Brian Wayne Wells
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Originally, wheels for farm wagons were made out of wooden spokes which were pressed into holes in a wooden hub at the center of the wheel. The out end of the wooden spokes were pressed into a wooden ring around outside of the wheel. Then a metal “tire” or band slightly smaller than the overall circumfernce of the wheel was heated red hot in a forge. This heating metal tire or band until it fit over the outside circumference of the wooden wheel. As the metal band cooled it would tighten all the spokes around the wheel driving them permanantly into the hub.
Wooden wheels did have their shortcomings. They were susceptible to after year of exposure to snow and rain. Furthermore, even when new, the wheels on the front of a wagon could not be made small enough to fit under the typical farm wagon box.
The large wooden wheels used on the turning wheels on the front of the typical farm wagon severely restricted the turning ability of farm wagons. Especially in the sharp turns that were sometimes needed in the narrow farm yards of small farms. Indeed, to would appear that more than an acre of flat land would be would be needed to turn the Nissen Company wagon pictured above.
The Electric Wheel Company was not the inventor of the all-metal wheel for use on farm equipment. Rather it was William Bettendorf, working for the Peru Plow Company, who, in 1882 began working on an all-metal wheel for wagons and farm implements. By 1884, he had the wheel and was attempting to persuade Peru Plow to market the wheel. Unsuccessful in that endeavor William Bettendorf left Peru Plow and established his own company–the Bettendorf Wheel Company in 1886 and in 1887 he applied for and recieved a patent from the United States government for the first all metal wheel. (See the fine history of F. & H. written by Chad Elmore called “Who Can You Thank for Your Tractor’s Wheels?” which was carried in the November/December 1999 issue of Belt Pulley magazine and the book, also by Chad Elmore called Peru Plow Works: Ninety Years of Farm Machinery in Peru, Illinois, 1851-1941 [Motorbooks International: Wausau, Wisc., 1996.] Additionally, the reader might turn to the French and Hecht contained below on this same website) This first all-metal wheel with became known as the “Bettendorf wheel” for its inventor–William Bettendorf.
As noted in the French and Hecht article carried at this website, William Bettendorf was working for the started his own company–the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company in Davenport, Iowa. Only then did the Bettendorf wheel get into mass production. However, by 1890, despite competition from the Peru Plow and Wheel Company and other small wheel manufacturers, the Bettendorf Wheel Company (which later became the French and Hecht Company) was the leading manufacturer of all-metal wheels. Still the market for all-metal wheels was still growing and attracting capital investment.
Another person that very early saw a niche in this metal wheel market that he might fill was John A. Stillwell of Quincy, Illinois. Born in Hannibal, Missouri (1860 pop. 6,505) in 1861, John Stillwell was a man who was looking for an opportunity. He had charisma and was a natural-born salesman. He made friends easily and had a way of instilling trust in everyone that came in contact with him. At the age of nineteen (19) years, he was employed as a salesman traveling throughout the Midwest on behalf of a retail merchant distributing company.
During his travels around the Midwest, John Stillwell had met and formed close associations with a group of individuals that were attracted by John’s drive and ambitions to start a money-making concern. These men believed that John Stillwell was a young man destined to do well in the business world and they wished to “hitch their cart to his rising star.” John was not content working for another person. He had a dream of starting his own business concern and he had an idea.
John Stillwell believed that the rising industrialization in the United States and the resulting mechanization of agriculture in the nation was creating a huge opportunity for the manufacture of wheels for threshers, horse-drawn mowers, hay rakes, sulky plows, cultivators and all sorts of modern farm implements. The rising popularity of steam engines, John knew, would also increase the demand for steel wheels. This was not even to mention all the non-farm uses of steel wheels that were creating further demand.
John Stillwell knew there was a problem with all-metal wheels. The wheels were composed of various metal parts and these parts were made from different types of metal. Hubs of the all-metal wheels tended to be made of cast iron, while the spokes and outer rim of the wheel tended to be made of pressed steel. John Stillwell knew that the best and strongest method by which two metal pieces could be attached to each other would be to “weld” the two pieces together. However, two types of metal have two different melting points. Accordingly, the steel spokes of the all-metal wheel could not be “forge” welded to the cast iron hubs. Thus, the steel spokes on all-metal wheels were “pressed” into holes on the cast iron hub and then riveted to the outer metal “tire” or rim of the steel wheel.
However, John Stillwell had become acquainted with a new type of “electric welding” which had been developed by Elihu Thomson, an engineer for the Edison Labs in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Elihu Thomson, later became a partner of Thomas Edison at the same Laboratory.
Later, Elihu Thomson became a co-owner, with Edison, of the General Electric Company. In 1887, Elihu developed a new “electric” or “arc” welding method. Arc welding unites two pieces of metal by means passing an electrical current through the metal parts. This electrical current created a great deal of heat along the edges of the two pieces of metal.
The heat generated by the electric current in arc welding created much more heat along the edge of the two pieces of metal than could ever be created in a forge. Thus, all those metals with melting temperatures so high that they could not be welded in a forge, could now be welded by arc welding. However along with the heat produced by welding there is a tremendous amount of bright light–light as bright as the sun. To protect the retinas of their eyes operators of arc welders wear helment with very dark glass through which they look while performing the arc welding. In the photo below the arc welder is dressed in a helmet, heavy gaunlet gloves and a protective shawl which extends down over shoulders which protects his hands, face and clothing from the flying sparks of the welding process.
Additionally, metals with two different melting temperatures could be welded together by this electric arc welding method. John Stillwell felt that this electric welding could make a much stronger spoke steel wheel than the spoke steel wheels that were merely pressed and riveted. “Electric welding,” eventually provided a name for Stillwell’s new proposed business—the Electric Wheel Company.
John Stillwell quit his job as traveling salesman and settled in the burgeoning town of Quincy, Illinois, the idea of pursuing his dream of creating steel wheels by arc welding. In 1889, Quincy, Illinois, was and up and coming railroad city and with a population of 27,268 was already the second largest city in the State of Illinois. Besides being a railroad hub, Quincy was also the center of cook stove manufacturing for the entire United States—being the home of at least nine different stove foundry companies. One of these stove foundries was the Comstock-Castle Stove Company.
Until his death in 1874, the proprietor and major shareholder of the Comstock-Castle Stove Company was Enoch Comstock. Upon Enoch’s death, his only son, 34 year-old Charles Gilbert Comstock, took over responsibility for running the company. This move to the head of the company was only natural. After all, Charles Comstock had been working in for the company since he was 15 years of age. At the time of his father’s death, Charles was the bookkeeper of the company.
John Stillwell set about gathering together a group of investors for his new company. One of the largest obstacles facing the 27 year-old John Stillwell was how to persuade investors who were a generation older than him to invest in his business venture. For this reason, he was extremely fortunate in meeting the 34 year-old Charles Comstock. Charles was attracted to John Stillwell’s energy and drive. John Stillwell’s enthusiasm was contagious and Charles Comstock was persuaded to become the first investor in the idea that would become the Electric Wheel Company. Charles Comstock was important not so much for his own willingness to invest in new entreprenurial startups, rather Charles Comstock was important for the people he knew. He had the ear of a circle of other potential investors. One of these other potential investors was currently an investor with the Comstock-Castle Stove Company—Samuel Hopkins Emery.
Samuel Emery was an attorney who had come to Quincy Illinois, from Massachusetts in the 1850s. Although in 1889, the 49-year old Samuel Emery was one of the more recent investors in the Comstock-Castle Stove Company, he had, nonetheless, come to trust the business acumen of Charles Comstock. Over the years, Samuel Emery had invested earnings from his law practice in various businesses in Quincy. In addition, to the Comstock-Castle Stove Company, he also was an investor in the American Strawboard Company (“strawboard” is another term for “cardboard”) and the Quincy Paper Company. Before 1893, these companies were regarded aas “safe” investments in established businesses. Indeed, the American Strawboard Company had become the largest strawboard company in the United States.
John Stillwell was proposing establishment of a new business and was seeking “venture capital” for his proposed business enterprise. Venture capital was always regarded as much more risky than investing in established concerns. However, Samuel Emery knew that where the risk was greater, one should expect that the return on investment would also be greater if the business concern were successful. Samuel was also attracted to the enthusiasm of John Stillwell. In the end, however, he was persuaded to joint the new venture because it was endorsed by Charles Comstock. Samuel Emery was impressed most by the fact that Charles Comstock was investing his money in the Electric Wheel Company venture. Accordingly, Samuel Emery agreed to become the second major investor in the new business.
Charles Comstock, had over the years sought to diversify his holdings by investing in other local companies besides the family business—Comstock-Castle Stove Company. One of the other local companies, in which he had invested his money, was the Smith-Hill Foundry and Machine Company. His investments in this company had brought him in contact with Thomas Hill (one of the namesakes of the Smith-Hill Foundry Company). Born in Wales, Thomas Hill and immigrated to the United States in 1861. During the American Civil War, Thomas Hill had lived in St. Louis and had worked on government boats plying the Mississippi River during the war. Later he moved to Hannibal, Missouri. In 1866, Thomas Hill moved to Quincy, Illinois, where he met Charles Comstock.
Charles Comstock mentioned John Stillwell’s proposal to Thomas Hill and found that Hill was also interested in providing venture capital for the proposed new company. Accordingly, Thomas Hill became the third investor in the new company.
Meanwhile, Samuel Emery happened to mention John Stillwell’s proposal to a fellow investor in the Quincy Paper Company—Richard Foote Newcomb. The 51-year old Richard Newcomb was an experienced hand at business and investment opportunities. Richard Newcomb was not a native of Quincy, Illinois. Originally, born in Massachusetts, Richard moved to the Midwest after the Civil War. Settling first in Beloit, Wisconsin, he had started a wood pulp mill with some other investors. Feeling the need to break out and have his own company over which he could exercise more individual control, Richard sold his interests in the Beloit Wood Pulp Mill to his brother, John Curtis Newcomb, in 1874 and moved to Quincy, Illinois.
In Quincy, Richard Newcomb purchased another wood pulp plant located at South Front Street in Quincy. This pulp plant had previously been owned by the Gem City Paper Company. Richard became the sole proprietor of the Quincy wood pulp plant and in 1880 he re-incorporated the business as the Quincy Paper Company. The Quincy wood pulp plant was a supplier of both brown packaging paper to the United States market and “strawboard.” (As noted above, “strawboard” is another term for “card board.”) Under Richard’s sole management the Quincy pulp wood plant became the largest strawboard producing plant in the United States. Through his years of business experience in dealing with wood pulp, Richard Newcomb had developed many contacts in the paper industry and become an expert in the paper market of the upper Mississippi River Valley. Currently, Richard Newcomb was regarded as the “richest man in town.”
Ever since meeting him, Richard Newcomb was impressed by the young, dynamic, John Stillwell and his proposal for a new steel wheel company. However, the real persuasive factor that made Richard Newcomb interested in the corporate venture was the fact that Samuel Emery was joining this corporate venture and had invested his own money. Accordingly, Richard Newcomb also fifth became an investor in the Electric Wheel Company. However, the Electric Wheel Company management would learn that they would have share Richard Newcomb’s time and experience with other corporations were a part of Richard Newcomb’s financial porfolio. He had his fingers in many different pies. Nonetheless, John Stillwell had other reasons for developing a close association with Richard Newcomb. He was starting to become very attracted to the oldest daughter of Richard and Anna Marie (Richie) Newcomb—Elizabeth Marie Newcomb.
With all the investors on board, John Stillwell, now had all the financial support that he needed to get his new company up and running. Consequently, on Sunday April 27, 1890, the citizens of Quincy read in their Quincy Daily Herald, that articles of incorporation for the Electric Wheel Company had been filed on April 24, 1890 at the Secretary of State’s Office in the state capital of Springfield, Illinois. Samuel Hopkins Emery Jr., Thomas Hill and Charles. G. Comstock were listed as incorporators of the new company. (Quincy Daily Herald, April 27, 1890 edition.) The incorporators supplied $25,000 of “start up” capital for the new company and then they hired John Stillwell as secretary and manager of the new company. John Stillwell was, thus, entrusted to manage the day to day affairs of the company. Immediately, he set about obtaining a factory facility located at Ohio Street and So. Fifth Street in Quincy. John, also, ordered a fifty (50) horsepower (hp.) stationary steam engine and a boiler from the Smith-Hill Foundary and Machine Company.
This steam engine would supply the mechanical power that the factory needed. To convert the mechanical power into electrical power needed for the electric welding process, he also ordered some dynamos from suppliers in Boston, Massachusetts. He also ordered the all the Thomson electric welders that the new company would need from a supplier in Boston. By late May of 1890, the new company was up and running–making steel wheels for the agricultural market.
However, the managment of the Company soon realized that the arc welding method of constructing all-metal spoke-type wheels, was not as effective and efficient as they had hoped. So the Thomson method of arc welding of the wheels was abandoned in favor of the old method of pressing the spokes in the hubs and the riveting the other end of the spokes into the steel tire or band that formed the outer circumference of the wheel, was once again adopted. However, even though giving up the “electric” welding process, John Stillwell and the management of the Company retained the name “Electric Wheel Company.” for their business enterprize.
As expected, the Electric Wheel Company began supplying their steel-spoke wheels to some of the manufacturers of farm implements. However, even with an aggressive sales effort, the company obtained only a very small share of the steel wheel market. The steel wheel market was dominated by the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company of Davenport, Iowa, which later became the French and Hecht Company. The French and Hecht Company seemed to “have a lock” on the whole market. The Electric Wheel Company made little progress during the first two years against this large corporate competitor. Still the Electric Wheel Company persisted in making its spoke-type wheel for makers of horse-drawn sulky plows and horse-drawn cultivators. Although still very small, the Electric Wheel Company’s market share was starting to grow. In 1890, Richard Newcomb began building his dream house at the corner of 16th Street and Maine in Quincy, Illinois. When completed in 1891, the house had 33 rooms and 13 fire places at a total cost of $50,000. This was taken as a sign that even the richest man in town had confidence in the future of the Electric Wheel Company.
Two years after the Electric Wheel Company had opened its doors it started to seem as though dawn had finally arrived and that the Company was was finally starting to hit its stride in obtaining a larger share of the steel wheel market. At this stage, John Stillwell was ready to institute some changes in his life. He had fallen in love with Elizabeth Marie Newcomb. On December 21, 1892 they were married.
On February 23, 1893, two months after his marriage, however, the United States economy was hit by a severe economic downturn, when the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad went bankrupt. Corporate bankruptcies followed one after another in a cascade as the United States economy plunged into the worst recession in its history up to that time. Business and commerce slowed almost to a stop. The economic recession came to be called “the Panic of 1893.”
Hard times fell on the Electric Wheel Company, as it did for all corporations in the United States during the years that followed. Orders from regular customers for steel wheels dried up almost entirely. There was almost no income coming into the Company. The investors in the Electric Wheel Company worried about their investment money. Of course, they had plenty worry about. Even supposedly “safe” and established companies were at risk of bankruptcy as the Panic continued to distress the economy throughout 1894. One of the companies having trouble in 1894 was the American Strawboard Company was a company that had close ties to The Electric Wheel Company. Stock values of the American Strawboard Company declined precipitously. Stockholders blamed the management. On February 2, 1894, a shareholders meeting was held in the Auditorium Hotel in Chicago.
Shareholders at the American Strawboard meeting rebelled against the company management and demanded a change in the board of directors and the management of the company. They voted for an entirely new board of directors. One of the new directors elected to the board of the American Strawboard Company was attorney Samuel Hopkins Emery, who, as noted above was also one of the original investors in the Electric Wheel Company. The new board of directors of the American Strawboard Company was voted in with a mandate to make drastic changes in the management of the company. Once constituted, the new board of directors elected a new president. As President of the American Strawboard Company the board elected Richard Foote Newcomb. This shareholders revolt was uncommon enough in those days of unregulated capialism that the story of the successful share revolt being carried out in Chicago actually made the front page of the New York Times newpaper on November 4, 1893.
John Stillwell himself was selected by the board of the company to serve as Secretary to the corporation and run the day-to-day business of the company as manager.
Only in 1896, did the U. S. economy begin to recover. Bad as the Panic of 1893 was for the Electric Wheel Company, there was a “silver lining.” Lasting for three long years, the Panic had the effect of wiping the board clean of past corporate relationships. Past sales relationships and contracts were long gone. During the three long years of business doldrums since the start of the Panic of 1893, a new generation of purchasing agents had been employed in the corporate customers in the steel wheel market. These new purchasing agents began to take a fresh look at all the suppliers in the market. It was the dawn of a new day in the steel wheel market as the United States economy began to recover in 1896.
All of the leading steel wheel manufacturing companies in the United States were starting over again—trying to sell their product, from scratch, to the new generation of purchasing agents of the various farm equipment manufacturers. No longer could the French and Hecht Company rely on their old network of corporate customers to occupy the dominate position in the steel wheel market as they had in years past. No one company dominated market share in the sales of steel wheels. Orders from customers for steel wheels were spread around among all the leading wheel manufacturers.
Thus, competition for customers between Electric Wheel Company and other steel wheel manufacturers started, once again, with abandon. Each manufacturer of steel wheels needed to attract a network of customers all over again. In this fresh competitive environment of 1896, the Electric Wheel Company had one big advantage. That advantage was John Stillwell, himself. With all his dynamism and energy, John Stillwell was, himself, able to outsell most other salesmen in the steel wheel market. In addition to his skills as a salesman, John Stillwell also had a talent for recognizing talent in others. He consciously sought to attract young talented employees to the Company. One of the talented workers that John Stillwell recruited to come to work for Electric Wheel Company was Addison Niles Calkins.
The 22-year old Addison started working as a patternmaker at a Quincy machine shop owned and operated by Henry Lechtenberg in the 1887 and 1888. However, Addison soon obtained the position at the Corporate Secretary and Treasurer for the Central Foundry and Machine Company located at 201 South Front Street in Quincy. By the time that Addison came to the attention of John Amos Stillwell in 1900, he was still only 35 years of age and already had 12 years of experience as corporate secretary and treasure. John Stillwell badly wanted to hire Addison Calkins to come and work for the Electric Wheel Company. After working in management for 12 at Central Iron and Machine Company, Addison really wanted to change the
Eso a ak another position his work at the machine shop did not stimulate his inventive mind. Thus, when an opportunity arose to go to work for the Electric Wheel Company in the 1890s, he jumped at the chance.
By hiring younger talented men like himself, John Stillwell impressed his own personality upon the Electric Wheel Company. The ethic of aggressive salesmanship became part of the corporate personality of the Company. Thus, the Electric Wheel Company became the most vigorous, aggressive and scrappy sales competitor in the steel wheel market. At this particular time the Electric Wheel Company sorely needed new blood in its management for two reasons. First many of the older generation investors and officers were passing away. Richard Newcomb, John Stillwell’s father-in-law died in 1904. Attorney/invester Samuel Emery died in 1906. Secondly, the growth of the Electric Wheel Company over its first two decades of existence required more management staff to handle the greatly widened responsibilities and the division of labor within the management of the Company.
In its annual year-end wrap-up of all the businesses in Quincy, the local newspaper the Quincy Daily Journal reported in its January 9, 1901 edition, that the Electric Wheel Company was now employing 100 workers. The Company had witnessed a large growth in the demand for their steel wheels among farm equipment manufacturers for use of Electric wheels on horse-drawn sulky plows and horse-drawn cultivators. The Quincy Daily Journal was able to report that in the same article, that demand for their wheels was so strong that the Electric Wheel Company (during its tenth year in existence) had outgrown its production facilities at Fifth and Ohio Streets. Accordingly, the Electric Wheel Company was already looking around for another factory site. Early estimates of the costs of any new plant would be $80,000.
The year-end report for the following year, carried in the January 25, 1902 edition of Daily Journal,reported that during 1901 corporate profits had increased by another 20%, reaching a total of $200,000 in 1901. The newspaper went on to report that during 1901 the Electric Wheel Company had, indeed, moved into a new factory located on a 10½ acre site near 28th and Cedar Streets in the Walton Heights district of Quincy. However, the costs of this new plant facility was only $50,000, considerably less than had been anticipated just the year before. The Electric Wheel Company now employed 125 workers at the new facility.
By 1900, the organization of the management of the Company had changed to meet the requirements of this new growth. John Stillwell had officially, become President of the Electric Wheel Company. Whereas, previously, John Stillwell had served as the Company’s sole “manager” there were now a number of divisions within the Company each headed by a manager. There was plenty of room within the Electric Wheel Company for ambitious young men. John Stillwell promoted the now 35-year-old, Addison Calkins to the position of Superintendent of the whole factory.
Addison Calkins had an innovative and sharp mechanical genius. At the Electric Wheel Company, Addison was able to fully employ this talent on behalf of the Company. Working at the Electric Wheel Company was food for Addison’s creative and inventive nature. On October 26, 1917, Addison filed for a United States Patent on a radiator fan arrangement that he had developed. As an employee of the Electric Wheel Company, he assigned the patent to the company. The Electric Wheel Company put the patent to use as an improvement to their line of farm tractors which the Company had begun manufacturing in 1912.
After starting work at the Electric Wheel Company, Addison, encouraged his younger brother, Ira Raymond Calkins, to apply at the company for a position at the factory. Ira’s interests led him in a different direction than his brother, however. Ira started at the Electric Wheel Company working as a clerk in 1900 and soon showed a real talent for business management and finance. Consequently, John Stillwell soon promoted Ira to Corporate Secretary at the age of 33 years of age.
Sometime after the turn of the 20th Century, another promising young man, by the name of Frank Fleming Alexander, went to work for the Electric Wheel Company. By 1910, John Stillwell had promoted the 28-year old, Frank Alexander to the position of Assistant Manager for the Company. Shortly after he was hired, Frank encouraged his younger brother Robert Watt Alexander, to also come to work for the Electric Wheel Company. By 1910, Robert Watt Alexander had been promoted to be an Assistant Sales Manager for the Company. The results of this new vigorous reorganization of the Company drive spoke for itself, as the Electric Wheel Company began to gain market share.
It was a hopeful and optimistic time. Later, this period of time, from 1900-1917, would be referred to as “the Progressive Era.” John Stillwell and the new, young and vigorous management of the Electric Wheel Company were caught up in the spirit of these optimistic times. This younger generation of men led the Electric Wheel Company in new directions. The manufacture of farm tractors was one of those new directions.
At the opening of the twentieth century many other entrepreneurs were having the same idea. Thus, there was already a plethora of companies competing in the farm tractor manufacturing market. Nonetheless, experiments in designing and developing a farm tractor were begun by the Electric Wheel Company as early as 1904. Indeed, a prototype of a tractor was made by the Company in 1904. Like many of the internal combustion engine-powered tractors of the time, the prototype was a large and cumbersome machine.
However, engineers at the Electric Wheel Company had an inspirational idea. Rather than compete directly with all the companies manufacturing farm tractors, the Electric Wheel Company could find a niche in the market that was unoccupied. The new management of the Company saw the great number of stationary (“hit and miss”) engines already in use on farms around the nation. They saw these engines as a resource that could be exploited. If the Electric Wheel Company could make a four-wheeled platform or chassis onto which a farmer could mount his own single-cylinder engine, the company could fill a niche that existed in the tractor market. Whereas, many small farmers could not afford the expense of a complete farm tractor; the Electric Wheel Company felt that those same small farmers might be tempted by the chance to put their own stationary engine on a chassis and, thus, create their own farm tractor with an engine they already owned. The only additional costs to the small farmer would be the costs of the motor-less truck or chassis on which he could mount the engine that he already owned. Thus, the farmer would also be able to get more work out of an asset that he already owned. Accordingly, in 1908, the Electric Wheel Company developed their own four-wheeled motor-less truck chassis and began mass producing the chassis for sale to the farming public.
Production of the tractor chassis was not a large step outside the core business of the Electric Wheel Company. From the company’s point of view production of the tractor chassis was merely an extension to the Company’s mass production of tractor wheels. It was merely the next logical step for the Electric Wheel Company. The Company was blessed with an educated workforce that could adapt to changes and was encouraged to think for themselves and make suggestions on how to improve the products that Electric Wheel was manufacturing. In the years following the introduction of their motor-less tractor chassis, the Electric Wheel Company continued to attract talented, skilled and ambitious young men. Young men sought work with Electric Wheel because of the high pay and the Company’s reputation of encouraging and rewarding ambition and independent thinking. One of the many young men who sought employment at this time was Grover George Bergstrasser, who came to work for Electric Wheel as a machinist some time prior to 1917. Grover was a second generation immigrant. His father, Henry Bergstrasser, had been born in Darmstadt, Hessen Germany on January 19, 1965 and had immigrated to the United States in 1884 and had settled in Quincy, Illinois, where he opened a saloon.
Born and raised in Quincy, Grover thrived in the creative environment of the Quincy Works of the Electric Wheel Company. He was friendly and outgoing and developed into a natural leader. In 1919, ratification of the Prohibition amendment to the United States Constitution, forced Henry Bergstrasser to close his saloon. Later in the 1920s, Grover was able to get his father a job at Electric Wheel. The management at Electric Wheel recognized Grover’s talent as a team leader and this was the talent that the Company appreciated as much as his abilities as a machinist. Accordingly, by 1920, Grover, himself, had been promoted to the position of foreman in the “Wheel Dept.” of Electric Wheel. (Years later after the Second World War, Grover’s son, Aaron E. Bergstrasser, would also come to work for the Electric Wheel Company, where he would be promoted to the position of Factory Manager.)
After three (3) years of mass production of the motor-less tractor chassis, the Electric Wheel Company decided to produce the company’s own complete tractor—the Electric Wheel Company Model “O” Quincy All-Purpose Tractor. This tractor was originally rated as a 20-30 tractor, meaning 20 horsepower (hp.) from the drawbar and 30 hp. from the belt pulley. However, in 1912, the Model O was re-rated as a 15-30 tractor. Also the company introduced its first “track-type” or “caterpillar” tractor called the “Allwork” tractor in 1911. The Allwork tractor was a huge crawler-style tractor that delivered 30 horsepower (hp.) to the drawbar and 45 hp. to the belt pulley. This track-type tractor was intended for use on construction or in road building. With the growth of the “Good Roads” programs by state and local governments all across the nation in the late 1920s, the Electric Wheel Company saw an opportunity to introduce second and larger version of this track-type AllWork tractor—the Model 80 track-type tractor. Two features made the Model 80 track-type tractor a very forward-looking tractor. Firstly, the Model 80 was not designed as a “cross-motor” tractor. Most tractors made by Electric Wheel and, indeed, most tractors made by all other tractors manufacturers at the time were of a “cross-motor” design. The cross-motor tractor was designed with the engine positioned so that the crank shaft of the engine was parallel to the axles of the tractor. The Model 80 track-type tractor, however, was fitted with a Model W-K “in-line” four-cylinder engine made by the Waukesha Company of Waukesha, Wisconsin. The “in-line” engine design positioned the engine of the tractor so that the crankshaft of the engine was perpendicular to the axles of the tractor. The in-line design of farm tractors would soon become the universally adopted throughout the entire farm tractor industry. Thus, the Model 80 was a “forward looking” tractor because of its design.
Furthermore the Model W-K Waukesha engine fitted on the Model 80 track-type tractor was a very heavy-duty engine. This engine had a 6 ¾ inch bore and an 8 inch stroke and featured five (5) bearing surfaces on a huge crankshaft and could develop 110 hp. at 800 revolutions per minute (r.p.m.). This made the Model 80 a rugged tractor more like tractors that were made at a much later date.
In 1912, a new four-wheeled version of the “Allwork” Model 30-45 tractor was introduced, called the “Model 1” tractor. The Model 1 weighed 9,500 pounds. The Model 1 would remain in mass production until 1917. A smaller version of the Model 1, the “AllWork 14-28” tractor was introduced in 1917. Although regarded as a “small” tractor, the AllWork 14-28 still weighed 5000 pounds. The Model 1 remained a cross-motor style tractor with a four-cylinder engine rated as delivering 14 hp. to the drawbar and 28 hp. to the belt pulley. Each of the four cylinders on the Allwork had a 5-inch bore and a 6-inch stroke. (Later this Allwork tractor was re-tested and re-rated as delivering 20 hp. to the drawbar and 35 hp to the belt pulley.) Accordingly, the tractor was renamed the Allwork 20-35. The Allwork 20-35 weighed 5000 pounds and had a list price of $1,500.00 in 1917. In its first year, 1917, sales of this tractor reached 1,000 to 1,500 tractors. Unlike many other tractor manufacturers of the time, the Electric Wheel Company used very few “vendor produced” items in making their tractors. With the exception of the Model 80 tractor which, as noted above, was fitted with the Waukesha engine, the Electric Wheel Company made all its own tractor engines. Additionally, all clutches, transmissions and final drives used on the tractors were also made by the Electric Wheel Company.
In addition to making tractors for use on farms across North America, the Electric Wheel Company also established a new and separate division within their company in 1916 to sell a new device that would convert Model T into a usable tractor on the family farm. This new division was called the Pullford Division. (A picture and short article on the Pullford Division is contained at page 231 of C. H. Wendel’s book, The Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors. It appears that the Electric Wheel Company create the illusion that the Pullford Division was a separate corporate enity. The article in the Encyclopedia of America Farm Tractors describes the division as the “Pullford Company” of Quincy, Illinois, as if it were not associated with the Electric Wheel Company at all. However, advertising brochures of the Pullford Division clearly show the Electric Wheel Works factory in Quincy on their last page.) The Pullford was an attachment that was made to the rear end and rear wheels of any Model T Ford car to allow the car to operate as a tractor in the fields on the farm. From the, time of its introduction, the Ford Model T in 1909, the Model T had been a huge sales success and dominated the automobile market. Accordingly, the Pullford was made only for the Ford Model T. It was expected that when the field work was done for the day the farmer could then remove the Pullford attachment from his Model T to take the family to town in the carr that same night. The price of the Pullford in $135.00.
Customer satisfaction with the Pullford was evident from the testimonials written to the Pullford division by various Model T owners. One such owner was W. E. Davis of Green City, Missouri, who wrote on August 3, 1917, that he had plowed 60 acres of land in 10 days at a cost of only 40¢ per acre with his Model T and his new Pullford. The Pullford Division continued production of the Model T attachment throughout the 1920’s. In 1928, when the Ford Motor Company replaced the Model T with the new Model A Ford, the Pullford Division of the Electric Wheel Company brought out a new Pullford attachment for the new Model A Ford car. In 1930, the price of the Model T Pullford attachment was down to $97.50. Later, when Chevrolet began to become a major competitor in the automobile market, Pullford introduced a new attachment specifically intented to be fitted on the 1926 through 1931 Chevrolet. In 1938, the price of a Model T Pullford was $117.50. The price of the Model A version was $122.50 and the price of the Chevrolet version of the Pullford was also 122.50 The Pullford proved to be an attachment which had a limited window of opportunity. As automobiles became more sophisticated and custom-styled after 1932, the Pullford could no longer be designed to fit these newer cars. However, the Pullford remained in production until at least 1940 because it was assumed that while farmers buy newer cars for their family vehicle, they might also continue use these older cars on their farms.
Both to market their successful Pullford and to market their line of farm tractors, the Electric Wheel Company developed a network of sales outlets through existing “shortline” farm equipment dealerships and hardware stores across the nation. In Canada, the Electric Wheel Company relied on the George White and Sons Company Ltd. of London, Ontario.
With the entrance of the United States into the European War in April of 1917, raw materials for the production of tractors was severely curtailed. As a result, production of all tractors by the Electric Wheel Company fell precipitously. Production of the Allwork Model 20-35, as an example, slipped to 500 tractors in 1918. However, during the war, the Electric Wheel Company had signed a contract with the United States Army to make artillery gun carriages for the war effort. On November 11, 1918, an armistice was signed which ended the First World War. With the end of the war, the military terminated its war contract with the Company. Because of the loss of income from the cancellation of the government contract, the Company needed to quickly re-tool from making gun carriages and turn again peace time production.
Naturally, the Electric Wheel Company started mass producing tractors again after the war. However it was a new world. Henry Ford’s entrance into the farm tractor market with his little Fordson tractor created a revolution with the farm tractor market. The Fordson weighted only 2,920 pounds. Nonetheless, the Fordson was fitted with a three-speed transmission and its “in-line” four-cylinder engine delivered 10 hp. to the drawbar and 20 hp. to the belt pulley. More importantly, the Fordson sold for the suggested retail price of $750.00 in 1918. Furthermore, in the succeeding years Henry Ford continually dropped the price of the Fordson, even more, in an attempt to obtain a larger share of the farm tractor market. Eventually, the Fordson was selling for $395.00. This price was well within the financial grasp of many small farmers. Many farmers who, ordinarily, would not have thought of buying a farm tractor, now flocked to buy a Fordson. The Electric Wheel Company’s Allwork Model 14-28 was the Company’s entry in the “small tractor” market. However, with a weight of 5,000 pounds and with only had two forward speeds of 1¾ miles per hour (mph) and 2½ mph, the “cross-motor” designed Allwork Model 14-28 could not hope to compete with the Fordson in sales. The revolution set off by the Fordson within the tractor market required all competing tractor manufacturers to redesign and mass produce their own new small model tractors. However, the International Harvester Company (IHC) became Ford’s most successful competitor in this price war in the small tractor market. With the passage of each month the farm tractor market was growing by leaps and bounds. By 1919, a total of 100,000 tractors were built and sold by IHC and Ford.
However, in January of 1920 the United States economy entered into a period of severe deflation which became known as the “post-war recession.” The deflation of farm commodity prices created hardships for the farmers of North America. Accordingly, tractor and farm implement sales slumped. Unemployment rose to a level of 11. 7%. The post-war recession was a double blow to the Electric Wheel Company. Not only was there a reduction in the company’s tractor sales, but there was a slum in the sales of wheels that Electric Wheel Company had been making to other tractor and farm equipment companies. The post-war recession lasted only about seven (7) months, ending in about July of 1921. The post-war recession had been short in duration but had been sharp and severe in intensity. Many companies did not survive the post-war recession. While the Electric Wheel Company suffered during the post-war recession, the Company did, at least, survive.
With the return of prosperity to the economy in the mid-1920s, the Electric Wheel Company expected that, finally, sales of their tractors would pick up again. In response to the increasing demand for smaller tractors, the Electric Wheel Company introduced its own “small” four-wheel tractor in 1920, called the Allwork II Model F 12-25. The Allwork II Model F 12-25 tractor was tested at the University of Nebraska from August 16, 1920 through September 15, 1920. These tests revealed that the Allwork II Model F actually delivered a maximum of 19.69 hp. to the drawbar and 28.86 hp. to the belt pulley. Accordingly, the Model F was re-rated and was renamed the Model G 14-28.
Currently, there appears to be only one Allwork tractor in existence that is actually restored back to operating condition. This particular Allwork is a 1923 Model G 14-28 tractor. The current owners are Fred Buckert and his son Dan Buckert of Hamilton, Illinois. Having been born and raised in Adams County, where the City of Quincy is located, both father and son Buckert had been interested in obtaining an Allwork tractor for about 25 years prior to 2006 when they finally obtained their Model 14-28. Restoration of the tractor had actually been started by the prior owner—an antique tractor collector in Henry, Illinois. Restoration of the tractor had progressed to the point where the entire tractor had been dismantled, but then the prior owner had died. The Buckerts purchased the dismantled tractor at the estate sale of the prior owner and proceeded to complete the restoration of the Allwork 14-28 tractor. While the Burkerts are aware of four other Model 14-28 Allwork tractors in existence (one in Kansas City and another in Iowa), as well as a Electric Wheel Company track-type Model EWC 80 crawler tractor in Indiana, none of these tractors is in operating condition. Only the Burkert’s Allwork is in operating condition. The Burkerts Allwork tractor can be seen each year at the Western Illinois Threshers show held annually in Hamilton, Illinois, on the first full weekend in August each year. A picture of the tractor can also be seen on the website of the Western Illinois Threshers Association.
The Electric Wheel Company retained the cross-motor design on all its tractors well into the 1920s when most other tractor manufacturers had already turned to the in-line engine design. Finally with the introduction of the Allwork II Model G tractor, the Company designed and built its first in-line engine. However, even at this late-date, the Electric Wheel Company was not signaling a switch over to the in-line design. The Company merely introduced its Model G tractor with its in-line engine, specifically as an “orchard tractor” for use in the orchards of California. With regard to its other tractors, the Electric Wheel Company insisted on sticking with the cross-motor design.
As a way of promoting the sales of their tractors in the immediate post-war era, the Electric Wheel Company entered a number of field demonstrations and/or plowing contests. Sometimes these field demonstrations were held on farms of the Purdue University Agriculture School in West Lafayette, Indiana. During these plowing events, the Electric Wheel Company began to form a relationship with the Oliver Chilled Plow Company. This corporate relationship would develop and grow. After the 1929 merger of the Oliver Chilled Plow Company with the Hart-Parr Tractor Company of Charles City, Iowa and a number of other farm equipment companies, this corporate relationship would result in the Electric Wheel Company having access to the Oliver sales and dealership distribution network.
In 1927, the cross-motor Allwork Model 14-28 was modified slightly to make the tractor deliver 16 hp. to the drawbar and 30 hp to the belt pulley. Still a cross-motor tractor, this new Allwork tractor was called the Model CA tractor. The engine on the Model CA featured five (5) bearing surfaces on its crankshaft—an unusually rugged design feature for the time. The Model CA weighed 5,200 pounds. Probably because of the Company’s association with the Oliver Farm Equipment Company at the various plowing events, the Electric Wheel Company adopted the Oliver nomenclature and designated the Model CA as a “three-plow tractor.” Suggested retail price for the Model CA was $1,395.00.
Two more cross-motor model tractors were introduced by the Electric Wheel Company in 1928. The Model D was based on the design of the Model CA but each piston of its four-cylinder engine had a 5¼ inch bore and a 6 inch stroke. With this larger engine the Model D was advertised as a “four-plow tractor” and sold for the suggested price of $1,825. Yet another tractor designated the Model DA, was fitted with a larger four-cylinder engine with a 5½ inch bore and a 7 inch stroke was also introduced in 1928. The Model DA was advertised as a “five-plow tractor” and had the suggested retail price of $2,500.
However, even with the return of prosperity, in the mid-1920s, the expected rise in sales of the various models of the Allwork II tractor did not occur. Indeed, 1917 proved to be the high tide of tractor sales for the Electric Wheel Company. Tractor sales never again approached the high level attained in 1917. Furthermore, tractor sales continued to slide throughout the prosperous “roaring 20s.” The Electric Wheel Company’s retention of the cross-motor design for their tractors may well have been responsible for the decline in sales. It is interesting to speculate what might have happened if the Electric Wheel Company’s had changed from the cross motor design to the more modern and popular “in-line” engine design that would become the universally accepted during the late 1920s. International Harvester had abandoned the cross motor design in 1923 with the introduction of the International Model 15-30 Gear Drive tractor. Both the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company and the Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Company (one-corporate part of the entity that would emerge in 1929 as the Minneapolis-Moline Power Implement Company) had always used the in-line engine design for their tractors. The other major part of that same merger, the Minneapolis Threshing Machine Company, had made the switch from the cross-motor design to the in-line design in 1922. Indeed, the last two major tractor manufacturers still using the cross motor design in the late 1920s were Hart-Parr/Oliver and Case and they both switched from the “cross-motor design to the “in-line” engine design in 1929. Unable to turn around the decade-long decline in sales, the Electric Wheel Company abandoned all production of tractors in 1929. The Company was forced to turn back to their core business—the production of wheels for farm implements. Luckily, changes which were underway in the wheel market in that would present a pleasant surprise to the Electric Wheel Company.
One section of the wheel market that the Electric Wheel Company had never been able to enter, was the wagon wheel market. Wagon manufacturers seemed “bound and determined” to retain the traditional large wooden spoke wheel on all the wagons they were making. The wagon manufacturers hung on to the large wooden spoke wheel despite the fact that wooden spoke wheels: 1) were more expensive to make than were all-metal wheels; 2) required a great deal more maintenance than all-metal wagon wheels; 3) would not last nearly as long as steel spoke wheels; and 4) could not be made in sizes smaller than 36 inches in diameter.
There were clear advantages to using steel-spoke wheels as opposed to the traditional wooden wheels. The art and science of making a wooden wheel usually involved the use of different types of wood for different parts of the wheel. A 1923 advertisement of the Electric Wheel Company noted that in their wooden spoke-type wheels, Wisconsin birch was used for the hubs, “straight grained oak” was used for the spokes and narrow pieces of white oak were bent around the outside of the wheel. Then a metal band or “tire” was pressed on the outside of the wheel which would hold the whole wheel together.
In use however, the wooden wheel would wear and dry out as the wagon was used. The wooden parts in the wheel would shrink as the wood dried. The metal tire around the outside of the wooden wheel would then become loose and threaten to fall off. The only fix for this problem is for a blacksmith to cut a small section out the metal tires and weld the tire back together again. The tire would then have a smaller circumference. However, when the metal tire was heated red hot it expanded. Then the metal tire would be hammered back on the outside of the wheel. As the red hot metal tire cooled it would shrink and fit tightly around the wheel again. As a temporary measure to tighten the tire on a wooden wheel, some farmers would wet the wooden parts of the wheel. The wetted wood would expand or swell and tighten the metal tire on the wheel again.
However, a wooden wheel could not remain wet for long periods of time for fear that the wooden wheel would rot. Consequently, the wagon with wooden wheels must be stored in doors out of the weather. By way of contrast, the all-metal wheel needed much less maintenance, operated in all kinds of weather conditions, and could be stored out of doors in all kinds of weather conditions. Furthermore, wood wears much faster than metal and, therefore, the wooden wheel has a much shorter life than all-meal wheels.
As noted above, wooden wheels are constructed by bending pieces of white oak into arcs and attaching them to the outer ends of the wooden spokes. However, there was a physical limit as to how sharply the white oak could be bent into arcs. The white oak pieces could not be bent sharp enough to make a wheel smaller than 36 inches. Traditionally, then, wooden wheels for wagons were 36 inches in the front and 42 inches in the rear. Whereas, wooden wheels could not be build in sizes smaller than about 36 inches in diameter, steel wheels, on the other hand, could be made in any size. The Electric Wheel Company advertised steel wheels as small as 24 inches in diameter for mounting on wagons.
Front wheels sized 36 inches or larger imposed severe limitations on a wagon’s ability to turn corners. Horse-drawn wagons were traditionally steered by “fifth-wheel” type steering. Fifth wheel type steering means that in negotiating a corner both wheels were pivoted at the same pivot point located at the center of the axle between the two front wheels. This pivot point was called the “king pin.” Obviously, then, on each turn with a wagon equipped with fifth-wheel steering, one of the front wheels would have to fit under the wagon box. Clearly, a 36-inch wheel would fit only partially under the wagon box as the wagon pivoted around the corner. This meant that sharp cornering with a wooden wheel wagon was impossible. However, smaller 24 inch steel wheels would fit entirely under the wagon box. This allowed the wagon to be turned at a 90° angle if needed for sharp cornering. As noted above, Electric Wheel advertisements often emphasized this feature of small steel wheels by showing steel wheel wagon gears with the front wheels turned at 90° angles to brag about the smaller steel wheel’s ability to fit entirely under the wagon box.
Furthermore, if smaller steel wheels were mounted on both rear as well as the front of the wagon gear or “truck,” a barge style wagon box with a “bed-over” configuration could be mounted on the wagon gear. Thus, instead of being limited to designing narrow wagon boxes which allowed room for large wooden spoke wheels on either side of the wagon box, the bed-over design allowed all four wheels of the wagon to fit neatly under a wider “barge-style” wagon box. These wider barge-style wagon boxes would hold more bushels of ear corn or grain.
Not only could steel wheels be made smaller in diameter than wooden wheels, but steel wheels could be made with wider metal tires. Whereas, metal tires on wooden wheels were limited to either a three (3) inch or a four (4) inch width, the Electric Wheel Company sold all metal wheels with metal tires up to six (6) inches wide. These wider metal tires on steel wheels were less likely to sink into soft ground. The result was an easier load for draft animals.
In the years since its original incorporation, the Electric Wheel Company sales staff had been attempting “get a foot in the door” of the wagon wheel market by stressing all these advantages. However, nothing seemed to work. Wagon manufacturers continued to resist even considering all-metal wheels for the wagons they produced. Sometime after 1905, John Stillwell had a thought. Perhaps, the best way to convince the wagon manufacturers of the advantages of the smaller steel-spoke wheels for use on wagon “gears” or wagon “trucks,” was for the Electric Wheel Company, itself,to become a wagon gear manufacturer. Accordingly, the Electric Wheel Company began the production of wagon gear or trucks for sale directly to the public.
Consequently, the Company began advertising wagon gears and grain boxes for direct to the retail farm public. By 1923, the Company had an entire line of wagon gears and wagon boxes available for sale. A 1923 advertisement for the Electric Wheel Company announced a new “Improved Bryson Farm Truck.” (The “Bryson” name was taken from John Stillwell’s own family. Indeed, John’s father was named Brison Stillwell.) The Bryson Farm gear or “truck” had a 4000 pound capacity and was fitted with spoke-style steel wheels. The 1923 advertisement also listed a “Quincy” grain box that was available separately for mounting on any wagon gear. The Quincy wagon box was a “double box.” The traditional wooden bed or floor of the traditional wagon box is 38-inches wide by 10 ½ feet long. Attached to the sides of the bed and to the front and back are wide boards which allowed for a 13 inch “inside” height from the bed or floor of the wagon to the top of the boards. This was a “single” box. By attaching another set of 13 inch boards to the top edge of the single box, the inside height of the wagon box could be doubled to 26 inches. This was the double box.
In case, any potential buyer wanted to purchase only a wood-spoke type of wagon truck, the Electric Wheel Company obliged by offering, on this same advertisement, their own traditional wooden-spoked wagon truck called the “Gem City Wooden Wheel Truck.” (Gem City is the nickname for Quincy, Illinois.) This traditional wooden wheeled wagon gear also had a 4000 pound capacity. Also available was a wooden wheeled wagon gear and double box fitted with a teamster/drivers seat and brakes on the rear wheels. This horse-drawn wagon was named the “Calkins” wagon obviously meant for long distance road hauling. The “Calkins” wagon gear was named after the two brothers (noted above) that had joined the Company at a young age and had in the years since become part of the management of the Electric Wheel Company—Ira Raymond Calkins and Addison Niles Calkins.