Best of the Best: Best Steam Tractor

Historic 110 hp Best steam tractor survives the passage of time.


| Dececmber 2016



historic 110 hp

The Best’s water tank holds 940 gallons. It uses 340 gallons of water per hour.

Photo by B.P. Lemmon

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.

Golden Era of Steam

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.

Monarch of the Fields

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.