Half-track Bates Steel Mule Works Hard

The half-track Bates Steel Mule billed as efficient, inexpensive and durable
James Boblenz
September 2011
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Right rear view of the Model F.
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Think of a mule, and you may picture a stubborn beast that intends to do as it wishes, not as its owner wishes. But you may also think of a hard-working, sure-footed animal that will make a farmer proud. He has an animal that is efficient and durable with the ability to perform all day long. And that is what the Bates Co. wanted people to think of their new half-track machine – that the machine was efficient, inexpensive and durable. One of the company’s ads claimed the Bates Steel Mule to be “the most efficient tractor in America.”  

There were actually two Bates tractors. One was produced in Joliet, Ill., and one in Lansing, Mich. Both companies produced farm tractors, although the Bates tractor made in Joliet was built by the Joliet Oil Tractor Co.

If you can’t beat ’em…

According to Orphan Tractors by Bill Vossler, Marion E. Bates of Bates Tractor Co. invented and marketed the Bates All-Steel tractor in 1911. This company, which built wheeled tractors, was located in Lansing, Mich.

Meanwhile, just outside of Chicago, inventor and manufacturer Albert J. Bates was the driving force behind Joliet Oil Tractor Co. That company produced the first Bates half-track tractors, named for the inventor.

In 1919, the two companies merged to form Bates Machine & Tractor Co., based in Joliet. This company produced tractors until the late 1930s.

Following the lead of Holt Mfg. Co., Stockton, Calif., the newly formed Bates company was one of the first companies in the Midwest to build crawler-style tractors. Bates even developed a kit to convert a Fordson to a half-track tractor to increase traction and reduce soil compaction.

Steel Mule on display

Ron Nahrwold, New Haven, Ind., displays his 1926 Bates Steel Mule Model F at the Maumee Valley Antique Steam and Gas Engine show in New Haven.

Over the years, three different engines were supplied for the Model F. A Midwest engine with a 4-1/2-by-5-1/4-inch bore and stroke was used from 1921 to 1925. A Beaver engine with a 4-1/4-by-6-inch bore and stroke was used from 1926 to 1928. A LeRoi with a 4-1/4-by-6-inch bore and stroke was used from 1929 to 1937.

Ron’s Steel Mule uses the Beaver engine and is rated at 18-25 hp. The tractor has two forward speeds and one reverse and weighs 4,850 pounds. Bates advertising claimed that the tractor was “The most efficient tractor in America, with crawler traction, quality construction, pulls 3-4 plows, and handles a 28-32 thresher.”

This tractor has two wheels for front-wheel steering, but it also has heavy-duty brakes at each rear wheel to aid in turning. A foot-operated clutch enables the operator to shift gears. The gear shifter is within easy reach.

A malleable link chain track encircles the main drive gear, and a center idler keeps downward pressure on the track and around a front idler. The track’s shoes have cleats for improved traction. Each track has a separate adjusting screw and a spring-loaded tensioner to keep the track tight over rough terrain.

Lansing-built Bates tractors came on the market in 1911. In 1929, Bates Machine & Tractor Co. became a division of Foote Bros. Gear & Machine Co. The line resurfaced as Bates Mfg. Co. from 1935-’37; production of Bates tractors appears to have ended in 1937. Many early tractor manufacturers did not last as long. FC 

James N. Boblenz grew up on a farm near New Bloomington, Ohio. He now lives in Marion, Ohio, and is interested in antique farm equipment, particularly rare and lesser-known tractors and related items. E-mail him at jboblenz@aol.com. 


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