Birth of the Bates Steel Mule

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A Model F Bates Steel Mule with a Midwest engine at the 2007 Badger Steam & Gas Engine Show in Baraboo, Wis.
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A Model F Bates Steel Mule with a Midwest engine at the 2007 Badger Steam & Gas Engine Show in Baraboo, Wis.
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A circa-1913 Bates of Lansing, Mich., tractor at a 2016 show in Saint-Cybranet, Dordogne, France.
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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.”
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A Bates 45 at the Heidrick Collection in California.
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A 1918 advertisement for the Steel Mule.
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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.

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.”

Designed for the horse farmer

In about 1913, W.O. Bates’ son, Harry, began design work on a tractor built by Joliet Oil Tractor Co. (likely a firm set up by Bates) and that was introduced about the end of that year.

Called the “Steel Mule,” it was one of the more unusual tractor designs of that experimental era. A round tube-type radiator at the front, blending into a long, half-round hood over the engine, and a round gas tank at the rear, resembling a steam traction engine boiler minus its smoke box, were supported by two wide-set wheels at the front and a single, low crawler track centered at the rear. Jutting from the rear of the machine was a telescoping horizontal pipe ending in three different-size control wheels and a small lever. The smallest of the three wheels operated the clutch, the center wheel was the steering wheel, and the largest wheel shifted the transmission gears, while the lever was the throttle control.

Bates ads told potential buyers that the Steel Mule was, “The only machine in the world which you can hitch up to any horse-drawn implement you now have and operate it from the same position you would your horses,” and showed photos of the tractor pulling a grain binder, a 2-row cultivator, a grain drill, a disc-harrow and a gang plow, all with the driver sitting on the implement’s seat.

‘A mystery to the uninitiated’

The June 16, 1916, issue of the Adelaide (Australia) Advertiser carried a story about a recently imported Steel Mule and described it thus: “The Steel Mule is an extraordinary machine. It weighs less than 2 tons and can be turned in less than its own length. In appearance it is like a 10 ft. tube, about 18 inches in diameter, mounted on wheels, and where its strength comes from is a mystery to the uninitiated. The power is supplied by a 30 hp engine hidden in the tubular frame, and only a gallon of kerosene is consumed while the ‘mule’ ploughs an acre of land.”

The 4-cylinder engine (of unknown make) had a 4-1/4 by 5-3/4-inch bore and stroke and a two-speed transmission. The single crawler track was driven by a large nickel-silver roller chain and was supported on three overlapping idler wheels in a frame that was hinged to the tractor frame at the rear and located at the front by heavy coil springs. This feature kept the track in contact with uneven ground.

What was called a “compound lever hitch” had the drawbar attached toward the front of the oscillating track frame. This caused a load on the drawbar to pull down on the front of the track and increase traction.

By 1918, Bates was building the more conventionally designed Model D Steel Mule that had two crawler tracks at the rear, two steerable front wheels, a 4-cylinder Erd engine and a two-speed transmission, and was rated at 12-20 hp, upped to 15-22 up in 1920.

Branching into full crawlers

For unknown reasons, in 1919 Bates Tractor Co. of Lansing and Joliet Oil Tractor Co. merged to form Bates Machine & Tractor Co. in Joliet.

Two years later, in 1921, the Model F Steel Mule was introduced. It was very much like the Model D, except it was heavier at 4,850 pounds with a 4-cylinder, overhead valve Midwest engine (4-1/8 by 5-1/4-inch bore and stroke) rated at 18-25 hp. Later, Beaver engines were used, and later still, LeRoi engines. Production ceased in 1937.

Bates also built full crawler tractors beginning in 1925, including the Models 25, 35, 40, 45, and in 1931 the big one, a 10-ton Model 80. These full crawlers were powered by Waukesha and Beaver engines and were well designed and built. During the mid-1930s, a 6-cylinder Waukesha engine was used in the Bates 35 and 45 models and the newly introduced Model 50. Bates also used some semi-diesel Hesselmann-type engines and introduced a full diesel Waukesha-Hesselmann Model 40 in 1937, just before the factory closed later that year, another victim of the Great Depression.

Coming full circle

As for the question referred to earlier, Peter Longfoot asked, “If the Bates ‘Steel Mule’ was a product of Joliet Oil Tractor Co., why was it called a Bates as far back as 1916? There appears to be no discernible connection between the Joliet and Bates operations before the 1919 merger.” Apparently Peter’s research didn’t disclose the fact that another Bates family was involved in the Joliet operation. 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

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