Bates Steel Mule Shows Stubborn Streak

Classic 1918 Bates Steel mule gets second wind after restoration


| May 2000



1918 12-20 Bates Steel Mule

This restored 1918 12-20 Bates Steel Mule is now owned by Arlan Mehling, Eklaka, Mont.

A crawler with a steering wheel? D.J. Baisch's response was typical of his sense of humor. 

"Well, it's a mule," he said. "They could have put reins on it, I guess."

The 1918 12-20 Bates Steel Mule D.J. restored is unique: He's never seen another like it. When he bought it in 1994, it was parked in a bed of weeds, its steering wheel and wood dashboard rotted away. The paint had been burned off the hood by the sun, and the side panels were streaked with rust. Only enough of the original paint remained to show what color it had been. The crawler had been out of service since about 1940.

The Steel Mule's drive was also unique. Not many tractors have crawler tracks on the back and front wheels for steering. Most crawlers are steered with a brake-clutch arrangement to pull one way or another, and indeed, turning the steering wheel on the Bates applies turning brakes to the tracks as well as directs the front wheels.

The project presented a significant challenge, even for an experienced restorer.

"I like crawlers, so when I found the Bates Steel Mule, I thought this would be a great project," D.J. said. "Nothing intimidates me anymore, but this tractor has a very complicated design, which turned out to be a major problem for me. When it quit running, there were no parts available and no one wanted a tractor that old, so it was left in the weed patch ... probably because the oil pan was destroyed and there was no place to get a new one."