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Stockton Pull-Away Tracklaying Garden Tractor

Author Photo
By Donald & Diane Winn | Jul 1, 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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