Stockton Pull-Away Tracklaying Garden Tractor

| July/August 1998

2225 North F Street Stockton, California 95205-2701

The Stockton Pull-Away was designed by Fred Lewis in the early 1940s. He worked for Holt Bros. Caterpillar at that time. Fred was a gallant old gentleman, a figure from the 'iron man' school, yet without the hard attitude. When he designed the Pull-Away in the 1940s, he was already in his 70s. He was about the same age as Daniel Best and Benjamin Holt. After their companies merged to create Caterpillar, Fred traveled a great deal, introducing tracklayers for them. Fred talked about his adventures in Russia and South America. It was sometimes thought that Fred might have been the inspiration for the 'Earthworm Tractor Company' stories that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. He could recall the early efforts to create a machine that could operate in the soft peat dirt of the Delta, and once told of an experimental machine so heavy that it actually sank and disappeared overnight.

Fred and his brother-in-law, 'Charley,' had their shop on Union Street, when they started making the Pull-Away one at a time. This accounts for the differences in the individual tractors, although many of the San Joaquin Valley farmers were known to greet each new machine they acquired with a cutting torch, a crowbar and a welder, with which to modify it according to their needs. They applied different configurations of iron and rods to fit their own farming needs. One owner put on a 55-gallon drum so he could load it with bricks and haul them up an incline to a house that was being built. One used 6' pipe to extend the tracks for better stability and traction. It was a good little work horse.

Fred made several prototypes using Wisconsin engines, about 18 to 20 of them. An agreement was reached whereby Capps Brothers, a sheet metal shop, would build the machines with an initial run of 50 units. They were always sold as products of the Pull-Away Tractor Company. This was not unusual, because Capps Brothers were primarily still steel fabricators and machinery builders, with some products, designing and building custom machines for specific purposes, as well as fabricating for others, products which would be incorporated into or sold under other sales organizations. The firm fabricated, at various times, asparagus washers, chicken cookers, gold dredger components, bulk material elevators, construction equipment, almond hullers and harvesters, sugar cane harvesters and equipment, orchard sprayers, etc. There was always the search for 'the' product. They also did millwright work, installing the railroad car damper system at the Port of Stockton. They also built harvester parts and drapers (conveyor belts), which were usually sold through Caterpillar or John Deere dealers. The Pull-Away was introduced through some of these dealers. Most of the machines were sold in the San Joaquin Valley, in California, east and west of Stockton, to truck garden farmers who raised peppers, pole tomatoes, garlic, etc. in small quantities that they sold through the produce market.

One tractor went to a mine near Volcano, California, where the tractor did various jobs in the mine, and the owner was very enthusiastic. One was sent to North Africa, among other places overseas, as samples. The various aid programs operated by the federal government after World War II attracted middlemen known as 'five percenters,' who claimed to be able to land contracts for overseas markets through the Government program. Fred had some earlier dealings with some of these individuals and nothing ever came of any samples that were shipped out.

Capps Brothers made the tractors when their own business was slow. They used only Briggs & Stratton engines on their machines, so they used Briggs on the Pull-Away as well. They also used whatever materials were handy in making the tractors, iron, tin, or cast iron. The fabrication methods and materials used reflected the capabilities of whoever happened to be building the machine and depending upon the operational demands or stresses expected for the particular part.

Even the drilling of the holes in the frames and bodies were different. There were 25-30 men working in the shop at that time. Not all of them worked on the tractor. Every tractor was different in small ways. Each one was a true Pull-Away, but was unique from all the rest. They were all painted yellow and some of the big ones had some black on them. This reflected Fred Lewis' history as a Caterpillar man. The cast and iron units seemed to be a little larger than the tin ones. The cast iron ones weighed up to 900 pounds, without implements; the tin ones weighed only about 150 pounds.

Some did not have transmissions. The bigger units had forward and reverse transmissions in them. It is believed that the transmissions on the units at Capps Brothers were fabricated there. Mr. Capps remembered the purchase of the gearing. Certainly, the earlier machines probably had transmissions designed and built by Fred Lewis. Fred was not well educated, but he had remarkable skills, as did most of the builders. He was remembered being seen designing and building a transmission for an almond huller from scratch.

The tin Pull-Aways had smaller engines on them, maybe 3-4 HP, while the iron and cast ones had 5-6 HP engines. Fred Lewis made no tin ones himself, he made his of iron, mostly.

The identification numbers probably started at 100, because numbers under 100 have never been found. Fred Lewis used little numbered plates fixed to the front of the body, and Capps Brothers used a Pull-Away tin plate with serial numbers on them. These were fixed to the engine along with the engine plate. All of the ones seen with little numbered plates were made with Wisconsin engines. It also seems that Capps Brothers put little plates on the fronts of the cast name placards with identifying numbers on them while the patent was still pending. After the patent cleared, the little plates were no longer on the fronts. Several of them have been seen, with no number at all on the little plate. The variation in name plates reflected the different time periods that the particular machines were built. The financing of the sales required serial numbers. Also, the serial number would identify a particular model, so that a replacement part or component could be identified.

The machine would accommodate bulldozer attachments, mower bars, plows, cultivators and discs as accessory implements. There were also the usual parts books, instruction manuals and a few brochures. The plow was not an operational success in the heavy adobe soil around Stockton. In softer ground, it would function. Such parts as plow shares and sickle blades were purchased from outside the company. The castings were obtained through local foundries from patterns provided.

Some major equipment firms expressed interest. The general idea was to sell the product to someone with manufacturing and marketing capabilities. However, the cost of the machine was a difficult barrier and Fred did not subscribe to the current fashion of seeing how cheap you can make a product. After the 50 units were made, it was clear that the tractor did not have sufficient utility to show market promise. Costs were high in building it. They stopped making them in the early '50s. The manufacturing agreement was not renewed and Fred passed away in the mid-'50s.

As for what the Pull-Away was used for, it has been told that it was used, locally, in pulling tarps during the knocking of almonds and walnuts. Also used in grapes, plowing in between the rows because it was small and easy to get around, and used on small truck farms of 5 to 10 acres.

The last president of Capps Brothers was William Capps, son of the founder. As a child, he helped scrape and clean the old tools that his dad, Lester Capps, Sr., bought from the junk yard when he and his brother Hobart decided to pool their World War I bonus money to start the business in 1935. Some products, such as water tanks, were built in their back yard. Later, when William graduated from grammar school, he was apprenticed as a sheet metal worker. The pay was 12 cents per hour and he worked at the shop after school and summers, with time out during World War II, until the business closed in 1968. The Miller Almond Huller was sold to Orchard Equipment Company in Ripon. Hart Carter Company, of Peoria, acquired the Spray master Orchard Sprayer. Both firms are also closed.

With the 18 to 20 prototypes that Fred made, plus the 50 made by Capps Brothers, there were only about 68 to 70 Pull-Aways ever made. Many ended up being taken apart and used in conjunction with other things on the farms. Some just 'died' and were hauled off to junk yards and cut up. Some are still hidden in barns, weeds, fields and the usual places where old rusty iron rests. Some are still intact.


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