Stubborn as a Mule

Despite the odds, the Bates Steel Mule saw years of success


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The earliest Bates Steel Mule tractor was one of the ugliest and oddest-looking farm machines ever built. It was like a cross between a punctured steam boiler, a garden tractor and a Harley. At first glance, Bates Machine & Tractor Co. could at least blame another company, Joliet Oil Tractor Co., of Joliet, Ill., for its design.

The very earliest Steel Mules, many of which were shipped to England and distributed through Vulcan Car Co., did not have "Bates" on them. However, as P.S. Rose wrote in his Report on Tractor Companies 1915, they were definitely Bates machines. "About five years ago the Bates concerns were asked to compete on some air compressor work at the Rumely plant. When Harry Bates saw the large number of tractors the Rumely people were building, he decided it was a good moneymaking machine. He soon had the tractor fever."

Bates Brothers was formed in 1885 in Joliet by Albert J. Bates and his sons. It was renamed Bates Machine Co. only three years later after their building burned to the ground. In 1895 Albert J. Bates went off to the Joliet Pure Ice Co., where he invented most of its machinery. He also basically owned Bates-Cotter Co. and had interest in American Tin Plate Co. The early companies manufactured barbed wire, wire-working machinery, power plant equipment, Bates-Corliss steam engines and eventually, tractors.

Steel Mules

The earliest model of the Steel Mule was first built by Joliet Oil Tractor Co. in 1913, but not named until 1914. This first Steel Mule was a 13-30 machine made to pull three 14-inch plows using a 4-inch-by-6-inch bore and stroke engine. It weighed 5,600 pounds and cost $985. It was a semi-crawler with a 15-inch rear crawler track during a time when few crawlers were being built. Holt, Best, Bullock Creeping Grip and Yuba were earlier.

In 1919, Bates Tractor Co. merged with Joliet Oil Tractor Co. to form Bates Machine & Tractor Co., perhaps because of the looming agricultural recession. The Bates tractors made under the Joliet aegis, a half-track Bates 30 HP Steel Mule, the Bates Steel Mule 12-20 and the Joliet 22-40 wheel tractor, sold well. P.S. Rose, in his Manufactured & Estimated booklet, wrote that Joliet made 565 in 1916, 732 in 1917, 159 the first half of 1918, with 850 estimated for the rest of 1918 and 3,500 in 1919. At least one principal of the new Bates company, Madison F. Bates, also had engine-building expertise, as he had founded Bates & Edmonds Motor Co. of Lansing, Mich., which manufactured Bull Dog engines.

Doubtless the odd-looking 13-30 Steel Mule was on its way out when the companies merged. The Model 12-20 looked more like a modern caterpillar-type tractor, with one 10-inch-by-52-inch crawler on each side. It had an Erd 4-cylinder, 4-inch-by-6-inch bore and stroke engine, weighed 4,300 pounds, and could pull three or four 14-inch plows.

Though it's unclear how much Madison had been involved with the companies before the merger, changes were made rapidly afterwards. The 12-20 was changed to a 15-22, and, curiously, was tested twice at the University of Nebraska Tractor Test laboratory in 1920: as a 15-22 in test no. 68, and as a Model D 15-22 in test no. 60. Doubtless the Model D was an upgrade of the 15-22, and both tractors were submitted at the same time - the earlier 15-22 tested later.

The 15-22 non-Model D used a 4-cylinder Midwest engine of 4-1/8-inch-by-5-1/4-inch bore and stroke, powered by gasoline, and weighed 4,600 pounds. The Model D 15-22 used an Erd 4-cylinder engine of 4-1/4-inch-by-6-inch bore and stroke, and burned kerosene. Though there were no problems, evidently the company didn't like what they saw, as they abandoned the D that same year, and came out with the 18-25 Model F. During 17 years of production, the Model F used three engines.

From 1920-1925, it used the 4-cylinder Midwest. The company called it a Bates-Midwest. Farm Implements and Tractors in 1921 (FI&T) said the engine was designed for overload work in very dusty conditions. "All working parts of the motor are big enough for a 5-inch cylinder, and then a 4-1/8-inch cylinder is put on. Therefore a farmer cannot overload his motor, because he will be unable to get sufficient gas over crankshaft bearings to get him into trouble."

Additionally, the article says the F was an upgraded Model D, with the fuel tank hinged on the dashboard so it could be raised when engine valves needed work. And, the turning brakes were different, allowing either crawler to be held while the other crawler pivots the machine around. The engine, water air cleaner and carburetor were also different on the F from the D. The F also became an 18-25. Moving parts during this era weren't routinely protected, as one other sentence illustrates: "All working parts throughout are enclosed against dust and operate in oil."

Starting in 1926, a Beaver 4-cylinder engine of 4-1/4-inch-by-6-inch bore and stroke was used in the Model F.

In 1928, the Model F used a LeRoi 4-cylinder engine of 4-1/4-inch-by-6-inch bore and stroke, until the machine was no longer made after 1937. All three Model Fs continued the Bates half-track style, and all weighed 4,850 pounds.

Models G and H

The merger of the companies evidently helped the business make it through the Agricultural Depression of 1920-1922, as Bates continued to introduce models. In 1921, the Bates Model G 25-35 industrial crawler was introduced. The G was slightly larger and heavier than the Model F - at 62-1/2 inches wide and 63 inches high, the G was 1/2-inch wider and 5 inches higher than the F, while its 6,500 pounds was 1,650 pounds heavier. FI&T wrote that the G was made so a power-driven winch could be attached to the front end for logging and other work. The driver's seat swiveled out of the way so the driver could stand.

"The motor has a three-inch hollow crankshaft and 4-1/2-inch cylinders. The oil pressure carriage is between 35 and 50 pounds, and is so regulated that whenever the pull increases on the drawbar, the volume of oil to the motor bearings is automatically increased at the same time. This is a very valuable feature for an industrial tractor, which is subjected to many severe shocks and does not always have a competent operator to care for it." The G industrial was made until 1928.

Bates' Model H 15-25, the company's first conventional wheel tractor, was another tractor introduced in 1921, using the same Midwest 4-cylinder engine that the Model F crawler used for a while. Simply called "The Bates," it did not much resemble the wheeled tractor the merging company had inherited from Joliet Oil Tractor Co. It was of the backbone type, with the transmission bolted directly to the engine. "The crankshaft is 2-1/2 inches in diameter," FI&T said, "and oil is forced through it from 35 to 50 pounds pressure." It was built from 1921-1924.

Full crawlers to the end

The G Industrial was the last half-track crawler made by the company. In 1924 they introduced the Bates Industrial 25, which used the Beaver 4-cylinder 4-1/2-by-6-inch bore and stroke engine.

Also in 1924, the Bates Steel Mule Model 40 came into production. Its 4-cylinder Waukesha carried a 5-inch-by-6-1/2-inch bore and stroke. It weighed 9,500 pounds.

In 1929, the stock market collapsed, and Bates was sold to Foote Bros. Gear & Machine Co. of Joliet, which ran the company for the next six years. The Industrial 25 was dropped in 1929, and the Bates Steel Mule Model 35 was introduced. This full crawler had a 6-cylinder Waukesha engine with a 4-1/2-inch-by-6-inch bore and stroke, and had a completely enclosed drive train.

Other Bates Steel Mules included the Model 45 (6-cylinder Waukesha of 4-5/8-inch-by-5-1/8-inch bore and stroke, 13,500 pounds, 1930-1933); Model 50 (same Waukesha, 14,000 pounds, 1934-1937); Model 80 (Waukesha 4-cylinder of 6-1/2-inch-by-7-inch bore and stroke, 22,000 pounds, 1929-1937); and the very last, the Bates Steel Mule 40 Diesel. This was the only diesel in the line, and was offered in 1937, the last year of the company's existence, selling for $3,100. By this time Bates had taken the company back.

The 40 Diesel used a Waukesha-Hesselman 4-cylinder diesel of 4-1/2-inch-by-5-1/4-inch bore and stroke. This was a unique design in the engine, with compression of 150 psi and fuel ignited with a conventional spark plug. According to C.H. Wendel in the Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, the design saw only limited success.

Parts were available for a few years after 1937, but the company was out of business.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact Bill at: Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369;