During the late teens and the early 1920s, a lot of tractor builders came and went. Some lasted only a year or two. Many of these machines were of more or less conventional design; others were more unusual.
One that seems to have been quite well designed and modern for the time, but that lasted less than a decade, was a nifty crawler tractor called the Bear 25-35. Not a great deal is known about the Bear but I’ll tell you what I’ve found (with the help of Peter Longfoot from England) and perhaps someone out there in tractor land has additional information.
Manufactured by Mead-Morrison Co.
The Bear tractor seems to have been developed by Thomas Clarence Leake, New York City, who filed for a patent on the machine in October 1921. The patent, which was issued three years later, was assigned to Bear Tractor, Inc., also located in New York City.
Information on who was behind Bear Tractor Corp. is nonexistent and no personal information has turned up for Mr. Leake, although he had a number of patents for various improvements to the tractor, all of which were assigned to the Bear company. Interestingly, a patent was applied for in 1919 by a Thomas C. Leake, San Francisco, for a crawler track suspension arrangement that appears almost identical to one of the Bear patents. Although it’s speculation on my part, it seems likely that Thomas Leake was hired by Bear Tractor Corp. to design the company’s tractor based upon his earlier design.
With no manufacturing facilities of its own, Bear seems to have been strictly a sales organization. The Bear tractor was actually built by Mead-Morrison Co. on Prescott Street in East Boston, Massachusetts, a builder of machinery for digging, hauling, hoisting and handling, such as winches, cranes and derricks.
Unique track suspension
The new Bear tractor was announced to the trade in a four-page spread in the July 29, 1922, issue of Implement and Tractor Trade Journal. Most of the following information comes from that announcement.
The Bear 25-35 was a medium-size machine, weighing a little more than 3 tons, and was approximately 9-1/2 feet long and 5 feet wide. The treads were 12 inches wide with 64 inches contacting the ground on each side. Ground pressure was advertised as being 3.5 to 3.9 psi with a drawbar pull of 3,000 pounds and a turning radius of just 6 feet. A Stearns 4-cylinder, valve-in-head engine of 4-3/4-by-6-1/2-inch bore and stroke furnished power to the tracks through an 11-inch, 5-plate dry clutch, a 3-speed transmission and two dry, multiple-disc, 19-inch steering clutches. Speeds were 5.9, 3.4 and 2.1 mph forward, and 2 mph in reverse. Four 14-inch plow bottoms were recommended.
The ad bragged about the 36 ball bearings used throughout the machine as well as the method of lubricating them from oil reservoirs that needed filling just once a month: “No waste of time each day with ‘greasing up’ – not a grease cup on the tractor.”
Much was made of the track suspension system’s outstanding flexibility and the way the tracks maintained constant close contact with the ground over uneven terrain. The front end of each track frame, which was pivoted on the sprocket shaft at the rear, was supported by a double-sprung connection to the opposite ends of an oscillating bar, the center of which was also pivoted at the center of the front of the tractor, allowing each track to rise and fall with the terrain.
In addition, three center track rollers on each side were held down against the track by coil springs and connected to each other by compensating side bars. When one roller encountered a bump in the ground it was forced upward against a spring, while its side lever forced the neighboring roller down, maintaining ground contact.
Second time’s a charm
These features were patented by Thomas Leake, although they were somewhat similar to suspension systems used on early Cletrac tractors using patents by Rollin White. The Trundaar 20-35 crawler tractor, introduced in 1918 by Buckeye Manufacturing Co. of Anderson, Indiana, used an oscillating and sprung crossbeam to support the front ends of the track frame as well.
The Bear was tested at Nebraska in October 1923. A bunch of mechanical problems adversely affected the test results. Because of that, Bear tried again the next spring with a different tractor, which did much better. On the 1924 machine, the Stearns engine was equipped with magnesium alloy pistons and aluminum alloy connecting rods, while the engine speed was turned up by 100 to a maximum of 1,290 rpm. Maximum drawbar horsepower was recorded in second gear with 44.64 hp and a pull of 4,863 pounds, well above the advertised ratings.
Sadly, all the advanced features added significantly to the tractor’s cost so a prospective buyer in 1922 would have to shell out a hefty $4,250 ($59,000 today) in order to own a Bear. In comparison, the slightly larger Caterpillar Thirty sold for about $3,000.
Plagued by pricing
The Bear organization hired three experienced tractor salesman to head up its sales territories. In the east was Clarence Stantial, formerly with Cletrac. W.A. Ingalls, who had covered the northwest for Hart-Parr, now did the same for Bear, and I.G. Melrose, formerly with Kardell Tractor Co. and Kirkwood Automobile Co., covered the southwest.
In spite of their best efforts, Bear Tractor, Inc. closed its doors in 1925, probably due mainly to the tractor’s high price. Mead-Morrison continued to sell the Bear until stocks of the radiator and gas tanks with the “Bear” nameplate were used up before introducing the Mead-Morrison 55, a tractor virtually identical to its predecessor. The Mead-Morrison 55 suffered from the same problem as its predecessor – it was too expensive to build – and although the 55 was still listed in a Mead-Morrison ad in the 1927 Roadbuilder’s Catalogue and Directory, production was halted, probably late in 1926.
The Bear was an extremely well designed and high-quality machine, but Cletrac and Caterpillar were offering equally good crawlers for much less money. I’ve never seen a Bear tractor during my travels, but there was one at Oscar Cooke’s sale some years ago and another rather dilapidated example was spotted at a sale in England in 2000. If anyone has more information about the Bear tractor, let me know. FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.