The Bates Steel Mule,
A ‘Mechanical Horse’
By Collections Curator Ruth Bitner
Bates Steel Mule pulling a Kirchner seeder plow at the
Western Development Museum’s Pion-Era, Saskatoon, c. 1963
George Shepherd Library
Western Development Museum, 10-C(c)-10
The Bates Steel Mule is one of the most unusual tractors in the
Western Development Museum collection. Just about everyone who
sees it wonders how it worked. Unlike other tractors of its day,
the Steel Mule had no seat. The driver sat on the implement
being pulled, operating the controls with a steering wheel on a
long column that extended for several feet behind the machine.
The Steel Mule was a product of the Joliet Oil Tractor Company of Joliet, Illinois. Joliet was one of dozens of small companies vying for a spot in the lucrative small tractor market between 1910 and 1920. Its first tractor debuted in 1913. One of its key selling features was that a farmer could use it to pull his horse-drawn equipment. The company boasted in a 1914 advertisement:
“The Bates Steel Mule is 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. Something more than a tractor–the only machine that really takes the place of your horses.” (Gas Power, September, 1914, p. 77)
With adjustable steel front wheels set far apart and a “crawler”at the back, the Steel Mule could reportedly pull a two or three bottom plow, a binder or mower, a disc harrow or a seed drill. The company compared the crawler to First World War British tanks used at the Battle of the Somme.
“These machines must go through every conceivable condition of ground where wheels could not possibly be used. You need the ‘Crawler’ also on your tractor, so you can use the machine every day, in any season, regardless of the condition of the ground.” (Gas Power, March, 1917, p. 65)
According to the 1917 edition of The Modern Gas Tractor, the Steel Mule was “controlled by means of three wheels and a lever on the end of a long column which consists of three lengths of tubing, one inside of the other. This control column is connected with the tractor through a universal joint and can be swung at will to any position desired. The middle wheel is the steering, the small wheel in front of the steering wheel operates the clutch and the remaining wheel actuates the gear-shifting apparatus. The carburetor control...is in the form of a lever projecting in front of the clutch control wheel.” The author described the Mule as “really a mechanical horse.”
Back in the teens, comparisons between farming with horses and farming with tractors figured prominently in promotional material. Manufacturers set out to prove that tractor power was cheaper than horse power: The author of an article in Gas Power, September, 1914 extolled the virtues of the Steel Mule: “When you stop to consider that the cost of about three good horses is the price of this machine and that it is capable of doing every class of work that horses can do, as well as furnishing general purpose power for farm work of all kinds, it is readily understood that there is enormous demand for a machine of this kind. Four horses pulling a 6-foot binder can cut about twelve acres per day, and this outfit, pulling an 8-foot binder and going at high speed is capable of cutting thirty-five to forty acres a day.” Joliet claimed in 1916 that the Steel Mule cost almost two-thirds less to operate than horses. Its 30 hp model sold for $895 in the United States and saved the farmer the cost of a hired man.
The Western Development Museum’s Bates Steel Mule was acquired from Frank Appleby of Pinkham, SK in the early 1960s. Appleby, a homesteader who came to the province in 1911 from Ontario, told the WDM that he bought the tractor in 1917 for $1375 from the dealer in Kindersley. The Mule’s light weight made it suitable for work on land that had been broken, but its high centre of gravity was a problem. In Appleby’s words, “it upset so easy I had to discontinue its farm use. I upset 3 times the last half day I used it and each time all the gas and oil would run out on the ground.”
Like many other so-called good ideas in tractor engineering, the Steel Mule of this design was short-lived. Bates changed to a more conventional crawler design by the late teens. As times changed, the Joliet Oil Tractor Company merged with the Bates Tractor Company in 1919 to form Bates Machine and Tractor Company. It continued in the tractor business until 1937 although it was taken over by Foote Brothers Gear & Machine in 1929.
Frank Appleby’s Bates Steel Mule with the unusual steering design is on exhibit at the Saskatoon WDM. The WDM collection contains two other more conventional-styled Bates Steel Mules, both built in the 1920s, and both with double tracks. One is on display in the Tractor Shed at the North Battleford WDM, and other is in storage at the Saskatoon WDM. Be sure to see these, along with other tractor gems, while visiting the Western Development Museum.
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