The Crawler that Rolled

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Emmett JordanCrawler

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During the years from 1910 to 1920, the budding tractor industry was a hotbed of inventive activity that resulted in a lot of very creative ways to solve the problems inherent in making a successful machine. There were many crackpot ideas, as well as sound ones, with wheel arrangements, engine placement and power trains taking every conceivable form. Many types of crawler designs as well were tried, with one of the more unusual being the 'Ball Tread' tractor. C.L. Best (whose crawler tractors were the main competition to Ben Holt's Caterpillars, from about 1913, until the two companies merged in 1925), believed in constant improvement in his products, and employed an excellent group of master mechanics. One of these men, Clarence A. Henneuse, developed a method of using balls between the track and frame, instead of pins and rollers. Apparently, Mr. Best wasn't impressed by the idea, so in 1912, Henneuse, along with Mr. Frame, of Benecia, W. J. Benson, of San Jose, and Alfred Johnson, of Wintersville, all in California, formed the Ball Tread Company in Detroit to market the tractor.

The first Ball Tread, a Model 12-25, featured two tracks at the rear and a single front steering wheel. Each of the two tracks ran on two rows of large (2.25 inches in diameter), chilled cast iron balls that ran in steel races on the inside of the track links and the outside of the rigid track frame. An oil tank was mounted inside each track frame to provide drip lubrication to the ball races and the drive sprockets. The balls were claimed to distribute the weight of the tractor evenly over each tread, along with providing reduced wear and a better bearing surface on side hills.

The front tiller wheel was mounted with a three-inch caster to allow it to normally run in a straight line. As a result, the machine required little steering effort on the part of the operator, whose horizontal steering wheel was connected to the tiller wheel by steel cables. Each track was independently driven through a reversible, planetary clutch controlled by a hand lever, allowing one track to be driven forward while the other was stopped or driven in reverse. Most steering was done with these hand levers.

In 1914, the Ball Tread Company was purchased by the Yuba Construction Company, a large California firm that specialized in dredging for gold in the Yuba River, and in building gold dredging machinery. Yuba continued to sell the 12-25 and a larger 18-35 Ball Tread, building the tractors in their Marysville and Benecia plants.

The 1919 Yuba Ball Tread Model 12-20 was fitted with a Waukesha engine with a 4.5-inch bore and a 6.75-inch stroke, weighed 6,750 pounds and cost $2,900. Yuba offered a Model 20-35 for several years that, in 1921, sold for about $4,900, and was powered by a Wisconsin 5 3/4 by 7 inch engine. Yuba advertised that the long stroke engine used in their tractors provided greatly improved power-to-weight ratios. Starting in 1919, for just a year or two, Yuba sold a huge Model 40-70 Ball Tread tractor that weighed 21,000 pounds and was powered by a Yuba-built four-cylinder engine of 6.5 by 8.5-inch bore and stroke. This machine had a full-length canopy and worm, and sector steering, but not many were sold.

Yuba Ball Tread tractors all had high tension magneto ignition with automatic spark advance, and water pump cooling systems. The engines were designed to burn distillate after starting on gasoline and, to aid in vaporizing the heavy distillate, the air intake to the carburetor ran through the heated exhaust pipe. The machines all had an unusually low profile and center of gravity, due to the main frame being mounted half-way up the center of the track frames, as well as the gooseneck front wheel mounting. The short turning radius provided by the individual, reversing track clutches, along with the low center of gravity and profile, made the tractors very useful in the hilly orchards of California and the Pacific northwest. The ball bearing design was undoubtedly a good selling point as well. One account tells of a shiny Yuba Tread tractor sitting on the concrete showroom floor at the Benecia sales office. When a customer came in to look at the machine, the Yuba salesman would contrive to lean gently against it, and the tractor would glide silently and effortlessly across the floor.

Even so, by the mid-twenties, Yuba stopped building the Ball Tread, probably as the result of several factors, one being the severe depression of 1921 that put lots of farm machinery manufacturers out of business. Then too, the Yuba tractors were expensive and there seems to have been a problem with keeping the balls in their tracks. Track tension was critical and, if not correct, the balls would fall out. Detractors claimed that a Yuba operator need a boy with a gunny sack following behind to collect the spilled balls. Another observer wrote: 'The problem [the Yuba] had in the field was that it could not push a hard load in reverse. The grooved ball race on the underside of the track plate would buckle up in reverse and those balls would pour out on the ground. It was quite a mess to get them back, because the tractor was usually in a tight place.'

I've never seen a Yuba Ball Tread tractor and believe that only a few have survived, mostly in California. Heidrick's Ag History Center in Woodland, Calif. has two: a 1920 15-25 and a 1921 25-40. Stil Tikn Machinery of Colfax, Calif., recently restored a 1916 Model 20-35. Photos of the latter machine can be seen on the Web at http://www.stiltikn.com/pictures/yuba/yuba.html

The ball tread was just another example of a design that looked good on paper, but left a lot to be desired when put into practice.

Many thanks to John R. Boehm of Woodland, Call, for the illustration, as well as additional information about the Yuba Ball Tread from his friend Howard Steiner.

Ever since his days as a boy on a farm in western Pennsylvania, Sam Moore has been interested in tractors, trucks, and machinery. Now a resident of Salem, Ohio, he collects antique tractors, implements and related items.