Bates Steel Mule Shows Stubborn Streak

Classic 1918 Bates Steel mule gets second wind after restoration
M.V. Hansen
May 2000
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This restored 1918 12-20 Bates Steel Mule is now owned by Arlan Mehling, Eklaka, Mont.
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A crawler with a steering wheel? D.J. Baisch's response was typical of his sense of humor. 

"Well, it's a mule," he said. "They could have put reins on it, I guess."

The 1918 12-20 Bates Steel Mule D.J. restored is unique: He's never seen another like it. When he bought it in 1994, it was parked in a bed of weeds, its steering wheel and wood dashboard rotted away. The paint had been burned off the hood by the sun, and the side panels were streaked with rust. Only enough of the original paint remained to show what color it had been. The crawler had been out of service since about 1940.

The Steel Mule's drive was also unique. Not many tractors have crawler tracks on the back and front wheels for steering. Most crawlers are steered with a brake-clutch arrangement to pull one way or another, and indeed, turning the steering wheel on the Bates applies turning brakes to the tracks as well as directs the front wheels.

The project presented a significant challenge, even for an experienced restorer.

"I like crawlers, so when I found the Bates Steel Mule, I thought this would be a great project," D.J. said. "Nothing intimidates me anymore, but this tractor has a very complicated design, which turned out to be a major problem for me. When it quit running, there were no parts available and no one wanted a tractor that old, so it was left in the weed patch ... probably because the oil pan was destroyed and there was no place to get a new one."

The Steel Mule was originally sold for use on a small farm near Moose Jaw, Alberta, Canada, then passed to another farmer, and finally to Norm Carlson of High River, Alberta, Canada, who sold it to D.J., the fourth owner.

"Norm loaded it onto my trailer for me at High River, and I boogied on home to Idaho," D.J. said. "This was about my 30th restoration, including engines."

Like a doctor, D.J. had to diagnose the illness before he could cure it. (It seems somehow fitting that D.J. uses a hospital gurney to move parts of his restoration projects around his shop.) The first step was to get the Bates apart.

"These tractors were never meant to be taken apart," he said. "The complete frame and undercarriage was hot-riveted together at the rear and assembled to the transmission case, also with hot rivets. I had to cut every single rivet out. Some I couldn't even see, so the biggest challenge was just taking it apart."

"I think this machine was used to measure the circumference of the earth, and after they made the trip, they did it again," he said. "It was completely used up, worn out, run 'til it just wouldn't go anymore. I took every single nut, bolt, and rivet out – completely disassembled everything, no matter how small – and reconditioned or remade every part, painted it, and put it back together. The oil pan was a huge problem because it was broken. I couldn't find one for it, so I made one, using the remaining pieces as a guide. The front bolster was bad, so I made a new one from scratch. The magneto was missing, but I had one that would work. The rear sprockets were nearly completely worn away, and every tooth had to be built up and re-profiled. That required a lot of building up not only of sprockets, but other gears as well. I worked on it for two years as my main project."

D.J. found another seat and steering wheel, and replaced the dashboard with a new wooden one. There were no fenders or sheet metal, except for the hood, which was in pretty good shape with just a few dents, and rust that was cleaned off before painting. Other small parts, such as bolts, could be substituted with easily available items. The useable nuts and bolts were cleaned up in a tumbler, using kerosene as a lubricant.

The Model D appears to have been made in small numbers.

"I have never seen production records for the Model D, and this is the only one I know of in existence," D.J. said. "The serial number is 4124, and I imagine they started at 4000, since production was known to have been in 1918 and 1919 only. Later models were F and G. I've talked to many people who have knowledge of Model F's, but no one knows of any other Model D's, regardless of their condition."

Albert J. Bates invented the Steel Mule in 1915. He was an accomplished inventor in other areas before that (items such as a wire-making machine and equipment for ice houses). Earlier, the Bates Company produced a Corliss-style steam engine. In 1929, after the stock market crash, the company was sold to Foote Bros. Machine Co., then repurchased by Albert J. Bates Company six years later. The company closed for good in 1937.

The Bates Steel Mule originally sold for $1,500, a lot of money in 1919. It weighed 4,300 pounds, was 8'9" long; was just over 5" wide, and had a turning radius of 8'6". The four-cylinder Erd motor burned kerosene, gasoline or distillate. The tractor has a 4" bore and 6" stroke. Related collectibles are about as rare as the tractor itself.

"I have a Bates Company ad that came from a magazine or newspaper, and a manual which is actually a copy for the Model D," D.J. said. "I bought it at an auction."

Other than lettering, D.J. does his own restoration work.

"That means all disassembly, repairs, reassembly, body work, painting, 'atta boys', welding, cast iron repair, machining – everything," he said, "including some new additions to the English language in the form of colorful commentary and pungent observations." FC 

For more information: D.J. Baisch, 6230 E. 81st N., Idaho Falls, ID 83401; (208) 525-2071. email: ihorse@srv.net. 

M. V. Hansen was born and raised on a farm near Idaho Falls. He has worked as a geologist in Idaho and Colorado, and later with the U.N. in Vienna, Austria. He currently lives in an Alpine village in the southern Alps of Austria. 


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