The M & W Company of Anchor Illinois (Part 1)
Brian Wayne Wells
As published in the November/December 1997 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine
From the time of its introduction by International Harvester in August of 1939, the McCormick-Deering Farmall M was a very popular tractor. For a tractor design which pre-dated World War II, the Farmall M had some surprisingly modern features, such as the integral Lift-All hydraulic power lift system, electric lights, electric starting and the comfortable hydraulic, or Monroe, coil spring operator’s seat. All of these features were optional, but they were so commonly added to the M that they came to be regarded almost as regular equipment. Partly because of its popularity, the International Harvester Company (IHC) changed the design of the Farmall M very little over the years and consequently, by 1945, the M was beginning to show its age. In 1945, the Second World War came to an end and with the end of the war many young veterans of that war returned home with the intent of starting a farming operation of their own. These returning veterans threatened to change the buying habits of the farming public in the United States. They were a whole new element in the farm tractor buying public.
Wars have a way of changing the consumer’s tastes in a variety of unforeseen ways. IHC officials well-remembered how, at the end of the First World War, a small little tractor by the name of Fordson knocked IHC out of its position as the biggest seller of tractors in the United States domestic market. In 1918, veterans returning from the First World War wanted small tractors to start their farming operations on a small scale. The Fordson answered the market demand perfectly, and consequently Ford led the way in sales throughout most of the 1920s. IHC spent most of that decade trying to catch Ford with the introduction of International 10-20 tractors.
Following the end of the Second World War in 1945, IHC executives vowed not to be caught off base again. They anticipated that the veterans returning from this war would once again create a market for small tractors. Therefore, the company introduced the Farmall Cub and spent a great deal of corporate effort on the design, manufacture and advertising of the Cub and its line of equipment.
Additionally, the company also anticipated that the end of the war would release the pent-up consumer demand for large, durable consumer goods such as refrigerators and freezers. Wishing to cash in on this consumer demand, IHC opened, in 1946, a plant, test kitchen and experimental laboratory facilities in Evansville, Indiana, for the production of a full line of refrigeration equipment including dehumidifiers and air conditioners. Soon the Evanston facility was producing 200 chest-type freezers per day. (Barbara Marsh, A Corporate Tragedy, The Agony of International Harvester [Doubleday: Garden City, N.Y., 1985], pp. 74 and 102. Although out of print for a number of years, a second edition of this book is now being sold for $29.95 from Binder Books, Scott and Cyndi Satterlund, P.O. Box 230269, Tigard, OR 97281-0269, Tel: (503) 684-2024, FAX: (503) 684-3990, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Home page: www.binderbooks.com.)
The diversion of capital and research money into the new Cub tractor and into the refrigeration component meant that less money was available for improvement in the design of large tractors in the International Harvester line, like the Farmall M. Company officials did not worry about this because the M was selling quite well and they did not see the market for large tractors growing after the war. This assumption proved to be a mistake. Some writers (like Barbara Marsh, cited above) now feel that this miscalculation was an important one that eventually led to the dramatic downfall of IHC in 1985.
International Harvester, along with many other companies, had misread the minds of the World War II vets who were returning to the farm. Unlike World War I veterans, the returning veteran of the Second World War found that the whole world had changed. Back at home on the farm there had developed a race for horsepower in the tractor market. Economic conditions in the United States would no longer allow a young farmer to start farming with small tractors and equipment. Instead, he must start with big equipment to survive in the new post-war economy.
Even IHC’s 2-plow Farmall H, which had sold well during the war (See “The Wartime Farmall H” contained in the July/August 1994 issue of Belt Pulley), was now regarded as a small tractor. Sales of the H fell off dramatically as the returning veterans looked to bigger 3-plow tractors, like the Farmall M, to do farming. Indeed, the market demand for large tractors did not stop with the 3-plow-size tractors; farmers were demanding even larger tractors. Furthermore, they were demanding a variety of different options to make their farming operations easier and more efficient (i.e., live power take-off’s [PTO], live hydraulics, a wider range of tractor speeds, etc.).
The need for improvements to correct some of the shortcomings of the Farmall M created a niche in the market for production of third-party, add-on attachments for the Farmall M. This opportunity was not lost on some people. One person who saw the glaring need was Art Warsaw.
Art Warsaw was one of five sons born to William and Lena (Kalmberumn) Warsaw of Anchor, Illinois (pop. 1000), where William owned and operated the local blacksmith shop. In the middle of the First World War, William purchased a franchise to sell IHC equipment in the rural area around Anchor, Illinois. William also did some custom threshing during the harvest season, using a McCormick-Deering Mogul 30/60 to power the thresher. William would continue to operate the IHC dealership in Anchor until his death in 1963. (Indeed, the first sale from the Warsaw IHC dealership was a horse-drawn plow which sold for $20.00, minus the $5.00 allowed for the trade-in on the farmer’s old walking plow.)
Three of William and Lena’s sons would follow directly in their father’s footsteps and become IHC dealers. George, the oldest, owned and operated the IHC dealership in Saybrook, Illinois (pop. 767). Earnest, the second born, owned and operated a Chevrolet dealership. Edward, the third son, obtained employment with the Caterpillar Company. Art went away to military service in the Second World War, and upon his return from the war in 1946, bought the franchise for the IHC dealership in Minier, Illinois (pop. 1,155). Later, when the demands of the new M & W Company began to dominate all of Art’s time, he sold the Minier dealership to his youngest brother, Howard. “We all ended up in nuts and bolts,” says Art Warsaw. In 1952, Art married Gertrude Freitag.
As with many IHC dealerships across the nation, the Farmall M was the leading sales product at Art Warsaw’s dealership. However, area farmers expressed dissatisfaction to Art concerning the problems of the Farmall M, especially the lack of speed ranges available from the five-speed transmission. The Farmall M developed 2-5/8 mph in 1st gear, 3-1/2 mph in 2nd gear, 4-1/8 mph in 3rd gear, 5-1/8 mph in 4th gear, and 16-3/8 mph in 5th gear. It was this huge gap between 4th and 5th gears which caused the most concern for potential buyers.
Art Warsaw shared this concern with a friend of his–Elmo Meiners–a native of the Anchor, Illinois, area. Elmo’s parents, Ed and Jessie (Rheinert) Meiners, had raised Elmo and his two brothers, Peter and John, on a farm in rural Anchor. Elmo had started in the grain buying business in 1940 by obtaining the grain elevator in Anchor. At about the same time, he married LaVerne McCown, also of Anchor. (Following the death of his father in the 1960s, Elmo’s mother continued to live on the family farm until she was 93. This farm is now owned and operated by Elmo’s brother, Peter Meiners.)
Together, in 1946, Elmo Meiners and Art Warsaw set about finding a solution to the problem of a lack of speed ranges between the 4th and 5th gears on the Farmall M. Art, who along with his brother Edward had attended Caterpillar School and became apprentice mechanics, had been working on an auxiliary kit of gears which, if added to the transmission of a Farmall M, would fill this gap by adding the new speeds–6 mph, 8 mph, 10 mph, and 12 mph. Additionally, because the gears of the auxiliary transmission were in constant mesh, the transmission could be shifted from the regular transmission speeds to the new range of speeds without stopping the tractor simply be engaging a clutch lever which was added to the transmission. (If this sounds familiar to Farmall enthusiasts, it’s because the new transmission was really close to operating in the same way as the Torque Amplifier, or TA system, which would be introduced by International Harvester in 1954 on the Super MTA.)
After hours in the basement of the Meiners Grain Company elevator office building in Anchor, Elmo and Art finally finished building a prototype of the auxiliary transmission kit, which was called the “nine-speed transmission,” for the Farmall M and installed it on a 1941 Farmall M which was being used by Peter Meiners, Elmo’s brother, on his farm. This 1941 Farmall M, nicknamed “Big Bertha, ” was used as a demonstrator tractor by Elmo Meiners and Art Warsaw to advertise their new nine-speed transmission to dealerships across the midwest. (Big Bertha was pictured in the March 19, 1949 Bloomington Pantagraph.) Later, Big Bertha was outfitted with every M & W option available for the Farmall M and continued its life as a demonstrator. Later still, Big Bertha was purchased by Bert Bradford who worked at Dennis Word Dealership, the International Harvester dealership in nearby Colfax, Illinois (pop. 854). Bert then sold Big Bertha to his son, Larry Bradford, of Findlay, Illinois (pop. 787), where it remains to this day. (Much of the credit for researching the subsequent history of Big Bertha belongs with M & W historian–and Belt Pulley subscriber–Darius Harms, of St. Joseph, Illinois. An avid IHC Collector, Darius and his wife, Lois, are reputed to have the largest collection of M & W literature in the world.)
The new auxiliary transmission made by Meiners and Warsaw was made to fit either the Farmall M or the Farmall H, with installation made directly to the original transmission by drilling only a single hole in the transmission housing for the addition of the single extra clutch lever that was required. Simple as it was, however, installation required tools and mechanical skills not found in the average farm shop. Thus, it was intended that installation would be conducted at an experienced garage. Consequently, Elmo Meiners saw that the real market for new transmission kits would be the various individual IHC dealerships. Marketing was not made directly to farmers. The company that Meiners and Warsaw would form would come to rely in large part on word-of-mouth and the dealerships for advertising their products.
In terms of an initial customer base, Meiners and Warsaw were extremely fortunate in their location in north-central Illinois. IHC had divided Illinois into a number of sales districts which were served by a centrally located “branch house.” By 1949, there seemed to be an IHC dealership in every small hamlet in Illinois. The branch house in Peoria, which served north-central Illinois, supplied 81 dealership franchises in that district alone. These 81 dealerships would serve as an immediate customer base to get the new company off the ground.
After two years of study and of building the prototype, and following the successful pilot project, by the fall of 1948 Meiners and Warsaw formed the M & W Company and started manufacturing the nine-speed transmission for sale to the buying public at a retail price of $159.00 per kit. To advertise the newly manufactured nine-speed transmission to IHC dealers of the midwestern area, M & W hauled Big Bertha from town to town and provided live demonstrations.
Friends of the M & W partners long felt that the “M” and the “W” in the company name should stand for “money” and “wit” to reflect the different personalities of the two partners. Within the new company, Elmo Meiners tended to handle promotion and sales, the “money” end of the new business, while Art Warsaw brought his skills (“wit”) to the technological portion of the new business. One of the important requirements that Art insisted on was that the gears for the transmission kit be of a quality no less than, and possibly better than, the quality of the original equipment gears used in Farmall tractors. Consequently, M & W ordered its gears from the Illinois Gear Company of Chicago, whose gears were quality-made using the “drop forge” method of manufacture. The “drop forge” process assured that the interior grain structure of the metal in each gear would make the gear strong. A cheaper method of making gears by milling the gear from a piece of stock metal was rejected by M & W. Furthermore, the teeth of the M & W gears were coated with a special alloy which reduced wear. Additionally, the teeth of each gear were “crown shaved,” which meant that when the gears were in mesh, the bearing surface of each tooth would be on the middle of the tooth rather than at the tip of the tooth. Quality “drop forge” gears were more expensive; however, by embarking on this more expensive road from the very beginning, M & W was able to obtain an important edge over its competition.
M & W’s main competition with regard to third-party, add-on transmissions was the Heisler Manufacturing Company, started by a farmer in the Hudson, Iowa, area named Harry Heisler. Together with his wife, Agnes, Harry Heisler not only operated their family farm, but managed the Heisler business uptown in Hudson which initially made auxiliary transmissions for the Farmall F-12, F-20 and F-30. The gears used by Heisler were not “drop-forge” gears; rather, they were cut from a simple piece of stock metal. While these gears worked fine in auxiliary transmissions for the F-Series, the cheaper gears ran into trouble when installed in the newer post-1939 Farmall tractors. It was not long before M & W‘s drop-forge gears became clearly recognized by IHC dealerships as being superior to Heisler’s stock metal gears. The choice between Heisler and M & W became simple. Soon M & W far out-distanced Heisler in sales, and shortly came to dominate the entire market for third-party, add-on transmissions.
Other parts for new M & W transmissions were also obtained from out-source suppliers and received in Anchor along with the gears for final assembly in the basement of the Meiners grain elevator. Once all the outsourced products were delivered to the grain elevator, the auxiliary transmission kits could be assembled. The only difficulty was trying to keep up with the orders that began to pour in.
Small as it was at birth, M & W was to be an entrepreneur’s dream. It was a huge overnight success. The two partners were swamped with orders, and demand soon outstripped the ability of the two partners to assemble the transmission kits. (An article in the March 19, 1949 Bloomington Pantagraph newspaper of nearby Bloomington, Illinois, reported that already in early 1949 the new company was unable to keep up with the orders for new transmission kits.) Realizing the need to expand out of the basement of the elevator into bigger facilities, Elmo and Art bought an old abandoned school house four miles southeast of Anchor for $325.00. This school house served as the new M & W assembly facility, where gears and parts were received and six newly-hired employees conducted the final assembly of the transmission kits and shipped the finished kits to the dealers. One of the original six employees who worked in the school house was Donald Bielfeldt of Colfax. He was just out of high school and living on the family farm with his parents. On Christmas Day, 1949, he sought out Elmo Meiners to see if he could come to work for the new company. No doubt impressed by the spunk of this youngster seeking employment on Christmas Day, Elmo Meiners hired him on the spot. Donald went to work for M & W on December 27, 1949. He would stay with the company and eventually be promoted to foreman. He would retire from the company only in April of 1995. Also employed with Donald at the school house was a fellow classmate of his, Richard Coultas. It was a pretty young workforce that gathered at the school house to become the first M & W employees. Another employee was Gail Humphrey who was only about five years older than Coultas and Bielfeldt. Yet another employee, Frank Calvert, was the “old man” in his 30’s. None of the new employees had any experience in the field of machine tools or mechanics. They were hired based solely on their apparent willingness to work, and work they did. Soon the old converted school house was humming with activity. Eventually, the six M & W employees in the school house were assembling and shipping 1000 transmission per month, or an average of 50 kits per day.
One problem faced by the new company was how to stay out in front of the burgeoning demand for its product. Having settled the manpower problem, M & W now found that sales of its transmission kits were exceeding the capability of the Illinois Gear Company to supply gears in the numbers needed. Consequently, M & W turned to Fairfield Manufacturing of LaFayette, Indiana, as its supplier. Fairfield had a much larger capacity to make the amount of drop-forge gears required by the M & W Company.
The astonishing success of the sales of M & W transmission kits led Art and Elmo to introduce another improvement for Farmall tractors in 1951–oversized pistons and sleeves. M & W’s oversized pistons increased the 3-7/8″ bore of each piston on the Farmall M to a full 4″ bore. This raised the maximum horsepower up to about 45 hp from the standard horsepower rating of 36.07 hp. (C.H. Wendel, Nebraska Tractor Tests Since 1920 [Crestline Publishing: Osceola, Wis., 1985], p. 120.) M & W pistons and sleeves were even more popular than the nine-speed transmission kits, with sales skyrocketing almost immediately. IHC dealerships reported back to M & W that farmers were ordering new Farmalls only with the assurance that the new tractors would be fitted with M & W pistons and sleeves before the new tractor was delivered to the farm. In the end, the M & W name would be more associated with oversized pistons and sleeves than with any other product they sold. Big Bertha, too, was outfitted with these new larger pistons in order to demonstrate the new power that could be achieved with M & W pistons.
However, improvements were also being made to the M & W auxiliary transmission as time went by. To advertise the new improvements to the auxiliary transmission, another 1941 Farmall M was outfitted with the newer, nine-speed transmission kit and the oversized pistons. This tractor, nicknamed “Old Grandpappy,” became another demonstrator used by M & W. Along with Big Bertha, Old Grandpappy was subsequently fitted with each new product introduced by M & W. Old Grandpappy was also purchased by Bert Bradford and is currently being used on his farm near Colfax. Years later, another Farmall M was outfitted with all of the M & W products. This tractor is still retained by Elmo Meiners and is exhibited at many shows around the nation.
The spectacular success of the M & W Company was not greeted with warm approval by the International Harvester Company. Naturally, the “company stores,” or dealerships owned by IHC, were forbidden from dealing in M & W parts. However, there was little that IHC could do to prevent the vast majority of independently-owned, local franchise dealerships from openly selling and installing M & W products on the Farmall tractors that they sold. Nonetheless, IHC repeatedly sent letters to its independent franchise dealers warning of dire consequences which could occur to those tractors fitted with M & W options. IHC alleged that both the oversized pistons and/or the nine-speed transmissions would put undue strain on the power train and cause early wear. However, quite to the contrary, one of the incidental benefits of the M & W auxiliary transmission was to lengthen the life of one trouble spot in the power train which was traditionally a Farmall problem. In the standard transmission of a Farmall M or H, the pilot bearing of the transmission was lubricated by the splash of the oil from rapidly spinning gears in the transmission. This proved to be insufficient lubrication for the pilot bearing, and the pilot bearing was routinely replaced on many older Farmalls. With the installation of the M & W auxiliary transmission kit, oil was actively pumped into the pilot bearing continuously while the transmission was running, and thus the pilot bearing was better lubricated and lasted longer.
The hostile reaction of IHC was not altogether a predictable reaction, because on at least one occasion in the past, IHC had cooperated with a third-party manufacturer–the Monroe Company, makers of the hydraulic (Monroe) seat, consisting of a coil spring and a Monroe shock absorber. The Monroe seat became the standard seat on the Farmall M and H. The frequency with which even 1938 F-20s are now seen with this type of seat, rather than the standard IHC seat, suggests that by 1938, IHC had entered into a mutually beneficial relationship regarding the installation of the Monroe seat on Farmall tractors. Although the Monroe seat may have been offered as an IHC-sanctioned option available through the IHC dealerships, it is clear that later the seat became a factory-installed option and, finally, standard equipment on Farmall M’s and H’s. In the case of the Monroe seat, IHC seems to have co-oped the third-party suppliers rather than fight against them. However, there was never any similar attempt to co-opt M & W, and International Harvester remained hostile to M & W all of its life as a corporation.
Nonetheless, recognizing the benefits of M & W products, IHC began making changes to its new Super-series tractors to correct some of the shortcomings of the Farmall M and H tractors addressed by the M & W products. When the Farmall Super M came on the market in 1952, it had a 4″ cylinder bore, and the Super H was increased from a 3-3/8″ cylinder bore to a 3-1/2″ bore. (Alan C. King, International Harvester [Independent Print Shop Co.: Delaware, Ohio, 1989], p. 18.) Later, in 1954, IHC introduced the torque-amplifier which had the effect of introducing five new speed ranges to the Farmall Super MTA and later Farmall tractor models. Still, the five new speeds were reduced speeds of the original five gears. Thus, the only speed to fall between the original 4th gear (5-1/8 mph) and the original 5th gear (16-3/8 mph) was the new intermediate 5th gear at 11-1/4 mph. Clearly, the M & W nine-speed auxiliary transmission was still a better alternative to fill the large gap between the 4th and 5th gears. Nonetheless, IHC was attempting to squeeze the M & W market by making the new improvements standard equipment or by offering the new improvements as factory-installed options. This fact was not lost on Art Warsaw in 1954.
Successful entrepreneurs are often faced with a dilemma about the companies they initiate–whether to continue on in the management of a company after the company has been successfully started, or to sell the company to someone else and to move on to the next challenge. It takes a dispassionate appraisal of one’s own abilities and a frank estimate of a company’s ability to continue to gain value to accurately gauge this question, and the answer was different for the two partners involved in the M & W Company. Elmo Meiners looked forward to introducing new M & W products to improve the versatility and adaptability of Farmall tractors; Art Warsaw, on the other hand, felt that the market for M & W products would inevitability shrink as International Harvester introduced new model tractors with factory installed features. Better, Art felt, to sell the Company now when it was at the peak of its value and let someone else run the company. Consequently, in 1954, Art sold his interest in M & W Company to Bert Ertel of Indianapolis, Indiana. The Company, however, continued to operate under the name M & W Company.
By 1954, farmers were beginning to require many more new improvements to make their lives on the farm easier and more efficient. One such improvement was a “live” power take-off (PTO) which would allow the PTO to run continuously, even while the drive train clutch was disengaged. The Oliver Company had been the first company to bring this improvement to the modern farm tractor. Now, International Harvester was scrambling to catch up. Although IHC introduced live power as an option on the Super M in 1954, M & W once again saw an opening, and that same year started manufacturing a live-PTO kit to be installed onto older Farmalls.
In 1955, M & W Company saw another opening in the market and introduced a live hydraulic kit to be retro-fitted onto older Farmalls. International Harvester had introduced live-hydraulics as a factory installed option in 1953. Live hydraulics allowed the hydraulic system to operate independently of the drive train clutch. Other M & W products followed: the friction throttle; and a new, more powerful starter to turn the Farmall engine with its higher compression created by the new M & W oversized, or “turbo-dome,” pistons. In 1959, M & W developed a super-charger for diesel engines on some of the later model Farmalls.
Even though the rate of growth of the company was not as spectacular as it had been in the early years, the M & W Company, nonetheless, continued to grow steadily with the injection of fresh capital under the new management of Elmo Meiners and Bert Ertel. In 1956, the company moved to larger facilities in Gibson City, occupying the Monnie Wagonseller garage at 523 South Sangamon. The company now employed its own engineering department, consisting of two engineers and four draftsmen. In October 1960, Phyllis (Martinsen) Anderson was hired as secretary of the engineering department and stayed on for 20 years, commuting 8-1/2 miles from the farm where she lived with her husband Vern. She became endeared to the company, and put her two sons through college on the salary she received. Phyllis has become the unofficial historian of the M & W Company in the years since her retirement in December 1980. Loyalty to the company seems to be a trademark of M & W employees. In 1963, Dean Greenlee was hired by M & W while he was still in his 30s. Young as he was when he started, Dean, unlike so many other employees hired by M & W, did have past experience working with factory machines. He had previously been employed with General Electric. Dean remained with M & W, working in the fabrication department of the company until his retirement in 1993. Other employees of the M & W Company were John White of Anchor, Illinois, and Dean Greenlee and Don Hammer, both of Colfax, Illinois. Much of the information on past employees of the M & W Company has been collected by Belt Pulley subscriber Dale Smith and his father, the late Poland Smith, of Colfax, Illinois.
In 1964, the company purchased its present location on the south edge of Gibson City. Despite delays imposed by some tornado damage in September 1965, the construction was completed by March 1966, and the total floor space in the nine buildings at the site reached 200,000 square feet.
True to form, the M & W Company continued to adapt itself to the changing market conditions in United States agriculture. In the spring of 1986, the company obtained the rights to sell the Culti-A-Master minimum tillage farm implement from the South Dakota farmer who had developed it. M & W then began manufacture of the Culti-A-Master.
Elmo Meiners retired from the company in 1989 at the age of 75. However, his unflagging, restless energy found retirement to be too confining, and he became involved in another commercial venture producing golf carts. After selling his interest in M & W Company, Art Warsaw initiated another successful and well-known company called the K & W Company. K & W developed and manufactures its well-known and popular water-cooled dynamometer which populates many threshing shows around the nation.
Also populating the various threshing show sites around the nation are many tractors which at one time had–and many still have–M & W Company products as a part of their makeup. These tractors remain monuments to the little company that sprang up so spectacularly in the late 1940s and early 1950s.