The May, 2020 Introduction to the “Lost Articles” written in 2008-2009
One of the blessings of the requirements of “shelter in place” and “maintaining social distancing” that we are experiencing now as a result of the the Covid 19 pandemic of 2020, is that we have time—a great deal of time—to devote to tasks that have been long neglected. As the consistent reader of this website is already aware, I had been writing articles on the history old farm tractors, on agricultural practices and on the history of agricultural equipment manufacturing companies since 1990. I began writing for Belt Pulley magazine upon the invitation of Kurt Aumann, who as a 17-year old high school student actually founded Belt Pulley magazine in 1986.
No wonder then that in his senior class at Nokomis High School he was selected by his classmates as the person most likely to succeed.
By January of 1988, Belt Pulley magazine began appearing as an enumerated regularly published magazine. Indeed, the January/February 1988 issue of Belt Pulley was Volume 1 Number 1. I wrote almost exclusively for the Belt Pulley magazine during the period of time from 1993 until 2009 when Belt Pulley ceased publication. An article written by Walter “Chick” Bishop called “Why to Restore” carried in Volume 1 Number 6 (the November/December 1988 issue) of Belt Pulley, reflected that the reason to restore old farm machinery was to save the old names of farm machinery, e.g. “Names like Waterloo Boy, Hart-Parr, Mogul, Twin City, Rumley, Heider, Aultman-Taylor, Holt, Case, International Harvester, Minneapolis, Titan Avery, Bull Wallis, Allis-Chalmers, Fordson, Moline, Massey-Harris, Keck-Gonnerman, John Deere and over 150 more…”
This list struck me when I first read it. It summed up the Belt Pulley magazine philosophy. This was why the magazine was devoted all makes of farm tractors and, indeed, also devoted to all “short-line” companies (those companies like “New Idea,” “Papec” and “Sandwich” that make farm machinery without making farm tractors). The vision of Belt Pulley also extended to any company that supplied parts and products for the farmer. This is what brings up to the current articles on French and Hecht and Electric Wheel.
During my writing career for Belt Pulley magazine I would sometimes refer back to the list of names in Chick Bishop’s article to find subjects for articles. Indeed, the “Keck and Gonnerman” series of articles grew out of an actual referral back to Chick’s list.
Early in my writing career Jane (Aumann) Waterman served as the editor to whom I would send the articles. For years I sent articles to her thru the mail on digital discs along with suggested pictures. I tried to get the articles into a format on the digial discs would be compatible with the computer systems used in the Belt Pulley offices at the time. However, the pictures were sometimes mere newspaper clippings and photo copies. Still it was glorious to be writing about the hobby that was dominating my life. Despite all the telephone calls to Belt Pulley and all the articles, only years later did I actually meet Jane in person.
Early on in my writing career for Belt Pulley I developed a pattern work that consisted of sending the editor a new article just as the previous article was going to print–sometimes the new article was sent to the before the previous article had gone to print. In this way the editor would often have two articles of mine in their possession. One article was being finalized and prepared for publication and the second article was resting “on the shelf” waiting its turn for publication.
In the chaotic months before the closure of the magazine these three articles were lost to me. I suffered another crash of my computer hard drive and I feared that these completed articles were permanantly lost.
The last months of the existence of Belt Pulley magazine coincided with my new marriage in 2009. Later in 2010, I retired from the practice of law. There was just too much going on. I began to forget about these articles altogether. These 3 researched and completely written articles from 2008 and 2009 seemed gone to me. They would have to researched and written all over again. I feared that many of the people tht I had counted on for information during the research of the articles would be deceased. I really agonized over the loss of information.
Chronologically, these 3 articles should have been published immediately after the two-part article “North Dakota Potato Farming with a 1937 Farmall F-20” which can be found in the list of articles carried on this web page and was published in the September/October 2008 and the November/December 2008 issues of Belt Pulley. However, these three articles were put on the shelf at my request so that I could send in the two-part article on “Egg Farming in Dryden Township in Sibley County, Minnesota,” which can also be found among the articles carried on this web page.
This is where things stood until May of 2020, in the middle of the Covid 18 pendemic when I found an old thunb drive which contained some old partial drafts of articles. Looking through the documents on the old thumb drive I found the three articles for which I had been searching. Additionally, I discovered that the French and Hecht article contained its own cover letter which I used to include when I sent an article to the Belt Pulley magazine. The two part series of articles on the Electric Wheel Company, however, did not contain a companion cover letter. This cover letter indicates that I had probably mailed the French and Hecht article in to the magazine and although the Electric Wheel Company was complete I had not yet mailed it to the magazine. I have enclosed a copy of the French and Hecht cover letter immediately below.
BRIAN W. WELLS
Attorney at Law
3 Larabee Lane
Winfield, West Virginia 25213-9785
(304) 347-5156 (work)
(304) 586-0305 (home)
(304) 549-5049 (mobile #1)
(304) 543-1621 (mobile #2)
FAX: (304) 344-3359
March 28, 2009
Brandon and Charlotte Pfeiffer
6040 Ford Rd. N
Mount Vernon, Indiana 47620
Telephone: (812) 985-7640
Chad and Katie Elmore
N3712 County Road North
Jefferson, Wisconsin 53549-9726
Telephone: (920) 674-9720 (work)
(217) 594-2825 (home)
FAX: (217) 563-2111
Dear Chad and Katie and Brandon and Charlotte:
Enclosed you will find an article on the French and Hecht Company of Davenport, Iowa. You will see that I have, once again, attached some pictures which are related to this article.
This article remains under construction. Periodically new blocks of text and media may appear and/or the present blocks of text will be modified or corrected.
about the time of John Stillwell’s death in 1935, the Electric Wheel Company had just begun exploring the implications of
the introduction of pneumatic rubber tires to farm tractors and farm
machinery. Pneumatic rubber tires had
been popular on automobiles nearly from the beginning of the production of
automobile. However, rubber tires did
not find their way onto farm tractors and/or farm implements until 1929, when
the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company
of West Allis, Wisconsin introduced their new Model U farm tractor and All-Crop
Harvester combine. Both the tractor and
the combine were shown to the public for the first time mounted on pneumatic
rubber tires. Allis-Chalmers had worked together with the French and Hecht Company (F. & H.) to bring about this
introduction of rubber tires to the farm market. Naturally, then, F. & H. received the supply contract from Allis Chalmers to produce all the wheel rims that Allis-Chalmers needed for the tractors
and All-Crop Harvesters that they made which were fitted with rubber
tires. Just as naturally, then, F. & H. designed a wheel rim for the
rubber tires that would inherit a great deal from the steel round spoke wheels
that incorporated many of the same features that were part of the steel wheels
that they were already mass producing.
Thus, the F.& H. wheel rim
for rubber tires was of the same “staggered” round-spoke design that was just
like the F.& H. steel wheel.
The staggered round-spoke design of F.& H. steel wheel was not original to the F.& H. Company. F.& H. had inherited the design of their staggered round-spoke steel wheel from the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company. Indeed, the wheel was actually known, in some circles, as the “Bettendorf Wheel.” William Bettendorf had obtained a patent on this wheel in 1887. Following 1887, some improvements had been made to the Bettendorf wheel. However, most of these improvements were made to the wheel by the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company before, the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company was sold the F.& H. Company. One of these improvements to the Bettendorf wheel was the “staggering” arrangement of the round spokes on the hub of the wheel. Originally, the round spokes of the Bettendorf wheel had extended from the center of the metal “tire” around the outside of the wheel straight down to the center of the hub of the wheel. When side pressure was applied to the wheel the spokes might easily buckle. Staggering of the spokes meant that while all the spokes would continue to be attached to the center of the metal tire around the outside of the wheel, the spokes would alternately be attached to either the inside or the outside of the hub of the wheel. This created a triangular arrangement of the spokes on the wheel which greatly strengthened the Bettendorf wheel against side stress.
This staggered arrangement worked well for farm implements, wagons and other “towed” farm equipment. The arrangement even worked well for steam engines and the heavy slow-moving tractors that were common in the early part of the twentieth century. Following the introduction of the Fordson in 1918, “automotive” type steering became the widely accepted as the most popular type of steering for the “standard” tractors of the 1920s. Although subject to side stress on the front wheels of the standard tractors was not a significant problem because the automotive style steering provided a pivot point for each wheel in the front of the tractor. Side stress on the front wheels became an issue only with the introduction of the tricycle-style Farmall tractor in 1924.
Introduction of the Farmall tractor created another revolution in agriculture similar to the revolution created by the introduction of the small Fordson tractor, which has been described above. Standard tractors, like the Fordson, were able to perform all farm chores except cultivation of row crops (typically corn) which were grown in the Midwestern states of the nation. Even though employing a standard tractor on the farm, the Midwestern farmer was required to keep some of his horses in order to do the cultivating of his row crops during the summer. The tricycle-style tractor was specifically designed for the task of cultivation of row crops. Soon all the leading tractor manufacturers were producing their own tricycle-style “row crop” tractors.
facilitate the cultivation of row crops the tricycle style row crop tractor was
designed with a narrow front end in which both front wheels were placed together
on the same bolster. Steering of the
tricycle style tractor was accomplished by a return to the fifth-wheel type of
steering with a single pivot point for both front wheels—just like a child’s
tricycle. The fifth wheel type of steering
allowed the front wheels of the tricycle style of tractor to be turned 90° from
the straight line of the tractor. This
allowed the tricycle style tractor to negotiate the sharp 180° turns at the end
of the corn fields required to cultivate adjacent two rows in the corn
field. Turned to nearly 90° from the
straight line of the tractor both front wheels would tend to bulldoze the soft
soil of the corn field as the tractor attempted to make the sharp turns at the
end of the rows. This created a great
deal of side stress to the front wheels of tricycle style tractors, especially
when one considered the additional weight on the front wheels when the gangs of
the front-mounted cultivator were raised to accomplish the turn around.
the problem of side stress was not as bad as it would become in the late 1930s
with the introduction of another revolution in farm machinery—the rubber
tire. As noted above, the Allis-Chalmers Farm Equipment Company, working
together with the F.& H. Company,
introduced rubber tires on farm machinery.
Consequently, the typical steel rim on which the pneumatic rubber tire
was mounted, was a round-spoke style rim.
Side stress on front wheels of tricycle tractors presented serious issues when tractors began to be fitted with rubber tires on the front wheels for a number of reasons. First there was the additional weight of rubber tires as opposed to steel wheels. Wheels with rubber tires are heavier than steel wheels. Then there was the problem that the side stress applied pressure on the ends of each spoke at the point where each spoke was attached to the outer rim. In repeated operations in the field, one or more of the round-spokes would weaken and break loose at this point. Having broken entirely the round spoke would then puncture the inner tube of the rubber tire and cause a flat tire. This problem was reported back from the field and was recognized as a major design error or weakness of the round spoke wheel rim. (This problem with the weakness of spoked rims on tricycle style tractors from the 1930’s is discussed in the articles called “Farming with a Styled Model WC” contained in the July/August 2007 issue of Belt Pulley magazine and is mentioned in regard to a Farmall F-30 tractor in the article called “Pig Farming [Part 2]” in the September/October 2008 issue of Belt Pulley magazine. Both of these Belt Pulley articles have been republished on this web site.)
the F. & H. Company had been warned
that they needed to redesign their rims for rubber tires. However, because of the conservative nature
of their management, the F. & H.
Company did not enter into an expensive re-design of its main product. Chad Elmore’s article, cited above, notes
that the main reason for this reluctance may well have been the fact that there
were too many companies in the small market of making steel rims for rubber
tires. No single company could make
sufficient profit and, thus, have enough capital to dedicate sufficient
resources to financing a drastic redesign of their wheel rim. There
were a number of reasons which supported the F. & H. view of the rubber-tired market. Even though growing, the market for rubber
tires on tractors and farm equipment was, in the late 1930s, still a small
market. The majority of farmers buying
tractors in the late 1930s still preferred the basic tractor with steel wheels
rather than the more expensive optional rubber tires. Furthermore, the problem of side stress was
confined to only those wheel rims that were mounted on the front of tractors
and really only a problem with tricycle style tractors. Consequently, F.& H. management probably felt that any re-design of the wheel
rim for this small section of the limited market rubber tire market would not
likely be worth the investment and expense.
They probably, felt that the F.
& H. Company could safety surrender that small part of the market for
wheel rims, in order to save the money of a redesign of the wheel rim. F.&
H. could still sell their round spoke rims to farm equipment manufacturers
for mounting on the rear of farm tractors and on pull-type farm implements
where side stress presented no problem. F.& H., therefore, relinquished this
small, restricted section of an overall limited rubber tire rim market in hopes
of saving money.
There were, however, some companies that were willing to risk capital to seek a re-design of the wheel rim for rubber tires which could deal with the side stress when mounted on the front of row crop tractors. One of these companies was the Peru Plow Company of Peru, Illinois. Founded in 1851, the Peru Plow Company was the oldest wheel company in the United States. Ironically, the Peru Plow Company might have been the dominate wheel manufacturer in the United States had history followed a slightly different course. Before starting his own company in 1886, William Bettendorf had been employed by the Peru Plow Company. Indeed, he had largely developed his design for the “Bettendorf Wheel” while he was working at the Peru Plow Company. Had he remained with the Peru Plow Company, it might have been Peru Plow that occupied the position of dominance in the wheel market rather than the F.& H. Company.
By the end of the First World War The Bettendorf Company had become the French and Hecht Company as noted in a previous article–the French and Hecht Company published below on this website. The conservative management of French and Hecht seemed to sitting on its hands and provided no real threat to any company who wanted to aggressively pursue the manufacture of this yhiithe Peru Plow recognized that a redesign of the rim for rubber tires was needed and they began to explore the possibility of a disc-type wheel for rubber tires as a way of solving the problem of the design weakness of spoke type wheels. However they were not alone in researching a disc type wheel.
the F.& H. Company abdicating their position of leadership in producing wheel
rims for rubber tires on the frontwheels
of row crop tractors, the Electric Wheel
Company saw an opportunity opening up for them in the wheel rim market. Thus, in the in the spirit of the late John
Stillwell, the Company set about aggressively
trying to take advantage of this opportunity.
Eventually, the Electric Wheel
Company introduced into the market a new “disc type” wheel rim for mounting
rubber tires. Replacing the spokes of
the centers of these rims, the Electric
Wheel Company avoided the main problem of the spoke style wheels. When mounted on the front of a tricycle style
tractor the disc-type rims might still bulldoze dirt when turning sharply in
the soft ground of corn field. The disc
rim might even bend under the consistent sharp turning which occurred during
cultivating season. However the disc
would not puncture the tub of the tire as the spokes of a spoke wheel might do
after continual use.
leading tractor manufacturers of the United States were not slow to see the
advantages of the new disc type wheels. Immediately,
both Allis-Chalmers and Deere and Company cancelled their
contracts with F.& H. for spoke
style rims on the front wheels on their new tractors. Both companies, then, signed contracts with
the Electric Wheel Company to supply
their new disc-type “pressed steel” wheel rims for the front wheels of their
new rubber-tired and “styled” tractors that they introduced in 1938 and 1939
respectively. As a result the Electric Wheel Company gained immediate
market share from the F.& H. Company directly
as a result of these contracts with John
Deere and Allis Chalmers. The Electric
Wheel Company continued to increase market share in the tractor wheel
market as more and more farmers bought farm tractors with rubber tires in 1940
and 1941. Furthermore, the Electric Wheel Company also developed a large foreign market for
their wheels, especially in Latin and South American countries.
the production of the new disc type wheels, the Peru Wheel Company came to occupy a distant second place to the Electric Wheel Company in the disc wheel
rim market. The Peru Wheel Company was in a very weak condition. Having survived the worst years of the “Great
Depression” of 1929-1933, the Peru Wheel
Company was badly hurt by the smaller recession of 1937. By 1940, the condition of the Peru Wheel Company became so tenuous
that the management of Peru Wheel Company
determined that the best course for the company was a drastic reorganization of
the Company. Accordingly, a new
corporate entity was inaugurated in Peru, Illinois, called the Peru Manufacturing and Warehouse Company. This new entity leased the property in Peru, Illinois,
that belonged to the Peru Wheel Company
and took over the more profitable portions of the business, i.e. the manufacturing of wagon beds, farm
trucks and grain tanks. The Peru Manufacturing and Warehouse Company
also entered into the warehousing and storage of industrial equipment at the
factory site in Peru, Illinois, and also started exploring the uses of the
by-products of a new farm crop—soybeans.
By 1941 all that remained of the old Peru
Plow Company was the core business of wheel manufacturing. It was this portion of the business that was
most in trouble and so the new corporate entity now attempted to sell off this
unprofitable portion. Accordingly, the
management of the new company began to look for a buyer of the wheel business.
The corporate entity that expressed the most interest was the Electric Wheel Company.
on May 1, 1941, the wheel-making portion of the Peru Company was purchased by the Electric Wheel Company. Some
of the management of the old Peru Plow
Company, was invited to come to Quincy,
Illinois to join the management
of the new company. Richard Newcomb
Stillwell was to remain as president of the new Electric Wheel Company.
However, Daniel W. Voorhees, from Peru
Plow was, however, appointed Executive Vice-President. John Brinson Stillwell, Richard’s younger
brother, was appointed Secretary of the new Electric
Wheel Company. However, both D.C.
Selheimer and J.C. Stefan from the Peru Plow
Company were brought into the new Electric
Wheel Company as the production manager and the sales manager, respectively. Frank F. Alexander from Quincy became the
Vice-President in Charge of Sales.
George L. Luthy (President of the Commercial Merchants National Bank in Peru,
Illinois) was elected to the Board of Directors on the new Electric Wheel Company.
Additionally, F.M. Seaton from Quincy became the assistant secretary and
William T. Lechtenberg from Quincy, was asked to continue as shop
superintendent of the Electric Wheel
various legislative measures passed by the United States Congress at the
suggestion of President Roosevelt helped ease the economy out of the Great
Depression. Together these measures are
referred to as the “New Deal program.
The New Deal brought permanent changes to the United States
industry. One of the measures passed by
the Congress was the Wagner Act of 1935.
The Wagner Act of 1935 set up a process by which employees in private
industry could organize themselves into a union for collectively bargaining of
their pay and working conditions. After
the U. S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Wagner Act there
was a widespread movement in the American Labor toward collective
bargaining. The period of time just
prior to the war proved to be a period of great expansion in the history of the
Electric Wheel Company. Like the workers in other companies the
employees of the Electric Wheel Company
felt they were entitled to share in the good times and successfully organized
the under the United Auto Workers union of the Congress of Industrial
on December 7, 1941, the United States was plunged into another world war. “Strategic” raw materials for civilian use
became strictly limited—especially rubber. Nearly all rubber and other raw materials were
being channeled into military production in support of the war effort. Accordingly, the production of rubber tires for
civilian automobiles, farm equipment and farm tractors was severely
restricted. The small amount of tractors
and farm equipment that was manufactured during the war was mounted on steel
wheels. Return to the production of
steel wheels did not make up for the loss of market sustained by the Electric Wheel Company. The diminishing market in the early months of
the war created a hardship for the Electric
Wheel Company. Although the company
did not realize it at the time, the Electric
Wheel Company was soon to enter into another period of expansion. It started with the Electric Wheel Company successfully bidding on a series of
government war contracts. Once again, as
in the first world war, the Electric
Wheel Company, once again, re-tooled for the war effort—making gun carriages
for the military. However, this time, the
Electric Wheel Company also was
contracted by the United States government to make “bogie wheels” (small idler
wheels) for use on the thousands of military track driven tanks and
track-driven armed personnel carriers made for the war effort.
As a part of the war effort, iron was rationed to the Electric Wheel Company sufficient to fill these military contracts. The iron shipped from the steel mills of Joliet Illinois and Gary, Indiana in the form of “ingots” which would be re-melted and poured into molds at the foundry located at Electric Wheel Company’s Quincy Works. Steel also arrived at the Quincy Works in form of sheets which could then be cut and pressed into the disc centers of the bogie wheels and other wheels that they were making for the war effort. Shipping and transportation of the all this steel by rail was expensive. The Electric Wheel Company explored other means of shipping the heavy loads of steel to Quincy. The summer time tow barge traffic up and down the Mississippi River and the Illinois River offered the perfect alternative to expensive rail traffic—at least for summer time. Joliet, Illinois, was on the navigable portion of the Des Plaines River. The Des Plaines River emptied into the Illinois River at a point 15 or 20 miles down river from Joliet. The Illinois River was navigable along its entire length to its mouth located on the Mississippi. Therefore, all steel ordered from the Joliet Iron and Steel Works in Joliet, Illinois. (The steel foundries of Joliet, Illinois are featured in the 1993 movie Rudy and is pictured, along with the prison also located in Joliet, in the 1980 movie Blues Brothers.) Because of the navigability of the Des Plaines River and the Illinois River, steel could be transported entirely by water from Joliet, Illinois to Quincy. Thanks to the canal built in 1900 that had linked the Chicago River with the Des Plaines River (which had the effect of causing the Chicago River to change its course and flow backwards), Chicago and Lake Michigan were connected by water to the Mississippi River. Thus, the Electric Wheel Company could also order steel from the United States Steel Company in Gary, Indiana, and could transport this steel entirely by water from Gary, Indiana, to Quincy, Illinois. Using this river system the Electric Wheel Company, was able to drastically reduce its costs of shipping, at least in the summer time. During the winter, the Electric Wheel Company returned to the more expensive railroad form of transport for the raw steel they needed for their manufacturing operations.
the Second World War came to an end on September 2, 1945, the war contracts
were cancelled abruptly on that date. However,
the United States economy continued to hum along, based on the government
purchasing for the Marshall Plan and for the rebuilding of Europe, Germany and
Japan. There was no post-war recession
at the end of this war as there had been at the end of the First World War.
the post-war era, there was a tremendous pent-up demand for products that the American
public had not been able to buy during the war.
This huge demand far outstretched the supply of these products as
industry struggled to re-tool from wartime production back to peace time
production. Like other U.S. companies
the Electric Wheel Company was
hurriedly trying to retool back to production of its core products—disc type
wheels for farm tractors and farm implements.
There were some post-war contracts that the Electric Wheel Company obtained which did not require retooling of
the Quincy Works. The Caterpillar Company of nearby Peoria,
Illinois, signed a contract to purchase for the same type of bogie wheels that
the Electric Wheel Company had been
making through out the war for tanks and other track-driven machines for the
the post-war period, rubber tires once again became available. Following their retooling, the Electric Wheel Company began once again
making the disc-type rims for mounting rubber tires on farm tractors and farm
implements. Prior to the recent war, the
disc-type wheel rims had already proved themselves able to deal with side
stress much better than the spoke-type wheel rims for wheels on the front of tricycle-style
farm tractors. Furthermore, disc-type
“pressed-steel” wheel rims for rubber tires had always been cheaper to produce
than spoke-type wheel rims. Rather than
the labor intensive construction of spokes and attaching the spokes to a hub
and then to the outer portion of the rim, the disc centers of Electric wheels were merely “pressed
out” from raw pieces of sheet metal,
with huge mechanical pressing machines at the Quincy Works. Many new advances in the industrial
technology had occurred during the war. The
pressing machines at the Quincy Works had become much heavier than in the
pre-war period. This allowed the Electric Wheel Company to make wheel
rims in much larger sizes and to make those wheel rims much more cheaply.
the war, it made sense that the disc-type rims would once again be preferred on
the front wheels of tricycle-style farm tractors. However, fowe ver, However, or other applications, like wheels on
towed farm implements, where side stress was no real problem, there was no
reason to believe that spoke-type wheel rims would not continue to dominate
that market. Indeed, it was expected
that spoke-type wheel rims would continue to dominate in that market. However, the Electric Wheel Company had a pleasant surprise in the post-war
wheels rims began to be viewed as “modern.”
While the spoke-type wheel rim came to be associated with the pre-war
era. Thus, when the typical post-war
buyer of farm machinery went into a farm machinery dealership, the buyer tended
to be more attracted to farm machinery that was mounted on disc-type wheel rims
rather than round spoke wheel rims, even though their was no functional reason
why disc-type wheels should be preferred for all those applications which
involved no side stress on the rim.
unconscious prejudice on the part of the post-war buying public, suddenly and
unexpectedly provided the Electric Wheel Company
with a real advantage in the farm implement wheel market. Indeed, this prejudice is alluded to in the
Chad Elmore article, cited above, when he notes that the Electric Wheel Company, was “producing modern (current author’s emphasis) disc wheels.” (Belt
p. 36.) This simple, almost inadvertent,
use of this single adjective–“modern”–in a single sentence in the article,
reflects with a great deal of accuracy the post-war view that round-spoke rims
were simply out of date, esthetically.
As a consequence, the Electric
Wheel Company gained even more market share in the post-war era.
of the demarcation line that the war formed between the “old fashioned”
spoke-type wheel rims and the “modern” disc-type wheel rims, is the fact that
all through the pre-war era Allis-Chalmers
had offered their All-Crop Harvester pull-type combine to the farming public
with rubber tires mounted on F. & H.
round spoke wheel rims. However, when
rubber tires became available again after the war, the All-Crop Harvester was
immediately fitted with rubber tires mounted on disc-type wheel rims from the Electric Wheel Company. The same was true of the John Deere Model 12A combine and the Massey-Harris “Clipper” combine.
Although the International
Harvester Company (IHC) made
their own cast iron drop center wheel rims for the front end of the tractors
they manufactured, IHC dropped production of their own rims for rubber tires on
farm implements they made. Up to 1940,
IHC had been making their own drop-center spoke-type wheel rim for rubber tires
on their farm implements like the Model No. 8 Little Genius plow and the No. 12A
two row potato digger. (The author
believes that IHC may have actually
ended production of their own spoke-type wheel rims in 1940 and for a short
time in 1941 may have signed a contract with the French and Hecht Company to supply wheel rims for rubber tires for
Little Genius plows which were mounted on rubber tires during 1941.)
all these cases, the pull-type implement had been offered to the public in the
pre-war era on rubber tires mounted on spoke-type wheel rims. (Most often these spoke-type wheel rims were
F.& H.-made round-spoke wheel rims.)
Now after the war all these implements and many others were being
offered to the public only on rubber tires mounted on Electric Wheel Company disc-type wheel rims.
Indeed, the Electric Wheel Company pushed the farming public’s predjudice against spoke wheels and in favor of their own disc type wheels, by re-entering the market for farm wagons. Electric Wheel had basically neglected the farm wagon market since their “Calkins” horse-drawn wagon had faded from the scene in the pre-war period. This new post-war farm wagon market was entirely a different world. It was all rubber tires and flare-style wagon boxes.
The flare style wagon boxes were an innovative break with the past. Old style horse-drawn wagons were straight sided-grain boxes. The sides of the box were composed of wide boards. A single board wagon or “single box” was estimated to hold twenty (20) bushels of grain if the grain were loaded into the wagon loose rather than in sacks.
When another wide board was addded to the sides the wagon became a double box wagon. The estimated capacity of the double box was 20 bushesl of grain.
Needless to say the building of a wagon box, three (3) wide boards tall was called a “triple box” and would hold 60 bushels of grain.
The new post World War 2 flare boxes on were made of steel while just as narrow as the horse-drawn wagons at the bottom, the post war all steel boxes “flared out.” half way up the side. This allowed the flare-box to hold more grain. Indeed the typical flare box would hold 100 bushels of grain or shelled corn 20 bushels more than a quadruple box. The flare boxes were designed to be lower to the ground and designed to be mounted on rubber tires or at least smaller all-steel wheels than those of the horse-drawn era before the war. Thus, the new all metal flare boxes were much safer.
By at least 1951, the Electric Wheel Company was advertising their new Model 650 wagon gear as being available in load capacities from 6,000 pounds to 10,000 pounds, with the capability of handling box widths from 38″ to 42″ and with telescoping tubular reaches between the front and rear axles that adjusted from 7 feet to 12 feet in length. All Model 650 Electric Wheel wagon gears were fully equipted with Timken roller bearings on all four wheels.
The entry into the farm wagon market was a risky decision because so many other companies had decided to enter this same market. (There was the Anthony Company of Streator, Illinois, which decided to sell their own design of flare-box, there was the Horn Company of Fort Dodge, Iowa, there was the New Idea Company of Coldwater, Ohio and there was the David Bradley Division of the Sears and Roebuck Company in Bradley, Illinois. All of these companies are featured in articles located on this website.) Still the Electric Wheel Company aggressively pursued the sales of their wagon in the true spirit of John A. Stillwell. And the Electric Wagon gears would still be sold decades after the war.
There was no functional reason why these pull-type farm implements could not continue to use round- spoke wheel rims as they had before the war. It was merely a matter of esthetics that caused the farm equipment manufacturers to choose disc type rims for their implements. The public simply saw round-spoke wheel rims as “old fashioned.” Accordingly, any implement that appeared in the post-war era with round spokes would make the implement itself appear “old fashioned.” By merely switching to disc type wheel rims, however, the whole implement would suddenly appear to be much more modern.
stark was the this line of demarcation from round spoke wheel rims to disc-type
wheel rims for implements that restorers of farm equipment, in the present day,
can rely upon this observation from a distance to determine whether a
particular implement was made in the “pre-war” or in the “post-war” era. (The only obvious exception to this line of
demarcation in farm implements appears to have been the various sizes of
post-war Massey-Harris Model 28 trailing
moldboard plows which continued to use round-spoke rims for rubber tires in the
Electric Wheel Company rode this
rising tide of demand for their disc-type wheel rims. Instead of a post-war recession, the main worry
of economists following Second World War was the period of spiraling
hyper-inflation that had been unleashed as supply struggled to keep up with
demand following the sudden lifting of wartime price controls. Only in 1948, did supply catch up with demand. Only then did prices begin to stabilize and
inflation abate. Stable prices and low
inflation allowed worker productivity increase.
The Electric Wheel Company’s
contribution to this increase in productivity was partially embodied in the
heavier, more efficient pressing machines which allowed the Company to increase
size and variety of the disc-type rims that the company was able to make—and to
make very cheaply. This new efficiency
allowed the Electric Wheel Company to
begin, in 1952, making large pressed wheel rims for the 36 inch and 38 inch wheels
on the rear of the modern tractors, i.e.
Oliver, Massey-Harris, John Deere
and other farm tractor manufacturers.
The tractor manufacturers found that they could not make the pressed
steel wheels as cheaply as they could buy them from the Electric Wheel Company.
nationwide increase in productivity meant real growth in the economy, which
then resulted in a long period of prosperity that lasted throughout most of the
1950s. Prosperity throughout the decade
was spurred by rising consumer demand within the United States. During the 1950s, the Electric Wheel Company was still being managed by the same “younger
generation” that was brought into the Company by John Stillwell in the early
1900’s. This younger generation was now
in their sixties and seventies. Little
provision had been made for training the next generation of corporate managers
for the company. When 61-year-old Richard
Newcomb Stillwell stepped down as President in the mid-1950s, he was replaced
by the 73-year-old Frank Fleming Alexander.
In the new prosperous decade, many Americans moved off their farms and took jobs in the industrial economy. This became known as the “urbanization of America.” In the 1950’s the newly urbanized populous began to earn a good living working 8-hour days, with evenings and weekends off and with accrued vacation days as a regular benefit of their place of employment. There suddenly was plenty of time for recreation and travel vacations. Thus, in the 1950s, many American families began to buy boats for fishing and water skiing. Trailers for hauling the boats also became a big market and the Electric Wheel Company was contracted by boat and trailer companies to supply the small steel rims for the wheels on those boat trailers. To keep up with the rising consumer demand, the Electric Wheel Company was now employing about 650 to 700 employees at its Quincy Works.
However, despite their success in the farm wagon and recreactional boat trailer morkets, Electric Wheel Company also missed a major market in the United States. A big part of the rising tide of consumer demand throughout the 1950 was a demand for new automobiles. The automobile industry had turned to the use of disc type wheel rims in the 1940s. However, the Electric Wheel Company was unable to break into this market and provide wheel rims to the automobile companies. In this inability to break into the automotive market, the Electric Wheel Company was a victim of its own success. The Electric Wheel Company had advanced the technology of making wheel rims to the degree that disc-type wheel rims of any size were very easy and inexpensive to make. Consequently, the automobile manufactures, generally, preferred to make their own wheel rims rather than contract with the Electric Wheel Company to supply the rims they needed. Consequently, the Electric Wheel Company’s core business remained limited to producing wheel rims for the agricultural implement market. Given the rising urbanization of America, this put the Electric Wheel Company on the wrong side of a growing demographic. Far-sighted corporate executives could see a continued dependence only on the agricultural market would only lead to a shrinking profits. Accordingly, the executives of the Electric Wheel Company began to feel that it was a good time to diversify its operations. One corporation that expressed interest in the merging with the Electric Wheel Company was the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio.
Firestone was one of the nations’ leading manufacturer of tires (second only to the Good Year Tire and Rubber Company also of Akron, Ohio). Firestone had for many years been the supplier of rubber tires for the cars produced by the Ford Motor Company. Additionally, Firestone was nation’s largest maker of wheel rims for the trucking industry. Firestone also made the outer rims for trucks. Naturally, Firestone had the large rolling machines to make these outer rims of many sizes. However, Firestone did not have the large pressing machines to make the disc-type pressed-steel centers for these outer rims. A merger with Electric Wheel would solve this problem for Firestone, because Electric Wheel specialized in making disc-type centers for wheel rims and the Company had pressing machines large enough to make the centers that Firestone required.
negotiations between Electric Wheel
and Firestone were announced to the
public in May of 1957 and before the end of the calendar year, Firestone had bought out the Electric Wheel Company. Under the terms of the agreement, the Electric Wheel Company would become a
division of the Firestone Company and
would keep all its facilities at Quincy.
Electric Wheel’s 65-year-old Executive Vice-President D.W. Voorhees
became President of the new Electric Wheel Division replacing the 75-year-old Frank
What limited attempts that were being made to prepare a younger generation of executives within the Electric Wheel Division was restricted to the younger members of just one family—the Voorhees family. D.W. Voorhees’ 39 year-od son, Daniel W. Voorhees Jr. became general manager of the Electric Wheel Division. Since March of 1951, D.W. Voorhee’s second son, William A. Voorhees, had been serving as an assistant to Plant Superintendent William T. Lechtenberg. Now with the merger with Firestone, the 66-year-old William Lechtenberg took the opportunity to retire and in June of 1957 the 30-year-old William Voorhees replaced him as factory manager.
layoffs were anticipated nor made among the workforce at the Quincy Works as a
result of the merger with Firestone. Indeed, the merger with Firestone brought advantages to Electric Wheel. Instead of being restricted to the declining
United States agricultural market, Electric Wheel was now connected to the
growing trucking industry. Electric
Wheel had grown tremendously over its existence. However, the merger with Firestone brought the greatest period of expansion to the Quincy
Works in the history of the Company.
Upon conclusion of the merger, Firestone
transferred some of its truck wheel rim making operation to Quincy, Illinois
where it could be united with the wheel rim centers that Electric Wheel was
making for those same rims.
make room for these new operations, in May of 1959, the new management of the Electric
Wheel Division undertook the construction of a new 100,000 square foot building
on the grounds of the Quincy Works. With
this new expansion, the Quincy Works now had 900,000 square feet of floor space
under roof on the grounds. This compares
with only 300,000 of floor space in 1940—three times the floor space in less
than 20 years!!
1962, Firestone had obtained another
contract to supply wheel rims to Caterpillar
for the new generation of giant earth movers (“dirt buggies”) and road graders (called
“road patrol” graders) that Caterpillar
was now producing. D. W. Voorhees noted
that this new product had come to Electric Wheel as a direct result of the
merger with Firestone. This new contract resulted in another
increase in the factory floor space at the Quincy Works in February of 1962. Additionally, this expansion resulted in the
hiring of 100 more workers at the factory.
August of 1957 a long period of economic expansion in the United States slowed
as the nation’s economy entered into a recession. For eight months, from August of 1957 until
April of 1958, the United States economy suffered sluggish economic activity
and high levels of unemployment. Although the economy began to grow again after
April of 1958, consumer spending continued to lag through the rest of 1958 as
the public remained skeptical about the economy. Only when the realization finally set in with
the public, that recession was actually over, did consumers start spending
again. Sales of boats and boat trailers
increased tremendously in 1959 and the following year, in 1960, sales of boats
and trailers doubled in 1960. The management of the Electric Wheel Division
realized that they could ill afford to let this market go unattended without
obtaining their share of the sales in that market. Thus, paralleling another decision made about
60 years prior (in which Electric Wheel
Company had decided to move from the manufacture of wagon wheels to become a
manufacturer of entire wagons), the Electric Wheel Division decided, in 1962,
to move from merely making the wheels for boat trailers to the making entire
residual benefit of the merger with Firestone
was that the Electric Wheel Division began making brake bands for trucks. Thus, another 72,000 square feet of floor
space was added to the Quincy
factory complex to house the boat trailer and brake band operations. By the end of the fiscal year 1962, the
Quincy Works employed 1,300 workers with a combined payroll of $6,985,000.00.
1963, D.W. Voorhees retired from the presidency of the Electric Wheel
Division. He was replaced by his son
Daniel W. Voorhees Jr., who had been the general manager of the Division. Replacing Daniel as the general manager of
the Division was Daniel’s own brother William A. Voorhees. The Electric Wheel Division’s core business
remained farm wagons, wagon boxes, boat trailers and wheel rims. However, the largest growing area of the
business continued to be the manufacture of large rims for use on earth movers
and other large construction equipment. In
May of 1964, yet another 32,000 square foot expansion of the shipping/receiving
and warehouse buildings at the Quincy Works was announced.
States’ increasing involvement in the Vietnam War in 1964 became very apparent
in Quincy, Illinois, as the Electric Wheel Division was awarded
government/military contracts for production of track shoe assemblies for light
tanks and tank recovery vehicles.
However, the contract specification for these wheels and assemblies required
the tank wheels and track assemblies contain more aluminum than the tank wheels
and track assemblies of the past. Modern
tanks needed to be lighter than in the past to allow the tanks to be airlifted
and dropped into area where required. The armed forces were involved in a new
type of highly mobile warfare in Vietnam.
Because of the need for precision in the alloy ratio in the iron/aluminum parts that Electric Wheel was now making for these military contracts, the chemical testing laboratory at Electric Wheel Division was enlarged in March of 1966. The chemical laboratory at the Quincy Works performed physical tests and metallography on both the raw products coming into the factory and the finished products leaving the factory. Tests were conducted on “grey metal” and other products at the Quincy Works. “Grain growth,” “stresses” and “hardness” of the various metals were measured in the chemical laboratory. The Electric Wheel Division was now employing 1,900 workers at a total payroll of $9,390,000.00.
the same time, in March of 1966, the Electric Wheel Division was required to
upgrade its manufacturing base by installing three new 1,250-ton capacity
pressing machines just to keep up with the demands of Caterpillar and other construction equipment manufacturers for
newer and larger wheels rims. Each one
of these new pressing machines stood 33 feet tall and weighed 286,000
pounds. In preparation for the
installation of each pressing machine, a hole was punched through the floor of
the factory and a pit seventeen (17) feet deep was dug out of the earth under
the hole in the floor. Then the pit was
filled with 500 yards of concrete. This
would provide a proper footing to for the huge pressing machine. Only when this concrete footing had totally
dried out or “cured” completely, could the pressing machine be installed in its
place in the factory.
January 31, 1967, the Quincy Herald-Whig related
that Daniel W. Voorhees Jr. resigned as President of the Electric Wheel
Division to accept another management position with Firestone in Akron, Ohio. Replacing
him as President of the Division was his own brother, William A. Voorhees. The management of the Electric Wheel Division
bragged at that time that the Division had tripled in size since the merger
with Firestone in 1957.
In recognition of the growth of the operations at the Quincy Works, Firestone sought to make appropriate changes in the management to reflect this new larger status and also took the opportunity to bring in some Firestone people into the management of the Division. In June of 1970, Robert F. Kuntz was brought in from the Firestone facility at Ravenna, Ohio to become factory manager at the Quincy Works. Kuntz had a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Tri-State College in Angola, Indiana. The Quincy Herald-Whig of June 7, 1970 reported that Kuntz would replace Aaron E. Bergstrasser who was being “transferred to other management duties” at the Quincy Works.
United States economy was went into an eleven (11) month recession extending
from December of 1969 until November of 1970.
Following this recession there was a period of inflation and rising
consumer prices. The work force at the
Electric Wheel had shrunk from a high of 1,900 employees in 1964 down to 1,300
employees in 1972. These cut backs and
the inflation created dissatisfaction among the workers of the Electric Wheel
Division, because their salaries that were not keeping up with the cost of
living. Serious contractual
disagreements arose during the negotiations between the UAW and the Electric
Wheel Division over the collective bargaining agreement. In mid-April of 1972, the 1,200 members of
the United Auto Workers at the Quincy Works walked off the job. Pay, which had been severely eroded in recent
years, was the main bone of contention in the negotiations that led up to the
strike. However, a strong second issue
in the strike was the requirement of mandatory overtime that the company used a
great deal as a stop-gap measure to avoid hiring new employees at the Quincy
facility. The strike was to last until
July 5, 1972 before an agreement was reached between management and labor over
these contentious issues.
Following the two-and one-half month strike, Firestone decided that they wanted to bring in some more of their own management to the Electric Wheel Division. Accordingly, in July of 1972, Firestone brought in Leon R. Brodeur from Firestone’s Foam Products Co. located in Providence, Rhode Island to replace William A. Voorhees as “President” of the Electric Wheel Division. At the same time in July of 1972, Firestone brought back to the Quincy Works someone who was quite familiar to the citizens of Quincy—Virgil Krueger—to be factory manager of the Quincy Works. Virgil Krueger was appointed to the position of factory manager to replace Robert F. Kuntz who was retiring.
Virgil Krueger had been born to Edgar and Marie Krueger of Quincy, Illinois, on November 17, 1921. He had graduated from high school in Quincy in 1939. He was first employed by the engineering department of the Electric Wheel Company in 1940. From 1960 until 1969, Virgil Krueger held the position of manager of tooling for Electric Wheel. In 1969, he had been appointed as plant manager for the Firestone Steel Products Company in Spartanburg, South Carolina. So coming to Quincy in 1973, was like returning home for Virgil Krueger.
Also in 1972, a 29 year-old man by the name of Michael A. Wolf joined the Electric Wheel Division as the material control manager at the Quincy Works. Born in Dayton, Ohio, Wolf received a Master’s Degree in business administration from the University of Dayton in 1971. In the six years that he worked in Quincy, Illinois for the Electric Wheel Division, Michael was rapidly promoted through a number of positions as sales manager, factory manager and in 1976 Wolf became the manager of manufacturing for the Electric Wheel Division.
Over the fifteen months from June of 1972 until August of 1973, the new management of the Electric Wheel Division brought the Division back up to full production with a work force now grown to 1,500 employees. Still problems with the work force remained. Forced overtime was becoming a universal way the management sought to avoid hiring more employees. An incredible 800 grievances had been filed by the employees involving mandatory overtime and other work site disagreements.
In fiscal year of 1973, the Quincy Works of the Electric Wheel Division was a big part of the regional economy of western Illinois. Occupying 88 acres in the Ellington Township neighborhood of Quincy, the Electric Wheel Division used $115,000 worth if Illinois coal at Works and spent $190,000 on natural gas. The Division used 1.6 million gallons of water per day at the Works. This figure represented almost 20% of the total capacity of the Quincy City Water Board and 20% of the capacity of the new sewage treatment plant that the City of Quincy had just built. The Electric Wheel Division paid $159,000 to the City of Quincy in fiscal year 1973 for these water and sewage services. Additionally, the Division was paying off a special assessment of $2 million dollars to the City of Quincy for it share of this new sewage treatment plant.
In October of 1973, Virgil Krueger replaced Leon R. Brodeur as president of the Electric Wheel Division. Leon Brodeur became Firestone’s vice-president for diversified products.
Replacing Virgil Krueger in the position of factory manager was Kermit J. Risley. Kermit Risley was originally a Firestone management employee who had joined the Electric Wheel Division on December 15, 1958. Prior to coming to the Electric Wheel Division, he had worked as production department manager for the Firestone’s Los Angeles facility and as methods and standards manager at the Firestone Salinas, California, facility. Since March of 1973, he had been serving as the manager of the foundry at the Quincy Works. One of the first tasks for the new management of Electric Wheel was to resolve the 800 grievances with the work force that had been accumulated.
the December 9, 1973 issue of the Quincy Herald-Whig
newspaper, President Krueger reported that in 1973, the Electric Wheel Division
had set a new all-time record of $60 million in sales. Based on this profitable year, Virgil Krueger
sought to create better labor/management relations by:
Allotting $1 million more dollars to increase the fringe benefits of the
employees of the Division;
Spending an additional $380,000 to improve working conditions at the Quincy
Instituting a new human relations program which would encourage more informal
communications between employees and their supervisors on how to improve
productivity at the Quincy Works.
Specifically, the Division established a “suggestion system” which paid
employees for their ideas on how to improve production. In the last six months of 1973, for instance,
the division had paid out $6,000 to individual members of the work force for
suggestions that were estimated to save the Division $34,000 annually in the future.
Krueger acknowledged that mandatory over-time continued to be a problem because
even with 1,550 employees and a current payroll of about $15.2 million in 1973,
the Electric Wheel Division remained about 150 employees under staffed. Explaining that the Electric Wheel Division was
a wide ranging enterprise operating under the same corporate umbrella,
President Krueger noted that the Electric Wheel Division was, in reality,
“seven (7) different production identities,” all of which were located at the
same Quincy Works—manufacturing 165 different sizes of wheels and rims for
agricultural industries with 55 different styles of discs for those wheels to
meet the needs of various individual corporate customers. All in all, the Division manufactured wheels
in 4,000 different assembly styles. Sections
of the Quincy Works continued to make front idler wheels for Caterpillar crawlers; brake bands for
many types of trucks and other vehicles; wheels for earthmoving and other
off-road rubber tired equipment and hubs and spindles for agricultural
equipment and farm wagons.
overtime, President Krueger stated, was used to cover the additional work
during the busy times in any one of these seven major areas of production. The busiest season of the year always seemed
to fall in the summer just when the production employees would be planning
their summer family vacations. However,
year after year, mandatory overtime prevented the employees from actually
taking those family vacations. To avoid
using mandatory overtime, the Division would have required the hiring of 150
new employees in the spring and then the required laying off in the fall. Troublesome as it was, President Krueger
pointed out that mandatory overtime in the summer was less painful to workers
than mandatory layoffs. Further
expansion of the Quincy Works would provide permanent work for
150 new workers might have been might be a way out of the quandary of choosing either
mandatory overtime or annual mandatory layoffs.
this avenue of escape was also closed to the Electric Wheel Division. The Division was hemmed in by its location in
suburban Quincy. Housing developments had
sprung up around the Quincy Work’s 88 acre site, cutting off the Division’s
ability to expand further. In recent
years, the Electric Wheel Division had found it increasingly difficult to persuade
Quincy City and Adams County zoning officials to close streets around the
Quincy factory located in preparation for any expanding of the Quincy Works.
Given this situation, the Electric Wheel Division was secretly looking for a way to move some of the production operations out of Quincy. Indeed, President Krueger indicated as much in December of 1973 when he commented “We are looking elsewhere to move products out of our plant. We will not reduce our workforce.” Six months later on July 23, 1974, the official announcement was made that the Electric Wheel Division would start construction of a new factory on a 45 acre site in the industrial park of Abilene, Kansas. All manufacture of the “Electric” farm wagons would be moved to the new factory in Abilene. The growing market for the Electric wagon gear was expected to create a need for production of 150,000 wagon gears in 1974. Building of the Abilene Works would allow the Electric Wheel Division room for expansion of the Division’s productive capabilities to meet any new needs in the future.
Additionally, construction of the new facility at Abilene would allow for a safer and environmentally cleaner design of the worksite. New Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) requirements could be designed into the new Abilene facility much more cheaply than by retrofitting the same changes into the old Quincy plant. Also, pollution controls at the new Abilene Works would not only meet, but would exceed all federal, state and local environmental laws. Employment-wise, expansion into the Abilene Works would have not result in layoffs in the workforce at the Quincy Works. Indeed, the expansion to Abilene, would resolve the continuing nagging problem of mandatory overtime.
Krueger reported that Abilene, Kansas had been chosen as the best location for
the new plant because of Abilene’s close proximity to the farm wagon market and
because of the ample labor supply in the greater Abilene area and the
transportation facilities located in Abilene.
promised, there were no required changes in the workforce in Quincy as a result
of the building of the new facility in Abilene.
No employee was required to move from Quincy, Illinois to Abilene Kansas,
in order to keep their job. However,
some employees at the Quincy Works sought promotion and advancement within the
company by making the move to Abilene.
One such employee was Aaron E. Bergstrasser. Until June of 1970, Aaron Bergstrasser had
been employed as the factory manager of the Quincy Works. Over the last four years, however, he had
been serving as an ad hoc status carrying out a number of management
duties. Now in 1974 at the age of 56
years, Aaron Bergstrasser sought a position in Abilene with an income that
would boost his salary in the few years before he retired. Consequently, he and his family moved to
Abilene and obtained a house at 1706 Mulbury, Route 1, in Abilene, where he
continued to live until retirement. Indeed,
enjoying the warmer climate of Kansas, Aaron continued to live in Abilene even
oil crisis of 1973, the forming of “OPEC” (the Organization of Petroleum
Exporting Countries) in response to United States’ military support of Israel
in the Yom Kippur War of September, 1973 and the resulting high gasoline prices
all across the United States, caused the United States economy to slide into
another economic recession in October of 1973.
This recession was a long recession which lasted until April of
1975. Profits of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, as a
whole, were hampered by the business downturn and fell to $23,078,000 for the
six months from November of 1974 until April of 1975. Sales for the same period fell to
$1,735,082,000. However, the economy
eventually recovered such that Firestone
was able to report in May of 1976, that for the period of time from November of
1975 until April of 1976, Firestone
profits had risen to $58,410,000 on the back of sales of $1,830,147,000.
Electric Wheel Division knew that recovery was back when the Division obtained
its largest contract yet from the Caterpillar
Tractor Company from Peoria, Illinois.
Rising production at the Caterpillar
factory had required more idler wheels than ever before.
Caterpillar preferred that the Electric Wheel
Division continue to as its major supplier of idler wheels. Accordingly, Caterpillar signed this very large contract with the Electric Wheel
Division. However, to fill this
contract, Electric Wheel Division needed to further enlarge its production
capabilities. Caterpillar’s factory at Peoria was only 130 miles north and east
of Quincy. The idler wheels were currently
shipped from Quincy to Galesburg,
Illinois on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy (C.B.& Q.) railroad and then on to Peoria, Illinois
again on C.B.&. Q tracks. The shipment rode C.B.& Q. trains the
whole way to Peoria
without the need for any transfers to other railroads. Transferring the manufacture of the idler
wheels to the new Abilene, Kansas facility was not a profitable
consideration because of the distance the idler wheels would have to shipped. Therefore, expansion of the Quincy Works was
once more required.
August 7, 1977, the Quincy Herald-Whig newspaper
reported that Firestone had approved
a $5.1 million expansion of the Electric Wheel Division Quincy Works. Plans for the expansion called for the City
of Quincy to permanently close 28th Street between Cedar Street and
Spruce Street. Despite a petition signed
by 85 residents of the neighborhood, objecting to the proposal to close 28th
Street, the Quincy City Council voted to approve the closure of the street at
its August 1, 1977 regular meeting. The
planned expansion of the Quincy Works went ahead as planned—200 new employees
were added to the payroll at the Quincy Works.
February 26, 1978, the Quincy Herald-Whig
ran a headline “Electric Wheel Advances Keep Firm Running.” One of the new products reported on by the
newspaper in this article was a new five-foot wheel that still being tested for
“strength, stress, endurance, eslasticity and longevity.” The wheel was being planned for a tire that would
be 59 inches wide. It was the largest
wheel made in 1977.
Suddenly, on February 18, 1978, tragedy struck as President Virgil Krueger unexpectedly died at the age of 58 years. On February 28, 1978, Firestone, picked John Speer, the manager of the Firestone Steel Products Division to fill the vacancy as President of the Electric Wheel Division. Born on March 23, 1931, in Monroe, Michigan, Speer graduated with a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio and then graduated with a Master of Science degree from Case-Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He joined FirestoneTire and Rubber Company in 1958 as a technical service engineer. In 1961, Speer was moved the quality control department at Firestone’s Akron Plant No. 2. In 1965, John Speer became manager of production scheduling at the Akron plant and in 1973 Sperr became the plant manager of Firestone’s Decatur, Illinois plant, before becoming manager of the Firestone Steel Products Division in 1975.
1981 to 1982 another recession hit the economy of the United States of America. The effects of the recession were quite harsh
on the operations at the Quincy Works.
Diminished demand for farm and construction equipment lead to layoffs of
the work force at the Quincy Works. By
1982, the workforce at the Quincy plant numbered only 400 persons.
to the recession and a series of strikes that affected the farm implement
manufacturing industry, Firestone decided,
in 1982, to shut down all operations of its Electric Wheel Division located in
Quincy, Illinois. It was expected that
the workforce, except for the idler wheel operation, would be totally laid of
by the end of March of 1983 and the idler wheel operations would be closed down
by June of 1983.
However at the last minute on March 4, 1983, the Titan Proform Company Limited of Toronto, Ontario, Canada purchased the Quincy Works factory. Titan announced their intention of suspending operations at the Quincy Works only until July of 1983, when they hoped to re-open operations at the Quincy factory site under the new corporate name of Can-Am Company of Quincy, Illinois.
The Can-Am Company, had a vision and had set about consolidating all the small loose ends of businesses involved in steel wheel and rim manufacturing under the same corporate umbrella. Once organized into the same corporate body, Can-Am Company anticipated redistributing wheel rim production between the different facilities now under its corporate organization. It was planned that the Quincy Works would employ between 500 and 800 workers at the Quincy Works manufacturing “power adjust wheels” for farm tractors.
1986, Can-Am purchased the steel
wheel and rim business that formerly belonged to the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.
In 1988, the Can-Am Company
purchased the former French and Hecht (F.& H.) Division of the FruehaufCompany and the F.& H. factory site located in Walcott, Iowa. Thus, old corporate competitors were linked
together as the descendent of F.& H.
and the descendent of the Electric Wheel
Company were merged together under the same corporate/management
umbrella. In 1990, the headquarters of Can-Am was moved to Taylor, Michigan and
in 1991 Can-Am was restructured and
combined with a number of small tire manufacturers into a new corporate entity
called Titan Wheel Company. (In July, 1994, Pirelli/Armstrong Tire Company and their Des Moines, Iowa factory
also became part of the Titan
corporate structure.) Headquarters for Titan remained in Taylor, Michigan for a
time, but was soon moved to Quincy, Illinois.
In 2003, the F. & H.
factory in Walcott, Iowa was closed and all operations were moved to the
Quincy, Illinois, facility—into the same factory that had been the original Electric Wheel Company factory
2005, the Goodyear Tire Company and
their manufacturing facilities at Freeport, Illinois, were bought out by Titan.
Today, Titan International, Inc.
is headquartered in Freeport, Illinois, and remains a major seller of tires and
wheel rims for agriculture, construction and other off-the-road uses. As of February of 2010, the old Electric Wheel Company’s Quincy Works
factory in Quincy, Illinois was still employing 850 employees making wheel rims
under the name Titan International Inc. Thus, the successor of the Electric Wheel Company is still living
the mission of John Stillwell, founder of the original Company.
This article remains under construction. Periodically new blocks of text and media will appear and/or present blocks of text will be modified or corrected
Originally, wheels for farm wagons were made out of wooden spokes which were pressed into holes in a wooden hub at the center of the wheel. The out end of the wooden spokes were pressed into a wooden ring around outside of the wheel. Then a metal “tire” or band slightly smaller than the overall circumfernce of the wheel was heated red hot in a forge. This heating metal tire or band until it fit over the outside circumference of the wooden wheel. As the metal band cooled it would tighten all the spokes around the wheel driving them permanantly into the hub.
Wooden wheels did have their shortcomings. They were susceptible to after year of exposure to snow and rain. Furthermore, even when new, the wheels on the front of a wagon could not be made small enough to fit under the typical farm wagon box.
The large wooden wheels used on the turning wheels on the front of the typical farm wagon severely restricted the turning ability of farm wagons. Especially in the sharp turns that were sometimes needed in the narrow farm yards of small farms. Indeed, to would appear that more than an acre of flat land would be would be needed to turn the Nissen Company wagon pictured above.
The Electric Wheel Company was not the inventor of the all-metal wheel for use on farm equipment. Rather it was William Bettendorf, working for the Peru Plow Company, who, in 1882 began working on an all-metal wheel for wagons and farm implements. By 1884, he had the wheel and was attempting to persuade Peru Plow to market the wheel. Unsuccessful in that endeavor William Bettendorf left Peru Plow and established his own company–the Bettendorf Wheel Company in 1886 and in 1887 he applied for and recieved a patent from the United States government for the first all metal wheel. (See the fine history of F. & H. written by Chad Elmore called “Who Can You Thank for Your Tractor’s Wheels?” which was carried in the November/December 1999 issue of Belt Pulley magazine and the book, also by Chad Elmore called Peru Plow Works: Ninety Years of Farm Machinery in Peru, Illinois, 1851-1941 [Motorbooks International: Wausau, Wisc., 1996.] Additionally, the reader might turn to the French and Hecht article contained below on this same website) This first all-metal wheel with became known as the “Bettendorf wheel” for its inventor–William Bettendorf.
As noted in the French and Hecht article carried at this website, William Bettendorf started his own company–the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company in Davenport, Iowa. Only then did the Bettendorf wheel get into mass production. However, by 1890, despite competition from the Peru Plow and Wheel Company and other small wheel manufacturers, the Bettendorf Wheel Company (which later became the French and Hecht Company) was the leading manufacturer of all-metal wheels. Still the market for all-metal wheels was still growing and attracting capital investment.
Another person that very early saw a niche in this metal wheel market that he might fill was John A. Stillwell of Quincy, Illinois. Born in Hannibal, Missouri (1860 pop. 6,505) in 1861, John Stillwell was a man who was looking for an opportunity. He had charisma and was a natural-born salesman. He made friends easily and had a way of instilling trust in everyone that came in contact with him. At the age of nineteen (19) years, he was employed as a salesman traveling throughout the Midwest on behalf of a retail merchant distributing company.
During his travels around the Midwest, John Stillwell had met and formed close associations with a group of individuals that were attracted by John’s drive and ambitions to start a money-making concern. These men believed that John Stillwell was a young man destined to do well in the business world and they wished to “hitch their cart to his rising star.” John was not content working for another person. He had a dream of starting his own business concern and he had an idea as to how that might be achieved.
John Stillwell believed that the rising industrialization in the United States and the resulting mechanization of agriculture in the nation was creating a huge opportunity for the manufacture of wheels for threshers, horse-drawn mowers, hay rakes, sulky plows, cultivators and all sorts of modern farm implements. The rising popularity of steam engines, John knew, would also increase the demand for steel wheels. This was not even to mention all the non-farm uses of steel wheels that were creating further demand.
John Stillwell knew there was a problem with all-metal wheels. The wheels were composed of various metal parts and these parts were made from different types of metal. Hubs of the all-metal wheels tended to be made of cast iron, while the spokes and outer rim of the wheel tended to be made of pressed steel. John Stillwell knew that the best and strongest method by which two metal pieces could be attached to each other would be to “weld” the two pieces together. However, two different types of metal have two different melting points. Accordingly, the steel spokes of the all-metal wheel could not be “forge” welded to the cast iron hubs. Thus, the traditional method of combining steel spokes of all-metal wheels with the cast iron hub was to drill holes in the cast iron hub and then “pressing” the spokes into the holes on the cast iron hub. Then holes would be drilled into the steel “tire” or rim around the outside of the wheel. The spokes would then protrude through the holes of the outer steel tire and each spoke would be riveted to the outer metal tire of the wheel.
However, John Stillwell had become acquainted with a new type of “electric welding” which had been developed by Elihu Thomson, an engineer for the Edison Labs in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Elihu Thomson, later became a partner of Thomas Edison at the same Laboratory.
Later, Elihu Thomson became a co-owner, with Edison, of the General Electric Company. In 1887, Elihu developed a new “electric” or “arc” welding method. Arc welding unites two pieces of metal by means passing an electrical current through the metal parts. This electrical current created a great deal of heat along the edges of the two pieces of metal.
The heat generated by the electric current in arc welding is much greater than the heat that could ever be created in a forge. Thus, all those metals with melting temperatures so high that they could not be welded in a forge, could now be welded by arc welding. Additionally, metals with different melting temperatures could be welded together. However along with the heat produced by arc welding there is a tremendous amount of bright light was produced. This light was brighter than the light from the sun. Just as looking directly into the sun can damage the retinas of a person’s eyes, so to can the light given off from welding damage the retinas of the edyes of the operator of an arc welder or even the eyes of bystanders watching the arc welding process. To protect the retinas of their eyes operators of arc welders wear helmets with very dark glass through which they look while performing the arc welding. In the the photo below the arc welder is dressed in a helmet, heavy gaunlet gloves and a protective shawl which extends from the down over shoulders which protects his hands, face and clothing from the flying sparks of the welding process.
Additionally, metals with two different melting temperatures could be welded together by this electric arc welding method. John Stillwell felt that this electric welding could make a much stronger spoke steel wheel than the spoke steel wheels that were merely pressed and riveted. “Electric welding,” eventually provided a name for Stillwell’s new proposed business—the Electric Wheel Company.
John Stillwell quit his job as traveling salesman and settled in the burgeoning town of Quincy, Illinois, the idea of pursuing his dream of creating steel wheels by arc welding. John Stillwell picked Quincy, Illinois because his lately-deceased sister Esther (Effie) Stillwell had married Joseph Welch Emery of Quincy Illinois, on April 14, 1879 and had made Quincy her new home. Quincy was only about 30 miles up the Mississippi River from the Stillwell family home in Hannibal, Missouri. Quincy, Illinois, was and up and coming railroad city and with a population of 27,268 was already the second largest city in the State of Illinois, but steam-powered packets, frieghters and passenger steam boats still plied the waters of the Mississippi River just as they had since 1811.
The 52-year old Richard Newcomb was an experienced hand at business and investment opportunities. Richard Newcomb was not a native of Quincy, Illinois. Originally, born in Massachusetts, Richard moved to the Midwest after the Civil War. Settling first in Beloit, Wisconsin, he had started a wood pulp mill with some other investors. Feeling the need to break out and have his own company over which he could exercise more individual control, Richard sold his interests in the Beloit Wood Pulp Mill to his brother, John Curtis Newcomb, in 1874 and moved to Quincy, Illinois.
Besides being a railroad hub, Quincy was also the center of cook stove manufacturing for the entire United States—being the home of at least nine different stove foundry companies. One of these stove foundries was the Comstock-Castle Stove Company.
Until his death in 1874, the proprietor and major shareholder of the Comstock-Castle Stove Company was Enoch Comstock. Upon Enoch’s death, his only son, 34 year-old Charles Gilbert Comstock, took over responsibility for running the company. This move to the head of the company was only natural. After all, Charles Comstock had been working in for the company since he was 15 years of age. At the time of his father’s death, Charles was the bookkeeper of the copany.
John Stillwell set about gathering together a group of investors for his new company. One of the largest obstacles facing the 27 year-old John Stillwell was how to persuade investors who were a generation older than him to invest in his business venture. For this reason, he was extremely fortunate in meeting the 34 year-old Charles Comstock. Charles was attracted to John Stillwell’s energy and drive. John Stillwell’s enthusiasm was contagious and Charles Comstock was persuaded to become the first investor in the idea that would become the Electric Wheel Company. Charles Comstock was important not so much for his own willingness to invest in new entreprenurial startups, rather Charles Comstock was important for the people he knew. He had the ear of a circle of other potential investors. One of these other potential investors was currently an investor with the Comstock-Castle Stove Company—Samuel Hopkins Emery.
Meanwhile, Samuel Emery happened to mention John Stillwell’s proposal to a fellow investor in the Quincy Paper Company—Richard Foote Newcomb.
Samuel Emery was an attorney who had come to Quincy Illinois, from Massachusetts in the 1850s. Although in 1889, the 49-year old Samuel Emery was one of the more recent investors in the Comstock-Castle Stove Company, he had, nonetheless, come to trust the business acumen of Charles Comstock. Over the years, Samuel Emery had invested earnings from his law practice in various businesses in Quincy. In addition, to the Comstock-Castle Stove Company, he also was an investor in two other local Quincy-based corporations–the American Strawboard Company (“strawboard” is another term for “cardboard” except that oat and wheat straw formed the raw product for the “strawboard rather than paper.) and the Quincy Paper Company.
Before 1893, these companies (American Strawboard Company and the Quincy Paper Company) were regarded as “safe” companies and “sound investments” in established businesses. Indeed, the American Strawboard Company had become the largest strawboard company in the United States. The local public of Quincy was quite proud of the fame that the American Strawboard Company brought to the City of Quincy, Illinois. However, the Panic of 1893 would shake this ANIC
John Stillwell was proposing establishment of a new business and was seeking “venture capital” for his proposed business enterprise. Venture capital was always regarded as much more risky than investing in established concerns. However, Samuel Emery knew that where the risk was greater, one should expect that the return on investment would also be greater if the business concern were successful. Samuel was also attracted to the enthusiasm of John Stillwell. In the end, however, he was persuaded to joint the new venture because it was endorsed by Charles Comstock. Samuel Emery was impressed most by the fact that Charles Comstock was investing his money in the Electric Wheel Company venture. Accordingly, Samuel Emery agreed to become the second major investor in the new business.
Charles Comstock, had over the years sought to diversify his holdings by investing in other local companies besides the family business—Comstock-Castle Stove Company. One of the other local companies, in which he had invested his money, was the Smith-Hill Foundry and Machine Company. His investments in this company had brought him in contact with Thomas Hill (one of the namesakes of the Smith-Hill Foundry Company). Born in Wales, Thomas Hill and immigrated to the United States in 1861. During the American Civil War, Thomas Hill had lived in St. Louis and had worked on government boats plying the Mississippi River during the war. Later he moved to Hannibal, Missouri. In 1866, Thomas Hill moved to Quincy, Illinois, where he met Charles Comstock.
Charles Comstock mentioned John Stillwell’s proposal to Thomas Hill and found that Hill was also interested in providing venture capital for the proposed new company. Accordingly, Thomas Hill became the third investor in the new company.
In Quincy, Richard Newcomb purchased another wood pulp plant located at South Front Street in Quincy. This pulp plant had previously been owned by the Gem City Paper Company. Richard became the sole proprietor of the Quincy wood pulp plant and in 1880 he re-incorporated the business as the Quincy Paper Company. The Quincy wood pulp plant was a supplier of both brown packaging paper to the United States market and “strawboard.” (As noted above, “strawboard” is another term for “card board.”) Under Richard’s sole management the Quincy pulp wood plant became the largest strawboard producing plant in the United States. Through his years of business experience in dealing with wood pulp, Richard Newcomb had developed many contacts in the paper industry and become an expert in the paper market of the upper Mississippi River Valley. Currently, Richard Newcomb was regarded as the “richest man in town.”
Ever since meeting him, Richard Newcomb was impressed by the young, dynamic, John Stillwell and his proposal for a new steel wheel company. However, the real persuasive factor that made Richard Newcomb interested in the corporate venture was the fact that Samuel Emery was joining this corporate venture and had invested his own money. Accordingly, Richard Newcomb also fifth became an investor in the Electric Wheel Company. John Stillwell’s association with Richard Newcomb was important for another, more personal reason. He was starting to become very attracted to the oldest daughter of Richard and Anna Marie (Richie) Newcomb—Elizabeth Marie Newcomb.
With all the investors on board, John Stillwell, now had all the financial support that he needed to get his new company up and running. Consequently, on Sunday April 27, 1890, the citizens of Quincy read in their Quincy Daily Herald, that articles of incorporation for the Electric Wheel Company had been filed on April 24, 1890 at the Secretary of State’s Office in the state capital of Springfield, Illinois. Samuel Hopkins Emery Jr., Thomas Hill and Charles. G. Comstock were listed as incorporators of the new company. (Quincy Daily Herald, April 27, 1890 edition.) The incorporators supplied $25,000 of “start up” capital for the new company and then they hired John Stillwell as secretary and manager of the new company. John Stillwell himself was selected by the board of the company to serve as Secretary to the corporation and run the day to day business of the company as manager. John Stillwell was, thus, entrusted to manage the day to day affairs of the company. Immediately, he set about obtaining a factory facility located at Ohio Street and So. Fifth Street in Quincy. John, also, ordered a fifty (50) horsepower (hp.) stationary steam engine and a boiler from the Smith-Hill Foundary and Machine Company.
This steam engine would supply the mechanical power that the factory needed. To convert the mechanical power into electrical power needed for the electric welding process, he also ordered some dynamos from suppliers in Boston, Massachusetts. He also ordered the all the Thomson electric welders that the new company would need from a supplier in Boston. By late May of 1890, the new company was up and running–making steel wheels for the agricultural market.
However, the managment of the Company soon realized that the arc welding method of constructing all-metal spoke-type wheels, was not as effective and efficient as they had hoped. So the Thomson method of arc welding of the wheels was abandoned in favor of the old method of pressing the spokes in the hubs and the riveting the other end of the spokes into the steel tire or band that formed the outer circumference of the wheel, was once again adopted. However, even though giving up the “electric” welding process, John Stillwell and the management of the Company retained the name “Electric Wheel Company.” for their business enterprize.
As expected, the Electric Wheel Company began supplying their steel-spoke wheels to some of the manufacturers of farm implements. However, even with an aggressive sales effort, the company obtained only a very small share of the steel wheel market. The steel wheel market was dominated by the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company of Davenport, Iowa, which later became the French and Hecht Company. The French and Hecht Company seemed to “have a lock” on the whole market. The Electric Wheel Company made little progress during the first two years against this large corporate competitor. Still the Electric Wheel Company persisted in making its spoke-type wheel for makers of horse-drawn sulky plows and horse-drawn cultivators. Although still very small, the Electric Wheel Company’s market share was starting to grow. In 1890, Richard Newcomb began building his dream house at the corner of 16th Street and Maine in Quincy, Illinois. When completed in 1891, the house had 33 rooms and 13 fire places at a total cost of $50,000. This was taken as a sign that even the richest man in town had confidence in the future of the Electric Wheel Company.
Two years after the Electric Wheel Company had opened its doors it started to seem as though dawn had finally arrived and that the Company was was finally starting to hit its stride in obtaining a larger share of the steel wheel market. At this stage, John Stillwell was ready to institute some changes in his life. He had fallen in love with Elizabeth Marie Newcomb. On December 21, 1892 they were married.
February 23, 1893, two months after his marriage, however, the United States
economy was hit by a severe economic downturn, when the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad went bankrupt. Corporate bankruptcies followed one after
another in a cascade as the United States economy plunged into the worst
recession in its history up to that time.
Business and commerce slowed almost to a stop. The economic recession came to be called “the
Panic of 1893.”
Hard times fell on the Electric Wheel Company, as it did for all corporations in the United States during the years that followed. Orders from regular customers for steel wheels dried up almost entirely. There was almost no income coming into the Company. The investors in the Electric Wheel Company worried about their investment money. Of course, they had plenty worry about. Even supposedly “safe” and established companies were at risk of bankruptcy as the Panic continued to distress the economy throughout 1894. One of the companies having trouble in 1894 was the American Strawboard Company was a company that had close ties to The Electric Wheel Company. Stock values of the American Strawboard Company declined precipitously. Stockholders blamed the management. On February 2, 1894, a shareholders meeting was held in the Auditorium Hotel in Chicago.
Shareholders at the American Strawboard meeting rebelled against the company management and demanded a change in the board of directors and the management of the company. They voted for an entirely new board of directors. One of the new directors elected to the board was attorney Samuel Hopkins Emery, who was also one of the original investors in the Electric Wheel Company. The new board of directors of the American Strawboard Company was voted in with a mandate to make drastic changes in the management of the company. Once constituted, the new board of directors elected a new president. As President of the American Strawboard Company the board elected Richard Foote Newcomb. So now, John Stillwell’s father-in-law was going to be splitting his time between being Vice-President of the Electric Wheel Company and the presidency of the American Strawboard Company.
Only in 1896, did the U. S. economy begin to recover. Bad as the Panic was for the Electric Wheel Company, there was a “silver lining.” Lasting for three long years, the Panic had the effect of wiping the board clean of past corporate relationships. Past sales relationships and contracts were long gone. During the three long years of business doldrums since the start of the Panic of 1893, a new generation of purchasing agents had been employed in the corporate customers in the steel wheel market. These new purchasing agents began to take a fresh look at all the suppliers in the market. It was the dawn of a new day in the steel wheel market as the United States economy began to recover in 1896.
Bad as the Panic was for the Electric Wheel Company, there was a “silver lining.” Lasting for three long years, the Panic had the effect of wiping the board clean of past corporate relationships. Past sales relationships and contracts were long gone. During the three long years of business doldrums since the start of the Panic of 1893, a new generation of purchasing agents had been employed in the corporate customers in the steel wheel market. These new purchasing agents began to take a fresh look at all the suppliers in the market. It was the dawn of a new day in the steel wheel market as the United States economy began to recover in 1896.
of the leading steel wheel manufacturing companies in the United States were starting
over again—trying to sell their product, from scratch, to the new generation of
purchasing agents of the various farm equipment manufacturers. No longer could the French and Hecht Company rely on their old network of corporate
customers to occupy the dominate position in the steel wheel market as they had
in years past. No one company dominated
market share in the sales of steel wheels.
Orders from customers for steel wheels were spread around among all the
leading wheel manufacturers.
Thus, competition for customers between Electric Wheel Company and other steel wheel manufacturers started, once again, with abandon. Each manufacturer of steel wheels needed to attract a network of customers all over again. In this fresh competitive environment of 1896, the Electric Wheel Company had one big advantage.
That advantage was John Stillwell, himself. With all his dynamism and energy, John Stillwell was, himself, able to outsell most other salesmen in the steel wheel market. In addition to his own skills as a salesman, John Stillwell also had a talent for recognizing talent in others. He consciously sought to attract young talented employees to the Company. One of the talented workers that John Stillwell recruited to come to work for Electric Wheel Company was Addison Niles Calkins. The 29-year old Addison Calkins had been working in Quincy as a patternmaker at the machine shop owned and operated by Henry Lechtenberg in the 1887 and 1888. However, his work at the machine shop did not stimulate his inventive mind. Thus, when an opportunity arose to go to work for the Electric Wheel Company in the 1890s, he jumped at the chance.
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By hiring younger talented men like himself, John Stillwell impressed his own personality upon the Electric Wheel Company. The ethic of aggressive salesmanship became part of the corporate personality of the Company. Thus, the Electric Wheel Company became the most vigorous, aggressive and scrappy sales competitor in the steel wheel market. At this particular time the Electric Wheel Company sorely needed new blood in its management for two reasons. First, many of the older generation investors and officers were passing away. Richard Newcomb, John Stillwell’s father-in-law died in 1904. Attorney/invester Samuel Emery died in 1906. Secondly, the growth of the Electric Wheel Company over its first two decades of existence required more management staff to handle the greatly widened responsibilities and the division of labor within the management of the Company.
its annual year-end wrap-up of all the businesses in Quincy, the local
newspaper the Quincy Daily Journal
reported in its January 9, 1901 edition, that the Electric Wheel Company was now employing 100 workers. The Company
had witnessed a large growth in the demand for their steel wheels among farm
equipment manufacturers for use of Electric
wheels on horse-drawn sulky plows and horse-drawn cultivators. The Quincy
Daily Journal was able to report that in the same article, that demand for
their wheels was so strong that the Electric
Wheel Company (during its tenth year in existence) had outgrown its
production facilities at Fifth and Ohio Streets. Accordingly, the Electric Wheel Company was already looking around for another
factory site. Early estimates of the
costs of any new plant would be $80,000.
The year-end report for the following year, carried in the January 25, 1902 edition of Daily Journal,reported that during 1901 corporate profits had increased by another 20%, reaching a total of $200,000 in 1901. The newspaper went on to report that during 1901 the Electric Wheel Company had, indeed, moved into a new factory located on a 10½ acre site near 28th and Cedar Streets in the Walton Heights district of Quincy. However, the costs of this new plant facility was only $50,000, considerably less than had been anticipated just the year before. The Electric Wheel Company now employed 125 workers at the new facility.
By 1900, the organization of the management of the Company had changed to meet the requirements of this new growth. John Stillwell had become President of the Electric Wheel Company. Whereas, previously, John Stillwell had served as the Company’s sole “manager” there were now a number of divisions within the Company each headed by a manager. There was plenty of room within the Electric Wheel Company for ambitious young men. John Stillwell promoted the now 35-year-old, Addison Calkins to the position of Superintendent of the whole factory. Addison Calkins had been working with the Electric Wheel Company since 1900.
The working atmosphere at the Electric Wheel Company was stimulating to Addison’s creative and inventive nature. At Electric Wheel, Addison was able to fully release his talents on behalf of the Company. Ever since coming to the Electric Wheel company in 1900, Addison Calkins had put his innovative and sharp mechanical genius to work on projects that would help the Company. One of his first projects was to create an entire wagon, i.e. wagon box and wagon gear that could be sold as a unit to the farming public. This wagon would embody all the improvements for the typical horse drawn wagon that Addison Calkins had concieved in his fertile mind. The wagon was probably already carried a number of patents in the name of Addison Calkins. However, as an employee of the Electric Wheel company he usually signed the rights and ownership of the patents over to his employer–Electric Wheel. In gratitude to Addison, the board of the Company decided to name the wagon the “Calkin Wagon” after Addison Calkin and to advertise the wagon as the Calkin Wagon as early as 1904.
At the Electric Wheel Company, on October 26, 1917, Addison filed for a United States Patent on some improvements a radiator fan arrangement that he had developed. As an employee of the Electric Wheel Company, he assigned the patent to the company. The Electric Wheel Company put the patent to use as an improvement to their line of farm tractors following 1917.
Shortly after starting work at Electric Wheel Company, Addison, encouraged his younger brother, Ira Raymond Calkins, to apply at the company for a position at the factory. Ira’s interests led him in a different direction than his brother, however. In Ira started at the Electric Wheel Company working as a clerk in 1900 and soon showed a real talent for business management and finance. Consequently, John Stillwell soon promoted Ira Calkins to Corporate Secretary at the age of 33 years of age.
Sometime after the turn of the 20th Century, another promising young man, by the name of Frank Fleming Alexander, went to work for the Electric Wheel Company. By 1910, John Stillwell had promoted the 28-year old, Frank Alexander to the position of Assistant Manager for the Company.
Shortly after he was hired, Frank encouraged his younger brother Robert Watt Alexander, to also come to work for the Electric Wheel Company. By 1910, Robert Watt Alexander had been promoted to be an Assistant Sales Manager for the Company. The results of this new vigorous reorganization of the Company drive spoke for itself, as the Electric Wheel Company began to gain market share.
It was a hopeful and optimistic time. Later, this period of time, from 1900-1917, would be referred to as “the Progressive Era.” John Stillwell and the new, young and vigorous management of the Electric Wheel Company were caught up in the spirit of these optimistic times. This younger generation of men including the Calkin brothers and the Alexander brothers took the Electric Wheel Company in new directions. The Electric Wheel Company’s introduction and manufacture of the AllWork line of farm tractors was one of the products of those new directions.
At the opening of the twentieth century many other entrepreneurs were also caught up in the same idea. Thus, there was already a plethora of companies competing in the farm tractor manufacturing market. Nonetheless, experiments in designing and developing a farm tractor were begun by the Electric Wheel Company as early as 1904. Indeed, a prototype of a tractor was made by the Company in 1904. Like many of the internal combustion engine-powered tractors of the time, the prototype was a large and cumbersome machine.
However, engineers at the Electric Wheel Company had an inspirational idea. Rather than compete directly with all the companies manufacturing farm tractors, the Electric Wheel Company could find a niche in the market that was unoccupied. The new management of the Company saw the great number of stationary (“hit and miss”) engines already in use on farms around the nation. They saw these engines as a resource that could be exploited. If the Electric Wheel Company could make a four-wheeled platform or chassis onto which a farmer could mount his own single-cylinder engine, the company could fill a niche that existed in the tractor market. Whereas, many small farmers could not afford the expense of a complete farm tractor; the Electric Wheel Company felt that those same small farmers might be tempted by the chance to put their own stationary engine on a chassis and, thus, create their own farm tractor with an engine they already owned. The only additional costs to the small farmer would be the costs of the motor-less truck or chassis on which he could mount the engine that he already owned. Thus, the farmer would also be able to get more work out of an asset that he already owned. Accordingly, in 1908, the Electric Wheel Company developed their own four-wheeled motor-less truck chassis and began mass producing the chassis for sale to the farming public.
Production of the tractor chassis was not a large step outside the core business of the Electric Wheel Company. From the company’s point of view production of the tractor chassis was merely an extension to the Company’s mass production of tractor wheels. It was merely the next logical step for the Electric Wheel Company. The Company was blessed with an educated workforce that could adapt to changes and was encouraged to think for themselves and make suggestions on how to improve the products that Electric Wheel was manufacturing. In the years following the introduction of their motor-less tractor chassis, the Electric Wheel Company continued to attract talented, skilled and ambitious young men. Young men sought work with Electric Wheel because of the high pay and the Company’s reputation of encouraging and rewarding ambition and independent thinking. One of the many young men who sought employment at this time was Grover George Bergstrasser, who came to work for Electric Wheel as a machinist some time prior to 1917.
Grover was a second generation immigrant. His father, Henry Bergstrasser, had been born in Darmstadt, Hessen Germany on January 19, 1865 and had immigrated to the United States in 1884 and had settled in Quincy, Illinois, where he opened a saloon in Quincy.
Born and raised in Quincy, Grover thrived in the creative environment of the Quincy Works of the Electric Wheel Company. He was friendly and outgoing and developed into a natural leader. In 1919, ratification of the Prohibition amendment to the United States Constitution, forced Grover’s father–Henry Bergstrasser–to close his saloon. Later in the 1920s, Grover was able to get his father a job at Electric Wheel. The management of Electric Wheel Company recognized Grover’s talent as a team leader and this was the talent that the Company appreciated as much as his abilities as a machinist. It stands to reason that Grover, as a machinist, must have had some impact on the Company’s introduction and post 1917 development of a farm tractor. By 1920, Grover, himself, was promoted to the position of foreman in the “Wheel Dept.” of Electric Wheel. (Years later after the Second World War, Grover’s own son, Aaron E. Bergstrasser, would also come to work for the Electric Wheel Company, where he would be promoted to the position of Factory Manager.)
After three (3) years of mass production of the motor-less tractor chassis, the Electric Wheel Company decided to produce the company’s own complete tractor—the Electric Wheel Company Model “O” Quincy All-Purpose Tractor. A prototype of the tractor was built in 1908.
The Electric Wheel Model 0 tractor was originally rated as a 20-30 tractor, meaning 20 horsepower (hp.) from the drawbar and 30 hp. from the belt pulley. However, in 1912, the Model O was re-rated as a 15-30 tractor. Also the company introduced its first “track-type” or “caterpillar” tractor called the “Allwork” tractor in 1911. The Allwork tractor was a huge crawler-style tractor that delivered 30 horsepower (hp.) to the drawbar and 45 hp. to the belt pulley. This track-type tractor was intended for use on construction or in road building. With the growth of the “Good Roads” programs by state and local governments all across the nation in the late 1920s, the Electric Wheel Company saw an opportunity to introduce second and larger version of this track-type AllWork tractor—the Model 80 track-type tractor.
Two features made the Model 80 track-type tractor a very forward-looking tractor. Firstly, the Model 80 was not designed as a “cross-motor” tractor. Most tractors made by Electric Wheel and, indeed, most tractors made by all other tractors manufacturers at the time were of a “cross-motor” design. The cross-motor tractor was designed with the engine positioned so that the crank shaft of the engine was parallel to the axles of the tractor. The Model 80 track-type tractor, however, was fitted with a Model W-K “in-line” four-cylinder engine made by the Waukesha Company of Waukesha, Wisconsin. The “in-line” engine design positioned the engine of the tractor so that the crankshaft of the engine was perpendicular to the axles of the tractor. The in-line design of farm tractors would soon become the universally adopted throughout the entire farm tractor industry. Thus, the Model 80 was a “forward looking” tractor because of its design.
the Model W-K Waukesha engine fitted on the Model 80 track-type tractor was a
very heavy-duty engine. This engine had
a 6 ¾ inch bore and an 8 inch stroke and featured five (5) bearing surfaces on
a huge crankshaft and could develop 110 hp. at 800 revolutions per minute
(r.p.m.). This made the Model 80 a rugged
tractor more like tractors that were made at a much later date.
1912, a new four-wheeled version of the “Allwork” Model 30-45 tractor was introduced,
called the “Model 1” tractor. The Model
1 weighed 9,500 pounds. The Model 1
would remain in mass production until 1917.
A smaller version of the Model 1, the “AllWork 14-28” tractor was
introduced in 1917. Although regarded as
a “small” tractor, the AllWork 14-28 still weighed 5000 pounds. The Model 1 remained a cross-motor style
tractor with a four-cylinder engine rated as delivering 14 hp. to the drawbar
and 28 hp. to the belt pulley. Each of
the four cylinders on the Allwork had a 5-inch bore and a 6-inch stroke. (Later this Allwork tractor was re-tested and
re-rated as delivering 20 hp. to the drawbar and 35 hp to the belt pulley.) Accordingly, the tractor was renamed the
Allwork 20-35. The Allwork 20-35 weighed
5000 pounds and had a list price of $1,500.00 in 1917. In its first year, 1917, sales of this
tractor reached 1,000 to 1,500 tractors.
Unlike many other tractor manufacturers of the time, the Electric Wheel Company used very few “vendor
produced” items in making their tractors.
With the exception of the Model 80 tractor which, as noted above, was
fitted with the Waukesha engine, the Electric Wheel Company made all its own
tractor engines. Additionally, all clutches,
transmissions and final drives used on the tractors were also made by the Electric Wheel Company.
In addition to making tractors for use on farms across North America, the Electric Wheel Company also established a new and separate division within their company in 1916 to sell a new device that would convert Model T into a usable tractor on the family farm.
This new division was called the Pullford Division. (A picture and short article on the Pullford Division is contained at page 231 of C. H. Wendel’s book, The Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors. It appears that the Electric Wheel Company create the illusion that the Pullford Division was a separate corporate enity. The article in the Encyclopedia of America Farm Tractors describes the division as the “Pullford Company” of Quincy, Illinois, as if it were not associated with the Electric Wheel Company at all. However, advertising brochures of the Pullford Division clearly show the Electric Wheel Works factory in Quincy on their last page.) The Pullford was an attachment that was made to the rear end and rear wheels of any Model T Ford car to allow the car to operate as a tractor in the fields on the farm. From the, time of its introduction, the Ford Model T in 1909, the Model T had been a huge sales success and dominated the automobile market. Accordingly, the Pullford was made only for the Ford Model T. It was expected that when the field work was done for the day the farmer could then remove the Pullford attachment from his Model T to take the family to town in the carr that same night. The price of the Pullford in $135.00.
satisfaction with the Pullford was evident from the testimonials written to the
Pullford division by various Model T owners.
One such owner was W. E. Davis of Green City, Missouri, who wrote on
August 3, 1917, that he had plowed 60 acres of land in 10 days at a cost of only
40¢ per acre with his Model T and his new Pullford. The Pullford Division continued production of
the Model T attachment throughout the 1920’s.
In 1928, when the Ford Motor
Company replaced the Model T with the new Model A Ford, the Pullford Division of the Electric Wheel Company brought out a new Pullford attachment for
the new Model A Ford car. In 1930, the price of the Model T Pullford
attachment was down to $97.50. Later,
when Chevrolet began to become a
major competitor in the automobile market, Pullford introduced a new attachment
specifically intented to be fitted on the 1926 through 1931 Chevrolet. In 1938, the price of a Model T Pullford was
$117.50. The price of the Model A
version was $122.50 and the price of the Chevrolet
version of the Pullford was also 122.50 The Pullford proved to be an attachment
which had a limited window of opportunity.
As automobiles became more sophisticated and custom-styled after 1932,
the Pullford could no longer be designed to fit these newer cars. However, the Pullford remained in production
until at least 1940 because it was assumed that while farmers buy newer cars
for their family vehicle, they might also continue use these older cars on
to market their successful Pullford and to market their line of farm tractors,
the Electric Wheel Company developed
a network of sales outlets through existing “shortline” farm equipment
dealerships and hardware stores across the nation. In Canada, the Electric Wheel Company relied on the George White and Sons Company Ltd. of London, Ontario.
the entrance of the United
States into the European War in April of
1917, raw materials for the production of tractors was severely curtailed. As a result, production of all tractors by
the Electric Wheel Company fell
precipitously. Production of the Allwork
Model 20-35, as an example, slipped to 500 tractors in 1918. However, during the war, the Electric Wheel Company had signed a
contract with the United States Army to make artillery gun carriages for the
war effort. On November 11, 1918, an
armistice was signed which ended the First World War. With the end of the war, the military
terminated its war contract with the Company. Because of the loss of income from the
cancellation of the government contract, the Company needed to quickly re-tool
from making gun carriages and turn again peace time production.
the Electric Wheel Company started
mass producing tractors again after the war.
However it was a new world. Henry
Ford’s entrance into the farm tractor market with his little Fordson tractor
created a revolution with the farm tractor market. The Fordson weighted only 2,920 pounds. Nonetheless, the Fordson was fitted with a
three-speed transmission and its “in-line” four-cylinder engine delivered 10
hp. to the drawbar and 20 hp. to the belt pulley. More importantly, the Fordson sold for the
suggested retail price of $750.00 in 1918.
Furthermore, in the succeeding years Henry Ford continually dropped the
price of the Fordson, even more, in an attempt to obtain a larger share of the farm
tractor market. Eventually, the Fordson
was selling for $395.00. This price was
well within the financial grasp of many small farmers. Many farmers who, ordinarily, would not have
thought of buying a farm tractor, now flocked to buy a Fordson. The Electric
Wheel Company’s Allwork Model 14-28 was the Company’s entry in the “small
tractor” market. However, with a weight
of 5,000 pounds and with only had two forward speeds of 1¾ miles per hour (mph)
and 2½ mph, the “cross-motor” designed Allwork Model 14-28 could not hope to
compete with the Fordson in sales. The revolution
set off by the Fordson within the tractor market required all competing tractor
manufacturers to redesign and mass produce their own new small model
tractors. However, the International Harvester Company (IHC) became Ford’s most successful competitor
in this price war in the small tractor market.
With the passage of each month the farm tractor market was growing by
leaps and bounds. By 1919, a total of
100,000 tractors were built and sold by IHC
in January of 1920 the United States economy entered into a period of severe
deflation which became known as the “post-war recession.” The deflation of farm commodity prices created
hardships for the farmers of North America.
Accordingly, tractor and farm implement sales slumped. Unemployment rose to a level of 11. 7%. The post-war recession was a double blow to
the Electric Wheel Company. Not only was there a reduction in the
company’s tractor sales, but there was a slum in the sales of wheels that Electric Wheel Company had been making to
other tractor and farm equipment companies.
The post-war recession lasted only about seven (7) months, ending in
about July of 1921. The post-war
recession had been short in duration but had been sharp and severe in
intensity. Many companies did not
survive the post-war recession. While
the Electric Wheel Company suffered
during the post-war recession, the Company
did, at least, survive.
With the return of prosperity to the economy in the mid-1920s, the Electric Wheel Company expected that, finally, sales of their tractors would pick up again. In response to the increasing demand for smaller tractors, the Electric Wheel Company introduced its own “small” four-wheel tractor in 1920, called the Allwork II Model F 12-25. The Allwork II Model F 12-25 tractor was tested at the University of Nebraska from August 16, 1920 through September 15, 1920. These tests revealed that the Allwork II Model F actually delivered a maximum of 19.69 hp. to the drawbar and 28.86 hp. to the belt pulley. Accordingly, the Model F was re-rated and was renamed the Model G 14-28.
there appears to be only one Allwork tractor in existence that is actually
restored back to operating condition. This
particular Allwork is a 1923 Model G 14-28 tractor. The current owners are Fred Buckert and his
son Dan Buckert of Hamilton, Illinois. Having
been born and raised in Adams County, where the City of Quincy is located, both
father and son Buckert had been interested in obtaining an Allwork tractor for
about 25 years prior to 2006 when they finally obtained their Model 14-28. Restoration of the tractor had actually been started
by the prior owner—an antique tractor collector in Henry, Illinois. Restoration of the tractor had progressed to
the point where the entire tractor had been dismantled, but then the prior
owner had died. The Buckerts purchased
the dismantled tractor at the estate sale of the prior owner and proceeded to complete
the restoration of the Allwork 14-28 tractor.
While the Burkerts are aware of four other Model 14-28 Allwork tractors
in existence (one in Kansas City and another in Iowa), as well as a Electric Wheel Company track-type Model
EWC 80 crawler tractor in Indiana, none of these tractors is in operating
condition. Only the Burkert’s Allwork is
in operating condition. The Burkerts Allwork
tractor can be seen each year at the Western Illinois Threshers show held annually
in Hamilton, Illinois, on the first full weekend in August each year. A picture of the tractor can also be seen on
the website of the Western Illinois Threshers Association.
Electric Wheel Company retained the
cross-motor design on all its tractors well into the 1920s when most other
tractor manufacturers had already turned to the in-line engine design. Finally with the introduction of the Allwork
II Model G tractor, the Company
designed and built its first in-line engine.
However, even at this late-date, the Electric
Wheel Company was not signaling a switch over to the in-line design. The Company
merely introduced its Model G tractor with its in-line engine, specifically as
an “orchard tractor” for use in the orchards of California. With regard to its other tractors, the Electric Wheel Company insisted on
sticking with the cross-motor design.
a way of promoting the sales of their tractors in the immediate post-war era,
the Electric Wheel Company entered a
number of field demonstrations and/or plowing contests. Sometimes these field demonstrations were
held on farms of the Purdue University Agriculture School in West Lafayette,
Indiana. During these plowing events,
the Electric Wheel Company began to
form a relationship with the Oliver
Chilled Plow Company. This corporate
relationship would develop and grow. After
the 1929 merger of the Oliver Chilled
Plow Company with the Hart-Parr
Tractor Company of Charles City, Iowa and a number of other farm equipment
companies, this corporate relationship would result in the Electric Wheel Company having access to the Oliver sales and dealership distribution network.
1927, the cross-motor Allwork Model 14-28 was modified slightly to make the
tractor deliver 16 hp. to the drawbar and 30 hp to the belt pulley. Still a cross-motor tractor, this new Allwork
tractor was called the Model CA tractor.
The engine on the Model CA featured five (5) bearing surfaces on its
crankshaft—an unusually rugged design feature for the time. The Model CA weighed 5,200 pounds. Probably because of the Company’s association
with the Oliver Farm Equipment Company
at the various plowing events, the Electric
Wheel Company adopted the Oliver nomenclature
and designated the Model CA as a “three-plow tractor.” Suggested retail price for the Model CA was
more cross-motor model tractors were introduced by the Electric Wheel Company in 1928.
The Model D was based on the design of the Model CA but each piston of
its four-cylinder engine had a 5¼ inch bore and a 6 inch stroke. With this larger engine the Model D was
advertised as a “four-plow tractor” and sold for the suggested price of
$1,825. Yet another tractor designated
the Model DA, was fitted with a larger four-cylinder engine with a 5½ inch bore
and a 7 inch stroke was also introduced in 1928. The Model DA was advertised as
a “five-plow tractor” and had the suggested retail price of $2,500.
even with the return of prosperity, in the mid-1920s, the expected rise in
sales of the various models of the Allwork II tractor did not occur. Indeed, 1917 proved to be the high tide of
tractor sales for the Electric Wheel
Company. Tractor sales never again approached
the high level attained in 1917. Furthermore,
tractor sales continued to slide throughout the prosperous “roaring 20s.” The Electric
Wheel Company’s retention of the cross-motor design for their tractors may
well have been responsible for the decline in sales. It is interesting to speculate what might
have happened if the Electric Wheel
Company’s had changed from the cross motor design to the more modern and
popular “in-line” engine design that would become the universally accepted
during the late 1920s. International Harvester had abandoned
the cross motor design in 1923 with the introduction of the International Model
15-30 Gear Drive tractor. Both the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company and
the Minneapolis Steel & Machinery
Company (one-corporate part of the entity that would emerge in 1929 as the Minneapolis-Moline Power Implement Company)
had always used the in-line engine design for their tractors. The other major part of that same merger, the
Minneapolis Threshing Machine Company,
had made the switch from the cross-motor design to the in-line design in
1922. Indeed, the last two major tractor
manufacturers still using the cross motor design in the late 1920s were Hart-Parr/Oliver and Case and they both switched from the
“cross-motor design to the “in-line” engine design in 1929. Unable to turn around the decade-long decline
in sales, the Electric Wheel Company
abandoned all production of tractors in 1929.
The Company was forced to turn back to their core business—the
production of wheels for farm implements. Luckily, changes which were underway
in the wheel market in that would present a pleasant surprise to the Electric Wheel Company.
section of the wheel market that the Electric
Wheel Company had never been able to enter, was the wagon wheel market. Wagon manufacturers seemed “bound and
determined” to retain the traditional large wooden spoke wheel on all the
wagons they were making. The wagon
manufacturers hung on to the large wooden spoke wheel despite the fact that
wooden spoke wheels: 1) were more expensive to make than were all-metal wheels;
2) required a great deal more maintenance than all-metal wagon wheels; 3) would
not last nearly as long as steel spoke wheels; and 4) could not be made in
sizes smaller than 36 inches in diameter.
were clear advantages to using steel-spoke wheels as opposed to the traditional
wooden wheels. The art and science of
making a wooden wheel usually involved the use of different types of wood for
different parts of the wheel. A 1923
advertisement of the Electric Wheel
Company noted that in their wooden spoke-type wheels, Wisconsin birch was
used for the hubs, “straight grained oak” was used for the spokes and narrow
pieces of white oak were bent around the outside of the wheel. Then a metal band or “tire” was pressed on
the outside of the wheel which would hold the whole wheel together.
use however, the wooden wheel would wear and dry out as the wagon was
used. The wooden parts in the wheel would
shrink as the wood dried. The metal tire
around the outside of the wooden wheel would then become loose and threaten to
fall off. The only fix for this problem
is for a blacksmith to cut a small section out the metal tires and weld the
tire back together again. The tire would
then have a smaller circumference.
However, when the metal tire was heated red hot it expanded. Then the metal tire would be hammered back on
the outside of the wheel. As the red hot
metal tire cooled it would shrink and fit tightly around the wheel again. As a temporary measure to tighten the tire on
a wooden wheel, some farmers would wet the wooden parts of the wheel. The wetted wood would expand or swell and
tighten the metal tire on the wheel again.
a wooden wheel could not remain wet for long periods of time for fear that the
wooden wheel would rot. Consequently,
the wagon with wooden wheels must be stored in doors out of the weather. By way of contrast, the all-metal wheel
needed much less maintenance, operated in all kinds of weather conditions, and
could be stored out of doors in all kinds of weather conditions. Furthermore, wood wears much faster than
metal and, therefore, the wooden wheel has a much shorter life than all-meal
noted above, wooden wheels are constructed by bending pieces of white oak into
arcs and attaching them to the outer ends of the wooden spokes. However, there was a physical limit as to how
sharply the white oak could be bent into arcs.
The white oak pieces could not be bent sharp enough to make a wheel
smaller than 36 inches. Traditionally,
then, wooden wheels for wagons were 36 inches in the front and 42 inches in the
rear. Whereas, wooden wheels could not
be build in sizes smaller than about 36 inches in diameter, steel wheels, on
the other hand, could be made in any size.
The Electric Wheel Company
advertised steel wheels as small as 24 inches in diameter for mounting on
wheels sized 36 inches or larger imposed severe limitations on a wagon’s
ability to turn corners. Horse-drawn
wagons were traditionally steered by “fifth-wheel” type steering. Fifth wheel type steering means that in
negotiating a corner both wheels were pivoted at the same pivot point located
at the center of the axle between the two front wheels. This pivot point was called the “king pin.” Obviously, then, on each turn with a wagon
equipped with fifth-wheel steering, one of the front wheels would have to fit
under the wagon box. Clearly, a 36-inch
wheel would fit only partially under the wagon box as the wagon pivoted around
the corner. This meant that sharp
cornering with a wooden wheel wagon was impossible. However, smaller 24 inch steel wheels would
fit entirely under the wagon box. This
allowed the wagon to be turned at a 90° angle if needed for sharp
cornering. As noted above, Electric Wheel advertisements often emphasized
this feature of small steel wheels by showing steel wheel wagon gears with the
front wheels turned at 90° angles to brag about the smaller steel wheel’s
ability to fit entirely under the wagon box.
if smaller steel wheels were mounted on both rear as well as the front of the wagon
gear or “truck,” a barge style wagon box with a “bed-over” configuration could
be mounted on the wagon gear. Thus,
instead of being limited to designing narrow wagon boxes which allowed room for
large wooden spoke wheels on either side of the wagon box, the bed-over design
allowed all four wheels of the wagon to fit neatly under a wider “barge-style”
wagon box. These wider barge-style wagon
boxes would hold more bushels of ear corn or grain.
only could steel wheels be made smaller in diameter than wooden wheels, but
steel wheels could be made with wider metal tires. Whereas, metal tires on wooden wheels were
limited to either a three (3) inch or a four (4) inch width, the Electric Wheel Company sold all metal
wheels with metal tires up to six (6) inches wide. These wider metal tires on steel wheels were
less likely to sink into soft ground.
The result was an easier load for draft animals.
the years since its original incorporation, the Electric Wheel Company sales staff had been attempting “get a foot
in the door” of the wagon wheel market by stressing all these advantages. However, nothing seemed to work. Wagon manufacturers continued to resist even
considering all-metal wheels for the wagons they produced. Sometime after 1905, John Stillwell had a
thought. Perhaps, the best way to convince
the wagon manufacturers of the advantages of the smaller steel-spoke wheels for
use on wagon “gears” or wagon “trucks,” was for the Electric Wheel Company, itself,to become a wagon gear manufacturer.
Accordingly, the Electric Wheel
Company began the production of wagon gear or trucks for sale directly to
the Company began advertising wagon
gears and grain boxes for direct to the retail farm public. By 1923, the Company had an entire line of wagon gears and wagon boxes available
for sale. A 1923 advertisement for the Electric Wheel Company announced a new “Improved
Bryson Farm Truck.” (The “Bryson” name was
taken from John Stillwell’s own family.
Indeed, John’s father was named Bryson Stillwell.) The Bryson Farm gear or “truck” had a 4000
pound capacity and was fitted with spoke-style steel wheels. The 1923 advertisement also listed a “Quincy”
grain box that was available separately for mounting on any wagon gear. The Quincy wagon box was a “double box.” The traditional wooden bed or floor of the
traditional wagon box is 38-inches wide by 10 ½ feet long. Attached to the sides of the bed and to the
front and back are wide boards which allowed for a 13 inch “inside” height from
the bed or floor of the wagon to the top of the boards. This was a “single” box. By attaching another set of 13 inch boards to
the top edge of the single box, the inside height of the wagon box could be
doubled to 26 inches. This was the
case, any potential buyer wanted to purchase only a wood-spoke type of wagon
truck, the Electric Wheel Company
obliged by offering, on this same advertisement, their own traditional wooden-spoked
wagon truck called the “Gem City Wooden Wheel Truck.” (Gem City is the nickname for Quincy,
Illinois.) This traditional wooden
wheeled wagon gear also had a 4000 pound capacity. Also available was a wooden wheeled wagon
gear and double box fitted with a teamster/drivers seat and brakes on the rear
wheels. This horse-drawn wagon was named
the “Calkins” wagon obviously meant for
long distance road hauling. The
“Calkins” wagon gear was named after the two brothers (noted above) that had
joined the Company at a young age and had in the years since become part of the
management of the Electric Wheel Company—Ira
Raymond Calkins and Addison Niles Calkins.
after the economy started to recover from the 1921 recession did the Electric Wheel Company start to notice
that wagon manufacturers were starting to buy more steel-spoke wheels for the
wagons they were making. In the
mid-1920s, the Electric Wheel Company
was pleasantly surprised, in the mid-1920s, to find that they were finally
obtaining a decent market share of the wagon wheel market. Manufacturers were finally beginning to
consider replacing the large cumbersome wooden-spoke wheels with the smaller,
but stronger using smaller steel spoke wheels on their wagons. The sales staff of the Electric Wheel Company now tried to persuade the individual wagon
manufacturers that the Electric Wheel
Company’s electrically-welded steel wheels were the best and strongest
steel wheels of all the steel wheels on the market. Suddenly in the mid-1920s, the sales staff of
the Electric Wheel Company found that
the wagon manufacturers were starting to be more receptive to their sales
pitches on behalf of the Electric Wheel
Company. John Stillwell would like
to have claimed credit for the fact that wagon manufacturers now seemed more willing
to take a new look at the advantages of the steel spoke wheels for use on farm wagons
than they had ever done in the past. However,
there were changes occurring within the farm wagon market in the mid-1920s, that
were working for the benefit of the Electric
Wheel Company and the other steel wheel manufacturers. Following the World War, there was another new
generation of corporate officers at the various wagon manufacturing companies. Once again, the playing field within the
wheel market, was leveled, making it easier for aggressive competitors to gain
market share. This new generation of
corporate officers within the various wagon manufacturers were willing to take
a fresh look at the advantages of smaller steel wheels for their wagons.
again, the Electric Wheel Company
sales staff took advantage of this level playing field and sought to convince
wagon manufacturers not only to buy steel wheels for the wagon gears they were
making, but to prefer Electric wheels
over all other steel wheels on the market.
The success of the Electric Wheel
Company in gaining a large foot hold in the wagon wheel market came at an
opportune time, just as production of Allwork tractors was being terminated.
opening of a large share of the wagon wheel market to the Electric Wheel Company was unfortunately timed because in October
of 1929, an economic downturn in the United States economy began. This new economic crisis would last until
1933. The severity of the crisis would
also be deeper and more intense than the Panic of 1893. Many companies went out of business during
what would become known as the Great Depression. Once again, the Electric Wheel Company faced this time of extreme difficulty and
survived. The sale of steel wheels to
the wagon manufacturers may well have saved the Company during this time.
noted above, the Electric Wheel Company
had built up a relationship with the Oliver
Chilled Plow Works during the plowing demonstrations in which the Company
participated while demonstrating and advertising their AllWork tractors. This relationship now paid dividends in the
mid-1930s as Electric Wheel began to
make all-steel wagon gears and wagon boxes for the Oliver line of farm equipment under the the name “Oliver-Electric” wagons. These wagon gears were rated at a carrying
capacity of 5,000 pounds, more than a 1,000 pounds heavier than the wagon gears
the Company had been making as
recently as 1923. In the late 1930s,
these wagon gears were fitted with rubber tires and Timpken roller bearings and
were fitted with automotive style steering rather than the fifth wheel type
steering that had been used previously.
1935, the Electric Wheel Company suffered another personal loss when their
founder. John Stillwell, suddenly passed away.
It was John Stillwell’s spirited scrappiness that had made the company a
success in the face of so many challenges.
Replacing John Stillwell at the head of the Company was John’s eldest
son, 41-year old Richard Newcomb Stillwell.
Richard Stillwell inherited much of his father’s enthusiasm and guided
the Electric Wheel Company into a new
This article remains under construction. Periodically new blocks of text and media may appear and/or the present blocks of text will be modified or corrected.
(This is not the first time that the
history of the French and Hecht Company [F. & H. Company] has been brought to
the pages of Belt Pulley magazine. Chad Elmore wrote a fine history of F. & H. called “Who Can You Thank
for Your Tractor’s Wheels?” which was carried in the November/December 1999
issue of Belt Pulley magazine. The Elmore article also discussed the history
of the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company of
Davenport, Iowa, the Peru Plow and Wheel
Company of Peru, Illinois and the Electric
Wheel Company of Quincy, Illinois. The
present article merely attempts to supplement the information contained in that
prior article. )
Restorers of old farm equipment find them on old machinery and/or collect them for their own tractor or farm equipment restoration projects. They are the round-spoke steel wheel rims for rubber tires bearing the familiar F.& H insignia.
They came in all sizes for tractor wheels (front or rear) and implement wheels. They became most famous during the time when rubber tires were first being mounted on farm tractors and farm implements. They are the round-spoke wheel rims made by the French and Hecht Company (F.& H.) of Davenport, Iowa. F.& H. was a “B. to B.” (business to business) type company. B. to B. companies supply products to other businesses rather than supplying products to the “end users.” F.& H. supplied round-spoke steel wheels of all sizes to a variety of tractor and farm equipment manufacturers.
In 1929, the Allis Chalmers Manufacturing Company was the first farm equipment company to introduce farm tractors and farm equipment on pneumatic rubber tires. To supply the rims for their rubber tires, Allis-Chalmers signed a contract with the F.& H. Company. Allis-Chalmers used 24 inch F.& H. round-spoke rims for the rear wheels of their line of tractors like the Model WC and 17 inch F.& H. round spoke rims on front wheels of the Model WC. By the mid-1930s, nearly all tractor and farm equipment manufacturers began following Allis-Chalmers’ lead and began offering the option of tractors with rubber tires. Nearly all of these farm equipment companies turned to the F.& H. Company to supply the rims they needed for growing number of tractors and farm equipment, they were selling with the option of rubbers tires. (The International Harvester Company [I.H.C.] was one of these farm equipment companies that turned to F.& H. to supply all the their needs for rims for rubber tires on tractors and farm equipment. This “supply contract” that I.H.C. signed with F.& H. is alluded in the two-part series of articles on a particular Little Genius plow which was used in Dryden Township, Sibley County, Minnesota, which is carried in January/February 2009 and the March/April 2009 issues of Belt Pulley magazine and is currently published on this website.) Consequently, the familiar round-spoke rim embossed with the “F & H” insignia became a familiar sight on farms around the nation.
Prior to the introduction of rubber tires on farm equipment, the French and Hecht Company had dominated the steel wheel market. This dominance was based on the contracts from farm equipment manufacturers. F.& H. all-steel wheels with the familiar “round spokes” were installed on wagons, threshers, hay loaders, sulky plows and other farm equipment across the nation. With the introduction of pneumatic rubber tires on farm equipment and the sudden growth of that market, F.& H. round spoke rims for use with the pneumatic rubber tires inherited a position of dominance in the market for rims.
The F.& H. Company also inherited the basic design of the all-steel wheel itself. In the beginning, the all-steel wheel was known as the “Bettendorf steel wheel” which originally had been the brain child of William Bettendorf. Thus, our story does not begin with a person named “French” or “Hecht. ” Rather our story actually begins with two men named Bettendorf—William Bettendorf and his brother Joseph W. Bettendorf. William P. Bettendorf had been born to German immigrant parents—Michael and Catherine (Reck) Bettendorf—in Mendota, Illinois, on July 1, 1857.
William’s father, Michael Bettendorf, had arrived in the United States at the age of 16 years with his parents (William’s grandparents) in 1853. In about 1856, Michael had married Catherine Reck, whose family had come over from the Prussian part of the German Confederation in 1846. The couple settled in Mendota, Illinois, where Michael found work as a school teacher. William P. Bettendorf was the couple’s first born child.
Later, the young family moved to Sedalia, Missouri, where Michael operated a grocery store. In 1864, the family moved again to Leavenworth, Kansas, where Michael worked as a clerk for the United States government in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. While at Leavenworth, a second son, Joseph W. Bettendorf was born to the family on October 10, 1864.
Young William began to become
independent at a very early age. In 1870
he became a telegraph messenger in Humboldt, Kansas. He also worked as a clerk for the G.Y. Smith Boot and Shoe Store. In 1872, at the age of 15 years, William
moved back to Illinois, accepting a job working in a “dry goods” or hardware
store owned by A. L. Shepard located in Peru, Illinois. In the following year, 1873, William’s
parents and brother also moved back to Illinois, to taking up farming near Peru.
Even while working as an apprentice
at Shepherd’s dry good store, William Bettendorf, began to show a startling
mechanical ability. One day at the dry
goods store William found a drawer full of knives. The knives had been placed in the drawer
because they were regarded as “un-saleable.”
William fashioned a buffing wheel and attached it to a sewing
machine. With this apparatus, William buffed
all the knives in the drawer and soon had all the knives polished and ready for
The same mechanical ability that had
led him to build this buffing machine proved to be William’s true calling. Accordingly, he became apprenticed to the Brunner Foundary and Machine Shop in
Peru. Following this apprenticeship,
William became a machinist working for the Peru
Plow Company. In 1878, while working
for Peru Plow and while still only 21
years of age, William invented a power-lift mechanism for a sulky plow by
attaching a ratchet wheel to the hub of the wheel of a sulky plow. The power lift mechanism was connected to the
plow bottoms and allowed the operator to merely touch a control latch to allow
the wheel of the plow to pull the plow bottoms out of the ground at the end of
the field. This was a very handy
invention that permitted the sulky plow operator to remain in his seat while
lifting the plow bottoms. Soon this
labor-saving improvement was adopted by nearly all the major plow manufacturers
and became universally employed on horse plows and, later, on tractor-drawn
A year, later in 1879, the up and coming inventor married Mary Wortman, the 21 year-old daughter of John and Henrietta Wortman of Peru, Illinois. In 1880, William went to work as a foreman in the factory of the Moline Plow Company located in Moline, Illinois. After working at the Moline Plow Company for less than a year, William Bettendorf obtained a postion as a foreman for the Parlin & Orendorff (P. & O.) Company of Canton, Illinois.
However, by 1882, William was back in the employ of the Peru Plow Company, this time in the position of superintendent. At about this time, another idea began floating around in the back of William’s very creative mind. William thought of a re-design of the simple wooden wagon wheel. Indeed, William’s idea was to entirely replace the wooden wheel with with an “all-metal” wheel. Composed of a cast iron hub with drilled holes into which steel spokes would be pressed. William built the first of these metal wheels in 1884. This wheel and later variations of it were known as the “Betterndorf” wheel. William Bettendorf applied to the U. S. Patent Office for a patent on this wheel and on September 1, 1885, he received the patent on his wheel. Peru Plow began mass production of the William’s wheel even while the patent was still pending. Production of the wheels proved to be an immediate sales success. Interest in the strong, new, Bettendorf wheel mushroomed as other farm manufacturers began to submit large orders for the wheel. William saw that the production facilities of the Peru Plow Company were insufficient to keep up with the skyrocketing demand for the metal wheel. William continued to draw attention to this problem. However, the Peru Plow Company was unwilling to undertake any expansion of their manufacturing facilities. At the same time, they refused all of William’s suggestions that the metal wheel operation be spun off into an independent corporate concern. To accelerate production of the Bettendorf wheel, William invented a new machine to streamline the production process and sought and received another patent for this new machine on February 9, 1886.
However, as much as William pressed Peru Plow to step up production of the Bettendorf wheel, Peru Plow resisted increasing production, citing the problems with the hub of the wheel that caused occasional buckling of the wheel. At this point, William Bettendorf designed improvements to the hub of his wheel to strengthen the hub. On October 27, 1885, William received a separate patent on the new, improved and stronger hub. On June 24, 1886, Peru Plow officially changed its name to Peru Plow and Wheel Company. Still, the Company refused to increase production of the Bettendorf wheel beyond existing levels. Finally, William Bettendorf was, eventually, forced to take his patent and leave Peru Plow and Wheel later in 1886 and establish his own company–called the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company. As part of his separation from Peru Plow and Wheel, William Bettendorf signed a licensing contract to allow Peru Plow and Wheel Company to make enough of his Bettendorf wheels in their Peru, Illinois factory to fulfill their present customer contracts.
Needing capital to start his new business venture, William, as a second generation German-American, turned to the German Savings Bank in nearby Davenport, Iowa. C.M. Voss and L.P. Best of German Savings, were known for favoring corporate projects of German-Americans of the Davenport community. As part of a financing package, German Savings Bank put William Bettendorf in contact with E. P. Lynch, one of the owners of the Eagle Manufacturing Company. E. P. Lynch was interested in investing in the new business enterprise with his own money. Additionally, he put William Bettendorf in contact with George H. French, the current president and original founder of the Eagle Manufacturing Company. At the suggestion of E. P. Lynch, George H. French and both of his sons Nathaniel and George Watson French also provided part of the initial startup capital for the new company. Both of the French sons would later become very closely associated with the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company. Currently, however, they arranged for the new company to rent factory space called “the old Donahue factory” which was owned by the Eagle Manufacturing Company. The old Donahue factory is situated on the banks of the Mississippi River at the corner of Front (now River Street) and Ripley Streets in Davenport, Iowa.
Thus, on September 12, 1886, William P. Bettendorf officially opened the doors of his own new company under the name the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company at the old Donahue factory site. He and his family moved across the Mississippi River from Moline, Illinois, to Davenport, Iowa and settled in a house located at 402 E. 6th Street in Davenport.
It was a glorious time in the prosperous up and coming river town of Davenport, Iowa. (The optimism of Iowa during this time is captured in the 1962 movie, The Music Man.) Being located on the banks of the Mississippi River, Davenport was on the border between the state of Iowa and the state of Illinois. Directly across the river, were the towns of Moline and Rock Island, Illinois. During this time, Davenport, Moline and Rock Island were gradually becoming integrated into a single economic unit. On August 8, 1888, a group of Chicago investors bought out the street car lines of Davenport, Iowa, Moline and Rock Island Illinois. This new street car organization then built a bridge across the Mississippi River from Davenport to Rock Island which accommodated the rails of the street cars. Accordingly, the street car lines of all three cities were then physically linked together. The street company was then renamed the Tri-City Street Car Company. On Christmas Day 1888, the first street car ran across the bridge connecting Davenport and Rock Island. By this physical connection the three cities took a long step toward becoming a single economic entity
The 1880s was an optimistic time. Still even in the best of times, isolated adverse economic incidents did occur. Witness the “run” on the German Savings Bank which began in late 1886, almost the same time William P. Bettendorf opened the doors of his new company. Patrons of the bank began withdrawing their funds from the bank. The “run” continued until November 26, 1888 and severely weakened the bank’s largest corporate customers, including the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company. Without the help of their bank, the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company was driven into the arms of the French brothers. The French brothers were called upon to put up more capital or to arrange for new investors and they did so, increasing their own share of ownership in the Bettendorf Wheel Company.
Still the Bettendorf all-metal wheel remained a very popular sales item. Sales continued to flourish. The company’s main problem was to expand its manufacturing base to keep up with the rising demand. In 1890, the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company opened another factory works in Springfield, Ohio, just to keep up with the growing demand for all-metal wheels. In 1888, William’s younger brother, Joseph W. Bettendorf joined the business as superintendent. With the opening of the new factory works in Springfield, Ohio, Joseph became “President” in charge over the new factory in Springfield. However, even with the new Springfield facility, continuing growth in the sales of the Bettendorf metal wheel forced the company to obtain a still larger manufacturing base. Accordingly, the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company sought to expand their main factory in Davenport. Thus, in 1889, the Company moved its Davenport works to new larger facilities located a few blocks away at 4th and Farnam Streets in Davenport. These new facilities were, now, the largest factory works in Davenport, Iowa.
At about this time, William developed an all-steel wagon gear which incorporated many new ideas that sprang from his mind. The new all-steel wagon gear also proved to be a sales success. Flushed with excitement and success over sales of the new all-metal wagon gear, William and Joseph sent an excited prospectus out to all the other investors in their company which outlined new business directions in which William and Joseph wished to take the company.
These plans alarmed the more conservative investors, including the French brothers, who wished to start reaping the dividends of the success of the all-metal wheel rather than seeing the profits plowed back into new corporate adventures. Especially, in light of the recent expansions of the company, the investors on the board were now much more cautious.
Accordingly, the board imposed controls on William’s ability run the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company according to his own wishes. Conflict arose between William Bettendorf and the board. The board, controlled in large part by the French brothers, sought to protect their interests.
Hoping to appease the Board, William Bettendorf stepped down as president of the company that he had founded and that continued to bear his name and he installed his brother, Joseph W. Bettendorf, as his successor. The Board continued to be suspicious because William retained a position as vice-president in the company. In 1889, the French family persuaded a majority of the Board to elect Nathaniel French as vice president of the Bettendorf Wheel Company in place of William Bettendorf to protect the interests of the board in the day-to-day management of the company. Thus, the French brothers began to participate in the day-to-day affairs of the company.
To strengthen their position even more within the company, the French family persuaded the to take the Bettendorf Wheel Company public. The Company would then be a a publicly traded corporation. Such a move usually strengthens the management of a corporation. With the French family now in control of the managment of Bettendorf Wheel, going public at this particular time would only strengthen the French family financial interests. Accordingly, in 1890, the Bettendorf Wheel Company was officially incorporated in the State of Iowa as a legal corporation with $1,000,000 of initial capital.
William Bettendorf was still bubbling over with ideas. However, he knew that, the present board of the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company would surely not agree to these risky new endeavors. Consequently in 1892, William resigned his position as vice–president in the company and sold a substantial part of his own interest in the company to Nathaniel and George Watson French. William also sold the numerous patents he owned on the Bettendorf wheel and the Bettendorf all-metal wagon gear to the French brothers.
On May 1, 1893, the Columbian Exposition in Chicago (nick-named the “Chicago World’s Fair”) opened. The Bettendorf all-metal wagon gear was exhibited at the 1893 Fair and created a sensation.
However, even by the time that the World’s Fair had opened, William had already made up his mind that he would have form a new corporate entity. In that same year, (1893), William’s brother, Joseph W. Betttendorf also left the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company and joined his brother in attempting the new venture.
On January 1, 1895, William and his
brother Joseph P. Bettendorf organized another separate corporate entity called
the Bettendorf Hollow Steel Axle Company
which made axles for wagons. The new
corporation occupied factory space at Scott and Ripley Streets in Davenport to
produce the wagon axles. The primary
customer of the new company was the Bettendorf
Metal Wheel Company, (now under the control of the French brothers). Despite their disagreements about corporate
strategy, the French brothers, nonetheless, found that the “hollow axle,” made
by William’s new company, was an ideal axle for the all-metal wagon gear the
French Brothers were now producing.
William was enthusiastic about the promising future of his new company. William’s new company was established as a corporation with publicly traded stock. This meant that shares of ownership in the corporation would be sold to the public and then the shares were generally resold innumerable times on a public stock exchange—perhaps the New York Stock Exchange. The pool of investors would be much larger and, as a rule, each individual investor would usually own much less than 1% of the total corporation. With such a large pool of investors and considering the frequent buying and selling of the company stock on the public exchange, any stockholder opposition to William’s business plans would be would be hard to organize. Given this situation, William P. Bettendorf expected that he as management of the new corporation would have far less interference from the investors than he had experienced with the small number of investors in the “privately held” Bettendorf Wheel Company. Thus, William Bettendorf felt he would, finally, have the freedom to pursue his dreams and innovations in this new corporate setting.
Starting in 1897, the new company started selling wagon axles to so many other wagon companies. The French brothers were no longer the primary customer of the new company. However, William Bettendorf’s vision for the company was much wider than a mere vehicle for the manufacture of farm wagon axles. William was aware that, by the 1890s, the farm wagon market was a limited market. On the other hand, the new and growing railroad industry seemed limitless. He felt that he would have a more promising future by making axles for the railroads rather than making axles for farm wagons.
While studying railroad axles, William Bettendorf became aware that there was a strong need among the railroads for a better-designed side truck frame. The side truck frame was the wheeled unit located at either end of a typical railroad car. Each side truck frame contained two axles and four railroad wheels. At the turn of the 20th Century, the side truck frame in use, typically, consisted of as many as 41 separate pieces of metal which were bolted together. In operation, these pieces could sometimes accidentally become un-bolded due to vibration. Once sufficiently unbolted the side truck frame could easily fall apart and cause a derailment of a train. William, saw this problem as an opportunity for his new company. He began working on a design for a new cast-iron side truck frame for railroad cars as early as 1894. William Bettendorf attempted to design a side truck frame with many fewer parts. Indeed, he, eventually, designed a side truck frame that consisted on only a single-piece design.
In 1899, the Bettendorf Hollow Axle Company started mass production of William’s
single-piece side truck frame. The
single-piece side truck frame was a great success and sales of the single-piece
side-truck frame propelled the Bettendorf
Hollow Axle Company to success and made the fortunes of the Bettendorf
families. By January of 1902 the Bettendorf Hollow Axle Company was
employing 400 workers on its day shift and 300 on its night shift.
Just when all seemed to moving
smoothly for the Company a fire broke out at about 12:50 PM in the afternoon of
January 28, 1902 and causing $200,000 of damage to the company facilities. William Bettendorf tried to rebuild. However, another fire occurred a mere three
(3) months later on May 1, 1902, causing an additional $250,000 worth of
financial loss to the Company. William was
convinced that he needed to move his company out of the crowded riverfront area
of Davenport. Consequently, the Bettendorf Axle Company moved out of
Davenport, altogether, and relocted its facilities on a 60-acre site in the
“Gilberttown District,” located a few miles to the east of Davenport.
The people of the Gilberttown community were so thankful for the new large corporate employer that had moved into their small unincorporated community, that on June 5, 1903 the citizens of the Gilberttown District chose to incorporate their community as a village and name the village, “Bettendorf.” With that incorporation, there were now four towns (Bettendorf and Davenport Iowa and across the Mississippi River Moline and Rock Island, Illinois) located adjacent to each other. Bettendorf was soon drawn into the orbit of the three larger cities. This new four-city entity became known as the “Quad Cities.” William Bettendorf’s anticipation of a grand future being a supplier to the railroads proved to be prophetic. The Bettendorf Hollow Axle Company made both William P. and Joseph W. Bettendorf very wealthy.
Both brothers built mansions in Bettendorf, which remain as local landmarks to this day. In 1909, William and his second wife, Elizabeth (Staby) Bettendorf, began work on a 22-room Spanish/Moorish-style house located at 2500 Grant Street overlooking the factory works of the Bettendorf Hollow Axle Company.
However, William died in 1910, before the dream house was complete. The house was finished only after his death. Today the home serves as part of the Iowa Masonic Heath Facilities’ in the Masonic Village section of Bettendorf.
In 1914, Joseph W. Bettendorf and his wife, Elizabeth (Ohl) Bettendorf, began constructing a 30-room English Manor-style mansion on 17 acres of land located 1821 Sunset Drive in Bettendorf. Today this building is part of the Rivermont Collegiate campus.
While the Bettendorf brothers were finding
their success in the new city of Bettendorf, their former company, the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company, now
controlled by the French brothers, was also starting to meet with success. The all-metal wagon gear was proving itself to
be vastly more superior and more rugged than the ordinary wood and iron wagon
gear. Thanks to the sensation created by
the new all-metal undercarriage wagon gear at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair,
orders for the new all-metal wagon gear now poured in from as far away as South
America and the Caribbean.
In order to raise money for the
building his new house, in 1909, William P. Bettendorf had sold the remaining shares
he owned in his old company—the Bettendorf
Metal Wheel Company—to the French brothers and their new investor, Joseph
Hecht. With all the shares of the
company now in their own hands, Hecht and the French brothers re-organized and
renamed the company. Accordingly, the French and Hecht Company came into
existence. Nathaniel and George Watson French
naturally gravitated toward the corporate end of the business. The 41 year-old Joseph Hecht was another of
those inventive personalities who, like William Bettendorf, enjoyed working
with his hands. Thus, Hecht gravitated
toward engineering and plant management side of the business. Soon Joseph Hecht, himself, was the owner of
a number of patents for improvements on steel wheels and the wagon gear.
F.& H. continued in its role as a B. to B business, serving as
a wholesale supplier of steel wheels to other farm equipment manufacturers. Over the years, many companies signed supply
contracts with F.& H. These companies included Deere and Company of Moline, Illinois; the Massey-Harris Manufacturing Equipment Company of Toronto, Ontario,
Canada; the Huber Manufacturing Company
of Marion, Ohio; the Fate-Root-Heath
Company of Plymouth, Ohio (maker of the Silver King tractor); the International Harvester Company of
Chicago, Illinois; the Ford Motor Company
of Dearborn, Michigan and as noted above, the Allis Chalmers Manufacturing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In addition to producing wheels for tractors
and farm equipment, F. & H.
supplied metal wheels to the Mack Company
of Allentown, Pennsylvania, especially for use on the famous Mack “Bulldog”
which was used extensively by the U.S. Army in Europe during the First World
Like so many other companies, F.& H. experienced some difficulty returning to the peace time economy, following the First World War. To make matters worse, Nathaniel French died at the age of 65 years of age on February 14, 1920. Joseph Hecht now moved over to management side of the business to fill the vacancy left by the death of the older French brother. The mid-1920s brought a return of prosperity following the post-war recession. Needing more capital than could be mustered as a “private” company, the French and Hecht Company, in 1927, incorporated as a publicly traded corporation and made an initial public offering (I.P.O.) of the shares of the company to the investing public.
As previously noted, many of the
farm equipment manufacturers of North America had supply contracts with the French and Hecht Company. Based on these supply contracts, F. & H. was able, in 1928, to
advertised itself as the “world’s the largest producer of steel wheels.” Indeed, F.
& H. was the dominant source of steel wheels for the whole nation. Accordingly, when the Allis-Chalmers Company introduced pneumatic rubber tires for farm
tractors and farm machinery, it was natural that they turned to F.& H. to supply the rims on which
to mount those rubber tires. To meet the
requirements of Allis-Chalmers for
rubber tire rims, F.& H. took
their familiar round spoke steel wheel and merely cut off the outer steel band
or “tire” of their traditional steel wheel and welded on rims suitable for
mounting a rubber tires.
Other major farm equipment
manufacturers were not slow to follow the lead of Allis-Chalmers in offering rubber tires as an option on their farm
equipment. Because these farm equipment
manufacturers were not immediately able to (or, perhaps, were not inclined to)
design and make their own metal wheel rims for the small amount of farmers that
were requesting rubber tires on their tractors or farm equipment in the mid
1930s, these manufacturing companies also turned to F.& H. to supply them with the rims they needed for the limited
rubber tire market. F.& H. used their familiar round spoke design, now modified and
adapted for mounting rubber tires, to fill all these contracts.
Although F.& H. was called upon by the Allis Chalmers Company as early as 1929, to help lead the way in making
rubber tires available for farm tractors, F.&
H. still resisted full-scale production of rims for rubber tires. Even in 1932, when F. & H. again worked together with Allis Chalmers to design a new improved demountable rim for
mounting rubber tires, F. & H. still
did not immediately use this opportunity to get into mass production of either
the demountable rims for rubber tires or the single piece rims for rubber
tires. F.& H. made only the rims for rubber tires, that were necessary
for the company to meet the supply contracts they signed with the various farm
equipment manufacturers. Part of this
reluctance to plunge ahead into full-scale production of metal rims for rubber
tires may be explained by the onset of the Great Depression which began in late
1929 and extended until 1933. Also on
November 27, 1934, the company lost another of its founders when George Watson French
died. In his absence, Joseph Hecht now
became president of the entire company.
By the late 1930s, the demand in rubber
tire market had grown considerably. Recognizing
the possibilities for more profit in this market, some farm equipment
manufacturers started making their own rims for rubber tires. (The International
Harvester Company was one such company.
They began making cast-iron drop-center wheels with demountable rims for
both the front and rear wheels of their famous Farmall tractors in 1937.) F.&
H.’s share of the new market of rims for rubber tires shrunk as these farm
equipment manufacturers began to cancel their contracts with F.& H. Without the sales network they might have
had, if the company had started mass producing rims for rubber tires, the F.& H. Company could not recoup the
market share they were loosing through the cancellation of these
The resistance on the part of the F.& H. to launch into full-scale production of rims for rubber tires created opportunities in the wheel rim market for other more aggressive companies. One of these aggressive new companies that began making wheel rims for rubber tires was the Electric Wheel Company of Quincy, Illinois. (The history of the ElectricWheel Company is the subject of another Belt Pulley magazine article which is contained at this website.) The scrappy little Electric Wheel Company was nearly as old as the French & Hecht Company and also made spoke-style steel wheels. However, the Electric Wheel Company was never able to capture enough market share of the steel wheel market to compete effectively against F.& H. Nonetheless the scrappy little Electric Wheel Company took advantage their inferior position in the market to actually listen to the complaints coming in from the field regarding the design faults of their wheels.
At first, the famous “Bettendorf wheel” was produced with all the round spokes on the wheel extending from the center of the hub to the center of the steel rim or “tire” on the outside of the steel wheel. However, as the steel wheels began to be used on the steerable (front) wheels of self-propelled equipment like steam engines and/or farm tractors, the problem of side pressure (or side stress) on the wheels began to develop. Steered wheels on the front of a steam engines or, especially tractors, are subjected to a great deal of side pressure when the front (steerable) wheels are used in the soft ground of the fields when preparing the seed bed. Under this side pressure, a steel wheel with straight spokes would tend to buckle. To solve this problem, the old Bettendorf Wheel Company began to build a steel wheel with a “staggered” set of spokes in which each of the spokes was attached, alternately, to the inside and the outside of the hub of the wheel. This created a slight triangular pattern to the spokes that greatly strengthened the steel wheels against side stress. With its slightly triangular arrangement of the spokes within the wheel, the same steel wheel would have less tendency to buckle.
However, the problem of side stress on the front wheels of tractors became much worse with the rise of the “tricycle” design of tractors. The problem was made much more worse when rubber tires were mounted on the front wheels of the tricycle-style tractor. The tricycle-style tractor had been introduced for the purpose of allowing a mechanical means for cultivating row crops. To facilitate the cultivation of row crops the tricycle-style tractor had been equipped with “fifth-wheel” type of steering, rather than the automotive-style of steering that was typical of “four wheel” or “standard” tractors.
Automotive-type steering provided each steerable wheel in the front of a standard tractor with its own vertical pivot point located on a journal behind the wheel. The “fifth-wheel” type of steering on the tricycle tractor, on the other hand, provided only a single vertical pivot point on which both front wheels were turned. This vertical pivot point is called the “bolster” and is located at the very front of the tricycle-style tractor. Fifth-wheel type steering allowed the front wheels of the tricycle style tractor to be turned to an angle approaching 90º from the straight line of the tractor. This facilitated making the sharp 180º turns required at the end of the rows when cultivating corn and allowed the tractor to start cultivating the next two adjacent rows of row crops. However, in making these sharp turns at the end of the rows, the front wheels on the tricycle tractor tended to “bulldoze” the soft soil of the corn field rather than bring the front end of the tractor around. Usually the operator was required to apply the brake to the rear wheel on the side of the tractor nearest the direction of the turn just to help bring the front end of the tractor around in the turn. Farmers found that using the tricycle-style tractors in the field and making very sharp turns in the soft ground of the average field created a great deal of side stress on the round-spoke wheels on the front end of the tractor.
This side stress on front wheels of tricycle tractors was further compounded when the tractor was fitted with rubber tires on the front. In this case, the staggered spokes of the wheel rim transferred the side stress to the point where each spoke was attached to the outer rim. In repeated operations in the field, one or more of the round-spokes would weaken and break loose at this point. Having broken entirely the round spoke would then puncture the inner tube of the rubber tire and cause a flat tire. This problem was reported back from the field and was recognized as a design error or weakness of the round spoke wheel rim. (This problem with the weakness of spoked rims on tricycle style tractors from the 1930’s is discussed in the articles called “Farming with a Styled Model WC” contained in the July/August 2007 issue of Belt Pulley magazine and is mentioned in regard to a Farmall F-30 tractor in the article called “Pig Farming [Part 2]” in the September/October 2008 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.)
Clearly the F. & H. Company had warning that they needed to redesign their
rims for rubber tires. However, because
of the conservative nature of their management, the F. & H. Company did not enter into an expensive re-design of
its main product. Chad Elmore’s article,
cited above, notes that the main reason for this reluctance may well have been
the fact that there were too many companies in the small market of making steel
rims for rubber tires. No single company
could make sufficient profit and, thus, have capital enough to dedicate
sufficient resources to financing a drastic redesign of their wheel rim.
Even though growing, the market for
rubber tires on tractors and farm equipment, in the late 1930s, was still a
small market. The majority of farmers buying
tractors in the late 1930s still preferred the basic tractor with steel wheels
rather than the more expensive optional rubber tires. Furthermore, the problem of side stress was
confined to only those wheel rims that were mounted on the front of
tractors. F.& H. management probably felt that any re-design of the wheel
rim for this small section of the limited market rubber tire market would not likely
be worth the investment and expense. They
probably, felt that the F. & H.
Company could safety surrender that small part of the market for wheel rims,
in order to save the money of a redesign of the wheel rim. F.&
H. could still sell their round spoke rims to farm equipment manufacturers
for mounting on the rear of farm tractors and on pull-type farm implements
where side stress presented no problem. F.& H., therefore, relinquished this
small, restricted section of an overall limited rubber tire rim market in hopes
of saving money.
The Electric Wheel Company, on the other hand, began to redesign their rims for rubber tires and, eventually, introduced into the market a new “disc type” wheel rim for mounting rubber tires. Immediately, both Allis-Chalmers and Deere and Company cancelled their contracts with F.& H. for spoke style rims on the front wheels on their new tractors. Both companies, then, signed contracts with the Electric Wheel Company to supply their new disc-type “pressed steel” wheel rims for the front wheels of their new rubber-tired and “styled” tractors that they introduced in 1938 and 1939 respectively. These new pressed steel disc-type wheel rims would still bend or buckle if a great deal of side stress were placed on the wheel. However, the bent rim would not automatically puncture the inner tube of the tire. As anticipated, the F.& H. Company lost market share directly to the Electric Wheel Company as a result of this development.
Along with the introduction of rubber tires for farm tractors, especially rubber tires for the rear wheels of the tractors, there arose a popular demand among the farming public for cast iron wheel weights.
However, the shrinking market share in the wheel rim market was not the only problem that the F. & H. Company faced at this time. In early 1941, the F. & H. Company’s work force sought to organize into a collective bargaining unit.
The National Labor Relations Act (or
Wagner Act), signed into law on July 5, 1935, had promoted collective
bargaining as an effort to stabilize the economy as the country emerged from
the Great Depression. The provisions of
the Wagner Act established a new United States government agency—the National
Labor Relations Board—to regulate and police organizing efforts of labor unions
in the private industrial sector of the economy. Immediately after passage, it was expected
that local unions of the American Federation of Labor (A.F. of L) and/or the
newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (C.I.O.) would immediately
start organizing campaigns in every industrial company in the United
States. However, this did not happen. Because of the recent spate of decisions
coming from the United States Supreme Court, declaring many parts of the New
Deal program to be “unconstitutional,” both the A.F. of L. and the C.I.O. were
taking a “wait and see” attitude toward large scale organizing efforts under
the Wagner Act. Labor union organizers
were worried that they could waste a great deal of effort and money on
attempting to organize local unions under the Wagner Act, only to have the
entire Wagner Act declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Thus, active, large scale organizing efforts under
the Wagner Act were postponed while everybody waited for a case to come before
the high Court, which would challenge the constitutionality of the Wagner
Act. Indeed in 1937, one such case was
making its way up through the courts and finally on April 12, 1937, the Supreme
Court rendered its decision in the case styled N.L.R.B. v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation 301 U.S. 1 ; 57
SCt. 615 (1937). To everyone’s surprise,
the Court upheld the constitutionality of the Wagner Act.
The favorable decision from the
Court in the Jones & Laughlin Steel
case was the starting gun that set off intensive organizing efforts by both the
A.F. of L and C.I.O in various industries across the country and a “race” it
was. The A.F. of L. and the C.I.O.
competed with each other in seeking to represent the workers in a variety of
factory locations. The A.F. of L.
differed from the C.I.O., in their labor union philosophy. The A.F. of L. believed in the traditional “guild
theory,” that skilled workers should be organized into unions according to the
type of work they performed or their “craft” e.g. carpenters, masons, pipefitters etc. Unskilled workers and
even workers outside the particular craft of a particular union were not
included in this type of labor union organizing effort.
The C.I.O. on the other hand
believed that all workers at a particular location or factory should be
organized in the same industry wide union despite the differences in the type
of work they performed. All workers,
even unskilled workers were included in this industrial type of labor
organization. The A. F. of L. and the
C.I.O. fought bitterly over this difference in labor organizing effort. The labor organizing efforts at F. & H. provides a clear example of
this difference. The organizing effort
at F. & H. began at the smaller
factory works in Springfield, Ohio.
Ever since 1890, when the old Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company had
purchased the Springfield Works, the smaller factory had functioned relatively
independent from the rest of the company.
Indeed, the Springfield Works operated under its own “president” and local
management headquartered at 903 Wheel Ave. in Springfield, Ohio. (As noted above, Joseph W. Bettendorf once
served as president of the Springfield Works.)
Under the F. & H. Company
the same corporate arrangement continued.
The Springfield Works was quite self-contained and had its own foundry
at the site which cast the hubs, wheel weights and made other cast iron parts
used in the assembly of the F. & H.
steel wheels and rims. Welding and
assembly of the various component parts of the wheels was completed in the main
factory of the Springfield Works. The
Springfield Works seem to thrive under this self-contained arrangement. Despite the strong trend toward rubber tires
on farm equipment, F. & H. still
derived substantial income from the manufacture of steel wheels. Indeed, income from steel wheels alone in the
small Springfield factory works amounted to $129,400 for the fiscal year ending
August 30, 1940.
However, workers at the Springfield Works were becoming dissatisfied. They felt, they deserved a better share of the profits the company was making from their labor—especially, in light of the fact, that inflation in the United States at this time was starting to seriously erode the purchasing power of their wages. Thus, they looked to collective bargaining for help. Organizers for the International Molders and Foundrymen Union of the A. F. of L. set about collecting pledge cards from the workers in the foundry at the Springfield Works. The organizers did not approach, nor accept cards from, workers outside the foundry. Assembly workers were simply outside the definition of foundrymen or moulders and, thus, the International Molders and Foundry Workers Union did not attempt to organize these workers.
Accordingly, after being assured
that a large majority of the workers in the foundry supported the union, the
International Molders and Foundrymen Union of the A.F. of L. filed a petition, on
January 17, 1941, with the National Labor Relations Board (N.L.R.B.) to
represent F. & H. foundry workers
at the Springfield Works in collective bargaining negotiations with the
Company. On April 18, 1941, the N.L.R.B.
ordered that an election among the foundry workers at F.& H.’s Springfield Ohio Works. The election was held on May 1, 1941 and
result was that, by a vote of 41 to 19, Local #72 of the International Molders
and Foundrymen (A.F. of L.) became the sole collective bargaining agent for all
the molders and foundrymen working in the foundry at the Springfield
plant. The workers outside the craft of
“molder” of “foundrymen” and those workers in assembly plant at Springfield remained
unrepresented by the union.
Meanwhile, over in Davenport, Iowa, the Organizing Committee of Local #123 of the Farm Equipment Workers Union (C.I.O.) filed a petition with the N.L.R.B. on April 3, 1941 to be the sole bargaining agent for all workers employed at the F. & H. plant in Davenport regardless of their job description. On June 20, 1941 the N.L.R. B. ordered an election be held among all the employees at F. & H.’s Davenport Works. An election was held on July 18, 1941 which resulted in 178 votes in favor of the union and 131 votes opposed to the union. Accordingly, Local #123 of the Farm Equipment Workers Union, Local #123 (C.I. O.) became the sole bargaining agent for all workers employed at F. & H.’s Davenport plant.
Without any movement toward
developing a newly designed and stronger metal wheel on which a rubber tire
could be mounted, it looked as though F. & H. would continue to lose market
share in the agricultural wheel market.
However, on December 7, 1941, the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor
was attacked and the United States was, suddenly, at war. The manufacturing capacity of the nation was
converted to production of war materials.
Nearly all sources of steel, aluminum and other raw materials for
civilian use were all severely restricted.
The productive capacity of the farm manufacturing companies was greatly
curtailed because of unavailability of raw materials. Rubber for civilian use was, probably, the
most severely restricted raw material.
Consequently, what small amount of tractors and farm equipment could be
made under the government restrictions had to be fitted with steel wheels.
& H. this was a boon. The
company could return to its traditional strong suit—making steel wheels and
they did not have to worry about a redesign of their wheels with rims for
mounting rubber tires. It was as if the
1920s (the pre-rubber tire era) had returned.
As a result, F. & H.
anticipated that they soon would be automatically obtaining a larger share in
the farm wheel market. The name “French
and Hecht” was still synonymous with the production of steel wheels and,
because the market was, once again, limited to just steel wheels, F. & H. now regained their
predominant share of the current agricultural wheel market. Economically, F. & H. was now a more valuable property than it had been in
the immediate past. This favorable
position within the steel wheel market made F.
& H. an acquisition target.
Consequently, corporate buyers came looking and some of them made bids
to purchase F. & H. One of these bidders, the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company of Jackson,
Michigan, made an offer that F. & H.
could not refuse. Subsequently, directly
in the middle of the war, a determination was made to sell the French and Hecht Company to Kelsey-Hayes.
The Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company was another B. to B. business which had
been formed from the 1927 merger of two other wheel manufacturing
companies. Since that merger, Kelsey-Hayes had grown into a major
supplier of wheels to the automobile companies of Detroit, Michigan–especially
the General Motors Company. However, as the war progressed the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company had
experienced even more growth based on government contracts to supply machine
guns, tank wheels, aircraft wheels, brakes, and made other accessories for ordinance
vehicles as part of the war effort. Kelsey-Hayes Wheel was an inventive company
and had developed a great number of innovations, including a new improved brake
drum which had become universally adopted by all automobile makers. However, the management and board of Kelsey-Hayes knew that the war would
eventually end and they worried about the company’s conversion to a peace time
economy. They saw that F. & H. was the leading producer of
wheels for the agricultural and construction markets. Kelsey-Hayes
Wheel had not previously served either of these markets. Accordingly, Kelsey-Hayes expected that the acquisition of F. & H. would instantly make them the leader in both of those
markets at the end of the war.
Accordingly, Kelsey-Hayes acquired the French
and Hecht Company with great expectations of security and relative
prosperity when the war ended. Although,
F. & H. became a division within Kelsey-Hayes, F. & H. would continue to operate under its own name and the F. & H. logo would continue to
appear on the wheels they made.
the acquisition complete, however, Joseph L. Hecht, now in his 70s, stepped
down as president of the French and Hecht
Company and retired from business altogether.
During the war, the F. & H. Division of the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company was awarded its own series of contracts from the United States government as a part of the war effort. These contracts were for the manufacture “pelican hooks” for use by the military. The “pelican hook” was a clasp device attached to a rope or “line” on a ship or harbor crane which would be attached to pallets of cargo when loading or unloading cargo from the holds of ships.
The pelican hook had been developed by Robert MacCluney and he owned a patent for the pelican hook. Anticipating the war contract with the United States government, the F. & H. Division of Kelsey-Hayes Wheel had signed a contract with Robert MacCluney to obtain a license to manufacture the MacCluney pelican hook. In exchange for this license, the F. & H. Division agreed to give MacCluney a royalty of 10% of all income received from the sale of the pelican hooks. On February 3, 1945, the last of these contracts for pelican hooks was awarded to F. & H. The term of the contract extended to 1946 and called for the manufacture of 157,380 pelican hooks for the United States Navy. Pursuant to this contract, the United States Navy agreed to pay $3.74 for each pelican hook. F. & H. immediately set about making pelican hooks pursuant to this contract. However, on August 22, 1945, Japan surrendered and the Second World War came to an end. Accordingly, the United States government began legally terminating all the war contracts it had with businesses around the nation. By August 22, 1945, the F.& H. Division of Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company had completed and delivered 7,720 pelican hooks to the Government. The Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company was paid, $28,842.80, for these completed and delivered pelican hooks. According to the terms of the contract, all un-delivered and/or partially completed pelican hooks were to be destroyed and no payment was made to Kelsey-Hayes for these un-delivered or un-completed pelican hooks. Pursuant to the licensing agreement, that the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company had with Robert MacCluney, F. & H. paid the agreed-upon 10% royalty payment of $2,884.28 to MacCluney for these pelican hooks.
(This last contract for pelican hooks is noteworthy, because it became
the subject of litigation after the war.
The litigation arose as a result of MacCluney’s assertion that he was
owed a royalty on all 157,380 pelican hooks that Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company had “sold” to the Navy pursuant to the
contract whether they were made or not.
Short of that MacCluney alleged that he should be paid a royalty on all
completed pelican hooks which were not delivered to the Navy before August 22,
1945 and further that he should be paid a royalty for the pieces of the pelican
hook which were made but not assembled into complete pelican hooks before
August 22, 1945. The U.S. District Court
for the Eastern District of the Michigan, Southern Division, held for the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company and against
MacCluney on all counts in an opinion issued on October 21, 1949. [MacCluney v. Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company et
al., 87 F. Supp. 58 (1949)]).
When the war ended, the Kelsey-Hayes Company looked forward their
newly acquired F.& H. Division resuming its pre-war dominant position in
both the agricultural and construction wheel markets. With the end of the war, a tremendous buying
surge on the part of farmers was released.
Having been unable to purchase new farm equipment for almost four years,
farmers were now hurriedly attempting to update their farming operations with
new tractors and new farm machinery. Now
that rubber was available for civilian use, many more farmers purchased tractors
and farm equipment fitted with rubber tires than ever before. The Kelsey-Hayes
Company expected that profits would flow into the company from their
F.& H. Division, as the division began supplying rims to the farm equipment
manufacturers for all this new machinery that was being produced. In this expectation, the F. H. Division moved
out of Davenport and into a new facility in Walcott, Iowa, a suburb of
However, the French and Hecht
Division of the Kelsey-Hayes Company,
now faced the same situation it had before the war. The company had no adequately re-designed
wheel with a rim for rubber tires that would withstand the large amount of side
stress to which the wheels were subjected when the wheel was mounted on the
front wheels of modern farm tractors.
Without a wheel that could be used
on the front end of modern farm tractors, the F. & H. Division of the Kelsey-Hayes Company was closed out of
that section of the wheel rim market altogether. However, as during the pre-war era, the F.
& H. Division expected to sell round-spoke rims for mounting on the rear
wheels of tractors or for mounting on pull-type farm equipment, like plows,
balers, combines and wagons.
However, over the course of the war,
an association had formed in the mind of the buying public that associated the
spoke-type wheel rim with the pre-war era.
The disc-type wheel rim was seen as a “modern” wheel whereas the spoked
wheel rim was regarded as “old fashioned.”
Thus, when the typical post-war buyer of farm machinery went into a farm
machinery dealership, the buyer tended to be more attracted to farm machinery
that was mounted on disc-type wheel rims rather than round spoke wheel rims,
even though their was no functional reason why disc-type wheels should be
preferred for all those applications which involved no side stress on the
This unconscious prejudice on the
part of the post-war buying public, worked against the F.& H. Division of
the Kelsey-Hayes Company and worked
in favor of the Electric Wheel Company. Indeed, this point is alluded to in the Chad
Elmore article, cited above, when he notes that the Electric Wheel Company, was “producing modern (current author’s emphasis) disc wheels.” (Belt
p. 36.) This simple, almost inadvertent,
use of this single adjective–“modern”–in a single sentence in the article, reflects
with a great deal of accuracy the post-war view that round-spoke rims were
simply out of date, esthetically. As a
consequence, the F.& H. Division continued to lose even more market share
in the post-war era. Indeed, the drop in
market share was precipitous. Symbolic
of the demarcation line that the war formed between the “old fashioned” spoke-type
wheel rims and the “modern” disc-type wheel rims, is the fact that all through
the pre-war era Allis-Chalmers had
offered their All-Crop Harvester pull-type combine to the farming public with
rubber tires mounted on F. & H.
round spoke wheel rims. However, when
rubber tires became available again after the war, the All-Crop Harvester was immediately
fitted with rubber tires mounted on disc-type wheel rims from the Electric Wheel Company. The same was true of the John Deere Model 12A combine and the Massey-Harris “Clipper” combine.
In all these cases, the pull-type implement had been offered to the
public in the pre-war era on rubber tires mounted on F. & H. round-spoke wheel rims. Now after the war all these implements and
many others were being offered to the public only on rubber tires mounted on Electric Wheel Company disc-type wheel
There was no functional reason why
these pull-type farm implements could not continue to use round- spoke wheel
rims as they had before the war. It was
merely a matter of esthetics that
caused the farm equipment manufacturers to choose disc type rims for their
implements. The public simply saw
round-spoke wheel rims as “old fashioned.”
Accordingly, any implement that appeared in the post-war era with round
spokes would make the implement itself appear “old fashioned.” By merely switching to disc type wheel rims,
however, the whole implement would suddenly appear to be much more modern.
So stark was the this line of
demarcation from round spoke wheel rims to disc-type wheel rims for implements
that restorers of farm equipment in the present day can rely upon this observation
from a distance to determine whether a particular implement was made in the
“pre-war” or in the “post-war” era. (The
only obvious exception to this line of demarcation in farm implements appears
to have been the various sizes of post-war Massey-Harris
Model 28 trailing moldboard plows which continued to use round-spoke rims
for rubber tires in the post-war era.)
Although losing market share, F. & H. continued as a Division of
the Kelsey-Hayes Company through many
historic ups and downs in the economy.
In September of 1973, the Yom Kippur War between Israel and her Arab
neighbors united the entire Arab World as never before. Although officially formed in 1960 the
Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (O.P.E.C.) became much more
active in 1973 in promoting the political agenda of the Arab World, through
economic means. The O.P.E.C. cartel
sought agreement from all oil producing Arab nations to restrict the amount of
oil that those nations released onto the world market. This Arab “oil embargo” caused a gasoline
shortage in the United States and resulted in a rise in gasoline prices to
previously unheard of levels. A severe
economic crisis for the United States auto industry followed as Americans
ceased buying U.S.-made cars and started buying more fuel-efficient
As a leading supplier of wheels and
braking systems to the United States auto industry, the Kelsey-Hayes Company also found itself in a crisis. The company became heavily over-extended in
credit markets and its stock value plummeted.
This greatly reduced stock value made the company an easy target for a
hostile corporate takeover. Accordingly,
the Fruehauf Corp. of Detroit,
Michigan, started buying shares in Kelsey-Hayes
and soon had control of the company. Accordingly,
in 1973, Kelsey-Hayes and their
French and Hecht Division became a wholely-owned subsidiary of the Fruehauf Corporation.
However, Fruehauf’s acquisition of Kelsey-Hayes fell afoul of United States
Federal Trade Commission which claimed that the acquisition tended to create an
unfair monopoly within the market of automotive (and truck) braking
systems. Anti-trust litigation over this
allegation continued into the 1980s and weakened the Fruehauf Corp. In 1988, the Fruehauf Corp., itself, became the
target of a hostile take-over by the K-H
Corporation. K-H employed the “leveraged buyout strategy” to takeover Fruehauf. This meant that K-H took out a loan to finance the takeover. Collateral for the loan was, actually, the
combined assets of the target company itself—Fruehauf Corp. Once the
takeover was accomplished, parts of Fruehauf
were sold off to pay back the loan. Accordingly,
in 1988, the French and Hecht Division and their factory site located in
Walcott, Iowa were sold off to the Can-Am
Company of Quincy, Illinois. Can-Am was the new name of the corporate
entity that had originally been Electric
Wheel Company of Quincy, Illinois.
Thus, the descendent of F.& H.
and the descendent of the Electric Wheel
Company were merged together under the same corporate/management
In 1990, the headquarters of Can-Am was moved to Taylor, Michigan and
in 1991 Can-Am was restructured and
combined with a number of small tire manufacturers into a new corporate entity
called Titan Wheel Company. (In July, 1994, Pirelli/Armstrong Tire Company and their Des Moines, Iowa factory also
became part of the Titan corporate structure.) Headquarters for Titan remained in Taylor, Michigan for a time, but was soon moved
to Quincy, Illinois. In 2003, the F. & H. factory in Walcott, Iowa was
closed and all operations were moved to the Quincy, Illinois, facility—into the
same factory that had been the original Electric
Wheel Company factory site. In 2005,
the Goodyear Tire Company and their manufacturing
facilities at Freeport, Illinois, were bought out by Titan. Today, Titan International, Inc. is headquartered
in Freeport, Illinois, and remains a major seller of tires and wheel rims for
agriculture, construction and other off-the-road uses.
Belt Pulley Magazine Articles by Brian Wayne Wells