Just read it from a Facebook post. My Dad was a machinist at the Toccoa plant and we live in the ‘all steel’ housing there near the plant. I learned a lot more about the legacy of RGL, his 4 points explain a lot of what made him tick. He was ahead of his time with inventions and community involvement.

  4. Love the story. Many of my family started with LeTourneau in Peoria and then moved with him to Toccoa and to Vicksburg.
    Mr LeTurneau was one of a kind man who loved our God and his fellow man. He was a man that believed also in education and opportunity. Those of my family that worked with him were sent to Georgia Tech to be educated. In fact he would have professors come to the plant and teach his employees that wished an engineering degree. May God’s blessings remain with all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s