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Daniel Best's Steam Tractor No. 185

01/25/2018 05:00AM ● By BP Lemmon

The Monarch of the Fields

February 2018
Story and Photos by B.P. Lemmon

Upon the first encounter with this behemoth, it is as if a “steam-punk” themed sculpture had come to life. Sitting atop three gigantic all-steel wheels is what appears to be a steam locomotive anchored above a series of huge intermeshed gears and pinions with thick chains connecting the single front wheel to a series of smaller gears, sprockets and pulley systems.

While impressive, yet confounding, when this immense and questionable piece of equipment is fired up it lumbers down a gravel road, black smoke belching from its stack, its weight causing the steel wheels to crush the gravel roadway, while the massive gear works grind and the steering chains for the single front wheel clang against the steel frame, indicating that this was no sculpture, but rather an implement with a purpose.

     This is the Daniel Best Steam Tractor No. 185. As the 19th century drew to a close, urban America was well into the innovation and expansion brought on by the Industrial Revolution. The agrarian landscape was a different  matter, the majority of which was comprised of small acreage farms, powered by livestock (horses, mules or oxen), and worked primarily by family members and migrant labor. 

With internal combustible engine technology still in its infancy, and borrowing from the success of steam locomotion technology being adapted from the railroads, the steam-driven tractor was born. This gave farmers the ability to expand and work their farms at less costs in labor, livestock and equipment. 

   In 1889, Daniel Best's Agricultural Works (later renamed Best Manufacturing Company) began to manufacture steam engines for tractors at his plant in San Leandro, producing models ranging from 30 horsepower to a massive 110 horsepower model. Upon retirement in 1908, Daniel Best sold his company to Ben Holt, whose son operated the company under the Best name until 1925, at which time it merged with Holt Manufacturing and the two were renamed Caterpillar Company.

The Best Steam Tractor #185, one of the 364 built by the company, was constructed in 1904 and was the largest model of the line of tractors manufactured by Best Manufacturing.

At 28 feet long, 9 feet 7 inches wide, 17 feet 4 inches from ground level to the top of the smokestack, and weighing in at 18 tons 800 pounds, its 8-foot-diameter rear drive wheels allowed for up to 15-foot width extensions for stability on the soft California soil. Its water tank has the capacity of 940 gallons and it uses 340 gallons of water per hour. Its 5-foot-diameter single front wheel was steered by a chain and pulley system. Manned by a crew of three, driver, brakeman and stoker, and described by some as the Monarch of the Fields, it could pull 34 7-inch plows (the equivalent of 60 to 70 horses) at a rate of 12 acres per hour. This model was designed not only for agricultural field work, but also for long-distance freight hauling, and was used as road engines for the mining and logging industries.

     Horizontal boilers were the standard for most steam tractors of the time, but the 110 hp model was designed with a vertical boiler with a pressure of 160 pounds per square inch.  The vertical orientation of the boiler allowed the tractor to better navigate uneven terrain and steep slopes. A significant improvement developed by Best was the use of a piston-type or spool steam admission valve, which alternated high-pressure steam in and exhaust steam out. By balancing the steam pressure, the steam engine tractor was able to move forward and backward more easily, depending on the orientation of the valve.

     The #185 Best Steamer was originally sold to California Sugar Pine Company for $7,500, and used to haul logs to the Collins-Ritt Mill in Shingletown. Later, until the mid-1920s, it hauled lumber from the mill to the railroad. It was sold to Harry Abbott in 1939 and placed in front of his Shingletown trading post along State Highway 44, later becoming the Big Wheels Inn and Restaurant. There it languished as a roadside attraction and a rather elaborate piece of yard art until the the Oakland Museum bought it in 1972. It was displayed during San Leandro's Centennial Celebration, then relocated to an old firehouse in the Elmhurst District of Oakland, where a crew of 60 volunteers restored it to its original condition. It was then moved to the Oakland Museum and made its 1977 debut at the Museum's “American Farm” exhibit.

During the mid-1980s, the Best Steam Tractor was moved to Ardenwood Historic Farm, an Alameda County Regional Park and interpretive center of late 19th and early 20th century farm life as a “living historical resident.” It was displayed in the farm's restored 19th century barn and brought out and operated by a crew of 12 volunteers during holiday weekends and special events, pulling hay wagons full of park visitors. Exhibited at the California State Fair, the #185 was able to pull 50 tons up an 8 percent grade, 36 tons up a 12 percent grade, and 72 tons on level ground. As a main feature, it remained at Ardenwood through the beginning of the 21st century.

     As age is no friend to most things, the rear pinion gear was worn to about one-sixteenth of an inch out of tolerance and needed replacement. New parts were manufactured using original 19th century techniques and machining. While the mechanical repairs were being done, the 10 volunteers from Ardenwood reconditioned the boiler tubing and did other plumbing work. After a week's work, the tractor was returned to Ardenwood.

     In December 2006, Daniel Best’s #185 Steamer was moved to the Roots of Motive Power Collection at the Mendocino County Museum in Willits, where it remains (on long-term loan from the Oakland Museum) on display today. Roots of Motive Power is an all-volunteer organization founded in 1982 to preserve and restore steam and diesel-powered equipment used in the California North Coast logging industry from the 1850s to the present. 

     While still operable, the tractor's boiler has been “red-tagged” on its first inspection by the State of California. Roots of Motive Power is looking into repairing or rebuilding the boiler. Until the boiler issues are resolved the museum is not operating the tractor. •