Rare Sight in the Midwest: The Yuba Ball Tread

Ohio collector transplants Yuba Ball Tread tractor

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The Yuba’s trademark “Y” is painted on the tractor’s radiator.

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When was the last time you saw a tractor powered by full-track drivers and a wide, single-front steering wheel? Once in a blue moon? Never?

Visitors to an Ohio show were treated to a special exhibit last summer, when a rare Yuba Ball Tread Model M 25-40 was shown at a display of rare and unique tractors and farm equipment hosted by the Miami Valley Steam Threshers Association at Plain City, Ohio.

The 1920 Yuba tractor was parked right smack dab in the middle of the feature tent. No tractor could park in front of or behind it. It stood alone. It was in good company though. Also in the feature tent: a pair of Love orchard tractors, several Hubers, a Minneapolis Universal tractor equipped with a sickle-bar mowing machine and a 1913 International Harvester high-wheel truck.

Several rare and unique tractors were parked outside because they were too large to fit under the tent: a 30-60 Titan and a 30-60 Mogul, both manufactured by International Harvester; two Lanz diesel tractors (shotgun shells are used to start these old boys); a 22-44 Minneapolis Threshing Co. cross-motor; a Graham-Bradley; the oldest known Ohio-owned Huber (a 15-30 gas tractor); and an Agra-Util tractor. Nearby, a 40-by-80-foot tent was filled with horse-drawn wagons and equipment.

Go east, young man

The Yuba Ball Tread is owned by Tom Burer, Fairfield, Ohio. Tom bought the tractor at an auction put on by the Heidrick Museum in California in the fall of 2005. Purchased on Tom's behalf by his son, Bobby, the Yuba tractor was in a sad state of repair. Many parts were worn or missing, and the tracks were in poor condition. Some track roller balls were missing; others were worn. Many of the shoes were completely worn through and there were no known replacements readily available. But Tom got lucky. At the same auction, another Yuba parts tractor was sold with two good, complete sets of tracks. Bobby was able to buy the complete tracks with good pads and nearly new roller bearings.

Assisted by Bobby, Tom disassembled the machine, in part to determine which parts were missing, which were worn but could be repaired and which to replace. Many parts could be salvaged, but not all. Both engine hoods had to be built, and both driving pinion gears had to be machined to fit the big bull gears. He also found a replacement seat.

When the tractor was reassembled and running well enough to exhibit, the Burers started on the sheet metal. Determining the correct paint color and logo placement was a major challenge. They finished with 40 gold circles around the Yuba name to represent the steels balls making up the ball tread.

This particular tractor was designed to work in California groves and vineyards. Its low profile - the tractor is just 60 inches tall at the top of the radiator, and the driver's seat is even lower - permits close access to trees and vines without damaging crops. The Yuba is 16 feet long and just over 6 feet wide. Each track is about 4 feet long and 18 inches wide. Its rounded track shoes do not cut into the ground, so delicate roots are not threatened.

The 25-40 uses a 4-cylinder Wisconsin engine with a 5.75-by-7-inch bore and stroke. The split-block engine has one crank-case but two separate cylinder blocks with two pistons in each. Controls are simple: The 25-40 has a hand throttle, steering wheel, independent steering clutches and a lever to shift the 2-speed transmission.

Each track has two sets of steel roller bearings (balls) encased in a steel ball race. This provides for nearly frictionless motion, which permits use of an engine of much lower horsepower. Most of the energy produced transfers directly to the drawbar. There are independent clutches for each track for forward and rear motion. These clutches are also used as an aid in steering.

The steering mechanism features a steering wheel mounted on a shaft, which has a winch drum attached to its lower end. When the wheel is turned, a cable follows a series of pulleys to the tiller wheel out front. Because the tiller wheel has a 180-degree turn radius, an arrow mounted atop a shaft indicates which way the front wheel is pointing.

The tractor will turn in almost its own length, or about 20 feet. When making a short turn, turn the steering wheel in the desired direction, grab the clutch on the side turning and pull back (putting that track in reverse) and push the opposite side's clutch lever forward (putting that track in the forward position). When the turn is completed, return both clutches to center position (or forward), then turn the steering wheel back to straight. The 25-40 does not have a self-centering option, so when the tiller wheel is turned in one direction, it stays there until the driver physically steers it back to straight ahead.

Tom explains that the tractor had no actual clutch. Instead, when the driver moves the steering levers forward, the tractor moves forward. When they're pulled back, the tractor moves in reverse. However, when the levers are in the center position, the tractor is in a kind of neutral position. "That makes starting a problem," Tom says. "Since you crank from the right side, you stand in front of the right track. When starting, you idle back as much as possible. Then, when the engine starts, the machine kind of jumps - or moves - forward just a bit. We keep a 4-by-4 block in front of both tracks as an extra insurance against forward motion."

Yuba Ball Tread gets its start in Detroit

In 1912, the Ball Tread Co. began building crawler tractors in Detroit. The company's first product, a 12-25 model, had rear driving tracks and a "tiller" front wheel that could be steered. An unusual feature of that machine was that each track rode on two rows of large steel balls. The company also produced an 18-35 model.

In 1914, Yuba Construction Co., Marysville, Calif., bought out Ball Tread and relocated operations to California. Both models continued in production, but were renamed the Model 12 and the Model 18. Yuba had manufacturing plants in Marysville and nearby Benicia (both in Yuba County, hence the name change). Eventually, all tractor manufacturing was moved to Benicia.

From 1916 to 1921, Yuba manufactured a 20-35 tractor equipped with a 4-cylinder Waukesha engine. That model was later upgraded to the 25-40 with a Wisconsin engine. The company claimed the machine had sufficient traction to operate in the mud of rice fields, the sand of the desert road and the soft soil of groves and vineyards, and yet its track shoes were so smooth that they would not mar a paved road. Additionally, the tracks were claimed to be so stable that they would not be thrown off, even on steep hillsides.

In about 1919, Yuba produced a heavy tractor, the 40-70 Ball Tread. It must have met with fierce competition or been too large for the company to handle. Why else would production have ceased after just one year? Ball Tread tractors went out of production in about 1930.

In the end, tractor manufacturing was a sideline for the Yuba Construction Co. The firm's primary focus was on production of mining equipment, including dredges for placer mines, dredge machinery for elevator dippers, clamshells, hydraulic dredges and centrifugal pumps for irrigation and drainage.

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. Email him at Jboblenz@aol.com