In 1990, Tom Todd of Geyserville, Calif., was buying an old one-lunger generator from Ron Waltensfield on the nearby Hamilton Ranch.
As they walked by a rusty old tractor on the way to the generator, Ron pointed at it and asked Tom if he wanted it. “I said, ‘No, it’s just a piece of junk,’” Tom recalls. “At the time, I didn’t know what it was. It was just a tractor that looked like a rust pile. I didn’t know about its history or its value, and I didn’t know anything about restoring tractors.”
Today that “piece of junk” is the only known example of the Hamilton-Fageol Walking Tractor in existence, and though it is in very rough, not-yet-restored condition, it remains a truly rare find.
Taking Another Look
About a year later Tom, Ron, and another man got into a discussion about an old Sterling truck each was familiar with. Tom remembered a Hamilton tractor had been parked next to it, and wondered aloud what might have happened to that. “Ron asked if I was interested in the Hamilton tractor, and when I told him I was, he said he had a Hamilton,” Tom recalls, “a real early model.” Tom remembers him saying it was rough, but restorable.
Turns out it was the same “pile of junk” Tom had seen earlier. By that time, Tom knew Hamilton tractors were part of Geyserville’s history. “I’m from Geyserville,” says the 56-year-old truck driver, “and I drive by Hamilton Lane and the Hamilton Ranch all the time. So I went and got that old tractor and started restoring it, scraping rust and paint off, and began looking for parts.”
As much as half of the tractor is missing, from the articulated joint back. Damaged parts include the bottom of the early Waukesha Model B engine, which has rusted away. “The rest of the parts – sheet metal, rear axle, the seat – I can make,” Tom says. “The wheels are broken up, so I have to take them to a foundry and have them cast. Using the old ones for a pattern. I can rebuild the clutch and stuff. But that model engine and the parts of it that I need are hard to find.”
Tom’s Hamilton tractor was an early prototype of an articulated tractor, which bends in the middle. “The driver sits over the axle in a seat on the back,” Tom explains.
A Lot of Digging
After ranch owner Wes Hamilton died, Tom speculates, nobody wanted the circa-1915 Hamilton tractor, and it was abandoned and allowed to deteriorate. “It was just a piece of junk back then, so in about 1920 it was placed on the bank of the river as a water break to keep the soil from eroding.”
Prunes were among the crops raised on the ranch, and brush from the prune orchards was pushed on top of the tractor and set on fire, doubtless numerous times. “After Ron bought the ranch, and dug the tractor out in the late 1960s,” Tom says, “there was a big gob of aluminum under the tractor where the crankcase had melted.”
The history of the Hamilton Walking Tractor is murky. What is known is that Rush Hamilton of Healdsville, CA, (near Geyserville) invented the concept of “spiked” drive wheels, and patented it in 1915 when he formed the Hamilton Tractor Co. About 10 years later, the wheels were called “Hamilton wheels” when used on a Fordson, but it’s unclear if that’s how the wheels were designated when Hamilton first invented them.
He also patented a Hamilton tractor transmission, among other patents. Tom says he talked to Geyserville old-timers who had known Rush Hamilton. “They said he was an inventor, and spent most of his time in San Jose, and invented the spiked wheels,” Tom says.
Early literature says the tractor was actually field-tested, unlike many others of that era (which led to the Nebraska Tractor Tests), and then improved based on test results, before it was manufactured for sale to the public.
An article in Volume 37, 1910, of Automotive Industries said the tractor was originally intended to tow wagons. However, every known photo of the front-wheel-drive machine shows it plowing.
It is unclear whether Hamilton ever tried to sell the early Hamilton tractor through his own company, Hamilton Tractor Co., which was formed Nov. 20, 1916. What is known is that Rush Hamilton joined Fageol Motors Co. when it was formed in 1916, and FMC acquired the rights to manufacture his patents.
The Walking Tractor, also called an Orchard Tractor, was, says Eli Bail in “Fageol” in Motor Coach Age, November/December 1991, “The first product of the new company ... that rode on spiked driving wheels and was promoted as a ‘walking tractor’ because it mimicked the walking action of the horse when the long spikes (or grousers) on the front (or drive wheels) of this machine, struck the soil and lifted and moved the tractor.”
Tom says one of the articles he read described those big grousers as kind of rototilling the ground. Automotive Industries corroborates: “Instead of flattening ground in front of the plow or harrow or other machinery being pulled, this tractor drew its farm implements along after having loosened up the soil.”
Much of the history of the Hamilton tractor is mixed up with its successor, the Fageol tractor, which had spiked wheels on the rear drive wheels, as opposed to the spikes, or grousers, on the front of the Hamilton Walking Tractor. Tractor Operating Book and Directory of 1919 by C. De Sparks seemed to have some of the same confusion, as its Fageol Motors Co. page does not include a photo of the tractor, while almost all other machines cited are pictured.
The text discusses the “Fageol Walking Tractor,” an apparent reference to the Hamilton Walking Tractor – which at this point could probably be called the “Hamilton-Fageol Walking Tractor” – because the words describe the machine as one of 6-12 hp. All other references to Fageol tractors called them 9-12 hp tractors or 10-15 hp tractors. Also, the wheels were simply described as “two walking wheels, 48 inches high,” but text did not identify whether they were front-driving wheels or rear-driving.
To complicate matters even more, the successor Fageol rear-wheel drive tractor of 9-12 hp was also called a “Walking Tractor” in later literature. Its rear drive wheels were the same diameter (48 inches) as the Hamilton Walking Tractor’s front drive wheels. Engine information didn’t help much either, as the early Hamilton Walking Tractors had a couple different engines.
The obvious difference between the Hamilton Walking Tractor of front-wheel drive and the Fageol Walking Tractor of rear-wheel drive was articulation. The Hamilton had it; the Fageol didn’t.
Hamilton-Fageol Tractor Specifications
The Hamilton was low to the ground, and according to advertising literature it could go anywhere.
In Vintage Tractor Album No. 2, Nick Baldwin writes that “the first (Fageol) tractor was basically a two-wheel power plant with a ride-on dead axle at the rear steered by gearing around a quadrant at the back of its frame. A plate on the front described it as the Hamilton tractor. ... The tractor was described by the British technical press in 1917, although whether any of them were imported into Britain is unknown, but is unlikely. It cost $1,085 in its homeland, where it was classed as being equivalent to a four-horse team. It had a pressed steel frame, 4-cylinder engine, and drive to the wheels by internal gearing, all of which ran immersed in oil. Despite weighing only 1,730 pounds, it exerted a considerable drawbar pull, thanks to special chisel-like stakes, which could be covered with bands for road traveling.”
The last Hamilton tractor ever made was produced in about 1919, although the exact year is unclear. The successor Fageol tractor, meanwhile, with a Lycoming 4-cylinder 3 1/2 by 5-inch bore and stroke, weighed about double the Hamilton, about 3,600 pounds, and sold for $1,525 in 1922, which presaged its early death; it cost too much money for a tractor that differed little from other, cheaper models. Fageol Motors Co. quit making Fageol tractors with the spiked rear wheels about 1922, and turned to making buses and trucks, and eventually became Peterbilt Motors Co.
A New Era for Rush Hamilton
After the Fageol tractor’s demise, Rush Hamilton was not yet finished. He obtained the tractor rights and, with W.F. Smith, started Great Western Motor Co. of San Jose, where they sold the remaining stock of Fageol 9-12 hp tractors, and began manufacturing 10-15 hp Fageol tractors. These Fageol 10-15 hp tractors still used a 4-cylinder Lycoming engine, but the bore and stroke was larger, 3 1/2 by 5 inches, and the tractor weighed 3,800 pounds.
Hamilton and Smith also got involved with Standard Gas Engine Co. of Oakland, Calif., manufacturing after-market products for Fordson tractors. It comes as no surprise that those items included the Hamilton wheel with grousers, and the Hamilton transmission for the Fordson. This went on at least until 1927, as the transmission was mentioned in Byron Times’ Tenth Development Edition for that year.
Chilton’s Tractor & Equipment Journal For Fordson Dealers of April 1, 1927, shows Rush Hamilton “the designer” gesturing to W.F. Smith, president of Standard Gas Co., as the Hamilton transmission is being demonstrated. After that, silence, at least for remaining records. All that’s left of the Hamilton Walking Tractor, with the early “Hamilton wheel” and transmission, is a rusty partial tractor.
Hope for the Remaining Hamilton-Fageol Walking Tractor
Tom Todd says he’s going to retire in a year or so from his truck-driving job and will then go full-bore into restoring the Hamilton Walking Tractor.
“My Waukesha Model B engine for the Hamilton was made from about 1910 to 1920, and a lot of guys are looking for them, judging by the advertising you find in magazines, but can’t find any,” he says. “But I’ve been looking, and I keep my ears and eyes open, and always talk with my iron friends, and look in junk piles, so I might find one. I’m pretty persistent.” FC
Fageol Walking Tractor Applying the 'Walking Principle'
A circa 1915 advertisement discussed the Fageol Walking Tractor: "The Fageol is a small, light-weight and low-cost farm tractor that literally grew- feature by feature on a California farm. The Fageol is the invention and development of Rush Hamilton — a practical orchardist — a farmer of 10 years' successful experience and withal a mechanical genius.
"While working on his farm, Hamilton realized the tractor must eventually replace the horse. He experimented with several on the market. He found them wanting in many features that he considered essential. He saw that most makes were theoretical tractors — designed and developed in the drafting room, and practical only for use on large farms....
"Hamilton determined to build a tractor that would do the work that he wanted it to do — do this work right and meet the requirements of every farmer. He started with the 'walking principle' of the horse, and today the Fageol 'Walking Tractor' is the result. His tractor now does all work formerly done by horses. His last experimental tractor has worked over 1,200 hours without repair and has never refused to work. It was a practical, proven success before it was ever placed on the market. The Fageol is the one tractor that practically every farmer can operate at a profit."
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys.