In touring a regional park dedicated to the interpretation of late 19th/early 20th century agrarian technology, I happened onto a sight that piqued my curiosity. In the main barn of the park, among displays of a Model T Ford farm truck that had seen better days, horse-drawn wagons, a thresher and assorted field implements, sat a piece of equipment looking like a “steampunk” sculpture of a basic steam locomotive mounted on three massive steel wheels.
This was my introduction to the 110 hp Best steam tractor, serial no. 185. Subsequent visits to this park – Ardenwood Historic Farm, Fremont, California – only increased my curiosity. By then, the Best was no longer languishing in the barn, but was out in one of the fields, actually operating, belching black smoke from its stack and towing a wagon loaded with hay bales and park visitors. What initially appeared to be a museum display was in fact an operable piece of antique farm equipment.
As the 19th century drew to a close, urban America was well into the expansion brought on by the Industrial Revolution. The agrarian landscape was a different matter. It was a dotted with small acreage farms, powered by livestock (horses, mules or oxen) and worked primarily by family members and hired men.
During the time when the internal combustion engine was still in its early infancy, steam-powered farm equipment enjoyed a golden era. In 1889, Daniel Best’s Agricultural Works (later renamed Best Mfg. Co.), began to manufacture steam engines at his plant in San Leandro, California, producing models ranging from 30 hp to the massive 110 hp model. Upon retirement in 1908, Best sold his company to Ben Holt, owner of Holt Mfg. Co. His son, C.L. Best, operated the company under the Best name until 1925, at which time it merged with Holt Mfg. and the two formed Caterpillar Co.
The Best formerly on display at the Ardenwood museum (No. 185) was manufactured in 1903. The largest model of the Best line, the 110 is 28 feet long. It measures 9 feet, 7 inches wide and 17 feet, 4 inches to the top of the smokestack. The behemoth weighs more than 18 tons. Its 8-foot-diameter rear drive wheels allowed for up to 15-foot width extensions to gain stability on the soft California land. The engine had a 940-gallon water tank; in operation, it gulped 340 gallons per hour.
The Best’s single front wheel (5 feet in diameter) is steered by a chain-and-pulley system. Manned by a crew of three (engineer, brakeman and stoker) and sometimes described as the “monarch of the fields,” it could pull 34 7-inch plows, covering 12 acres per hour in clay and adobe. This model was designed not only for agricultural fieldwork, but also for long-distance freight hauling and was used as a road engine for the mining and logging industries.
Horizontal boilers were the standard for most steam engines a century ago, but the 110 hp Best was designed with a vertical boiler, capable of boiler pressure of 160 psi. The boiler’s vertical orientation allowed easier navigation of uneven terrain and steep slopes. A significant improvement developed by Best was the use of a piston-type or spool steam admission valve that alternated high-pressure steam in and exhaust steam out. By balancing the steam pressure, the steam engine was able to move forward and backward more easily, depending on the orientation of the valve.
No. 185 was sold new for $7,500 ($202,700 today) to California Sugar Pine Co., where it was used to haul logs to the Collins-Ritt Mill in Shingletown, California. Later, into the mid-1920s, it was used to haul lumber from the mill to the railroad. It was sold to Harry Abbott in 1939 and placed in front of his trading post along California State Route 44. Taking its name from the massive wheels on the engine sitting out front, the trading post evolved into the Big Wheels Inn and Restaurant. There it languished as a roadside attraction until, in the early 1970s, Oakland Museum of California expressed an interest in the relic.
Once acquired by the museum in 1972, the 110 was moved to Caterpillar’s Peterson plant in San Leandro, where it was displayed during that city’s centennial celebration. At the end of the centennial year, the Best was stored in an old firehouse in Oakland’s Elmhurst District. Over the next four years, a crew of 60 volunteers restored it to its original condition. Once the restoration project was completed, the steam engine was returned to the Oakland museum where it made its 1977 debut as part of the museum’s “American Farm” exhibit.
In the mid-1980s, the Best was moved to Ardenwood Historic Farm as a “living historical resident.” With its smokestack and canopy disassembled to allow passage through an entry, it was displayed in the farm’s restored 19th century barn. On holiday weekends and during special events, the Best was put to work pulling wagons carrying park visitors. Exhibited at the California State Fair, the Best pulled 50 tons up an 8 percent grade, 36 tons up a 12 percent grade, and 72 tons on level ground.
As age is no friend to most things, the Best’s rear pinion gear was worn to about 1/16-inch out of tolerance and needed replacement. Because a crane was required to lift the engine to remove the massive rear wheels so that worn parts could be replaced, the Best was returned to the Peterson plant in San Leandro in 2004. New parts were manufactured utilizing original 19th century techniques and machining. The newly installed parts had a tolerance of 0.004 of an inch, roughly the width of a strand of hair. While mechanical repairs were being done, 12 volunteers from Ardenwood re-tubed the boiler and performed other plumbing work. After a week’s work, the Best was returned to Ardenwood.
In December 2006, No. 185 was moved to the Roots of Motive Power Collection in the Mendocino County Museum, Willits, California, where it remains on long-term loan from the Oakland museum. Roots of Motive Power is an all-volunteer organization founded in 1982 to preserve and restore steam- and diesel-powered equipment used in California’s North Coast logging industry from the 1850s to the present.
While still operable as of this writing, the engine’s boiler has been “red-tagged” on its inspection by the State of California. Roots of Motive Power is considering repairing or rebuilding the boiler. Until the boiler issues are resolved, the museum will not operate the Best. FC
For more information: Roots of Motive Power, P.O. Box 1540, Willits, CA 95490; www.rootsofmotivepower.com.
B.P. Lemmon has more than 30 years of experience as a freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.