The Keck-Gonnerman Company

                      The Keck-Gonnerman Company of Mt. Vernon, Indiana

by

Brian Wayne Wells

          As published in the November/December 2004 issue of

Belt Pulley Magazine

The Keck-Gonnerman Company insignia with a wood-frame “Indiana Special” thresher on the left and a 19 hp. steam engine on the right.  William Gonnerman’s home is in the center.

In the late eighteenth century, German immigrants flooded into the United States.  However, this flood of immigration began as only a trickle in the 1830s.  Part of this trickle was Andrew (Andreas) Keck, who came to the United States from Waldernach, Germany.  Settling temporarily in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Andrew met and married Rosana Grossman.  Rosana was also a recent immigrant from Germany.  Together, Andrew and Rosana left Philadelphia and headed west.  They arrived in Posey County in the State of Indiana in 1835.  Located on the north bank of the Ohio River in the extreme southwestern corner of Indiana, Posey County was one of the initial counties organized when Indiana became a state in 1816.

Upon arriving in Posey County in 1835, Andrew and Rosana settled on a farm in Marrs Township.  Together they had twelve children including a daughter Caroline, a second daughter Anna B., another daughter Rosanna, and a fourth daughter, Christiana, before the couple had their first son, John, born on August 7, 1851.  Their family also included a second son Peter, a son Louis H. and daughters Maria and Amelia, a son Andrew, and finally two daughters Eliza and Catherine.

Andrew’s wife,  Rosana, however, died in 1861 when their son, John, was only ten (10) years of age.  Growing up on the farm, John Keck tried his best to help his father support the large family.  Rather early in his life, it became apparent that John Keck was mechanically minded.  He attended school in Marrs Township and in nearby Evansville, Indiana, the county seat of Vanderburgh County.  After completing his schooling, John learned the machinists’ trade in Evansville.

Rosanna, one of John’s older sisters married a local boy John C. Woody.  John C. Woody and his brother, Winfield Woody, established their own small foundry business in Evansville in 1873.  However, Winfield Woody, suddenly died.  Recognizing an opportunity to put his machinist trade to work, John Keck purchased the interest in the foundry that had been owned by Winfield and went into business with his brother-in-law in 1877.  The small foundry firm was renamed Woody & Keck.  With his future somewhat secure, John Keck married Addie Franck, daughter of Valentine Franck of Louisville, Kentucky, on March 20, 1877.  The couple made their home in a house on Pearl Street in Mount Vernon, Indiana.  Eventually they would have a family made up of two sons Franck L. and Grover C. Keck.

The foundry was located just sixteen (16) miles south of Evansville.  (Jack Norbeck, Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines [Crestline Pub.: Sarasota, Fla., 1976] p. 154.) The business at the foundry was mainly occupied with the manufacture of hollow ware—silver ware and cooking utensils.  In 1883, John C. Woody sold his interests in the foundry to John Onk of Louisville, Kentucky.  Accordingly, the name of the firm was changed to Keck & Onk.  With the new infusion of capital, the firm purchased a new site which occupied four city blocks at Fourth and Pearl Streets in the city of Mount Vernon, Indiana.  The site also embraced the lot of the house that was the former home of John and Addie Keck.  The family now lived in a house located at Seventh Street and College Avenue in Mount Vernon.  On their new site, the company built a new factory and a warehouse.  By 1884, the factory was employing 300 people in the manufacture of steam engines, threshers-separators, mining equipment and portable saw mills.  The business made steam engines in two different sizes—a 19 horsepower [hp.] and 20 hp. model.  (Unlike other steam engine manufacturers, the business began and the future Kay-Gee Company continued to designate their steam engine models according to drawbar hp. rather than belt pulley hp.  Accordingly, the Kay-Gee 19 hp. model delivered 45 to 50 hp. to the belt pulley.  The larger 20 hp model could deliver up to 70 hp to the belt pulley.)

A newly restored 19 horsepower (hp.) Keck-Gonnerman steam engine.

 

The company’s wooden frame threshers were known as “Indiana Special” thresher-separators and were offered to the farming public in two different sizes.  Both models had a 32-inch wide cylinder.  However, one thresher had a 48-inch separating unit.  Therefore, this model was called the 32 x 48 model.  (This model was later enlarged to become the 32 x 56 model.)  The other thresher model was the 32 x 62 model.  Both models of the Indiana Special thresher-separators were 28’ 5” in overall length.  However, whereas the 36 x 56 model weighed 9,000 pounds and could obtain a capacity of 200 bushels per hour with a 50-hp. power source, the larger 36 x 62 model thresher weighed 10,000 pound and could achieve a capacity of 250 bushels per hour capacity when operated by a 70-hp. power source.  (Robert Pripps and Andrew Moreland, Threshers: History of Separator Threshing Machine, Reaper and Harvester [Motorbooks International: Osceola, Wisc., 1992] p. 121.)

However, John Onk sold his interest in the business to William Gonnerman and Henry Kuebler in 1884 and moved back to Louisville in 1885.  At this point the firm was renamed Keck, Gonnerman and Company (or Kay-Gee for short).

The new partner, William Gonnerman, was also of German ancestry.  Born on January 5, 1856, William Gonnerman was the sixth of eleven children, born to Adam and Martha (Ripple) Gonnerman.  Adam Gonnerman was a baker in the town of Solz, in the Hesse-Nassau province of Germany.  William Gonnerman grew up and was apprenticed to the machine shop of Johann Shaefer located in Sontra Germany.  He became a journeyman machinist in 1873 at the age of seventeen years.  Johann Shaefer had married William Gonnerman’s oldest sister, Catherine.  In 1873, the same year that he became a journeyman machinist, William Gonnerman emigrated from Germany to the United States.  (C.H. Wendel, Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors [Crestline Pub.: Sarasota, Fla.,1979] p. 167.)  All of William’s brothers and sisters remained in Germany with the exception of his older sister Christina and an older brother Conrad, both of whom also emigrated to the United States.  After settling in Indiana, Christina married William Shaus, a farmer from rural Armstrong in Vanderburgh County.  Conrad also settled in Indiana and became the foreman of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad freight depot located in Evansville, Indiana the county seat of Vanderburgh County.  Upon his arrival in the United States, William Gonnerman also settled in Evansville, Indiana and obtained a position as a machinist at Conrad Kratz machine shop in Evansville in 1875.  On September 7, 1875, William married Lena Alexander, daughter of Henry Alexander, a farmer from Rheinfaltz, Germany.  After moving to Mount Vernon in neighboring Posey County, William and Lena joined the Trinity Evangelical and Reform Church and William joined Lodge No. 277 of the Order of the Elks.  Together Lena and William Gonnerman would have a family consisting of a daughter Margaret born on November 13, 1876, a daughter Katherine born on July 30, 1878, a third daughter Caroline born on May 15, 1880, a son William H. born on July 23, 1884 and finally another daughter Lena born on December 31, 1888.  However, William’s wife, Lena, tragically died in 1891.  The three oldest daughters would grow up and marry.  Only William’s youngest daughter, Lena, would remain single throughout her life.  Two of the marriages of the Gonnerman daughters would have an impact on the Kay-Gee Company in the future.  Katherine would marry William Espenschied, a local attorney.  They would have one son, who would also become an attorney and would later serve as corporate attorney for Kay-Gee.  Margaret would marry Joseph V. Forthoffer, who served as the tool foreman for the Kay-Gee Company.

It was while working at the Kratz machine shop that William Gonnerman heard about the opportunity to purchase an interest in the Keck and Onk business.  As noted above, William Gonnerman bought the Onk interest in the business together with Henry Kuebler in 1884.  However, the next year, in 1885, Henry Kuebler sold his interest in the firm to Louis H. Keck, John Keck’s younger brother.

Having secured his financial position by joining his brother and William Gonnerman in the business, Louis H. Keck married Minnie Foshee a local Posey County girl.  Together they would have two sons, Louis D. Keck born on June 24, 1893, and Robert A. Keck born in 1898, and two daughters.

The St. Louis, Missouri, branch house of the new Keck-Gonnerman Company, serving local dealerships in Missouri and southern Illinois.

 

In 1901, the business was incorporated under the laws of Indiana as the Keck-Gonnerman Company, nicknamed “Kay-Gee” for short, with an authorized capital of $201,000.00.  John Keck was the president of the new corporation and generally in charge of purchases and sales.  William Gonnerman served as vice-president and was put in charge of the manufacturing operations at the factory.  Louis H. Keck was the secretary/treasurer of the corporation and handled the finances and office operations of the company.  The financial relationship between John Keck and William Gonnerman did not end at the gates of the Kay-Gee Company.  Together they organized the Industrial Brick Company of Mount Vernon.  In 1908, together with Charles A. Greathouse, William Gonnerman organized the Peoples Bank & Trust Company of Mount Vernon.  William Gonnerman served as a director and an officer of this bank for many years.  William also served as president of another company called William Gonnerman & Company, which served electric power to the citizens of Mount Vernon for many years.  Unlike his partners, John and Louis H. Keck and unlike a majority of the community around Mount Vernon, Indiana, William Gonnerman was a Republican.  Nonetheless, William Gonnerman was elected to the Indiana State Senate as a Republican serving this largely Democratic community.  In addition to his business affairs, William Gonnerman served in the Indiana State Senate throughout the 1907 and 1909 regular sessions of the legislature as well as serving in the 1908 special session.

John Keck’s business ventures flourished enough that he was able to purchase one of the new fangled contraptions that were becoming a popular item among persons with sufficient means—a horseless carriage.  The new “automobile” purchased by John Keck was a “General” automobile from the General Automotive and Manufacturing Company (formerly the Hansen Automotive Company) of Cleveland, Ohio.

John Keck’s new car received much notice in the “tri-state area” around Mount Vernon, Indiana.  On October 14, 1903, John and Addie Keck, their oldest son Franck Keck and Addie’s brother John Franck left on a trip in the new General automobile, traveling to Louisville, Kentucky to visit Addie’s parents.  (An account of this five-day trip to Louisville in John Keck’s own words, is contained at the Keck and Gonnerman Motor Sports website on the Internet.)

The Keck family all loaded up in their new car for a trip to Louisville, Kentucky.

 

In 1909, Frank Keck, John and Addie’s eldest son, was married to Louise Klee of Henderson, Kentucky.  The happy couple settled in a house at 613 College Ave, which the groom had built for them prior to their marriage.  Together they would raise one daughter.  In addition, Franck L. Keck served on the board of directors of the Peoples Bank and Trust Company.  He also used his engineering skills to design the facilities of the Mount Vernon Milling Company and he served on the board of directors of that company as well as serving on the board of the Home Mill and Grain Company.

John and Addie’s second son, Grover C. Keck, grew up and attended Purdue, University in West LaFayette, Indiana.  Following his graduation from Purdue in 1907, Grover Keck returned to Mount Vernon and founded, together with his father John Keck, the automobile division of the Keck-Gonnerman Company.  The automobile division served as a sales dealership for the Cadillac Automotive Company of Detroit, the Maxwell-Briscoe Motor Company of Tarrytown, New York, the Stanley Motor Carriage Company of Watertown, Massachusetts, the Nash Motors Company of Kenosha, Wisconsin and the Oakland Motor Car Company of Pontiac. Michigan.  In 1912, the automobile division also became the local dealer for the Ford Motor Company of Dearborn, Michigan.  However, sometime during the First World War, Ford began requiring all of their local dealerships to sell exclusively Ford-made cars.  Thus, the automobile division of Kay-Gee dropped all other franchises except Ford.  As a result, John Keck obtained a 1917 Ford Model T “Coupelet” for use as a demonstrator vehicle.  Actually, 1917 was the last year that Ford produced the Coupelet, which was a two passenger automobile with an enclosed body like a coup with full glass windows on the sides of the vehicle which could be adjusted up and down by straps.  (George H. Dammann, Ninety Years of Ford [Motor Books Intl. Pub.: Osceola, Wisc., 1993] pp. 65, 71 and 74.)  However, unlike a coup, the roof of the Coupelet would fold down and the car would become a completely open car.  This was the first real convertible car which was not to be confused with the various models of roadsters, runabouts and touring cars which had no glass windows on the sides.  (Ibid.)  After settling in to his new position as head of the automotive division, Grover married Lena Highman.  Together they would have two sons, John Robert born in 1917 and William born in 1919.

Recognizing the trend toward internal combustion engines not only for automobiles, but also for farm power uses, the Keck and Gonnerman Company introduced the Model 12-24 kerosene powered tractor in 1917.  (C.H. Wendel, The Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors [Crestline Pub.: Sarasota, Fla., 1979] p. 167.)  As the model number of the tractor would suggest, with a twin-cylinder 6-1/2 inch bore and 8 inch stroke engine, the Model 12-24 tractor developed twelve (12) hp. at the drawbar and 24 hp. at the belt pulley.  (Ibid.)  In 1918 the Model 12-24 sold for $1,250.00.  (Ibid.)  In 1920, Kay-Gee modified the tractor by increasing the bore to 7-1/4 inches with the same 8 inch stroke.  This modification increased the horsepower of the tractor to 15 hp. at the drawbar and 30 hp. at the belt pulley.  (Ibid.)  Thus, the newly modified tractor was designated the Model 15-30.  (Ibid.)  The Model 15-30 was priced $1, 650.00 in 1920, but in the price wars of the early 1920’s which were inspired by Henry Ford and his Fordson tractor, the price of the Kay-Gee Model 15-30 tractor fell to $1,075.00 in 1923.  (Ibid.)  Options for the tractor included a cab for the additional price of $25.00 and 6 inch extension rims for the rear drive wheels for $60.00 a pair.  (Ibid.)

A Keck-Gonnerman Model 15-30 farm tractor.

 

The Kay-Gee tractors were still not powerful enough to operate the large Kay-Gee threshers.  Still the trend following the First World War was tending toward smaller threshers which could be powered by internal combustion engine tractors.  Answering this trend, Kay-Gee introduced their line of “Junior” threshers.  The Junior threshers were offered in two sizes.  The 5,400-pound 21 x 38 model Junior was 24’ 9” in overall length and had a 21-inch twelve-bar cylinder and a separating unit that was 38” wide.  Requiring a 20 hp. power source for optimum operation this thresher had a capacity of 90 bushels per hour.  (Robert Pripps and Andrew Moreland, Threshers: History of Separator Threshing Machine, Reaper and Harvester p. 121.)  The larger model 28 x 40 model Junior thresher was also 24’ 9”in overall length.  However, this, this thresher weighed 6,000 pounds and had a 28 inch cylinder with twelve bars, and a 48 inch wide separator unit.  This thresher was had a capacity to handle 165 bushels per hour when properly powered with a 30 hp power source.  (Ibid.)

Image result for Keck-Gonnerman 28" by 40" Junior grain thresher/separator

 

Although Kay-Gee began the manufacture of their internal combustion tractors, they also continued production of their steam engines.  Indeed, they expanded their line of steam engines by adding a 13 hp., a 15 hp., a 16 hp., and an 18-hp. model to the line of steam engines.  Still the larger 19-hp. and 20-hp. models remained the most popular steam engines in terms of sales.  (Jack Norbeck, Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines, p. 155.)  At first the steam engines were fitted with side-mounted single steam cylinders.  (Ibid., p. 154.)  Later double cylinder units were used for more efficient power.  The Kay-Gee steam engines featured rocker grates in the firebox for easy removal of the ashes from the live coals in the firebox.  (Ibid.)  Cross head pumps and injectors were used on the steam engines.  Traveling at only 2¼ miles per hour the 20,000-pound steam engines were not even as fast as a walking team of horses.  (Ibid., p. 155.)  However, arriving at the work site, the Kay Gee steam engine was fitted with an Arnold reverse gear which allowed the steam engine to “lean back” into a drive belt and perform the work for which it was really made.

In 1921, Kay-Gee fitted their steam engines with new and improved boilers, which met the new A.S.M.E. (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) standards.  These new waist double butt strap riveted boilers were made of 3/8” metal in order to stand a working steam pressure of up to 175 pounds.  (Ibid., p. 156.)

In 1923, a particular 19 hp. Kay-Gee steam engine bearing the serial number 1728, rolled out of the Kay-Gee factory in Mount Vernon, Indiana.  The steam engine had already been sold to Grover Myers from Versailles, Indiana.  Accordingly, No. 1728 was loaded onto a railroad flatcar for the journey east across Indiana to the town of Versailles.  Upon arrival in Versailles the steam engine was used in threshing.  Some time in its early life, No. 1728 was damaged in what may have been a rollover accident.  This may have occurred as early as the unloading of the steam engine from the flat bed railroad car in 1923.  In addition to threshing No. 1728 was used in road construction.  No doubt the work that No. 1728 performed on road construction was in response to the various local Good Roads Associations that sprang up all across the nation in the early 1920s to promote road construction by state and county governments.  As has been shown in a previous article, at least some of the work on the roads under construction was performed by the farmers that lived on or near those roads.  (See the article called “Farming with a Titan 10-20” contained in the May/June 1996 issue of Belt Pulley magazine at page 16.)  Thus although Grover Myers was probably a farmer and probably a custom thresher in his neighborhood, No. 1728 was probably marshaled into service when local roads in his neighborhood were being built.

However, in the mid-1950’s, No. 1728 was sold to Justin Hitgen of LaMotte, Iowa.  Located in Jackson County LaMotte is located only about eleven (11) miles south of Dubuque, Iowa.  Justin Hitgen used No. 1728 in threshing shows that were put on for the public in the LaMotte area.  In about 1968, No. 1728 was sold to Joe Edel of Montgomery Minnesota.  Later in 1997, Gary Jones of Owatonna Minnesota purchased the Kay-Gee 19hp. steam engine from the .Edel family.  Gary Jones remains the current owner of No.1728 and operates the steam engine each year at the annual LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association Show held in rural LeSueur, Minnesota during the last weekend in August.  The steam engine will once again be seen by attendees at the 2004 Pioneer Power show held on August 27-29, 2004.

Following No. 1728 out of the Kay-Gee factory, was another 19hp. steam engine bearing the serial number 1787 which was purchased new in 1924 by Arnold Knopp of Campbell Hill, Illinois.  No. 1787 is, currently, pictured on the Keck-Gonnerman web page of the Keck Motor Sports Company website.  As noted at that particular page, Arnold Knopp owned No. 1787 until his death in 1969.  No. 1787 was later owned by Tim Mathis of Pinkneyville, Illinois and was restored to its current condition, as shown in the color picture on the web page, by Gerald Fink of Murphysville, Illinois.

Kay-Gee continued to make steam engines until 1930 when the last of the Kay-Gee steam engines rolled out of the company shops in Mount Vernon.  Kay-Gee steam engines were employed in some unusual ways even after their production was ceased.  In 1937, Kay-Gee Company steam engines would achieve local renown for the roll they played in the Great Flood of 1937.  The Ohio River began rising on January 5, 1937 and did not recede to its normal banks until February 9.  During this time the waterworks of Mount Vernon was inundated by the flood.  Three Kay-Gee steam engines were employed on a full time basis to keep the citizens of Mount Vernon supplied with fresh water.  Additionally, Kay-Gee steam engines were used in Kentucky to sterilize the soil of seed beds for tobacco seedlings.  Tobacco is grown from seed in seed beds the size of the area of the floor space of the average house.  In this particular application in Kentucky, plastic was placed over the entire seedbed and live steam from the Kay-Gee steam engine was blown under the plastic and held by the plastic against the soil of the seedbed.  In this way, all the weed seeds in the seed bed were killed and the ground was “sterilized” for the tobacco seed to sprout and grow unhindered into seedlings, at which time, they would be transplanted to rows in the fields.

In 1924, Kay-Gee underwent another corporate reorganization as the retail automotive division of the Company was spun off to form an independent business called the Keck Motor Company.  Grover Keck and his father, John Keck, became the sole owners of the Keck Motor Company with Grover conducting the day-to-day affairs of the company.  Although originally the retail business of the Keck Motor Company was conducted from the grounds of the Kay-Gee factory works in Mount Vernon, the Keck Motor Company eventually purchased a building located on Main Street in Mount Vernon from which the retail operations were conducted.  The Keck Company continued to sell Ford cars from this building until a fire destroyed the building in 1982.

The Kay-Gee Company continued to be involved in the retail business, serving as local franchisee for the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  In addition to selling Allis Chalmers farm equipment, Kay-Gee sold balers manufactured by the Ann Arbor Agricultural Company of Ann Arbor, Michigan.  The Keck Motor Company was able to benefit from the fact that the Ann Arbor Company had developed the first pickup device for balers (portable hay presses) such that the baler could be brought to the hay rather than the hay being brought to the stationary hay press.  In 1941, its first successful automated self-tying hay baler was introduced by the Ann Arbor Company.  However, in 1943, Ann Arbor leased its factory and business operations to the Oliver Farm Equipment Company of Charles City, Iowa and later the Ann Arbor Company was officially merged with Oliver.  With Ann Arbor balers no longer available the Kay-Gee retail division became the local franchise holder for the New Holland Machine Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  This franchise enabled Kay-Gee to market the famous New Holland “Automaton” self-tying twine baler.

In 1924, William Gonnerman, together with Louis D. Keck and Robert A. Keck, both sons of Louis H. Keck, formed the Gonnerman Motor Company, which became the local distributor for Chevrolet cars in the Mount Vernon area.  Louis D. Keck, son of Louis H. Keck, graduated from Mount Vernon High School in 1911 and entered a course of studies at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.  However, because of the illness and subsequent death of his father, Louis D. Keck returned home to assume the corporate responsibilities left by the death of his father.  On October 2, 1918, Louis D. Keck married Roblye Powell of Carmi, Illinois.  They would have one son, Louis D. Keck Jr., who would tragically be killed in an automobile accident in 1949.  In addition to his involvement in the family business, Louis D. Keck Sr. became a member of the board of directors of the First National Bank in Mount Vernon.

Robert A. Keck, Louis H. Keck’s younger son had returned to Mount Vernon, following his service in the United States Naval Reserve during World War I and after his graduation from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor Michigan.  He married Louise Hopkins.  Together they would have three children, Robert A. Jr. (known as Andy), James H. and David M. Keck.  (Andy Keck currently lives in retirement in Mount Vernon and supplied background information for this article.)  Along with serving as the assistant secretary/treasurer of the Kay-Gee Company and in addition to his responsibilities as a founder of the Gonnerman Motor Company, Robert A. Keck Sr. was a member of the board of directors of the Peoples Bank and Trust Company of Mount Vernon.  Like most of the Keck family, Louis D. Keck was a Democrat.  During the 1920s and 1930s he served as Treasurer of the Posey County Democratic Party.  With a wide range of acquaintances, he became a power, in and of himself within the Democratic Party of Southern Indiana, and he identified with the “Old Guard” wing of that party.  From 1948 until 1952 he would also serve on the Board of Education of the Mount Vernon City School system.

Within the Kay-Gee Company changes were afoot.  By 1926, Kay-Gee was still manufacturing only one size of farm tractor.  A piece of literature dating from 1926, reflects that the Kay-Gee Company still offered only its original two-cylinder kerosene cross-motor tractor.  However, in the interim, the tractor had been improved and was now rated as delivering 18 hp. to drawbar and 35 hp. to the belt pulley.  By 1926, Kay-Gee was offering steam engines in only two sizes—the popular 19-hp. model and the new 22-hp. steam engine, which replaced the 20 hp model steam engine.  Also in 1926, Kay-Gee introduced its line of steel frame threshers.  Both the large threshers (now called the “Senior” line of threshers) and all models of the Junior line were offered to the public in either wood frame or steel frame configurations.

The 1926 piece of advertising literature also reflects Kay-Gee’s growing connection with the edible bean industry of the United States.  Three different sizes of pea and bean threshers (or “hullers”) were offered to edible bean producers—a 24 x 36 model, a 32 x 40 model and a 36 x 48 model.  Small grain threshers could be modified to act as bean hullers by merely replacing the pulleys on the cylinder shaft with larger pulleys.  These larger pulleys would allow the speed of the cylinder to be slowed to 400 revolutions per minute (rpm) without slowing the operation of the rest of the thresher.  As opposed to the cylinder speed of 400 rpm. recommended for optimum threshing of beans, wheat and other small grains required a cylinder speed of 1100-1150 rpm.  Although, the conversion of an ordinary thresher to a bean huller could be made with relative ease, Kay-Gee felt that a market existed for threshers or hullers that were specifically made at the factory for use in threshing (or hulling) beans.

Since 1900, most of the nation’s edible beans (especially navy beans) were raised in Michigan.  (Navy bean farming in the State of Michigan will be the subject of a two-part series of articles in the November/December 2004 and the January/February 2005 issues of Belt Pulley magazine.)  Thus Kay-Gee’s connection with the edible bean industry was in reality a connection with the State of Michigan.  Besides Michigan, the Kay-Gee sales network extended into Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky.  Later, distribution of Kay-Gee machines was extended to Canada and to California.  Eventually, Kay-Gee had “factory direct” branch houses in St. Louis, Missouri, Peoria, Illinois and Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.  These branch houses served local dealerships and retail outlets in their respective areas.  Kay-Gee threshers were also exported to Cuba for threshing rice that was being raised in that country.  These rice threshers were modified with pulleys on the cylinder shaft which were larger than those required for wheat and yet smaller than those required for edible beans.  Thus the cylinder was allowed to turn at an optimal 800 to 850 rpm., which is recommended for the threshing of rice while allowing the rest of the thresher to operate at normal speed.

In 1928, Kay-Gee introduced a new line of four-cylinder tractors.  (C.H. Wendel, The Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors p. 167.)  Smallest in the line was the Model 18-35.  (Ibid.)  Not to be confused with the two-cylinder kerosene cross-motor 18-35 model tractor noted above, this new Model 18-35 tractor was not of a cross-motor design.  Its four-cylinder engine was lined up perpendicular to the rear axle in what would become a conventional and universal design for tractors, trucks and automobiles.  As a power source for this new tractor, Kay-Gee turned to the Buda Company of Harvey, Illinois and contracted for Buda’s 4-1/2 by 6 inch (bore and stroke) four-cylinder engine for installation in the Model 18-35.  (C.H. Wendel, Gas Engine Trademarks, [Stemgas Pub.: Lancaster, Penn., 1995] p. 14.)  The 5,200 pound Model 18-35 sold for $1,600.  (C.H. Wendel, Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, p. 167.)  In 1935, the Model 18-35 was fitted with a 5-1/8 by 7 inch engine from the Waukesha Motor Company of Waukesha, Wisconsin and was designated the Model ZW.  The second Model ZW ever made bearing the Serial No. 3502, has been restored by Paul Mauer of Mount Vernon and is currently displayed each year at the annual show of the Keck-Gonnerman Antique Machinery Association held on the first full weekend in August each year at the Posey County Fairgrounds.  The first two digits of the serial number of all Model ZW tractors reflect the year that the particular tractor was made.  Thus number 3502 was built in 1935.  Only 83 Model ZW tractors were ever built by Kay-Gee.  Surprisingly, 48 of these Model ZW tractors are still in existence and their present locations are known.  This is quite a record for tractors of this age.

Also introduced in 1928, was the Kay-Gee Model 25-50.  (Ibid.)  Originally rated at 22 hp at the drawbar and 45 hp. at the belt pulley, the Model 25-50 was later upgraded to 25 hp. at the drawbar and 50hp. at the belt pulley.  The Model 25-50 was made from a number of outsourced products.  As a power source for this engine, Kay-Gee contracted for the 5-1/4 by 7 inch motor manufactured by the Le Roi Company of West Allis Wisconsin.  (C.H. Wendel, Gas Engine Trademarks, p. 62,)  Weighing 9,800 pounds the Model 25-50 was fitted with a carburetor from the Ensign Carburetor Company of Los Angeles, California.  (C.H. Wendel, Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, p. 167.)  For a magneto for the Model 25-50, Kay-Gee contracted with the German firm of Ernst Eismann & Company of Stuttgart, Germany.  (Ibid.)  The radiator for the Model 25-50 came from the Modine Manufacturing Company of Racine, Wisconsin, the clutch came from the Twin Disc Clutch Company of Racine, Wisconsin and the air cleaner came from the Pomona Company.  Pictures of the Kay-Gee tractors reveal that probably after 1935, the tractors were fitted with “paper” belt pulleys from the Rockwood Manufacturing Company.  (For a history of the Rockwood Company, see the article on page 14 of the March/April 1997 issue of Belt Pulley.)

The largest tractor the Kay-Gee line introduced in 1928 was the Model 27-55.  (Ibid.)  Designated the Model N, this tractor was eventually upgraded to delivering 30 hp. at the drawbar and 60 hp. at the belt pulley.  (Ibid.)  The Model 30-60 (or Model N) had a Le Roi Company engine with a 5-1/2 inch bore and a 7-inch stroke.  Weighing more than 10,000 pounds the Model N sold for $3,000.00.  Kay-Gee tractors were available with electric lighting and electric starting systems from Leece-Neville Company of Arcade, New York.  Production of the Model 30-60 was ended in 1937.  (Ibid.)  Paul Mauer, who is noted above, also has restored one of these Model N tractors.  This particular Model N bears the serial number 469.  Unlike the Model ZW, it is not known how many Model N tractors were actually made.  Furthermore, unlike the Model ZW, the serial numbers of the Model N do not provide a clue as to the year the tractor was made.  Still No. 469 is thought to be a 1929 tractor.

Although farm machinery, particularly threshers, steam engines and tractors remained the core business for Kay-Gee the Company also began manufacture of repair parts for the boats that were operating on the nearby Ohio River.  Kay-Gee also pioneered in the development of a tungnut picker or gatherer for use in the southern United States.  Tungnuts are used in the making of tung oil which is commonly used as an element in quick-drying paints and lacquers, as a waterproofing agent and as a component in linoleum.

The advent of the 1930s brought the more of the younger generation of Kecks and Gonnermans to the forefront in positions of responsibility within the Kay-Gee Company and the related businesses.  William H. Gonnerman, son of William Gonnerman, the founder of the company, attended Purdue University in West LaFayette, Indiana.  He majored in mechanical engineering, and after graduation in 1906, William H. Gonnerman returned to Mount Vernon to become a mechanical engineer for the Kay-Gee Company.  He married Fannie Highman, the daughter of Edward E. Highman, another prominent family in Posey County.  The young couple settled into a house on Walnut Street in Mount Vernon and started a family which consisted of a single daughter.  Upon the death of Louis H. Keck, William H. Gonnerman succeeded to the office of secretary/treasurer of the company.  As noted above, both of the sons of the late Louis H. Keck became corporate officers in the Kay-Gee Company.  Louis D. Keck, the eldest son of Louis H. Keck, became the assistant secretary/treasurer.  Robert A. Keck, the younger son of Louis H. Keck, became the sales manager of the Kay-Gee Company.

Financing of the purchases of Kay-Gee threshers, tractors and other Kay-Gee equipment was conducted in a number of different ways.  Sometimes Kay-Gee itself would “carry the note” and the farmer purchasing the equipment would make regular payments directly to the Kay Gee Company.  Sometimes the purchaser of the farm equipment would fall in arrears of his payments.  The Company would then have to turn the account over to a law firm for collection of the balance of the bill.  Among the law firms employed by the Company for bill collection was the Emison law firm of Vincennes, Indiana.  This law firm is one of the oldest continuing law firms in the State of Indiana and is a premier law firms in southwestern Indiana.  Indeed a letter still exists in the possession of Richard Keck, great-grandson of John Keck and current owner and operator of Keck Motor Sports of Evansville, Indiana, which was written by John Keck to John Wade Emison, senior partner of the Emison law firm, requesting legal action be pursued in the collection of a particular debt owed to the Kay-Gee Company.  Years later in 1947, Ellen Emison, a grand-daughter of John Wade Emison, would marry William Keck, a grandson of John Keck.  Their son would be Richard Keck.  Thus, the letter that Richard Keck currently possesses was written by his paternal great-grandfather to his maternal great-grandfather long before any family connection exited between the Keck and Emison families.

On December 2, 1938, John Keck died at the age of 87 years due to a gall bladder ailment.  He had served as president of the Kay-Gee Company until his death.  He was succeeded in the office of president by the vice president of the company, William Gonnerman.  After a short term as president, William Gonnerman stepped aside in favor of the elder of the late John Keck’s two sons, Franck Keck, who was then elected as president of the Keck-Gonnerman Company.  Lloyd Quinn moved from his own business as the head of the Quinn Paint and Glass Company in Mount Vernon to begin his long association with the Kay-Gee Company as bookkeeper for the Company in 1937.  Following the Second World War, Lloyd would become the sales manager of the Company.

Tragedy struck the Gonnerman and Keck families more than once in this period of time.  Fannie (Highman) Keck, the wife of William H. Gonnerman died suddenly in 1939.  William H. Gonnerman never quite recovered from this loss.  In 1943, William H Gonnerman sold his house on Walnut Street and moved in to the house at 521 Mill Street with his 87 year old father and his 43 year old sister, Lena.  However, he committed suicide on March 13, 1945 at the age of 60.  Louis D. Keck, succeeded William H. Gonnerman as secretary/treasurer of the Kay-Gee Company.  In the fall of 1948, William Gonnerman, himself died at the age of 92.  As noted above, Louis D. Keck’s own son, Louis D. Keck Jr., died suddenly and tragically in an automobile accident in 1949.  Then in 1951, Louis D. Keck Sr., himself died of a heart attack at the young age of 58.

Production of threshers and tractors was greatly curtailed by the wartime economic restrictions imposed on United States industry by the government.  Indeed, tractor production was suspended altogether for the duration of the war.  Furthermore, although Keck & Gonnermann was still listed in tractor directories as late as 1946, tractor production was not resumed by the Kay-Gee Company even when the wartime economic restrictions were lifted at the close of the war in 1945.  Kay-Gee never really actively advertised tractors after 1937.  (Ibid.)

In the post-war era the retail sales division of the Kay-Gee Company added a local Massey-Harris franchise to the line of farm machinery that retail sales division offered to the public.  However, stationary threshers remained the main focus of Kay-Gee.  The Company resumed making stationary threshers after V-J day in September 1945.  Indeed, the company continued making stationary threshers long after many other companies had ceased production of threshers in favor of combines.  The combine was revolutionizing the harvesting of small grains and was taking over the market from the stationary threshers.

Kay-Gee attempted to adapt to these new conditions by obtaining the outsourcing contracts to make the straw walkers for several different combine manufacturers.  However, the writing was on the wall for Kay-Gee.  In 1952, Kay-Gee had sold 2,210 stationary threshers in the Canadian wheat belt.  The next year in 1953 the company sold only 701 threshers.  Consequently, that same year, 1953 the Keck and Gonnerman families began negotiations with a Stockton, California engineering firm.  Robert R. Harrison, a mechanical engineer; Durward A. Spencer, a sales engineer with manufacturing experience with his own company in California and Donald C. Rowe, all members of that California engineering firm felt that they could change the Kay-Gee Company from a producer of threshers to a manufacturer of combines by simply redesigning the Kay-Gee threshers, adding a cutter bar and/or grain windrow pickup and adding a method of locomotion to the current Kay-Gee stationary threshers.  Initially, Harrison, Spencer and Rowe wanted only to contract with the Kay-Gee Company to produce a new hydraulic self-propelled rice combine, a pull type edible bean harvester and a large self-propelled small grain combine.  However, negotiations took a different path and after six months of negotiations, the Kay-Gee Company agreed to allow Harrison, Spencer and Rowe to take over the management of the Kay-Gee Company and develop these three new machines themselves.  Under the new management, the Kay-Gee Company spent approximately $400,000.00 on the redesign of their threshers to convert them into combines.  As part of this new agreement the company was reorganized.  Franck L. Keck retired from the presidency of the company and was replaced by Robert Harrison.  Robert A. Keck resigned his position as secretary/treasurer and was replaced by John R. Keck, treasurer and N.N. Williams, assistant treasurer.  Robert A. Keck became a vice president of the newly reorganized company.  His son, Robert A. (Andy) Keck Jr. was placed in charge of production control of the new company.  Lloyd Quinn, who had been serving as sales manager also became a vice-president of the new company.  Durward A. Spencer and Donald C. Rowe also became vice presidents.  Rodney J. Brunton, an Evansville accountant, joined the company as vice president in charge of accounting and William Espenschied, whose mother, as was noted above, was Katherine (Gonnerman) Espenshied, joined the new company as corporate attorney.

Production of rice combines was begun by the new company.  A supply contract with the Chrysler Corporation of Detroit Michigan was signed for the 180 h.p. Chrysler V-8 engine that would be used to power the self-propelled rice combine and for the 60 h.p. Chrysler industrial engine that was intended for the pull-type bean combine.  The self-propelled rice harvesters were at heart nothing more than a Keck and Gonnerman thresher with a 36” cylinder and a 62” separating unit, to which a 16-foot header and an engine were added and to which wheels—or rather tracks—were mounted.  As opposed to wheels for locomotion, the new Kay-Gee rice combine rode on a track system manufactured by the C.P. Galanot Company of Alliance, Ohio.  Weighing 37,000 pounds, the new Kay-Gee rice combine was 14½ feet tall and 26 feet long and had a suggested retail price of $35,000.00.  While the self-propelled small grain combine, which Kay-Gee was endeavoring to produce, was fitted with straw walkers, the rice combine was fitted with eight two-wing beaters for better separation of the rice.  The Kay-Gee rice combine had a capacity to harvest 500 to 600 one hundred pound sacks of rice every hour.  A sales contract was concluded with rice farmers in Cuba in 1955 and those combines participated in the Cuban rice harvest that year.

Production of the new Kay-Gee pull-type bean combine began with a contract signed in February of 1955 by A. J. Martin of Bad Axe, Michigan.  A.J. (Red) Martin was the owner of the Thumb Farm Machinery Company dealership located in Huron County in the heart of the premier edible bean producing area of the United States.  Delivery of the first 20 pull-type bean harvesters to the Thumb Farm Machinery Company dealership was scheduled for June or July of 1955.  This pull-type bean combine featured a six-foot pickup table with a new pickup unit that would gently lift the bean vines up off the ground and deliver then to the cylinder without cracking open the pods before theu reached the cylinder.

However, it is unknown whether delivery of these 20 pull-type bean combines was ever made to the Thumb Farm Machinery Company dealership.  On November 15, 1955, the Mount Vernon Democrat carried the story that Edmond M. Richards of New Harmony, Indiana was appointed receiver in bankruptcy of the Keck-Gonnerman Company.  Edmond Richards was the former traffic manager of Mount Vernon Milling Company.  The newspaper article went on to note that the liquidation of the company had already been in process for several weeks prior to the appointment of a receiver by Judge Francis E. Knowles of the Posey County Circuit Court.  Despite the best efforts of the new company to adapt to the new economy of combine sales, the tide had been too much against Kay-Gee.  The great employer of Mount Vernon, Indiana was gone.

All that remained of Kay-Gee were the businesses that had been spun off from the original company—chiefly the Keck Motor Company.  However, the post war period brought changes to the Keck Motor Company also.  On December 26, 1947 Grover Keck, owner of the Keck Motor Company dealership, suddenly and unexpectedly died.  Although neither of his sons, John Robert Keck or William (Bill) Keck had been involved in the Ford car dealership, both sons now entered the business doing their best to fill the shoes of their deceased father.  As noted above Bill Keck married Ellen Emison of Vincennes, Indiana in 1947.  Together they would have a family that included three children—a daughter, Katie, a son Richard and another daughter Sally.  In 1980, following his graduation from Indiana University, Richard joined the management team of Keck Motor Company.  Richard replaced his uncle John Robert who retired from the business.  As noted above, in 1982 a fire destroyed the 1917 building which housed the Keck Motor Company dealership.  The fire badly damaged the 1917 Ford Model T Coupelet which as noted above John Keck had used as a demonstrator vehicle when the business first opened.  Fortunately, the Coupelet was able to be rebuilt in the late 1980s.

Over the 80 plus years that the Keck Motor Company had served as the franchised Ford dealer for the Mount Vernon area, the dealership had won many awards for sales.  The dealership ranked in the top twenty dealerships in the nation in continuous length of operation.  In 1994, Bill and Richard expanded their business concerns by purchasing the local Chevrolet dealership in Mount Vernon.  In 1995, the Chevrolet dealership was moved to a new location on 4th Street in Mount Vernon.  Together Bill and his son, Richard, operated the business until February 9, 2000 when Bill Keck died at 81 years of age after a long battle with cancer.

Following the death of his father, Richard made some changes in order to fit the new economic circumstances.  He added an Indian motorcycle franchise to the Chevrolet dealership location in July of 2000.  In November of 2000, he closed the Ford dealership.  Finally in January of 2002, he sold the Chevrolet dealership to concentrate on the ever growing Indian motorcycle business.  Additionally he moved the motorcycle dealership, now known as Keck Motor Sports, to its current location at 217 North Stockwell Road in  Evansville, Indiana.

With the closure of the offices at the Kay-Gee facilities in Mount Vernon, Indiana in 1955, one might have suspected that a great deal of information would have been lost.  However, historians and restorers of Kay-Gee equipment are extremely fortunate in that all the production records, sales records and other company papers of the Keck and Gonnerman Company were turned over to the library and museum at the Working Men’s Institute at 107 West Tavern Street in New Harmony, Indiana  17631  (Telephone No. [812] 682-1806).  This pool of information contained at the Working Men’s Institute is a great resource of information on individual threshers, steam engines and/or tractors which were made by Kay-Gee, as well as being a great source of information on the company itself.

Additionally, some local citizens in Mount Vernon formed the Keck-Gonnerman Antique Machinery Association to keep memories of the company alive.  In about 1986, this association began an annual celebration of remembrance called the Keck and Gonnerman Reunion.  This reunion is held on the first full weekend in August each year.  It has grown every year to the present.  At the 2004 Reunion held on August 6 through 8, there were 206 tractors exhibited.  It is certain that this Reunion together with the historical records kept at the Working Men’s Institute will keep memories of Kay-Gee alive—memories of a company that played a great role in the history of United States agriculture.

One thought on “The Keck-Gonnerman Company”

  1. I am not sure how I ever missed seeing this article, but it is fantastic. I have never seen one so complete with all the history, all the people…well done!

    Rich Keck
    Great Grandson of John Keck/Keck Gonnerman

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