Yuba Ball Tread

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The 1916 20-35 Yuba Ball Tread at the 2002 EDGE & TA show in Grass Valley, Calif. The front wheel axle is set behind the wheel's vertical point of rotation, making it instantly follow any shift in direction. Photo courtesy Floyd Schmall.

Thirteen years ago, a freak accident left Don Dougherty in the hospital and in a coma. When he came to, a new life began, both for him and the machines he restores.

On a September day in 1990, Don Dougherty was getting ready to help his mother move out of her rural Colfax, Calif., home when a fire in the adjoining trees grabbed his attention. That summer and early fall had been devastating for the area as fires, sparked by lightning and fueled by drier-than-normal conditions, broke out spontaneously across California. It was, Don says, 'a little fire,' and he immediately went to work putting it out.

What Don couldn't see was what caused the fire; a high-voltage line had snapped when a dead tree fell across it, momentarily jumping to ground before bouncing back up, only to hang some three or four feet from the ground. Putting out the fire, Don stepped back, contacting the line with his shoulder and the left side of his face, creating a conduit that let 7,200 volts course through his body.

'I woke up in the burn unit in Sacramento three weeks later,' Don says. 'After getting my senses back, I wanted to put a positive spin on a negative situation. During that whole event, my heart never stopped, so I put a tag on my truck; 'STL TIKIS.''

That event changed Don's life forever, and in large measure it's what pushed him into antique tractor restoration. 'When you face a catastrophic injury, a person wants to get back into their comfort zone. You want to consider yourself normal, so you do things that are aimed at trying to get yourself normalized. For your own self-esteem and clarification of yourself, you're trying to get back to where you were, so you look for a path that works for you. I've always loved antique trucks and tractors, and restoration was just a natural extension of that. That may seem bizarre, but that's what I did.'

Less than a year later Don applied the moniker on his license plate to a new business, STL TIKN Machinery, concentrating on restoring antique tractors, crawlers and trucks. Don wasn't exactly new to the restoration process when he launched his enterprise. 'I had been doing a little of this, but I was the public works director for Grass Valley, Calif., before my accident, and I didn't really have time to do restorations like I wanted to,' he says.

These days, however, Don takes the time, and since starting up STL TIKN Don and his crew have finished 15 complete restorations, on top of repairing other people's machines and completing their unfinished restorations. The Yuba Ball Tread featured here is just one of those restorations.

Don's Yuba is equipped with a 606 cubic-inch four-cylinder Wisconsin Model D. Yuba used engines from a number of different manufacturers, including Continental and Wisconsin, and is said to have built at least one of its own.

The Ball Tread

The history of the ball tread, while a little murky, has seen some documentation. According to R.B. Gray's book, The Agricultural Tractor, 1855-1950, the Yuba's ball tread design, where the machine's crawler tracks ride on balls rolling in a race, was the brainchild of Clarence Henneuse, a shop foreman at the C.L. Best Tractor Co. in Elmhurst, Calif. It may not have been an original idea, however, as a Charles Pierce of Milwaukee, Wis., evidently patented his own ball tread scheme in 1888. Be that as it may, Henneuse started work on his own ball tread tractor, and some time around 1910-1912 Henneuse, with the help of a Mr. Frame and W.J. Benson of San Jose, Calif., enlisted Alfred Johnson of Winters, Calif., to design a transmission for the new machine.

In 1912 they took their design and headed to Detroit, Mich., where they teamed with machinist Ben Middleditch. At this juncture they formed the Ball Tread Co., and working out of Middleditch's shop they built two different tractors, a Model A and a Model B. According to information collected by California historian Lorry Dunning, Davis, Calif., it was winter and the ground in Detroit was frozen when the tractors were finished, so they were shipped to California where they were put to work.

Around 1913-1914 the Yuba Construction Company of Marysville, Calif., purchased the Ball Tread Company and began manufacture of the Yuba Ball Tread in their Marysville facility. The company's initial offering was a 20 HP Model 8 and a 30 HP Model 12, and demand for the machines was evidently strong; according to numbers collected by Lorry, it appears at least 900 Yubas were built at the Marysville facility between 1914 and 1916. This success evidently prompted the company in 1917 to set up a second manufacturing site in Benicia, Calif., some 90 miles to the south in the San Francisco Bay area. The company's name formally changed to Yuba Manufacturing Company at the same time.

Development of the Yuba Ball Tread continued, and in 1918 the company introduced the Model 40-70, the 'Big Yuba,' as it was called. New tractors continued to issue from the two factories, and all told the company produced nine different models and 2,440 tractors before it ceased operations in 1931. Judging by available information, the 1917-1921 period marked the company's zenith in terms of production.

Nameplate for the 1916 Yuba 20-35, serial number 608. This is one of 724 20-35s made, and only 10 survivors are accounted for. The handle above the nameplate is for transmission engagement.

Just what caused the Yuba Ball Tread's failure is unknown. It's highly likely the company was a victim of Depression-era economics. But it's just as likely the company's signature offering, the ball tread, was its undoing. The ball tread-design, while certainly unique and not without its benefits, was also troublesome.

The balls were lubricated with engine oil, but since they were open to the elements, dirt mixed with the lubricating oil, creating a grinding paste and prematurely wearing the balls. This resulted in loose tracks, and when the machines crossed a depression the balls would often fall out. According to Don, some owners hired young boys to walk behind the tractors to pick up any balls that happened to fall out, failing to understand that worn balls were the root of the problem.

1916 20-35

Don's machinery interests are pretty eclectic, which goes a long way towards explaining his interest in the Yuba. He saw his first Yuba at the 1993 Grass Valley, Calif., show when John Boehm, Woodlawn, Calif., displayed one. Seeing the Yuba, Don thought, 'That's the strangest thing I've ever seen in my life. When I found out about the Yuba Oscar had, I decided to buy it.' Oscar, in this case, would be the late Oscar Cooke, proprietor of the legendary Oscar's Dreamland in Billings, Mont., once billed as the largest private collection of tractors ever assembled. When Oscar died in 1995 his collection sat in limbo until a decision was made to auction it off. In 1998, before the final auction, Don had the opportunity to buy the Yuba - he snapped it up. A 1916 Model 20-35, this was the third largest, and most popular, tractor in the Yuba line.

Don and his crew spent the next year restoring the 20-35, one of only 10 known survivors out of an estimated production of 724 Model 20-35 tractors. Don's Yuba survived, Don believes, mostly because of someone else's mechanical ineptitude. The Yuba's four-cylinder Wisconsin Model D engine has an externally mounted oil pump, and a line runs from the pump to a 'Telltale,' a spinner that lets the operator know at a glance if the engine has sufficient oil. The oil line is supposed to tee at the Telltale, with a line running from there to the engine's main oil galley. But instead of teeing off, the line had been routed through the Telltale and then to the main oil galley. This severely restricted the oil supply to the engine, resulting in catastrophic failure of the bearings. When Don and his crew tore the engine down the bearings were shot, one piston pin had separated and badly scored the cylinder, and another cylinder was scored from lack of lubrication.

In the end they had to press in two new sleeves, no mean feat on an engine with blind cylinders. The cylinders and head of the Wisconsin were cast in pairs as a unit, which adds up to a lot of extra work when it comes to boring and sleeving the engine. The camshaft and roller lifters were okay, and the timing gears, although a little thin, were deemed useable. The babbitt crankshaft bearings were all replaced, and Don says the finished bearings were so beautiful he 'didn't want to put the damn thing back together.'

The Yuba's transmission is an interesting affair, in that it's really three separate units. A spur gear, two-speed unit provides power to two paragon planetary units; one for each track. The two planetary units allow for the separate forward and reverse action in each track, with a multi-plate clutch in each unit giving forward motion and a band giving reverse. A leather belt couples the engine to the transmission; there is no clutch.

Don looks on as one of his crew puts his back into starting the Yuba at last year's EDGE & TA Southwest Regional Show in Grass Valley, Calif.

The Yuba's unique ball-tread system, which uses 280, 2-1/4-inch steel balls as rollers for the treads, received its fair share of attention, including new balls sourced from a bearing company in Massachusetts. By 1999 the Yuba was finally ready to roll, making its first outing at the Tulare, Calif., show, followed by the Carson Valley Show in Carson City, Nev. 'We had rebuilt it and restored it, but we didn't know how the drive train would work. The balls fell out of the tracks at both shows,' Don says. It takes about two hours to put the balls back in, but to hear Don talk about it, it's all just part of the package.

Don Dougherty and his 1916 20-35 Yuba Ball Tread at the 2002 EDGE & TA Southwest Regional Show in Grass Valley, Calif.

Driving Force

That attitude, one of calm reservation and unflinching perseverance, is a direct result of Don's accident, an experience that changed his life in every imaginable aspect, and that drives him in everything he does.

The machines Don restores are, like himself, unique. Their restoration and survival are somehow inextricably bound in Don's own sense of survival. Had Don never stepped into that line that September day, his life might have followed a very different path, and he might never have turned his full attention to restoration. And if he hadn't, the old iron community would be that much poorer.

Don would like to recognize the following for their help in the restoration of the 1916 Yuba Ball Tread: Scott's Restorations - paint; B&R Head & Block - cylinder and valve work; Lorry Dunning - parts information and historical research; Bruce Wyman - parts; Al Leist - crankshaft work; Alec Giamo -babbitt bearing work; Servicenter Radiator - radiator work; Jack Schafer - art layout; Mike Clines -artwork and lettering; and the best restoration crew in the West! Tim, Tom, Steve, Shane and Matt.

Richard Backus is editor of Gas Engine Magazine. Contact Don Dougherty at STL TIKN Machinery: 26210 Highway 174, Colfax, CA 95713, (530) 346-8163. On the Web at: