Brian Wayne Wells
This article remains under construction. Periodically new blocks of text and media may appear and/or the present blocks of text will be modified or corrected.
(This is not the first time that the history of the French and Hecht Company [F. & H. Company] has been brought to the pages of Belt Pulley magazine. Chad Elmore wrote a fine history of F. & H. called “Who Can You Thank for Your Tractor’s Wheels?” which was carried in the November/December 1999 issue of Belt Pulley magazine. The Elmore article also discussed the history of the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company of Davenport, Iowa, the Peru Plow and Wheel Company of Peru, Illinois and the Electric Wheel Company of Quincy, Illinois. The present article merely attempts to supplement the information contained in that prior article. )
Restorers of old farm equipment find them on old machinery and/or collect them for their own tractor or farm equipment restoration projects. They are the round-spoke steel wheel rims for rubber tires bearing the familiar F.& H insignia.
They came in all sizes for tractor wheels (front or rear) and implement wheels. They became most famous during the time when rubber tires were first being mounted on farm tractors and farm implements. They are the round-spoke wheel rims made by the French and Hecht Company (F.& H.) of Davenport, Iowa. F.& H. was a “B. to B.” (business to business) type company. B. to B. companies supply products to other businesses rather than supplying products to the “end users.” F.& H. supplied round-spoke steel wheels of all sizes to a variety of tractor and farm equipment manufacturers.
In 1929, the Allis Chalmers Manufacturing Company was the first farm equipment company to introduce farm tractors and farm equipment on pneumatic rubber tires. To supply the rims for their rubber tires, Allis-Chalmers signed a contract with the F.& H. Company. Allis-Chalmers used 24 inch F.& H. round-spoke rims for the rear wheels of their line of tractors like the Model WC and 17 inch F.& H. round spoke rims on front wheels of the Model WC. By the mid-1930s, nearly all tractor and farm equipment manufacturers began following Allis-Chalmers’ lead and began offering the option of tractors with rubber tires. Nearly all of these farm equipment companies turned to the F.& H. Company to supply the rims they needed for growing number of tractors and farm equipment, they were selling with the option of rubbers tires. (The International Harvester Company [I.H.C.] was one of these farm equipment companies that turned to F.& H. to supply all the their needs for rims for rubber tires on tractors and farm equipment. This “supply contract” that I.H.C. signed with F.& H. is alluded in the two-part series of articles on a particular Little Genius plow which was used in Dryden Township, Sibley County, Minnesota, which is carried in January/February 2009 and the March/April 2009 issues of Belt Pulley magazine and is currently published on this website.) Consequently, the familiar round-spoke rim embossed with the “F & H” insignia became a familiar sight on farms around the nation.
Prior to the introduction of rubber tires on farm equipment, the French and Hecht Company had dominated the steel wheel market. This dominance was based on the contracts from farm equipment manufacturers. F.& H. all-steel wheels with the familiar “round spokes” were installed on wagons, threshers, hay loaders, sulky plows and other farm equipment across the nation. With the introduction of pneumatic rubber tires on farm equipment and the sudden growth of that market, F.& H. round spoke rims for use with the pneumatic rubber tires inherited a position of dominance in the market for rims.
The F.& H. Company also inherited the basic design of the all-steel wheel itself. In the beginning, the all-steel wheel was known as the “Bettendorf steel wheel” which originally had been the brain child of William Bettendorf. Thus, our story does not begin with a person named “French” or “Hecht. ” Rather our story actually begins with two men named Bettendorf—William Bettendorf and his brother Joseph W. Bettendorf. William P. Bettendorf had been born to German immigrant parents—Michael and Catherine (Reck) Bettendorf—in Mendota, Illinois, on July 1, 1857.
William’s father, Michael Bettendorf, had arrived in the United States at the age of 16 years with his parents (William’s grandparents) in 1853. In about 1856, Michael had married Catherine Reck, whose family had come over from the Prussian part of the German Confederation in 1846. The couple settled in Mendota, Illinois, where Michael found work as a school teacher. William P. Bettendorf was the couple’s first born child.
Later, the young family moved to Sedalia, Missouri, where Michael operated a grocery store. In 1864, the family moved again to Leavenworth, Kansas, where Michael worked as a clerk for the United States government in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. While at Leavenworth, a second son, Joseph W. Bettendorf was born to the family on October 10, 1864.
Young William began to become independent at a very early age. In 1870 he became a telegraph messenger in Humboldt, Kansas. He also worked as a clerk for the G.Y. Smith Boot and Shoe Store. In 1872, at the age of 15 years, William moved back to Illinois, accepting a job working in a “dry goods” or hardware store owned by A. L. Shepard located in Peru, Illinois. In the following year, 1873, William’s parents and brother also moved back to Illinois, to taking up farming near Peru.
Even while working as an apprentice at Shepherd’s dry good store, William Bettendorf, began to show a startling mechanical ability. One day at the dry goods store William found a drawer full of knives. The knives had been placed in the drawer because they were regarded as “un-saleable.” William fashioned a buffing wheel and attached it to a sewing machine. With this apparatus, William buffed all the knives in the drawer and soon had all the knives polished and ready for sale again.
The same mechanical ability that had led him to build this buffing machine proved to be William’s true calling. Accordingly, he became apprenticed to the Brunner Foundary and Machine Shop in Peru. Following this apprenticeship, William became a machinist working for the Peru Plow Company. In 1878, while working for Peru Plow and while still only 21 years of age, William invented a power-lift mechanism for a sulky plow by attaching a ratchet wheel to the hub of the wheel of a sulky plow. The power lift mechanism was connected to the plow bottoms and allowed the operator to merely touch a control latch to allow the wheel of the plow to pull the plow bottoms out of the ground at the end of the field. This was a very handy invention that permitted the sulky plow operator to remain in his seat while lifting the plow bottoms. Soon this labor-saving improvement was adopted by nearly all the major plow manufacturers and became universally employed on horse plows and, later, on tractor-drawn trailing plows.
A year, later in 1879, the up and coming inventor married Mary Wortman, the 21 year-old daughter of John and Henrietta Wortman of Peru, Illinois. In 1880, William went to work as a foreman in the factory of the Moline Plow Company located in Moline, Illinois. Later he worked for another plow company—the Parlin & Orendorff (P. & O.) Company of Canton, Illinois.
However, by 1882, William was back in the employ of the Peru Plow Company, this time in the position of superintendent. At about this time, another idea began floating around in the back of William’s very creative mind. William thought of a re-design of the simple wooden wagon wheel. Indeed, William’s idea was to entirely replace the wooden wheel with with an “all-metal” wheel. Composed of a cast iron hub with drilled holes into which steel spokes would be pressed. William built the first of these metal wheels in 1884. William Bettendorf applied to the U. S. Patent Office for a patent on this wheel and on September 1, 1885, he received the patent on his wheel. Peru Plow began mass production of the William’s wheel even while the patent was still pending and the production of the wheels proved to be an immediate sales success. This wheel and later variations of it were known as the “Betterndorf” wheel. To accelerate production of the Bettendorf wheel, William invented a new machine to streamline the production process and sought and received another patent for this new machine on February 9, 1886.
However, as much as William pressed Peru Plow to step up production of the Bettendorf wheel, Peru Plow resisted increasing production, citing the problems with the hub of the wheel that caused occasional buckling of the wheel. William Bettendorf designed improvements to the hub of his wheel to strengthen the hub. On October 27, 1885, William received a separate patent on the new, improved and stronger hub. On June 24, 1886, Peru Plow officially changed its name to Peru Plow and Wheel Company. Still Peru Plow refused to increase production of the Bettendorf wheel beyond existing levels. Finally, William Bettendorf was forced to leave Peru Plow in 1886 and establish his own company–called the Bettendorf Wheel Company. Interest in the strong, new, Bettendorf wheel mushroomed as other farm manufacturers began to submit large orders for the wheel. So impressed was the company with the prospects for the new metal wheel, that Peru Plow changed its own name to the Peru Plow and Wheel Company.
William saw that the production facilities of the Peru Plow Company were insufficient to keep up with the skyrocketing demand for the metal wheel. William continued to draw attention to this problem. However, the Peru Plow Company was unwilling to undertake any expansion of their manufacturing facilities. At the same time, they refused all of William’s suggestions that the metal wheel operation be spun off into an independent corporate concern. Accordingly, William eventually, was forced to take his patent and leave Peru Plow to start a company of his own to manufacture his metal wheel.
Needing capital to start his new business venture, William, as a second generation German-American, turned to the German Savings Bank in nearby Davenport, Iowa. C.M. Voss and L.P. Best of German Savings, were known for favoring corporate projects of German-Americans of the Davenport community. As part of a financing package, German Savings Bank put William Bettendorf in contact with E. P. Lynch, one of the owners of the Eagle Manufacturing Company. E. P. Lynch was interested in investing in the new business enterprise with his own money. Additionally, he put William Bettendorf in contact with George H. French, the current president and original founder of the Eagle Manufacturing Company. At the suggestion of E. P. Lynch, George H. French and both of his sons Nathaniel and George Watson French provided part of the initial startup capital for the new company. Both of the French sons would later become very closely associated with the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company. Currently, however, they arranged for the new company to rent factory space called “the old Donahue factory” which was owned by the Eagle Manufacturing Company. The old Donahue factory is situated on the banks of the Mississippi River at the corner of Front (now River Street) and Ripley Streets in Davenport, Iowa.
Thus, on September 12, 1886, William P. Bettendorf officially opened the doors of his own new company under the name the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company at the old Donahue factory site. He and his family moved across the Mississippi River from Moline, Illinois, to Davenport, Iowa and settled in a house located at 402 E. 6th Street in Davenport.
It was a glorious time in the prosperous up and coming river town of Davenport, Iowa. (The optimism of Iowa during this time is captured in the 1962 movie, The Music Man.) Being located on the banks of the Mississippi River, Davenport was on the border between the state of Iowa and the state of Illinois. Directly across the river, were the towns of Moline and Rock Island, Illinois. During this time, Davenport, Moline and Rock Island were gradually becoming integrated into a single economic unit. On August 8, 1888, a group of Chicago investors bought out the street car lines of Davenport, Iowa, Moline and Rock Island Illinois. This new street car organization then built a bridge across the Mississippi River from Davenport to Rock Island which accommodated the rails of the street cars. Accordingly, the street car lines of all three cities were then physically linked together. On Christmas Day 1888, the first street car ran across the bridge connecting Davenport and Rock Island. By this physical connection the three cities took a long step toward becoming a single economic entity.
The 1880s was an optimistic time. Still even in the best of times, isolated adverse economic incidents did occur. Witness the “run” on the German Savings Bank which began in late 1886, almost the same time William P. Bettendorf opened the doors of his new company. Patrons of the bank began withdrawing their funds from the bank. The “run” continued until November 26, 1888 and severely weakened the bank’s largest corporate customers, including the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company. Without the help of their bank, the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company was driven into the arms of the French brothers. The French brothers were called upon to put up more capital or to arrange for new investors and they did so, increasing their own share of ownership in the Bettendorf Wheel Company.
Still the Bettendorf all-metal wheel remained a very popular sales item. Sales continued to flourish. The company’s main problem was to expand its manufacturing base to keep up with the rising demand. In 1890, the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company opened another factory works in Springfield, Ohio, just to keep up with the growing demand for all-metal wheels. In 1888, William’s younger brother, Joseph W. Bettendorf joined the business as superintendent. With the opening of the new factory works in Springfield, Ohio, Joseph became “President” in charge over the new factory in Springfield. However, even with the new Springfield facility, continuing growth in the sales of the Bettendorf metal wheel forced the company to obtain a still larger manufacturing base. Accordingly, the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company sought to expand their main factory in Davenport. Thus, in 1889, the Company moved its Davenport works to new larger facilities located a few blocks away at 4th and Farnam Streets in Davenport. These new facilities were, now, the largest factory works in Davenport, Iowa.
At about this time, William developed an all-steel wagon gear which incorporated many new ideas that sprang from his mind. The new all-steel wagon gear also proved to be a sales success. Flushed with excitement and success over sales of the new all-metal wagon gear, William and Joseph sent an excited prospectus out to all the other investors in their company which outlined new business directions in which William and Joseph wished to take the company.
These plans alarmed the more conservative investors, including the French brothers, who wished to start reaping the dividends of the success of the all-metal wheel rather than seeing the profits plowed back into new corporate adventures. Especially, in light of the recent expansions of the company, the investors on the board were now much more cautious.
Accordingly, the board imposed controls on William’s ability run the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company according to his own wishes. Conflict arose between William Bettendorf and the board. The board, controlled in large part by the French brothers, sought to protect their interests.
Hoping to appease the Board, William Bettendorf stepped down as president of the company that he had founded and that continued to bear his name and he installed his brother, Joseph W. Bettendorf, as his successor. The Board continued to be suspicious because William retained a position as vice-president in the company. In 1889, the French family persuaded a majority of the Board to elect Nathaniel French as vice president of the Bettendorf Wheel Company in place of William Bettendorf to protect the interests of the board in the day-to-day management of the company. Thus, the French brothers began to participate in the day-to-day affairs of the company.
To strengthen their position even more within the company, the French family persuaded the to take the Bettendorf Wheel Company public. The Company would then be a a publicly traded corporation. Such a move usually strengthens the management of a corporation. With the French family now in control of the managment of Bettendorf Wheel, going public at this particular time would only strengthen the French family financial interests. Accordingly, in 1890, the Bettendorf Wheel Company was officially incorporated in the State of Iowa as a legal corporation with $1,000,000 of initial capital.
William Bettendorf was still bubbling over with ideas. However, he knew that, the present board of the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company would surely not agree to these risky new endeavors. Consequently in 1892, William resigned his position as vice–president in the company and sold a substantial part of his own interest in the company to Nathaniel and George Watson French. William also sold the numerous patents he owned on the Bettendorf wheel and the Bettendorf all-metal wagon gear to the French brothers.
On May 1, 1893, the Columbian Exposition in Chicago (nick-named the “Chicago World’s Fair”) opened. The Bettendorf all-metal wagon gear was exhibited at the 1893 Fair and created a sensation.
However, even by the time that the World’s Fair had opened, William had already made up his mind that he would have form a new corporate entity. In that same year, (1893), William’s brother, Joseph W. Betttendorf also left the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company and joined his brother in attempting the new venture.
On January 1, 1895, William and his brother Joseph P. Bettendorf organized another separate corporate entity called the Bettendorf Hollow Steel Axle Company which made axles for wagons. The new corporation occupied factory space at Scott and Ripley Streets in Davenport to produce the wagon axles. The primary customer of the new company was the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company, (now under the control of the French brothers). Despite their disagreements about corporate strategy, the French brothers, nonetheless, found that the “hollow axle,” made by William’s new company, was an ideal axle for the all-metal wagon gear the French Brothers were now producing.
William was enthusiastic about the promising future of his new company. William’s new company was established as a corporation with publicly traded stock. This meant that shares of ownership in the corporation would be sold to the public and then the shares were generally resold innumerable times on a public stock exchange—perhaps the New York Stock Exchange. The pool of investors would be much larger and, as a rule, each individual investor would usually own much less than 1% of the total corporation. With such a large pool of investors and considering the frequent buying and selling of the company stock on the public exchange, any stockholder opposition to William’s business plans would be would be hard to organize. Given this situation, William P. Bettendorf expected that he as management of the new corporation would have far less interference from the investors than he had experienced with the small number of investors in the “privately held” Bettendorf Wheel Company. Thus, William Bettendorf felt he would, finally, have the freedom to pursue his dreams and innovations in this new corporate setting.
Starting in 1897, the new company started selling wagon axles to so many other wagon companies. The French brothers were no longer the primary customer of the new company. However, William Bettendorf’s vision for the company was much wider than a mere vehicle for the manufacture of farm wagon axles. William was aware that, by the 1890s, the farm wagon market was a limited market. On the other hand, the new and growing railroad industry seemed limitless. He felt that he would have a more promising future by making axles for the railroads rather than making axles for farm wagons.
While studying railroad axles, William Bettendorf became aware that there was a strong need among the railroads for a better-designed side truck frame. The side truck frame was the wheeled unit located at either end of a typical railroad car. Each side truck frame contained two axles and four railroad wheels. At the turn of the 20th Century, the side truck frame in use, typically, consisted of as many as 41 separate pieces of metal which were bolted together. In operation, these pieces could sometimes accidentally become un-bolded due to vibration. Once sufficiently unbolted the side truck frame could easily fall apart and cause a derailment of a train. William, saw this problem as an opportunity for his new company. He began working on a design for a new cast-iron side truck frame for railroad cars as early as 1894. William Bettendorf attempted to design a side truck frame with many fewer parts. Indeed, he, eventually, designed a side truck frame that consisted on only a single-piece design.
In 1899, the Bettendorf Hollow Axle Company started mass production of William’s single-piece side truck frame. The single-piece side truck frame was a great success and sales of the single-piece side-truck frame propelled the Bettendorf Hollow Axle Company to success and made the fortunes of the Bettendorf families. By January of 1902 the Bettendorf Hollow Axle Company was employing 400 workers on its day shift and 300 on its night shift.
Just when all seemed to moving smoothly for the Company a fire broke out at about 12:50 PM in the afternoon of January 28, 1902 and causing $200,000 of damage to the company facilities. William Bettendorf tried to rebuild. However, another fire occurred a mere three (3) months later on May 1, 1902, causing an additional $250,000 worth of financial loss to the Company. William was convinced that he needed to move his company out of the crowded riverfront area of Davenport. Consequently, the Bettendorf Axle Company moved out of Davenport, altogether, and relocted its facilities on a 60-acre site in the “Gilberttown District,” located a few miles to the east of Davenport.
The people of the Gilberttown community were so thankful for the new large corporate employer that had moved into their small unincorporated community, that on June 5, 1903 the citizens of the Gilberttown District chose to incorporate their community as a village and name the village, “Bettendorf.” With that incorporation, there were now four towns (Bettendorf and Davenport Iowa and across the Mississippi River Moline and Rock Island, Illinois) located adjacent to each other. Bettendorf was soon drawn into the orbit of the three larger cities. This new four-city entity became known as the “Quad Cities.” William Bettendorf’s anticipation of a grand future being a supplier to the railroads proved to be prophetic. The Bettendorf Hollow Axle Company made both William P. and Joseph W. Bettendorf very wealthy.
Both brothers built mansions in Bettendorf, which remain as local landmarks to this day. In 1909, William and his second wife, Elizabeth (Staby) Bettendorf, began work on a 22-room Spanish/Moorish-style house located at 2500 Grant Street overlooking the factory works of the Bettendorf Hollow Axle Company.
However, William died in 1910, before the dream house was complete. The house was finished only after his death. Today the home serves as part of the Iowa Masonic Heath Facilities’ in the Masonic Village section of Bettendorf.
In 1914, Joseph W. Bettendorf and his wife, Elizabeth (Ohl) Bettendorf, began constructing a 30-room English Manor-style mansion on 17 acres of land located 1821 Sunset Drive in Bettendorf. Today this building is part of the Rivermont Collegiate campus.
While the Bettendorf brothers were finding their success in the new city of Bettendorf, their former company, the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company, now controlled by the French brothers, was also starting to meet with success. The all-metal wagon gear was proving itself to be vastly more superior and more rugged than the ordinary wood and iron wagon gear. Thanks to the sensation created by the new all-metal undercarriage wagon gear at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, orders for the new all-metal wagon gear now poured in from as far away as South America and the Caribbean.
In order to raise money for the building his new house, in 1909, William P. Bettendorf had sold the remaining shares he owned in his old company—the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company—to the French brothers and their new investor, Joseph Hecht. With all the shares of the company now in their own hands, Hecht and the French brothers re-organized and renamed the company. Accordingly, the French and Hecht Company came into existence. Nathaniel and George Watson French naturally gravitated toward the corporate end of the business. The 41 year-old Joseph Hecht was another of those inventive personalities who, like William Bettendorf, enjoyed working with his hands. Thus, Hecht gravitated toward engineering and plant management side of the business. Soon Joseph Hecht, himself, was the owner of a number of patents for improvements on steel wheels and the wagon gear.
F.& H. continued in its role as a B. to B business, serving as a wholesale supplier of steel wheels to other farm equipment manufacturers. Over the years, many companies signed supply contracts with F.& H. These companies included Deere and Company of Moline, Illinois; the Massey-Harris Manufacturing Equipment Company of Toronto, Ontario, Canada; the Huber Manufacturing Company of Marion, Ohio; the Fate-Root-Heath Company of Plymouth, Ohio (maker of the Silver King tractor); the International Harvester Company of Chicago, Illinois; the Ford Motor Company of Dearborn, Michigan and as noted above, the Allis Chalmers Manufacturing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In addition to producing wheels for tractors and farm equipment, F. & H. supplied metal wheels to the Mack Company of Allentown, Pennsylvania, especially for use on the famous Mack “Bulldog” which was used extensively by the U.S. Army in Europe during the First World War.
Like so many other companies, F.& H. experienced some difficulty returning to the peace time economy, following the First World War. To make matters worse, Nathaniel French died at the age of 65 years of age on February 14, 1920. Joseph Hecht now moved over to management side of the business to fill the vacancy left by the death of the older French brother. The mid-1920s brought a return of prosperity following the post-war recession. Needing more capital than could be mustered as a “private” company, the French and Hecht Company, in 1927, incorporated as a publicly traded corporation and made an initial public offering (I.P.O.) of the shares of the company to the investing public.
As previously noted, many of the farm equipment manufacturers of North America had supply contracts with the French and Hecht Company. Based on these supply contracts, F. & H. was able, in 1928, to advertised itself as the “world’s the largest producer of steel wheels.” Indeed, F. & H. was the dominant source of steel wheels for the whole nation. Accordingly, when the Allis-Chalmers Company introduced pneumatic rubber tires for farm tractors and farm machinery, it was natural that they turned to F.& H. to supply the rims on which to mount those rubber tires. To meet the requirements of Allis-Chalmers for rubber tire rims, F.& H. took their familiar round spoke steel wheel and merely cut off the outer steel band or “tire” of their traditional steel wheel and welded on rims suitable for mounting a rubber tires.
Other major farm equipment manufacturers were not slow to follow the lead of Allis-Chalmers in offering rubber tires as an option on their farm equipment. Because these farm equipment manufacturers were not immediately able to (or, perhaps, were not inclined to) design and make their own metal wheel rims for the small amount of farmers that were requesting rubber tires on their tractors or farm equipment in the mid 1930s, these manufacturing companies also turned to F.& H. to supply them with the rims they needed for the limited rubber tire market. F.& H. used their familiar round spoke design, now modified and adapted for mounting rubber tires, to fill all these contracts.
Although F.& H. was called upon by the Allis Chalmers Company as early as 1929, to help lead the way in making rubber tires available for farm tractors, F.& H. still resisted full-scale production of rims for rubber tires. Even in 1932, when F. & H. again worked together with Allis Chalmers to design a new improved demountable rim for mounting rubber tires, F. & H. still did not immediately use this opportunity to get into mass production of either the demountable rims for rubber tires or the single piece rims for rubber tires. F.& H. made only the rims for rubber tires, that were necessary for the company to meet the supply contracts they signed with the various farm equipment manufacturers. Part of this reluctance to plunge ahead into full-scale production of metal rims for rubber tires may be explained by the onset of the Great Depression which began in late 1929 and extended until 1933. Also on November 27, 1934, the company lost another of its founders when George Watson French died. In his absence, Joseph Hecht now became president of the entire company.
By the late 1930s, the demand in rubber tire market had grown considerably. Recognizing the possibilities for more profit in this market, some farm equipment manufacturers started making their own rims for rubber tires. (The International Harvester Company was one such company. They began making cast-iron drop-center wheels with demountable rims for both the front and rear wheels of their famous Farmall tractors in 1937.) F.& H.’s share of the new market of rims for rubber tires shrunk as these farm equipment manufacturers began to cancel their contracts with F.& H. Without the sales network they might have had, if the company had started mass producing rims for rubber tires, the F.& H. Company could not recoup the market share they were loosing through the cancellation of these contracts.
The resistance on the part of the F.& H. to launch into full-scale production of rims for rubber tires created opportunities in the wheel rim market for other more aggressive companies. One of these aggressive new companies that began making wheel rims for rubber tires was the Electric Wheel Company of Quincy, Illinois. (The history of the Electric Wheel Company is the subject of another Belt Pulley magazine article which is contained at this website.) The scrappy little Electric Wheel Company was nearly as old as the French & Hecht Company and also made spoke-style steel wheels. However, the Electric Wheel Company was never able to capture enough market share of the steel wheel market to compete effectively against F.& H. Nonetheless the scrappy little Electric Wheel Company took advantage their inferior position in the market to actually listen to the complaints coming in from the field regarding the design faults of their wheels.
At first, the famous “Bettendorf wheel” was produced with all the round spokes on the wheel extending from the center of the hub to the center of the steel rim or “tire” on the outside of the steel wheel. However, as the steel wheels began to be used on the steerable (front) wheels of self-propelled equipment like steam engines and/or farm tractors, the problem of side pressure (or side stress) on the wheels began to develop. Steered wheels on the front of a steam engines or, especially tractors, are subjected to a great deal of side pressure when the front (steerable) wheels are used in the soft ground of the fields when preparing the seed bed. Under this side pressure, a steel wheel with straight spokes would tend to buckle. To solve this problem, the old Bettendorf Wheel Company began to build a steel wheel with a “staggered” set of spokes in which each of the spokes was attached, alternately, to the inside and the outside of the hub of the wheel. This created a slight triangular pattern to the spokes that greatly strengthened the steel wheels against side stress. With its slightly triangular arrangement of the spokes within the wheel, the same steel wheel would have less tendency to buckle.
However, the problem of side stress on the front wheels of tractors became much worse with the rise of the “tricycle” design of tractors. The problem was made much more worse when rubber tires were mounted on the front wheels of the tricycle-style tractor. The tricycle-style tractor had been introduced for the purpose of allowing a mechanical means for cultivating row crops. To facilitate the cultivation of row crops the tricycle-style tractor had been equipped with “fifth-wheel” type of steering, rather than the automotive-style of steering that was typical of “four wheel” or “standard” tractors.
Automotive-type steering provided each steerable wheel in the front of a standard tractor with its own vertical pivot point located on a journal behind the wheel. The “fifth-wheel” type of steering on the tricycle tractor, on the other hand, provided only a single vertical pivot point on which both front wheels were turned. This vertical pivot point is called the “bolster” and is located at the very front of the tricycle-style tractor. Fifth-wheel type steering allowed the front wheels of the tricycle style tractor to be turned to an angle approaching 90º from the straight line of the tractor. This facilitated making the sharp 180º turns required at the end of the rows when cultivating corn and allowed the tractor to start cultivating the next two adjacent rows of row crops. However, in making these sharp turns at the end of the rows, the front wheels on the tricycle tractor tended to “bulldoze” the soft soil of the corn field rather than bring the front end of the tractor around. Usually the operator was required to apply the brake to the rear wheel on the side of the tractor nearest the direction of the turn just to help bring the front end of the tractor around in the turn. Farmers found that using the tricycle-style tractors in the field and making very sharp turns in the soft ground of the average field created a great deal of side stress on the round-spoke wheels on the front end of the tractor.
This side stress on front wheels of tricycle tractors was further compounded when the tractor was fitted with rubber tires on the front. In this case, the staggered spokes of the wheel rim transferred the side stress to the point where each spoke was attached to the outer rim. In repeated operations in the field, one or more of the round-spokes would weaken and break loose at this point. Having broken entirely the round spoke would then puncture the inner tube of the rubber tire and cause a flat tire. This problem was reported back from the field and was recognized as a design error or weakness of the round spoke wheel rim. (This problem with the weakness of spoked rims on tricycle style tractors from the 1930’s is discussed in the articles called “Farming with a Styled Model WC” contained in the July/August 2007 issue of Belt Pulley magazine and is mentioned in regard to a Farmall F-30 tractor in the article called “Pig Farming [Part 2]” in the September/October 2008 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.)
Clearly the F. & H. Company had warning that they needed to redesign their rims for rubber tires. However, because of the conservative nature of their management, the F. & H. Company did not enter into an expensive re-design of its main product. Chad Elmore’s article, cited above, notes that the main reason for this reluctance may well have been the fact that there were too many companies in the small market of making steel rims for rubber tires. No single company could make sufficient profit and, thus, have capital enough to dedicate sufficient resources to financing a drastic redesign of their wheel rim.
Even though growing, the market for rubber tires on tractors and farm equipment, in the late 1930s, was still a small market. The majority of farmers buying tractors in the late 1930s still preferred the basic tractor with steel wheels rather than the more expensive optional rubber tires. Furthermore, the problem of side stress was confined to only those wheel rims that were mounted on the front of tractors. F.& H. management probably felt that any re-design of the wheel rim for this small section of the limited market rubber tire market would not likely be worth the investment and expense. They probably, felt that the F. & H. Company could safety surrender that small part of the market for wheel rims, in order to save the money of a redesign of the wheel rim. F.& H. could still sell their round spoke rims to farm equipment manufacturers for mounting on the rear of farm tractors and on pull-type farm implements where side stress presented no problem. F.& H., therefore, relinquished this small, restricted section of an overall limited rubber tire rim market in hopes of saving money.
The Electric Wheel Company, on the other hand, began to redesign their rims for rubber tires and, eventually, introduced into the market a new “disc type” wheel rim for mounting rubber tires. Immediately, both Allis-Chalmers and Deere and Company cancelled their contracts with F.& H. for spoke style rims on the front wheels on their new tractors. Both companies, then, signed contracts with the Electric Wheel Company to supply their new disc-type “pressed steel” wheel rims for the front wheels of their new rubber-tired and “styled” tractors that they introduced in 1938 and 1939 respectively. These new pressed steel disc-type wheel rims would still bend or buckle if a great deal of side stress were placed on the wheel. However, the bent rim would not automatically puncture the inner tube of the tire. As anticipated, the F.& H. Company lost market share directly to the Electric Wheel Company as a result of this development.
Along with the introduction of rubber tires for farm tractors, especially rubber tires for the rear wheels of the tractors, there arose a popular demand among the farming public for cast iron wheel weights.
However, the shrinking market share in the wheel rim market was not the only problem that the F. & H. Company faced at this time. In early 1941, the F. & H. Company’s work force sought to organize into a collective bargaining unit.
The National Labor Relations Act (or Wagner Act), signed into law on July 5, 1935, had promoted collective bargaining as an effort to stabilize the economy as the country emerged from the Great Depression. The provisions of the Wagner Act established a new United States government agency—the National Labor Relations Board—to regulate and police organizing efforts of labor unions in the private industrial sector of the economy. Immediately after passage, it was expected that local unions of the American Federation of Labor (A.F. of L) and/or the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (C.I.O.) would immediately start organizing campaigns in every industrial company in the United States. However, this did not happen. Because of the recent spate of decisions coming from the United States Supreme Court, declaring many parts of the New Deal program to be “unconstitutional,” both the A.F. of L. and the C.I.O. were taking a “wait and see” attitude toward large scale organizing efforts under the Wagner Act. Labor union organizers were worried that they could waste a great deal of effort and money on attempting to organize local unions under the Wagner Act, only to have the entire Wagner Act declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Thus, active, large scale organizing efforts under the Wagner Act were postponed while everybody waited for a case to come before the high Court, which would challenge the constitutionality of the Wagner Act. Indeed in 1937, one such case was making its way up through the courts and finally on April 12, 1937, the Supreme Court rendered its decision in the case styled N.L.R.B. v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation 301 U.S. 1 ; 57 SCt. 615 (1937). To everyone’s surprise, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the Wagner Act.
The favorable decision from the Court in the Jones & Laughlin Steel case was the starting gun that set off intensive organizing efforts by both the A.F. of L and C.I.O in various industries across the country and a “race” it was. The A.F. of L. and the C.I.O. competed with each other in seeking to represent the workers in a variety of factory locations. The A.F. of L. differed from the C.I.O., in their labor union philosophy. The A.F. of L. believed in the traditional “guild theory,” that skilled workers should be organized into unions according to the type of work they performed or their “craft” e.g. carpenters, masons, pipefitters etc. Unskilled workers and even workers outside the particular craft of a particular union were not included in this type of labor union organizing effort.
The C.I.O. on the other hand believed that all workers at a particular location or factory should be organized in the same industry wide union despite the differences in the type of work they performed. All workers, even unskilled workers were included in this industrial type of labor organization. The A. F. of L. and the C.I.O. fought bitterly over this difference in labor organizing effort. The labor organizing efforts at F. & H. provides a clear example of this difference. The organizing effort at F. & H. began at the smaller factory works in Springfield, Ohio.
Ever since 1890, when the old Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company had purchased the Springfield Works, the smaller factory had functioned relatively independent from the rest of the company. Indeed, the Springfield Works operated under its own “president” and local management headquartered at 903 Wheel Ave. in Springfield, Ohio. (As noted above, Joseph W. Bettendorf once served as president of the Springfield Works.) Under the F. & H. Company the same corporate arrangement continued. The Springfield Works was quite self-contained and had its own foundry at the site which cast the hubs, wheel weights and made other cast iron parts used in the assembly of the F. & H. steel wheels and rims. Welding and assembly of the various component parts of the wheels was completed in the main factory of the Springfield Works. The Springfield Works seem to thrive under this self-contained arrangement. Despite the strong trend toward rubber tires on farm equipment, F. & H. still derived substantial income from the manufacture of steel wheels. Indeed, income from steel wheels alone in the small Springfield factory works amounted to $129,400 for the fiscal year ending August 30, 1940.
However, workers at the Springfield Works were becoming dissatisfied. They felt, they deserved a better share of the profits the company was making from their labor—especially, in light of the fact, that inflation in the United States at this time was starting to seriously erode the purchasing power of their wages. Thus, they looked to collective bargaining for help. Organizers for the International Molders and Foundrymen Union of the A. F. of L. set about collecting pledge cards from the workers in the foundry at the Springfield Works. The organizers did not approach, nor accept cards from, workers outside the foundry. Assembly workers were simply outside the definition of foundrymen or moulders and, thus, the International Molders and Foundry Workers Union did not attempt to organize these workers.
Accordingly, after being assured that a large majority of the workers in the foundry supported the union, the International Molders and Foundrymen Union of the A.F. of L. filed a petition, on January 17, 1941, with the National Labor Relations Board (N.L.R.B.) to represent F. & H. foundry workers at the Springfield Works in collective bargaining negotiations with the Company. On April 18, 1941, the N.L.R.B. ordered that an election among the foundry workers at F.& H.’s Springfield Ohio Works. The election was held on May 1, 1941 and result was that, by a vote of 41 to 19, Local #72 of the International Molders and Foundrymen (A.F. of L.) became the sole collective bargaining agent for all the molders and foundrymen working in the foundry at the Springfield plant. The workers outside the craft of “molder” of “foundrymen” and those workers in assembly plant at Springfield remained unrepresented by the union.
Meanwhile, over in Davenport, Iowa, the Organizing Committee of Local #123 of the Farm Equipment Workers Union (C.I.O.) filed a petition with the N.L.R.B. on April 3, 1941 to be the sole bargaining agent for all workers employed at the F. & H. plant in Davenport regardless of their job description. On June 20, 1941 the N.L.R. B. ordered an election be held among all the employees at F. & H.’s Davenport Works. An election was held on July 18, 1941 which resulted in 178 votes in favor of the union and 131 votes opposed to the union. Accordingly, Local #123 of the Farm Equipment Workers Union, Local #123 (C.I. O.) became the sole bargaining agent for all workers employed at F. & H.’s Davenport plant.
Without any movement toward developing a newly designed and stronger metal wheel on which a rubber tire could be mounted, it looked as though F. & H. would continue to lose market share in the agricultural wheel market. However, on December 7, 1941, the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States was, suddenly, at war. The manufacturing capacity of the nation was converted to production of war materials. Nearly all sources of steel, aluminum and other raw materials for civilian use were all severely restricted. The productive capacity of the farm manufacturing companies was greatly curtailed because of unavailability of raw materials. Rubber for civilian use was, probably, the most severely restricted raw material. Consequently, what small amount of tractors and farm equipment could be made under the government restrictions had to be fitted with steel wheels.
For F. & H. this was a boon. The company could return to its traditional strong suit—making steel wheels and they did not have to worry about a redesign of their wheels with rims for mounting rubber tires. It was as if the 1920s (the pre-rubber tire era) had returned. As a result, F. & H. anticipated that they soon would be automatically obtaining a larger share in the farm wheel market. The name “French and Hecht” was still synonymous with the production of steel wheels and, because the market was, once again, limited to just steel wheels, F. & H. now regained their predominant share of the current agricultural wheel market. Economically, F. & H. was now a more valuable property than it had been in the immediate past. This favorable position within the steel wheel market made F. & H. an acquisition target. Consequently, corporate buyers came looking and some of them made bids to purchase F. & H. One of these bidders, the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company of Jackson, Michigan, made an offer that F. & H. could not refuse. Subsequently, directly in the middle of the war, a determination was made to sell the French and Hecht Company to Kelsey-Hayes.
The Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company was another B. to B. business which had been formed from the 1927 merger of two other wheel manufacturing companies. Since that merger, Kelsey-Hayes had grown into a major supplier of wheels to the automobile companies of Detroit, Michigan–especially the General Motors Company. However, as the war progressed the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company had experienced even more growth based on government contracts to supply machine guns, tank wheels, aircraft wheels, brakes, and made other accessories for ordinance vehicles as part of the war effort. Kelsey-Hayes Wheel was an inventive company and had developed a great number of innovations, including a new improved brake drum which had become universally adopted by all automobile makers. However, the management and board of Kelsey-Hayes knew that the war would eventually end and they worried about the company’s conversion to a peace time economy. They saw that F. & H. was the leading producer of wheels for the agricultural and construction markets. Kelsey-Hayes Wheel had not previously served either of these markets. Accordingly, Kelsey-Hayes expected that the acquisition of F. & H. would instantly make them the leader in both of those markets at the end of the war.
Accordingly, Kelsey-Hayes acquired the French and Hecht Company with great expectations of security and relative prosperity when the war ended. Although, F. & H. became a division within Kelsey-Hayes, F. & H. would continue to operate under its own name and the F. & H. logo would continue to appear on the wheels they made.
With the acquisition complete, however, Joseph L. Hecht, now in his 70s, stepped down as president of the French and Hecht Company and retired from business altogether.
During the war, the F. & H. Division of the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company was awarded its own series of contracts from the United States government as a part of the war effort. These contracts were for the manufacture “pelican hooks” for use by the military. The “pelican hook” was a clasp device attached to a rope or “line” on a ship or harbor crane which would be attached to pallets of cargo when loading or unloading cargo from the holds of ships.
The pelican hook had been developed by Robert MacCluney and he owned a patent for the pelican hook. Anticipating the war contract with the United States government, the F. & H. Division of Kelsey-Hayes Wheel had signed a contract with Robert MacCluney to obtain a license to manufacture the MacCluney pelican hook. In exchange for this license, the F. & H. Division agreed to give MacCluney a royalty of 10% of all income received from the sale of the pelican hooks. On February 3, 1945, the last of these contracts for pelican hooks was awarded to F. & H. The term of the contract extended to 1946 and called for the manufacture of 157,380 pelican hooks for the United States Navy. Pursuant to this contract, the United States Navy agreed to pay $3.74 for each pelican hook. F. & H. immediately set about making pelican hooks pursuant to this contract. However, on August 22, 1945, Japan surrendered and the Second World War came to an end. Accordingly, the United States government began legally terminating all the war contracts it had with businesses around the nation. By August 22, 1945, the F.& H. Division of Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company had completed and delivered 7,720 pelican hooks to the Government. The Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company was paid, $28,842.80, for these completed and delivered pelican hooks. According to the terms of the contract, all un-delivered and/or partially completed pelican hooks were to be destroyed and no payment was made to Kelsey-Hayes for these un-delivered or un-completed pelican hooks. Pursuant to the licensing agreement, that the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company had with Robert MacCluney, F. & H. paid the agreed-upon 10% royalty payment of $2,884.28 to MacCluney for these pelican hooks.
(This last contract for pelican hooks is noteworthy, because it became the subject of litigation after the war. The litigation arose as a result of MacCluney’s assertion that he was owed a royalty on all 157,380 pelican hooks that Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company had “sold” to the Navy pursuant to the contract whether they were made or not. Short of that MacCluney alleged that he should be paid a royalty on all completed pelican hooks which were not delivered to the Navy before August 22, 1945 and further that he should be paid a royalty for the pieces of the pelican hook which were made but not assembled into complete pelican hooks before August 22, 1945. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of the Michigan, Southern Division, held for the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company and against MacCluney on all counts in an opinion issued on October 21, 1949. [MacCluney v. Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company et al., 87 F. Supp. 58 (1949)]).
When the war ended, the Kelsey-Hayes Company looked forward their newly acquired F.& H. Division resuming its pre-war dominant position in both the agricultural and construction wheel markets. With the end of the war, a tremendous buying surge on the part of farmers was released. Having been unable to purchase new farm equipment for almost four years, farmers were now hurriedly attempting to update their farming operations with new tractors and new farm machinery. Now that rubber was available for civilian use, many more farmers purchased tractors and farm equipment fitted with rubber tires than ever before. The Kelsey-Hayes Company expected that profits would flow into the company from their F.& H. Division, as the division began supplying rims to the farm equipment manufacturers for all this new machinery that was being produced. In this expectation, the F. H. Division moved out of Davenport and into a new facility in Walcott, Iowa, a suburb of Davenport, Iowa.
However, the French and Hecht Division of the Kelsey-Hayes Company, now faced the same situation it had before the war. The company had no adequately re-designed wheel with a rim for rubber tires that would withstand the large amount of side stress to which the wheels were subjected when the wheel was mounted on the front wheels of modern farm tractors.
Without a wheel that could be used on the front end of modern farm tractors, the F. & H. Division of the Kelsey-Hayes Company was closed out of that section of the wheel rim market altogether. However, as during the pre-war era, the F. & H. Division expected to sell round-spoke rims for mounting on the rear wheels of tractors or for mounting on pull-type farm equipment, like plows, balers, combines and wagons.
However, over the course of the war, an association had formed in the mind of the buying public that associated the spoke-type wheel rim with the pre-war era. The disc-type wheel rim was seen as a “modern” wheel whereas the spoked wheel rim was regarded as “old fashioned.” Thus, when the typical post-war buyer of farm machinery went into a farm machinery dealership, the buyer tended to be more attracted to farm machinery that was mounted on disc-type wheel rims rather than round spoke wheel rims, even though their was no functional reason why disc-type wheels should be preferred for all those applications which involved no side stress on the rim.
This unconscious prejudice on the part of the post-war buying public, worked against the F.& H. Division of the Kelsey-Hayes Company and worked in favor of the Electric Wheel Company. Indeed, this point is alluded to in the Chad Elmore article, cited above, when he notes that the Electric Wheel Company, was “producing modern (current author’s emphasis) disc wheels.” (Belt Pulley,November/December 1999, p. 36.) This simple, almost inadvertent, use of this single adjective–“modern”–in a single sentence in the article, reflects with a great deal of accuracy the post-war view that round-spoke rims were simply out of date, esthetically. As a consequence, the F.& H. Division continued to lose even more market share in the post-war era. Indeed, the drop in market share was precipitous. Symbolic of the demarcation line that the war formed between the “old fashioned” spoke-type wheel rims and the “modern” disc-type wheel rims, is the fact that all through the pre-war era Allis-Chalmers had offered their All-Crop Harvester pull-type combine to the farming public with rubber tires mounted on F. & H. round spoke wheel rims. However, when rubber tires became available again after the war, the All-Crop Harvester was immediately fitted with rubber tires mounted on disc-type wheel rims from the Electric Wheel Company. The same was true of the John Deere Model 12A combine and the Massey-Harris “Clipper” combine. In all these cases, the pull-type implement had been offered to the public in the pre-war era on rubber tires mounted on F. & H. round-spoke wheel rims. Now after the war all these implements and many others were being offered to the public only on rubber tires mounted on Electric Wheel Company disc-type wheel rims.
There was no functional reason why these pull-type farm implements could not continue to use round- spoke wheel rims as they had before the war. It was merely a matter of esthetics that caused the farm equipment manufacturers to choose disc type rims for their implements. The public simply saw round-spoke wheel rims as “old fashioned.” Accordingly, any implement that appeared in the post-war era with round spokes would make the implement itself appear “old fashioned.” By merely switching to disc type wheel rims, however, the whole implement would suddenly appear to be much more modern.
So stark was the this line of demarcation from round spoke wheel rims to disc-type wheel rims for implements that restorers of farm equipment in the present day can rely upon this observation from a distance to determine whether a particular implement was made in the “pre-war” or in the “post-war” era. (The only obvious exception to this line of demarcation in farm implements appears to have been the various sizes of post-war Massey-Harris Model 28 trailing moldboard plows which continued to use round-spoke rims for rubber tires in the post-war era.)
Although losing market share, F. & H. continued as a Division of the Kelsey-Hayes Company through many historic ups and downs in the economy. In September of 1973, the Yom Kippur War between Israel and her Arab neighbors united the entire Arab World as never before. Although officially formed in 1960 the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (O.P.E.C.) became much more active in 1973 in promoting the political agenda of the Arab World, through economic means. The O.P.E.C. cartel sought agreement from all oil producing Arab nations to restrict the amount of oil that those nations released onto the world market. This Arab “oil embargo” caused a gasoline shortage in the United States and resulted in a rise in gasoline prices to previously unheard of levels. A severe economic crisis for the United States auto industry followed as Americans ceased buying U.S.-made cars and started buying more fuel-efficient foreign-made cars.
As a leading supplier of wheels and braking systems to the United States auto industry, the Kelsey-Hayes Company also found itself in a crisis. The company became heavily over-extended in credit markets and its stock value plummeted. This greatly reduced stock value made the company an easy target for a hostile corporate takeover. Accordingly, the Fruehauf Corp. of Detroit, Michigan, started buying shares in Kelsey-Hayes and soon had control of the company. Accordingly, in 1973, Kelsey-Hayes and their French and Hecht Division became a wholely-owned subsidiary of the Fruehauf Corporation.
However, Fruehauf’s acquisition of Kelsey-Hayes fell afoul of United States Federal Trade Commission which claimed that the acquisition tended to create an unfair monopoly within the market of automotive (and truck) braking systems. Anti-trust litigation over this allegation continued into the 1980s and weakened the Fruehauf Corp. In 1988, the Fruehauf Corp., itself, became the target of a hostile take-over by the K-H Corporation. K-H employed the “leveraged buyout strategy” to takeover Fruehauf. This meant that K-H took out a loan to finance the takeover. Collateral for the loan was, actually, the combined assets of the target company itself—Fruehauf Corp. Once the takeover was accomplished, parts of Fruehauf were sold off to pay back the loan. Accordingly, in 1988, the French and Hecht Division and their factory site located in Walcott, Iowa were sold off to the Can-Am Company of Quincy, Illinois. Can-Am was the new name of the corporate entity that had originally been Electric Wheel Company of Quincy, Illinois. Thus, the descendent of F.& H. and the descendent of the Electric Wheel Company were merged together under the same corporate/management umbrella.
In 1990, the headquarters of Can-Am was moved to Taylor, Michigan and in 1991 Can-Am was restructured and combined with a number of small tire manufacturers into a new corporate entity called Titan Wheel Company. (In July, 1994, Pirelli/Armstrong Tire Company and their Des Moines, Iowa factory also became part of the Titan corporate structure.) Headquarters for Titan remained in Taylor, Michigan for a time, but was soon moved to Quincy, Illinois. In 2003, the F. & H. factory in Walcott, Iowa was closed and all operations were moved to the Quincy, Illinois, facility—into the same factory that had been the original Electric Wheel Company factory site. In 2005, the Goodyear Tire Company and their manufacturing facilities at Freeport, Illinois, were bought out by Titan. Today, Titan International, Inc. is headquartered in Freeport, Illinois, and remains a major seller of tires and wheel rims for agriculture, construction and other off-the-road uses.