The Belle City Manufacturing Company (Part I)
Brian Wayne Wells
with the assistance of
Del Gendner of Grand Prairie, Texas
Joe Thome of Racine, Wisconsin
Bob S. McFarland of Sauk City, Wisconsin
Ed Mortensen of Racine, Wisconsin
Gary Oechsner of Fond-du-Lac, Wisconsin
As published in the May/June 1999 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine
(NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: Brian Wells relates to us that this is a significant article in one very important way: It is the first truly “interactive article” he has written. Brian says that this article could not have been written without the help of Belt Pulley readers who responded to requests for information on the Belle City Company. When all of his usual sources–local public libraries, local and state historical societies–had failed him in his pursuit of information on this company, only the responses from readers made this article possible. Thus, Belt Pulley has becomes a forum of two-way communication–an interactive magazine. We hope this trend will continue and grow. As noted in our last issue, Brian has been attempting to write an article on the Wood Brothers Threshing Company of Des Moines, Iowa. Once again, a search of his usual sources has yielded very little information. Brian relates that he has received some calls and letters from readers with good information; however, he is still looking for material on the corporate history of the Wood Brothers Company.)
In 1878, David Lawton was already the owner of a successful flour, feed and implement store in Racine, Wisconsin, when he started a manufacturing concern called the David Lawton Company. The company was first located at 300 Fourth Street in Racine where it began manufacturing feed cutters for the growing Midwest farm market. The feed cutter, or ensilage and fodder cutter, was a small machine, about the size of a typical fanning mill, made of wood, with a long elevator attached to the rear of the machine which could raise the chopped ensilage up into the barn or silo. (An 1886 advertisement for a feed cutter shows it being powered by a two-horse treadmill. One of these Belle City machines is owned by Paul Coussens of South Bend, Indiana. Paul and his son, Daniel, are currently attempting to restore this very early product of the Belle City line of farm machinery.)
In 1882, the David Lawton Company merged with the Racine Brake Company to become the Belle City Manufacturing Company, formed under the corporate laws of Wisconsin, with $30,000.00 in capital. David Lawton became President of the new company, with Frank K. Bull, a former owner of the Racine Brake Company, as Vice-President, and L.E. Jones as Secretary/Treasurer. At the same time as he became vice president, Frank Bull was serving as treasurer for the J.I. Case Company, a major farm equipment manufacturing company which also happened to be located in Racine. (Frank Kellogg Bull can be seen in his role as president of the J.I. Case Company on page 87 of Full Steam Ahead: J.I. Case Tractors and Equipment 1842-1955, by David Erb and Eldon Brumbaugh [American Society of Agricultural Engineers: St. Joseph, Missouri, 1993]). In today’s world, this would never be allowed, as officers and board members of corporations owe a duty of loyalty to the shareholders of the corporation. This duty requires them to put the interests of the corporation ahead of all other economic interests–even their own economic interests. In the law, such a duty is called a “fiduciary duty.” When an officer or director has an economic interest which conflicts with this fiduciary duty, he stands the risk of being sued by the shareholders of the corporation for a “breach” of his/her fiduciary duty.
In this case, Frank Bull owed a fiduciary duty to two corporations which were competitors serving the same market–J.I. Case and Belle City. The practice of serving on the boards of two competing corporations became known as an “interlocking directorate.” Frank Bull had a clear conflict of interest. The shareholders of either corporation would be justified in asking which corporation was obtaining Frank Bull’s “best efforts.” Frank Bull’s conflict of interest was never so clear as when Belle City made a major policy decision in 1893. When Belle City began production of grain threshers in 1893, they did so with the small, stationary “Columbia” thresher. The company could have entered the market producing large threshers or they could have produced a full line of threshers of all sizes. However, Belle City confined itself to the small thresher market. They did so “with the blessing of J.I. Case Company” according to John Jones, a Belle City employee, writing in a company memorandum. Case had decided not to enter the small thresher market and kept to the production of large threshers. Channelling Belle City toward the small thresher market would eliminate another potential competitor for Case in the large thresher market–the market that was thought to be the prime market. No doubt Frank Bull had a hand in guiding Belle City in making this decision and no doubt Frank Bull was the communicator (possibly the originator) of the “blessing” granted to Belle City, by Case, regarding this decision. One might have wondered at the time, without the benefit of hindsight, whether Belle City was best served by this decision or whether it might not have been in the best interests of the Belle City Company to compete directly against Case in producing a full line of threshers of all sizes. Belle City’s relative smallness and efficiency as a corporation, compared with the J.I. Case Company, might have made Belle City a “lean and mean” competitor for Case. Furthermore, Belle City’s very fine thresher design might also have allowed the company to become a very strong competitor of Case in the production of large threshers. In addition, the average shareholder in the Belle City Company may have felt this decision cheated the company out of potentially high profits which it might have had in the large thresher market–a decision made by board members who also were deciding policy at Case. No wonder, then, that a cry of protest went up which resulted in the United States Congress declaring such interlocking directorates illegal under Section 8 of the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914. (Louis B. Schwartz, John J. Flynn and Harry First, Antitrust [Foundation Press: Mineola, N.Y. 1983] p. 214.)
However, the 1890s was still the time of unbridled, foot-loose, free-wheeling capitalism. Consequently, Frank Bull’s position on the board of J.I. Case was looked upon as an advantage for the company. Ironically, the decision to limit Belle City to the production of small threshers would come back to haunt Case. (Both Frank K. Bull and David Lawton can be seen sitting front and center in the first row of a gathering of Belle City employees in a picture taken in the 1880s.)
In anticipation of the company’s expansion into the thresher market, Belle City relocated to an 11-acre site at DeKoven Avenue and Racine Street in Racine. This site had modern brick buildings which would become Belle City’s foundry, blacksmith shops and machine shops. Power on the site was provided by a huge 60 horsepower Peerless engine supplied with steam by an 80 horsepower boiler. In addition, the site was served by a spur to both the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad and the Chicago Northwestern Railroad.
There in 1893, the Belle City Company began its manufacture of the newly introduced Columbia threshers by building 25 machines for the mass market. By 1896, Belle City was building and selling 175 to 200 Columbia threshers per year for the small thresher market. Belle City also expanded its farm product line to include truck and feed carts, horsepower treadmills, root cutters, adjustable harrows, and hay forks. The company was using over a quarter of a million board feet and its monthly payroll was in excess of $4,000.
In 1909, the International Harvester Company (IHC), who did not have a thresher of its own, entered the thresher market for the first time by purchasing the rights to sell Belle City threshers. This was the start of a beneficial relationship for both companies, with Belle City becoming the beneficiary of the huge IHC network of more than 500 dealers and agents. In 1910, Belle City manufactured five different sizes of threshers (20 x 32, 24 x 40, 32 x 52, 36 x 52 and 36 x 56) under the brand name of New Racine. Upon signing this contract with Belle City, IHC instantly became the primary marketer of this entire line of small threshers. This emphasis on the small thresher had put Belle City, and thus IHC, in a very favorable market position as the First World War came to a close and the small gasoline-powered tractor made its appearance on North American farms.
While credit usually goes to Charles W. Hart and Charles H. Parr for design of the first internal combustion, engine-powered farm tractor, the early gasoline tractors were almost as bulky and expensive as steam engines. For example, the 1903 Hart-Parr Model 22-40 weighed 8½ tons, the IHC Type D weighed 14,000 pounds, and the Case Model 60 weighed 25,800 pounds. The true revolution in tractor power did not come until 1916 when the 2700 pound Fordson tractor was introduced by Ford Motor Company. The Fordson was much smaller and lighter than the behemoths being produced by other farm equipment companies, and Henry Ford offered the Fordson to the farming public at $890.00. This attractive price gave the small farmer a first real opportunity to be able to afford a gasoline-powered alternative to horses. Farmers put the little Fordson to work on a great number of farming tasks and sales grew like wildfire across the United States. In the post-war depression year of 1921, Henry Ford cut the price of his popular little Fordson by $165, to $625. (Lee Klanchner, Farmall Tractors [Motorbooks International: Osceola, Wisc. 1995] p. 21.) Originally, it was the 5,708 pound Titan 10-20 that was regarded as the “small tractor” for the “small farmer.” At $1,250, it was an attractive alternative to the much larger, pre-World War I gasoline-powered tractors. (Lee Klancher, International Harvester [Motorbooks International: Osceola, Wisc. 1996] p. 37.) Until 1921, IHC’s Titan 10-20 tractor was the most popular tractor in terms of sales. In 1921, 7,729 Titans would be sold to American farmers. However, in comparison with the Fordson, the Titan was still a large, bulky tractor with a high price tag. Furthermore, the Titan was difficult to start and operate. (See “Farming with a 10-20 Titan” at page 16 in the May/June 1996 Belt Pulley.) Consequently, the Fordson easily surpassed the Titan in sales in 1921, with 36,000 Fordsons produced that year–nearly five times the number of Titans sold that same year. Clearly the world belonged to the small tractor. This trend represented a revolution in the production of farm tractors, and also affected other farm machinery markets–for instance, the thresher market. Smaller tractors were unable to power the large threshers and farmers turned in droves to small thresher manufacturers, like Belle City.
As noted above, Belle City had been producing small threshers since they were founded, and this production continued on a limited basis through the First World War. Now, with the increasing sales of small tractors, Belle City threshers suddenly became popular products. In an ironic twist of fate, the very decision made in 1893, which steered Belle City out of the large thresher market and into small thresher production, intended to preserve for Case the bulk of the large thresher market, actually put Belle City in a better position than Case to meet the requirements of the new farm market following the war. Now it was Case that was scrambling to make changes in its threshers.
Besides selling its threshers for the domestic United States market, Belle City also did business in Mexico and South America. Belle City became a major employer in the city of Racine, and by 1916, at the beginning of the period of the boom, the company employed 175 workers.
Meanwhile, Belle City continued to improve its threshers: First, they added the Farmers Friend windstacker. In this improvement, Belle City was not alone. The Farmers Friend windstacker had been developed by the Indiana Manufacturing Company. (C.H. Wendel, Farm Equipment and Antiques, [Motorbooks International: Osceola, Wisc. 1996] p. 345.) After developing the air-blown, tube straw discharge system for threshers, the Indiana Manufacturing Company then licensed its new product to other thresher manufacturers. Being a substantial improvement over the straw elevator for stacking straw behind the threshing machines, the Farmers Friend windstacker soon became universal on threshers of all makes for the remainder of the threshing era.
Secondly, Belle City added self-feeders to their threshers. Prior to self-feeders, threshers were fitted with platforms near the mouth of the thresher where the operator would stand and receive bundles one at a time from the person on the wagon or on the stack. The operator would then cut the twine on the bundle and hand-feed the bundle into the thresher. (Hart-Parr/Oliver Collector readers will remember that a hand-fed thresher was used at the Steam Engine Joe Rynda Show held each year near Montgomery, Minnesota in the 1940s and 1950s. See “Build It and They Will Come,” in the Summer 1996 issue of Hart-Parr/Oliver Collector Vol. VII, No. II, p. 33.) Hand-feeding one bundle at a time was a slow, time-consuming process. The invention of the self-feeding mechanism for threshers was generally credited to the Wood Brothers Threshing Company of Des Moines, Iowa. Self-feeders would automatically cut the twine on the bundles and regulate the rate at which the bundles were fed into the thresher. It was another of those great improvements in thresher technology that would become universal on all threshers and remain a standard until the end of the threshing era. However, the name that would come to dominate the market in self-feeding mechanisms was the Hart Company.
The Hart Company also manufactured the third improvement in thresher design that became universalized on all threshers of whatever manufacture. Grain weighers were clam shell devices that sat atop the vertical clean grain elevator. The clean grain elevator would pour clean threshed grain into the clam shell bucket until a half-bushel had been weighed out. When the proper weight for the half-bushel had been reached, the clam shell would open and allow the grain to fall into the wagon elevator or the bagging attachment. Belle City followed suit in this trend also, and began installing the Hart grain weigher on all its threshers. Thus, by 1911, Belle City threshers sold to the public by IHC under the New Racine name were offered complete with the Farmer’s Friend windstacker, the Hart self-feeder and the Hart grain weigher.
J.I. Case made history in 1904 with the introduction of the first all-steel thresher. There was a reason for this: All-steel threshers were less of a fire hazard when used with a steam engine. Since Case’s line of large threshers required large horsepower demands which could only be supplied by steam power, it was natural that Case would seek the protection of an all-steel model thresher. Because smaller threshers tended to be powered by the somewhat less hazardous gasoline-powered tractors, there was a natural lag by the producers of small threshers in switching over to all-steel construction. Nonetheless, the producers of small threshers eventually became aware of the advantages of all-steel construction in terms of longer machine life, and eventually they ceased producing wooden threshers. In 1917, Belle City changed its New Racine thresher from an all-wood construction to a thresher with a wooden frame and sheet metal side pieces. In 1926, they went to all-steel construction.
In 1926, IHC decided to manufacture its own line of threshers consisting of three models–20″ x 28,” 22″ x 36″ and 28″ x 42″. Aware that the small thresher market was the only lucrative market, IHC offered no thresher larger than its 28″ x 42″ thresher. Indeed, the new IHC threshers bore a great deal of similarity to the Belle City New Racine threshers it had marketed prior to 1926; not the least of which was the new IHC threshers outfitted with Hart self-feeders and grain weighers, and the Farmers Friend windstacker manufactured under the license of the Indiana Manufacturing Company.
Realizing they were losing the benefit of the large IHC dealer network, Belle City entered into a joint venture arrangement with Ford to sell its Belle City/New Racine thresher through Ford dealerships. Now Belle City was squarely on the Ford team. Their advertisements began to claim the “Belle City New Racine thresher was the universal thresher ideally matched to the Fordson–the universal tractor.” The name Fordson even appeared on Belle City threshers. During the period of time of the joint venture with Ford, Belle City continued to improve its little thresher by installing Timken roller bearings at 20 locations on the thresher.
In 1926, and for a short time thereafter, Belle City sold its own tractor, which was really a conversion kit made to modify a Fordson into a crawler/track-tractor. (The Belle City tractor is pictured on the bottom of page 44 in the Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors by C.H. Wendel [Crestline Books: Sarasota, Fl. 1979].) Unfortunately, neither the tractor nor the semi-mounted cornpicker were successful products for the Belle City Company.
By the mid-1920s, sales of the Fordson had dipped behind other, more modern small tractors. By 1928, all United States production of the Fordson tractor ceased. (Robert Pripps and Andrew Moreland, Ford Tractors [Motorbooks International: Osceola, Wisc., 1990] p. 19.) From 1929 to 1932, all Fordson’s sold in the United States were manufactured by Ford at its facility in Cork, Ireland, and had serial numbers from 757,369 through 779,135. (Michael Williams, Frod and Fordson Tractors, [Farming Press: Frome, England, 1985] p. 66.) In 1932, all Fordson production was transferred to the Ford factory at Dagenham, in Essex in England, and all tractors were painted dark blue with orange wheels. This color design remained consistent until 1938 when the entirely orange Fordson was produced. In 1939, the Ford/Ferguson 9N was introduced and quickly replaced the outdated Fordson in the United States. (Production of the Fordson [dark green] continued at Dagenham in order to meet the needs of British agriculture, now that Britain was at war.) Through all these reorganizations of Fordson production, Belle City remained the thresher “built for Fordson” and sold at Ford dealers.
The depression struck Belle City like all other farm machine manufacturing companies. Yet, as the 1930s progressed, the advertising efforts of the company paid off. The company was able to sell its small threshers in sufficient numbers to allow for continued expansion of the company. In 1938, Belle City sold its factory site at DeKoven Avenue and Racine Street for $84,000 and purchased the old Ajax Tire Company site on Taylor Avenue.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, while the country was still trying to avoid involvement in the war in Europe, Fred Gunther was a boy growing up in his parents’ home on Taylor Avenue near the Belle City factory. Fred remembers seeing train load after train load of threshers leaving the plant for farms all across the midwest.
On one particular day, one of those trains, containing a 28″ x 44″ Belle City thresher, rolled out of the Taylor Avenue factory and onto a Chicago Northwestern railroad flat-bed car where it was secured for a trip across Wisconsin to Minneapolis. After the flat-bed car with the thresher was joined to other railroad cars loaded with more Belle City threshers, the Chicago Northwestern train headed to Milwaukee. On its way out of town, it might have been noticed by young Fred Gunther. Once in Milwaukee, the railroad cars with the Belle City threshers were hooked to a train headed west to Minnesota while other car loads of freight continued north, up the Chicago Northwestern tracks to Door Peninsula, the summer vacation destination of many Chicagoans.
The train carrying this particular Belle City thresher passed through the gently rolling hills in the heartland of Wisconsin’s dairy industry, passing pasture after pasture of grazing Holsteins, Ayershires, Guernseys and Brown Swiss cattle, and crossing the Wisconsin River between the towns of Dellwood and Necedah. Crossing over the Mississippi River at Hudson, Wisconsin, the train entered Minnesota for the short journey to Minneapolis/St. Paul. There, the flat-bed cars carrying the Belle City threshers were taken to the spur at the Keegan Farm Equipment Co. of Minneapolis. Keegan’s was the “block house,” or main distributor, for Fordson tractors and other Ford farm equipment products servicing Ford dealers in small towns all across Minnesota. Belle City’s joint venture with Ford allowed Belle City to have access to its widespread dealer network. One of the Ford dealerships selling tractors in Minnesota prior to entry of the United States into the Second World War was the Frank Balek dealership of Lonsdale, Minnesota. This particular 28″ x 44″ thresher, which had been off-loaded at Keegans in Minneapolis, was eventually delivered to the Balek dealership on the south edge of the town of Lonsdale. Frank Balek, together with his son, Ray, who helped him in his dealership, had sold the thresher–the largest model ever made by Belle City–to an area farmer. Throughout the remaining period of peace, prior to United States involvement in the Second World War, the thresher was put to work threshing small grains, most likely as part of a neighborhood ring, where many farmers in the same neighborhood combined resources and labor at threshing time. During the Second World War, when farm commodity prices rose sharply, we can picture the 28″ thresher being employed more profitably than ever before, serving faithfully as part of the homefront in the war effort. Not long after the war, no doubt it was replaced by combines that individual farmers were buying.
Long after the 28″ Belle City thresher had been idly stored away and nearly forgotten in a shed, the thresher was purchased by Archie Babek of New Market, Minnesota. In the 1990s, the 28″ Belle City thresher was purchased by Wayne Svoboda and brought to the showgrounds of the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association in rural LeCenter, Minnesota. Currently, the thresher resides indoors on the grounds in an unrestored condition. People attending the 1999 Show–to be held on August 27, 28 and 29–will be able to see the Belle City thresher as part of the permanent display of threshers. This will be a fitting exhibit, because in 1999 the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association is hosting the 1999 National Summer Convention of the Ford Collectors Association, featuring the Fordson and Ford/Ferguson tractors.
Attempts have been made to have the thresher restored by Pioneer Power members Doug Hager, Dwight Yaeger and Mark Meyer of Good Thunder, who have restored many of the operating threshers on the showgrounds. It is hoped that in the not too distant future restoration can be completed and the machine made a part of the field demonstrations at future shows–a fitting tribute to the little company from Racine, Wisconsin, that pioneered in development of the small thresher.