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The Hamilton Walking Tractor

Author Photo
By Column Sam Moore

During the second decade of the 20th century, tractor design was still fluid, to say the least, and there were many strange contraptions masquerading as farm tractors. Some of these worked better than others, and some didn’t work at all. The Hamilton Walking Tractor is one that seems to have had little success.

Rush E. Hamilton was farmer and orchardist in Sonoma County, California, at that time and apparently was a pretty good mechanic. He thought he could use one of the new-fangled gas tractors then appearing on the scene and looked around for one to buy. Not finding anything suitable for his needs, Hamilton undertook to build his own and, after three years of experimentation, during which “he used it successfully for all work formerly done by horses,” Hamilton’s tractor “walked” onto the scene.

The two 46-inch diameter drive wheels were at the front of the tractor and each had 16 10-inch U-shaped grousers around its periphery. The Oakland Tribune described these unusual spiked wheels thusly, “Hamilton provided his machine with two front wheels which have a series of steel projections about a foot long which, as the tractor advances, dig their way into the soil, thereby getting traction for the pulling of plows or whatever other machinery being used, and by agitating the ground as it moves along loosens up the soil for the plow.” The Motor West article tells us that “ingenious bands are furnished to go over the lugs on the drive wheels so the tractor can be put in shape for road driving within a few minutes.”

Photos of the Hamilton Walking Tractor that appeared in a May 1918 issue of Popular Science magazine. (Courtesy of the Internet Archive.)

Based on his early patents, which were assigned to the Hamilton Tractor Co., Rush Hamilton started out to build the tractor on his own, and may have done so briefly, but then he apparently had an offer he couldn’t refuse. The Fageol Brothers were building a new factory in Oakland, California, and announced their intention to build not only their very expensive passenger cars ($9,500 in 1917 dollars for the chassis only, with a custom body extra), but trucks of from 2- to 5-ton capacity, as well as farm tractors. To that end they bought the rights to the walking tractor by giving Hamilton some Fageol Motor Co. stock and putting him on the firm’s board of directors.

After some re-design by Hamilton and the Fageol engineers, the new tractor was announced in the Sept. 1, 1917 Motor West, as “Small, Light and Powerful, It is Well Adapted to Pacific Coast Soil Conditions — Listed at $1,085.”

The machine was advertised as ideal for orchardists because “the narrow width permits a center hitch for the plow, enabling it to get right up to the tree trunk without any side draft at all. In manipulation about the tree base, this tractor is as flexible as a single horse.”

In those days when many tractor drive gears were out in the open and exposed to mud and dust, the transmission and final drive gears were enclosed and ran in oil, although there was just one forward speed along with reverse. The 2-1/2mph forward speed was said to make it possible to plow about four acres per day with a fuel consumption of 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 gallons of fuel per acre.

The Fageol/Hamilton tractor plowing. (Photos from Sept. 1, 1917 issue of Motor West magazine.)

The tractor was powered by a 4-cylinder engine (probably Waukesha) with a 3-3/8-inch bore and a 5-inch stroke that put out a little over 18hp and would burn gasoline, kerosene or distillate for fuel. It had a thermo-syphon cooling system and a large radiator for effective cooling, as well as a “patent dust arrester” to keep dirt out of the carburetor.

In an interview, Frank Fageol, head of the company, said, “The beauty of these new tractors is that they are adapted to so many farming needs, that they are economical in running expense, they use either kerosene or distillate or gasoline for fuel, and that they provide a world of power where the farmer needs it.”

Well, that may have all have been true, but the Fageol tractor didn’t sell, so in 1918 the firm introduced the 9-12, a four-wheeled tractor of more or less standard layout. Each large rear wheel consisted of two thick, cast steel plates, into which were cut sharp, pointed teeth. The two wheel plates were mounted on each end of the drive axle so the teeth were staggered. The radiator and hood, except for the row of louvers down the top center, were conventional, as were the steel front wheels. A Lycoming 4-cylinder, 3-1/2-inch x 5-inch engine drove a transmission with one forward and one reverse gear. There was no clutch and no differential, just a foot operated internal expanding clutch in each rear wheel hub. Steering was accomplished by a tiller and, because of the lack of a differential, the clutch on the inside wheel had to be depressed when turning, or both wheels would drive straight ahead.

The Fageol 9-12 tractor that replaced the Hamilton version. (Photo by Sam Moore.)

The tractor cost a whopping $1,525 and weighed 3,600 pounds, a lot of weight to be teetering on those sharp points. Fageol claimed that due to the wedging action on the soil between adjacent tapered wheel teeth, the drive wheels would walk over and wouldn’t sink into even deep sandy soil. One can only imagine what they did in mud. Fageol built the 9-12 tractor until 1923, when the firm decided to concentrate on trucks and busses. Horatio Smith, a Fageol Motor Co. director, started the Great Western Motor Co. in San Jose, and built the Fageol tractor for another year or two.

There was a report in 1990 that the extremely sorry remains of a Fageol-Hamilton walking tractor had been found near Geyserville, but I don’t know what became of it. If anyone knows, please contact Farm Collector or me.

— Sam Moore

Farm Collector Magazine

Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment