Stubborn as a Mule

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


| July 2006



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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.