Birth of the Bates Steel Mule

The Bates Steel Mule was one of the more unusual tractor designs of an experimental era.

  • A Model F Bates Steel Mule with a Midwest engine at the 2007 Badger Steam & Gas Engine Show in Baraboo, Wis.
    Photo by Sam Moore
  • A Model F Bates Steel Mule with a Midwest engine at the 2007 Badger Steam & Gas Engine Show in Baraboo, Wis.
    Photo by Sam Moore
  • A circa-1913 Bates of Lansing, Mich., tractor at a 2016 show in Saint-Cybranet, Dordogne, France.
    Photo by Père Igor
  • An early Bates Steel Mule tractor. These machines had a high center of gravity and upset easily. A Canadian user said, “It upset so easy I had to discontinue its farm use. I upset three times the last half day I used it and each time all the gas and oil would run out on the ground.”
    Photo courtesy of Larry D. Peters
  • A Bates 45 at the Heidrick Collection in California.
    Photo by Sam Moore
  • A 1918 advertisement for the Steel Mule.
    Photo by Farm Collector archives
  • Harry Bates’ patent for the 3-wheel control mechanism for the Steel Mule. The small wheel operated the clutch while the largest shifted the transmission gears. The wheel in the middle was for steering, a pretty complicated arrangement.
    Illustration by Farm Collector archives

I was re-reading a two-part story about Bates Steel Mule tractors in a now-defunct British magazine I used to take called Old Tractor. The article was written by my friend, Peter J. Longfoot, an expert on both crawler tractors and the steam plowing rigs that were so popular in Great Britain. He raised an interesting question in the piece that I’ll get to later.

Madison F. Bates, born the son of a blacksmith in 1869, went to work at Olds Co. in Lansing, Michigan, at age 22 and learned to be a skilled machinist and draftsman. Leaving Olds after six years, he teamed up with James P. Edmonds to form Bates & Edmonds Motor Works, where they built gasoline engines, as well as about 25 Bates cars (the company motto was “Buy a Bates and keep your dates!”) between 1903 and 1905.

M.F. Bates was bitten by the tractor bug in about 1910, formed Bates Tractor Co. and introduced his first tractor the next year. Rather sleek and light for the time, the 30 hp machine weighed just 8,000 pounds and had an enclosed hood and locomotive-type cab, although steering was by cross chains to a center pivoted front axle. Bates of Lansing continued to make tractors of two, three and four plow sizes through 1919.

Roots in barbed wire

Meanwhile, down in Joliet, Illinois, an entirely different Bates family had been busy for several decades making wire fencing and other products. Although historical information about the brothers and the company is scarce, here is the story so far as I can determine.

Brothers Albert J. and William O. Bates (both born in Canada in the 1860s but brought to Missouri when very young) were trained as machinists and ended up in Joliet. In 1885, they established a machine shop there as Bates Brothers. Barbed wire was coming into widespread use, but it was difficult to manufacture and A.J. Bates invented machines to make the process easier. A.J. seems to have left the partnership in about 1888 (or maybe later) and it was reorganized as Bates Machine Co. under the leadership of W.O. Bates, who built wire and nail-making machines as well as Corliss steam engines and Cookson feed water heaters and purifiers.

A 1907 history of Will County, Illinois, noted that the Bates factory covered 6 acres and employed “more than 300 skilled laborers,” and that “the output has increased from $35,000 annually to more than $750,000 and the products are shipped to every part of the globe.”


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