Brian Wayne Wells
At about the time of John Stillwell’s death in 1935, the Electric Wheel Company had just begun exploring the implications of the introduction of pneumatic rubber tires to farm tractors and farm machinery. Pneumatic rubber tires had been popular on automobiles nearly from the beginning of the production of automobile. However, rubber tires did not find their way onto farm tractors and/or farm implements until 1929, when the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company of West Allis, Wisconsin introduced their new Model U farm tractor and All-Crop Harvester combine. Both the tractor and the combine were shown to the public for the first time mounted on pneumatic rubber tires. Allis-Chalmers had worked together with the French and Hecht Company (F. & H.) to bring about this introduction of rubber tires to the farm market. Naturally, then, F. & H. received the supply contract from Allis Chalmers to produce all the wheel rims that Allis-Chalmers needed for the tractors and All-Crop Harvesters that they made which were fitted with rubber tires. Just as naturally, then, F. & H. designed a wheel rim for the rubber tires that would inherit a great deal from the steel round spoke wheels that incorporated many of the same features that were part of the steel wheels that they were already mass producing. Thus, the F.& H. wheel rim for rubber tires was of the same “staggered” round-spoke design that was just like the F.& H. steel wheel.
The staggered round-spoke design of F.& H. steel wheel was not original to the F.& H. Company. F.& H. had inherited the design of their staggered round-spoke steel wheel from the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company. Indeed, the wheel was actually known, in some circles, as the “Bettendorf Wheel.” William Bettendorf had obtained a patent on this wheel in 1887. Following 1887, some improvements had been made to the Bettendorf wheel. However, most of these improvements were made to the wheel by the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company before, the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company was sold the F.& H. Company. One of these improvements to the Bettendorf wheel was the “staggering” arrangement of the round spokes on the hub of the wheel. Originally, the round spokes of the Bettendorf wheel had extended from the center of the metal “tire” around the outside of the wheel straight down to the center of the hub of the wheel. When side pressure was applied to the wheel the spokes might easily buckle. Staggering of the spokes meant that while all the spokes would continue to be attached to the center of the metal tire around the outside of the wheel, the spokes would alternately be attached to either the inside or the outside of the hub of the wheel. This created a triangular arrangement of the spokes on the wheel which greatly strengthened the Bettendorf wheel against side stress. This staggered arrangement worked well for farm implements, wagons and other “towed” farm equipment. The arrangement even worked well for steam engines and the heavy slow-moving tractors that were common in the early part of the twentieth century. Following the introduction of the Fordson in 1918, “automotive” type steering became the widely accepted as the most popular type of steering for the “standard” tractors of the 1920s. Although subject to side stress on the front wheels of the standard tractors was not a significant problem because the automotive style steering provided a pivot point for each wheel in the front of the tractor. Side stress on the front wheels became an issue only with the introduction of the tricycle-style Farmall tractor in 1924.
Introduction of the Farmall tractor created another revolution in agriculture similar to the revolution created by the introduction of the Fordson tractor, which has been described above. Standard tractors, like the Fordson, were able to perform all farm chores except cultivation of row crops (typically corn) which were grown in the Midwestern states of the nation. Even though employing a standard tractor on the farm, the Midwestern farmer was required to keep some of his horses in order to do the cultivating of his row crops during the summer. The tricycle-style tractor was specifically designed for the task of cultivation of row crops. Soon all the leading tractor manufacturers were producing their own tricycle-style “row crop” tractors.
To facilitate the cultivation of row crops the tricycle style row crop tractor was designed with a narrow front end in which both front wheels were placed together on the same bolster. Steering of the tricycle style tractor was accomplished by a return to the fifth-wheel type of steering with a single pivot point for both front wheels—just like a child’s tricycle. The fifth wheel type of steering allowed the front wheels of the tricycle style of tractor to be turned 90° from the straight line of the tractor. This allowed the tricycle style tractor to negotiate the sharp 180° turns at the end of the corn fields required to cultivate adjacent two rows in the corn field. Turned to nearly 90° from the straight line of the tractor both front wheels would tend to bulldoze the soft soil of the corn field as the tractor attempted to make the sharp turns at the end of the rows. This created a great deal of side stress to the front wheels of tricycle style tractors, especially when one considered the additional weight on the front wheels when the gangs of the front-mounted cultivator were raised to accomplish the turn around.
Still the problem of side stress was not as bad as it would become in the late 1930s with the introduction of another revolution in farm machinery—the rubber tire. As noted above, the Allis-Chalmers Farm Equipment Company, working together with the F.& H. Company, introduced rubber tires on farm machinery. Consequently, the typical steel rim on which the pneumatic rubber tire was mounted, was a round-spoke style rim.
Side stress on front wheels of tricycle tractors presented serious issues when tractors began to be fitted with rubber tires on the front wheels for a number of reasons. First there was the additional weight of rubber tires as opposed to steel wheels. Wheels with rubber tires are heavier than steel wheels. Then there was the problem that the side stress applied pressure on the ends of each spoke at 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 major 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 been warned 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 enough capital to dedicate sufficient resources to financing a drastic redesign of their wheel rim. There were a number of reasons which supported the F. & H. view of the rubber-tired market. Even though growing, the market for rubber tires on tractors and farm equipment was, in the late 1930s, 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 and really only a problem with tricycle style tractors. Consequently, 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.
There were, however, some companies that were willing to risk capital to seek a re-design of the wheel rim for rubber tires which could deal with the side stress when mounted on the front of row crop tractors. One of these companies was the Peru Plow Company of Peru, Illinois. Founded in 1851, the Peru Plow Company was the oldest wheel company in the United States. Ironically, the Peru Plow Company might have been the dominate wheel manufacturer in the United States had history followed a slightly different course. Before starting his own company in 1886, William Bettendorf had been employed by the Peru Plow Company. Indeed, he had largely developed his design for the “Bettendorf Wheel” while he was working at the Peru Plow Company. Had he remained with the Peru Plow Company, it might have been Peru Plow that occupied the position of dominance in the wheel market rather than the F.& H. Company. Now in the late 1930s, Peru Plow recognized that a redesign of the rim for rubber tires was needed and they began to explore the possibility of a disc-type wheel for rubber tires as a way of solving the problem of the design weakness of spoke type wheels. However they were not alone in researching a disc type wheel.
With the F.& H. Company abdicating their position of leadership in producing wheel rims for rubber tires on the frontwheels of row crop tractors, the Electric Wheel Company saw an opportunity opening up for them in the wheel rim market. Thus, in the in the spirit of the late John Stillwell, the Company set about aggressively trying to take advantage of this opportunity. Eventually, the Electric Wheel Company introduced into the market a new “disc type” wheel rim for mounting rubber tires. Replacing the spokes of the centers of these rims, the Electric Wheel Company avoided the main problem of the spoke style wheels. When mounted on the front of a tricycle style tractor the disc-type rims might still bulldoze dirt when turning sharply in the soft ground of corn field. The disc rim might even bend under the consistent sharp turning which occurred during cultivating season. However the disc would not puncture the tub of the tire as the spokes of a spoke wheel might do after continual use.
The leading tractor manufacturers of the United States were not slow to see the advantages of the new disc type wheels. 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. As a result the Electric Wheel Company gained immediate market share from the F.& H. Company directly as a result of these contracts with John Deere and Allis Chalmers. The Electric Wheel Company continued to increase market share in the tractor wheel market as more and more farmers bought farm tractors with rubber tires in 1940 and 1941. Furthermore, the Electric Wheel Company also developed a large foreign market for their wheels, especially in Latin and South American countries.
In the production of the new disc type wheels, the Peru Wheel Company came to occupy a distant second place to the Electric Wheel Company in the disc wheel rim market. The Peru Wheel Company was in a very weak condition. Having survived the worst years of the “Great Depression” of 1929-1933, the Peru Wheel Company was badly hurt by the smaller recession of 1937. By 1940, the condition of the Peru Wheel Company became so tenuous that the management of Peru Wheel Company determined that the best course for the company was a drastic reorganization of the Company. Accordingly, a new corporate entity was inaugurated in Peru, Illinois, called the Peru Manufacturing and Warehouse Company. This new entity leased the property in Peru, Illinois, that belonged to the Peru Wheel Company and took over the more profitable portions of the business, i.e. the manufacturing of wagon beds, farm trucks and grain tanks. The Peru Manufacturing and Warehouse Company also entered into the warehousing and storage of industrial equipment at the factory site in Peru, Illinois, and also started exploring the uses of the by-products of a new farm crop—soybeans. By 1941 all that remained of the old Peru Plow Company was the core business of wheel manufacturing. It was this portion of the business that was most in trouble and so the new corporate entity now attempted to sell off this unprofitable portion. Accordingly, the management of the new company began to look for a buyer of the wheel business. The corporate entity that expressed the most interest was the Electric Wheel Company.
Accordingly on May 1, 1941, the wheel-making portion of the Peru Company was purchased by the Electric Wheel Company. Some of the management of the old Peru Plow Company, was invited to come to Quincy, Illinois to join the management of the new company. Richard Newcomb Stillwell was to remain as president of the new Electric Wheel Company. However, Daniel W. Voorhees, from Peru Plow was, however, appointed Executive Vice-President. John Brinson Stillwell, Richard’s younger brother, was appointed Secretary of the new Electric Wheel Company. However, both D.C. Selheimer and J.C. Stefan from the Peru Plow Company were brought into the new Electric Wheel Company as the production manager and the sales manager, respectively. Frank F. Alexander from Quincy became the Vice-President in Charge of Sales. George L. Luthy (President of the Commercial Merchants National Bank in Peru, Illinois) was elected to the Board of Directors on the new Electric Wheel Company. Additionally, F.M. Seaton from Quincy became the assistant secretary and William T. Lechtenberg from Quincy, was asked to continue as shop superintendent of the Electric Wheel Company.
The various legislative measures passed by the United States Congress at the suggestion of President Roosevelt helped ease the economy out of the Great Depression. Together these measures are referred to as the “New Deal program. The New Deal brought permanent changes to the United States industry. One of the measures passed by the Congress was the Wagner Act of 1935. The Wagner Act of 1935 set up a process by which employees in private industry could organize themselves into a union for collectively bargaining of their pay and working conditions. After the U. S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Wagner Act there was a widespread movement in the American Labor toward collective bargaining. The period of time just prior to the war proved to be a period of great expansion in the history of the Electric Wheel Company. Like the workers in other companies the employees of the Electric Wheel Company felt they were entitled to share in the good times and successfully organized the under the United Auto Workers union of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (C.I.O.).
Suddenly, on December 7, 1941, the United States was plunged into another world war. “Strategic” raw materials for civilian use became strictly limited—especially rubber. Nearly all rubber and other raw materials were being channeled into military production in support of the war effort. Accordingly, the production of rubber tires for civilian automobiles, farm equipment and farm tractors was severely restricted. The small amount of tractors and farm equipment that was manufactured during the war was mounted on steel wheels. Return to the production of steel wheels did not make up for the loss of market sustained by the Electric Wheel Company. The diminishing market in the early months of the war created a hardship for the Electric Wheel Company. Although the company did not realize it at the time, the Electric Wheel Company was soon to enter into another period of expansion. It started with the Electric Wheel Company successfully bidding on a series of government war contracts. Once again, as in the first world war, the Electric Wheel Company, once again, re-tooled for the war effort—making gun carriages for the military. However, this time, the Electric Wheel Company also was contracted by the United States government to make “bogie wheels” (small idler wheels) for use on the thousands of military track driven tanks and track-driven armed personnel carriers made for the war effort.
As a part of the war effort, iron was rationed to the Electric Wheel Company sufficient to fill these military contracts. The iron shipped from the steel mills of Joliet Illinois and Gary, Indiana in the form of “ingots” which would be re-melted and poured into molds at the foundry located at Electric Wheel Company’s Quincy Works. Steel also arrived at the Quincy Works in form of sheets which could then be cut and pressed into the disc centers of the bogie wheels and other wheels that they were making for the war effort. Shipping and transportation of the all this steel by rail was expensive. The Electric Wheel Company explored other means of shipping the heavy loads of steel to Quincy. The summer time tow barge traffic up and down the Mississippi River and the Illinois River offered the perfect alternative to expensive rail traffic—at least for summer time. Joliet, Illinois, was on the navigable portion of the Des Plaines River. The Des Plaines River emptied into the Illinois River at a point 15 or 20 miles down river from Joliet. The Illinois River was navigable along its entire length to its mouth located on the Mississippi. Therefore, all steel ordered from the Joliet Iron and Steel Works in Joliet, Illinois. (The steel foundries of Joliet, Illinois are featured in the 1993 movie Rudy and is pictured, along with the prison also located in Joliet, in the 1980 movie Blues Brothers.) Because of the navigability of the Des Plaines River and the Illinois River, steel could be transported entirely by water from Joliet, Illinois to Quincy. Thanks to the canal built in 1900 that had linked the Chicago River with the Des Plaines River (which had the effect of causing the Chicago River to change its course and flow backwards), Chicago and Lake Michigan were connected by water to the Mississippi River. Thus, the Electric Wheel Company could also order steel from the United States Steel Company in Gary, Indiana, and could transport this steel entirely by water from Gary, Indiana, to Quincy, Illinois. Using this river system the Electric Wheel Company, was able to drastically reduce its costs of shipping, at least in the summer time. During the winter, the Electric Wheel Company returned to the more expensive railroad form of transport for the raw steel they needed for their manufacturing operations.
When the Second World War came to an end on September 2, 1945, the war contracts were cancelled abruptly on that date. However, the United States economy continued to hum along, based on the government purchasing for the Marshall Plan and for the rebuilding of Europe, Germany and Japan. There was no post-war recession at the end of this war as there had been at the end of the First World War.
In the post-war era, there was a tremendous pent-up demand for products that the American public had not been able to buy during the war. This huge demand far outstretched the supply of these products as industry struggled to re-tool from wartime production back to peace time production. Like other U.S. companies the Electric Wheel Company was hurriedly trying to retool back to production of its core products—disc type wheels for farm tractors and farm implements. There were some post-war contracts that the Electric Wheel Company obtained which did not require retooling of the Quincy Works. The Caterpillar Company of nearby Peoria, Illinois, signed a contract to purchase for the same type of bogie wheels that the Electric Wheel Company had been making through out the war for tanks and other track-driven machines for the U.S. military.
In the post-war period, rubber tires once again became available. Following their retooling, the Electric Wheel Company began once again making the disc-type rims for mounting rubber tires on farm tractors and farm implements. Prior to the recent war, the disc-type wheel rims had already proved themselves able to deal with side stress much better than the spoke-type wheel rims for wheels on the front of tricycle-style farm tractors. Furthermore, disc-type “pressed-steel” wheel rims for rubber tires had always been cheaper to produce than spoke-type wheel rims. Rather than the labor intensive construction of spokes and attaching the spokes to a hub and then to the outer portion of the rim, the disc centers of Electric wheels were merely “pressed out” from raw pieces of sheet metal, with huge mechanical pressing machines at the Quincy Works. Many new advances in the industrial technology had occurred during the war. The pressing machines at the Quincy Works had become much heavier than in the pre-war period. This allowed the Electric Wheel Company to make wheel rims in much larger sizes and to make those wheel rims much more cheaply.
Following the war, it made sense that the disc-type rims would once again be preferred on the front wheels of tricycle-style farm tractors. However, fowe ver, However, or other applications, like wheels on towed farm implements, where side stress was no real problem, there was no reason to believe that spoke-type wheel rims would not continue to dominate that market. Indeed, it was expected that spoke-type wheel rims would continue to dominate in that market. However, the Electric Wheel Company had a pleasant surprise in the post-war era.
Disc-type wheels rims began to be viewed as “modern.” While the spoke-type wheel rim came to be associated with the pre-war era. 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, suddenly and unexpectedly provided the Electric Wheel Company with a real advantage in the farm implement wheel market. Indeed, this prejudice 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 Electric Wheel Company gained even more market share in the post-war era.
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. Although the International Harvester Company (IHC) made their own cast iron drop center wheel rims for the front end of the tractors they manufactured, IHC dropped production of their own rims for rubber tires on farm implements they made. Up to 1940, IHC had been making their own drop-center spoke-type wheel rim for rubber tires on their farm implements like the Model No. 8 Little Genius plow and the No. 12A two row potato digger. (The author believes that IHC may have actually ended production of their own spoke-type wheel rims in 1940 and for a short time in 1941 may have signed a contract with the French and Hecht Company to supply wheel rims for rubber tires for Little Genius plows which were mounted on rubber tires during 1941.)
In all these cases, the pull-type implement had been offered to the public in the pre-war era on rubber tires mounted on spoke-type wheel rims. (Most often these spoke-type wheel rims were F.& H.-made 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.)
The Electric Wheel Company rode this rising tide of demand for their disc-type wheel rims. Instead of a post-war recession, the main worry of economists following Second World War was the period of spiraling hyper-inflation that had been unleashed as supply struggled to keep up with demand following the sudden lifting of wartime price controls. Only in 1948, did supply catch up with demand. Only then did prices begin to stabilize and inflation abate. Stable prices and low inflation allowed worker productivity increase. The Electric Wheel Company’s contribution to this increase in productivity was partially embodied in the heavier, more efficient pressing machines which allowed the Company to increase size and variety of the disc-type rims that the company was able to make—and to make very cheaply. This new efficiency allowed the Electric Wheel Company to begin, in 1952, making large pressed wheel rims for the 36 inch and 38 inch wheels on the rear of the modern tractors, i.e. Oliver, Massey-Harris, John Deere and other farm tractor manufacturers. The tractor manufacturers found that they could not make the pressed steel wheels as cheaply as they could buy them from the Electric Wheel Company.
This nationwide increase in productivity meant real growth in the economy, which then resulted in a long period of prosperity that lasted throughout most of the 1950s. Prosperity throughout the decade was spurred by rising consumer demand within the United States. During the 1950s, the Electric Wheel Company was still being managed by the same “younger generation” that was brought into the Company by John Stillwell in the early 1900’s. This younger generation was now in their sixties and seventies. Little provision had been made for training the next generation of corporate managers for the company. When 61-year-old Richard Newcomb Stillwell stepped down as President in the mid-1950s, he was replaced by the 73-year-old Frank Fleming Alexander.
In the new prosperous decade, many Americans moved off their farms and took jobs in the industrial economy. This became known as the “urbanization of America.” In the 1950’s the newly urbanized populous began to earn a good living working 8-hour days, with evenings and weekends off and with accrued vacation days as a regular benefit of their place of employment. There suddenly was plenty of time for recreation and travel vacations. Thus, in the 1950s, many American families began to buy boats for fishing and water skiing. Trailers for hauling the boats also became a big market and the Electric Wheel Company was contracted by boat and trailer companies to supply the small steel rims for the wheels on those boat trailers. To keep up with the rising consumer demand, the Electric Wheel Company was now employing about 650 to 700 employees at its Quincy Works.
However, the Electric Wheel Company also missed a major market in the United States. A big part of the rising tide of consumer demand throughout the 1950 was a demand for new automobiles. The automobile industry had turned to the use of disc type wheel rims in the 1940s. However, the Electric Wheel Company was unable to break into this market and provide wheel rims to the automobile companies. In this inability to break into the automotive market, the Electric Wheel Company was a victim of its own success. The Electric Wheel Company had advanced the technology of making wheel rims to the degree that disc-type wheel rims of any size were very easy and inexpensive to make. Consequently, the automobile manufactures, generally, preferred to make their own wheel rims rather than contract with the Electric Wheel Company to supply the rims they needed. Consequently, the Electric Wheel Company’s core business remained limited to producing wheel rims for the agricultural implement market. Given the rising urbanization of America, this put the Electric Wheel Company on the wrong side of a growing demographic. Far-sighted corporate executives could see a continued dependence only on the agricultural market would only lead to a shrinking profits. Accordingly, the executives of the Electric Wheel Company began to feel that it was a good time to diversify its operations. One corporation that expressed interest in the merging with the Electric Wheel Company was the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio.
Firestone was one of the nations’ leading manufacturer of tires (second only to the Good Year Tire and Rubber Company also of Akron, Ohio). Firestone had for many years been the supplier of rubber tires for the cars produced by the Ford Motor Company. Additionally, Firestone was nation’s largest maker of wheel rims for the trucking industry. Firestone also made the outer rims for trucks. Naturally, Firestone had the large rolling machines to make these outer rims of many sizes. However, Firestone did not have the large pressing machines to make the disc-type pressed-steel centers for these outer rims. A merger with Electric Wheel would solve this problem for Firestone, because Electric Wheel specialized in making disc-type centers for wheel rims and the Company had pressing machines large enough to make the centers that Firestone required.
Merger negotiations between Electric Wheel and Firestone were announced to the public in May of 1957 and before the end of the calendar year, Firestone had bought out the Electric Wheel Company. Under the terms of the agreement, the Electric Wheel Company would become a division of the Firestone Company and would keep all its facilities at Quincy. Electric Wheel’s 65-year-old Executive Vice-President D.W. Voorhees became President of the new Electric Wheel Division replacing the 75-year-old Frank Fleming Alexander.
What limited attempts that were being made to prepare a younger generation of executives within the Electric Wheel Division was limited to the members of one family—the Voorhees family. D.W. Voorhees’ 39 year-od son, Daniel W. Voorhees Jr. became general manager of the Electric Wheel Division. Since March of 1951, D.W. Voorhee’s second son, William A. Voorhees, had been serving as an assistant to Plant Superintendent William T. Lechtenberg. Now with the merger with Firestone, the 66-year-old William Lechtenberg took the opportunity to retire and in June of 1957 the 30-year-old William Voorhees replaced him as factory manager.
No layoffs were anticipated nor made among the workforce at the Quincy Works as a result of the merger with Firestone. Indeed, the merger with Firestone brought advantages to Electric Wheel. Instead of being restricted to the declining United States agricultural market, Electric Wheel was now connected to the growing trucking industry. Electric Wheel had grown tremendously over its existence. However, the merger with Firestone brought the greatest period of expansion to the Quincy Works in the history of the Company. Upon conclusion of the merger, Firestone transferred some of its truck wheel rim making operation to Quincy, Illinois where it could be united with the wheel rim centers that Electric Wheel was making for those same rims.
To make room for these new operations, in May of 1959, the new management of the Electric Wheel Division undertook the construction of a new 100,000 square foot building on the grounds of the Quincy Works. With this new expansion, the Quincy Works now had 900,000 square feet of floor space under roof on the grounds. This compares with only 300,000 of floor space in 1940—three times the floor space in less than 20 years!!
By 1962, Firestone had obtained another contract to supply wheel rims to Caterpillar for the new generation of giant earth movers (“dirt buggies”) and road graders (called “road patrol” graders) that Caterpillar was now producing. D. W. Voorhees noted that this new product had come to Electric Wheel as a direct result of the merger with Firestone. This new contract resulted in another increase in the factory floor space at the Quincy Works in February of 1962. Additionally, this expansion resulted in the hiring of 100 more workers at the factory.
In August of 1957 a long period of economic expansion in the United States slowed as the nation’s economy entered into a recession. For eight months, from August of 1957 until April of 1958, the United States economy suffered sluggish economic activity and high levels of unemployment. Although the economy began to grow again after April of 1958, consumer spending continued to lag through the rest of 1958 as the public remained skeptical about the economy. Only when the realization finally set in with the public, that recession was actually over, did consumers start spending again. Sales of boats and boat trailers increased tremendously in 1959 and the following year, in 1960, sales of boats and trailers doubled in 1960. The management of the Electric Wheel Division realized that they could ill afford to let this market go unattended without obtaining their share of the sales in that market. Thus, paralleling another decision made about 60 years prior (in which Electric Wheel Company had decided to move from the manufacture of wagon wheels to become a manufacturer of entire wagons), the Electric Wheel Division decided, in 1962, to move from merely making the wheels for boat trailers to the making entire boat trailers.
Another residual benefit of the merger with Firestone was that the Electric Wheel Division began making brake bands for trucks. Thus, another 72,000 square feet of floor space was added to the Quincy factory complex to house the boat trailer and brake band operations. By the end of the fiscal year 1962, the Quincy Works employed 1,300 workers with a combined payroll of $6,985,000.00.
In 1963, D.W. Voorhees retired from the presidency of the Electric Wheel Division. He was replaced by his son Daniel W. Voorhees Jr., who had been the general manager of the Division. Replacing Daniel as the general manager of the Division was Daniel’s own brother William A. Voorhees. The Electric Wheel Division’s core business remained farm wagons, wagon boxes, boat trailers and wheel rims. However, the largest growing area of the business continued to be the manufacture of large rims for use on earth movers and other large construction equipment. In May of 1964, yet another 32,000 square foot expansion of the shipping/receiving and warehouse buildings at the Quincy Works was announced.
United States’ increasing involvement in the Vietnam War in 1964 became very apparent in Quincy, Illinois, as the Electric Wheel Division was awarded government/military contracts for production of track shoe assemblies for light tanks and tank recovery vehicles. However, the contract specification for these wheels and assemblies required the tank wheels and track assemblies contain more aluminum than the tank wheels and track assemblies of the past. Modern tanks needed to be lighter than in the past to allow the tanks to be airlifted and dropped into area where required. The armed forces were involved in a new type of highly mobile warfare in Vietnam.
Because of the need for a precision in the alloy ratio in the iron/aluminum parts that Electric Wheel was now making for these military contracts, the chemical testing laboratory at Electric Wheel Division was enlarged in March of 1966. The chemical laboratory at the Quincy Works performed physical tests and metallography on both the raw products coming into the factory and the finished products leaving the factory. Tests were conducted on “grey metal” and other products at the Quincy Works. “Grain growth,” “stresses” and “hardness” of the various metals were measured in the chemical laboratory. The Electric Wheel Division was now employing 1,900 workers at a total payroll of $9,390,000.00.
At the same time, in March of 1966, the Electric Wheel Division was required to upgrade its manufacturing base by installing three new 1,250-ton capacity pressing machines just to keep up with the demands of Caterpillar and other construction equipment manufacturers for newer and larger wheels rims. Each one of these new pressing machines stood 33 feet tall and weighed 286,000 pounds. In preparation for the installation of each pressing machine, a hole was punched through the floor of the factory and a pit seventeen (17) feet deep was dug out of the earth under the hole in the floor. Then the pit was filled with 500 yards of concrete. This would provide a proper footing to for the huge pressing machine. Only when this concrete footing had totally dried out or “cured” completely, could the pressing machine be installed in its place in the factory.
On January 31, 1967, the Quincy Herald-Whig related that Daniel W. Voorhees Jr. resigned as President of the Electric Wheel Division to accept another management position with Firestone in Akron, Ohio. Replacing him as President of the Division was his own brother, William A. Voorhees. The management of the Electric Wheel Division bragged at that time that the Division had tripled in size since the merger with Firestone in 1957.
In recognition of the growth of the operations at the Firestone sought to make appropriate changes in the management to reflect this new larger status and also took the opportunity to bring in some Firestone people into the management of the Division. In June of 1970, Robert F. Kuntz was brought in from the Firestone facility at Ravenna, Ohio to become factory manager at the Quincy Works. Kuntz had a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Tri-State College in Angola, Indiana. The Quincy Herald-Whig of June 7, 1970 reported that Kuntz would replace Aaron E. Bergstrasser who was being “transferred to other management duties” at the Quincy Works.
The United States economy was went into an eleven (11) month recession extending from December of 1969 until November of 1970. Following this recession there was a period of inflation and rising consumer prices. The work force at the Electric Wheel had shrunk from a high of 1,900 employees in 1964 down to 1,300 employees in 1972. These cut backs and the inflation created dissatisfaction among the workers of the Electric Wheel Division, because their salaries that were not keeping up with the cost of living. Serious contractual disagreements arose during the negotiations between the UAW and the Electric Wheel Division over the collective bargaining agreement. In mid-April of 1972, the 1,200 members of the United Auto Workers at the Quincy Works walked off the job. Pay, which had been severely eroded in recent years, was the main bone of contention in the negotiations that led up to the strike. However, a strong second issue in the strike was the requirement of mandatory overtime that the company used a great deal as a stop-gap measure to avoid hiring new employees at the Quincy facility. The strike was to last until July 5, 1972 before an agreement was reached between management and labor over these contentious issues.
Following the two-and one-half month strike, Firestone decided that they wanted to bring in some more of their own management to the Electric Wheel Division. Accordingly, in July of 1972, Firestone brought in Leon R. Brodeur from Firestone’s Foam Products Co. located in Providence, Rhode Island to replace William A. Voorhees as “President” of the Electric Wheel Division. At the same time in July of 1972, Firestone brought back to the Quincy Works someone who was quite familiar to the citizens of Quincy—Virgil Krueger—to be factory manager of the Quincy Works. Virgil Krueger was appointed to the position of factory manager to replace Robert F. Kuntz who was retiring. Virgil Krueger had been born to Edgar and Marie Krueger of Quincy, Illinois, on November 17, 1921. He had graduated from high school in Quincy in 1939. He was first employed by the engineering department of the Electric Wheel Company in 1940. From 1960 until 1969, Virgil Krueger held the position of manager of tooling for Electric Wheel. In 1969, he had been appointed as plant manager for the Firestone Steel Products Company in Spartanburg, South Carolina. So coming to Quincy in 1973, was like returning home for Virgil Krueger.
Also in 1972, a 29 year-old man by the name of Michael A. Wolf joined the Electric Wheel Division as the material control manager at the Quincy Works. Born in Dayton, Ohio, Wolf received a Master’s Degree in business administration from the University of Dayton in 1971. In the six years that he worked in Quincy, Illinois for the Electric Wheel Division, Michael was rapidly promoted through a number of positions as sales manager, factory manager and in 1976 Wolf became the manager of manufacturing for the Electric Wheel Division.
Over the fifteen months from June of 1972 until August of 1973, the new management of the Electric Wheel Division brought the Division back up to full production with a work force now grown to 1,500 employees. Still problems with the work force remained. Forced overtime was becoming a universal way the management sought to avoid hiring more employees. An incredible 800 grievances had been filed by the employees involving mandatory overtime and other work site disagreements.
In fiscal year of 1973, the Quincy Works of the Electric Wheel Division was a big part of the regional economy of western Illinois. Occupying 88 acres in the Ellington Township neighborhood of Quincy, the Electric Wheel Division used $115,000 worth if Illinois coal at Works and spent $190,000 on natural gas. The Division used 1.6 million gallons of water per day at the Works. This figure represented almost 20% of the total capacity of the Quincy City Water Board and 20% of the capacity of the new sewage treatment plant that the City of Quincy had just built. The Electric Wheel Division paid $159,000 to the City of Quincy in fiscal year 1973 for these water and sewage services. Additionally, the Division was paying off a special assessment of $2 million dollars to the City of Quincy for it share of this new sewage treatment plant.
In October of 1973, Virgil Krueger replaced Leon R. Brodeur as president of the Electric Wheel Division. Leon Brodeur became Firestone’s vice-president for diversified products. Replacing Virgil Krueger in the position of factory manager was Kermit J. Risley. Kermit Risley was originally a Firestone management employee who had joined the Electric Wheel Division on December 15, 1958. Prior to coming to the Electric Wheel Division, he had worked as production department manager for the Firestone’s Los Angeles facility and as methods and standards manager at the Firestone Salinas, California, facility. Since March of 1973, he had been serving as the manager of the foundry at the Quincy Works. One of the first tasks for the new management of Electric Wheel was to resolve the 800 grievances with the work force that had been accumulated.
In the December 9, 1973 issue of the Quincy Herald-Whig newspaper, President Krueger reported that in 1973, the Electric Wheel Division had set a new all-time record of $60 million in sales. Based on this profitable year, Virgil Krueger sought to create better labor/management relations by:
1.) Allotting $1 million more dollars to increase the fringe benefits of the employees of the Division;
2.) Spending an additional $380,000 to improve working conditions at the Quincy facility;
3.) Instituting a new human relations program which would encourage more informal communications between employees and their supervisors on how to improve productivity at the Quincy Works. Specifically, the Division established a “suggestion system” which paid employees for their ideas on how to improve production. In the last six months of 1973, for instance, the division had paid out $6,000 to individual members of the work force for suggestions that were estimated to save the Division $34,000 annually in the future.
President Krueger acknowledged that mandatory over-time continued to be a problem because even with 1,550 employees and a current payroll of about $15.2 million in 1973, the Electric Wheel Division remained about 150 employees under staffed. Explaining that the Electric Wheel Division was a wide ranging enterprise operating under the same corporate umbrella, President Krueger noted that the Electric Wheel Division was, in reality, “seven (7) different production identities,” all of which were located at the same Quincy Works—manufacturing 165 different sizes of wheels and rims for agricultural industries with 55 different styles of discs for those wheels to meet the needs of various individual corporate customers. All in all, the Division manufactured wheels in 4,000 different assembly styles. Sections of the Quincy Works continued to make front idler wheels for Caterpillar crawlers; brake bands for many types of trucks and other vehicles; wheels for earthmoving and other off-road rubber tired equipment and hubs and spindles for agricultural equipment and farm wagons.
Mandatory overtime, President Krueger stated, was used to cover the additional work during the busy times in any one of these seven major areas of production. The busiest season of the year always seemed to fall in the summer just when the production employees would be planning their summer family vacations. However, year after year, mandatory overtime prevented the employees from actually taking those family vacations. To avoid using mandatory overtime, the Division would have required the hiring of 150 new employees in the spring and then the required laying off in the fall. Troublesome as it was, President Krueger pointed out that mandatory overtime in the summer was less painful to workers than mandatory layoffs. Further expansion of the Quincy Works would provide permanent work for 150 new workers might have been might be a way out of the quandary of choosing either mandatory overtime or annual mandatory layoffs.
However, this avenue of escape was also closed to the Electric Wheel Division. The Division was hemmed in by its location in suburban Quincy. Housing developments had sprung up around the Quincy Work’s 88 acre site, cutting off the Division’s ability to expand further. In recent years, the Electric Wheel Division had found it increasingly difficult to persuade Quincy City and Adams County zoning officials to close streets around the Quincy factory located in preparation for any expanding of the Quincy Works.
Given this situation, the Electric Wheel Division was secretly looking for a way to move some of the production operations out of Quincy. Indeed, President Krueger indicated as much in December of 1973 when he commented “We are looking elsewhere to move products out of our plant. We will not reduce our workforce.” Six months later on July 23, 1974, the official announcement was made that the Electric Wheel Division would start construction of a new factory on a 45 acre site in the industrial park of Abilene, Kansas. All manufacture of the “Electric” farm wagons would be moved to the new factory in Abilene. The growing market for the Electric wagon gear was expected to create a need for production of 150,000 wagon gears in 1974. Building of the Abilene Works would allow the Electric Wheel Division room for expansion of the Division’s productive capabilities to meet any new needs in the future. Additionally, construction of the new facility at Abilene would allow for a safer and environmentally cleaner design of the worksite. New Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) requirements could be designed into the new Abilene facility much more cheaply than by retrofitting the same changes into the old Quincy plant. Also, pollution controls at the new Abilene Works would not only meet, but would exceed all federal, state and local environmental laws. Employment-wise, expansion into the Abilene Works would have not result in layoffs in the workforce at the Quincy Works. Indeed, the expansion to Abilene, would resolve the continuing nagging problem of mandatory overtime.
President Krueger reported that Abilene, Kansas had been chosen as the best location for the new plant because of Abilene’s close proximity to the farm wagon market and because of the ample labor supply in the greater Abilene area and the transportation facilities located in Abilene.
As promised, there were no required changes in the workforce in Quincy as a result of the building of the new facility in Abilene. No employee was required to move from Quincy, Illinois to Abilene Kansas, in order to keep their job. However, some employees at the Quincy Works sought promotion and advancement within the company by making the move to Abilene. One such employee was Aaron E. Bergstrasser. Until June of 1970, Aaron Bergstrasser had been employed as the factory manager of the Quincy Works. Over the last four years, however, he had been serving as an ad hoc status carrying out a number of management duties. Now in 1974 at the age of 56 years, Aaron Bergstrasser sought a position in Abilene with an income that would boost his salary in the few years before he retired. Consequently, he and his family moved to Abilene and obtained a house at 1706 Mulbury, Route 1, in Abilene, where he continued to live until retirement. Indeed, enjoying the warmer climate of Kansas, Aaron continued to live in Abilene even after retirement.
The oil crisis of 1973, the forming of “OPEC” (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) in response to United States’ military support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War of September, 1973 and the resulting high gasoline prices all across the United States, caused the United States economy to slide into another economic recession in October of 1973. This recession was a long recession which lasted until April of 1975. Profits of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, as a whole, were hampered by the business downturn and fell to $23,078,000 for the six months from November of 1974 until April of 1975. Sales for the same period fell to $1,735,082,000. However, the economy eventually recovered such that Firestone was able to report in May of 1976, that for the period of time from November of 1975 until April of 1976, Firestone profits had risen to $58,410,000 on the back of sales of $1,830,147,000.
The Electric Wheel Division knew that recovery was back when the Division obtained its largest contract yet from the Caterpillar Tractor Company from Peoria, Illinois. Rising production at the Caterpillar factory had required more idler wheels than ever before.
Caterpillar preferred that the Electric Wheel Division continue to as its major supplier of idler wheels. Accordingly, Caterpillar signed this very large contract with the Electric Wheel Division. However, to fill this contract, Electric Wheel Division needed to further enlarge its production capabilities. Caterpillar’s factory at Peoria was only 130 miles north and east of Quincy. The idler wheels were currently shipped from Quincy to Galesburg, Illinois on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy (C.B.& Q.) railroad and then on to Peoria, Illinois again on C.B.&. Q tracks. The shipment rode C.B.& Q. trains the whole way to Peoria without the need for any transfers to other railroads. Transferring the manufacture of the idler wheels to the new Abilene, Kansas facility was not a profitable consideration because of the distance the idler wheels would have to shipped. Therefore, expansion of the Quincy Works was once more required.
On August 7, 1977, the Quincy Herald-Whig newspaper reported that Firestone had approved a $5.1 million expansion of the Electric Wheel Division Quincy Works. Plans for the expansion called for the City of Quincy to permanently close 28th Street between Cedar Street and Spruce Street. Despite a petition signed by 85 residents of the neighborhood, objecting to the proposal to close 28th Street, the Quincy City Council voted to approve the closure of the street at its August 1, 1977 regular meeting. The planned expansion of the Quincy Works went ahead as planned—200 new employees were added to the payroll at the Quincy Works.
On February 26, 1978, the Quincy Herald-Whig ran a headline “Electric Wheel Advances Keep Firm Running.” One of the new products reported on by the newspaper in this article was a new five-foot wheel that still being tested for “strength, stress, endurance, eslasticity and longevity.” The wheel was being planned for a tire that would be 59 inches wide. It was the largest wheel made in 1977.
Suddenly, on February 18, 1978, tragedy struck as President Virgil Krueger unexpectedly died at the age of 58 years. On February 28, 1978, Firestone, picked John Speer, the manager of the Firestone Steel Products Division to fill the vacancy as President of the Electric Wheel Division. Born on March 23, 1931, in Monroe, Michigan, Speer graduated with a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio and then graduated with a Master of Science degree from Case-Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He joined Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in 1958 as a technical service engineer. In 1961, Sperr was moved the quality control department at Firestone’s Akron Plant No. 2. In 1965, John Sperr became manager of production scheduling at the Akron plant and in 1973 Sperr became the plant manager of Firestone’s Decatur, Illinois plant, before becoming manager of the Firestone Steel Products Division in 1975.
From 1981 to 1982 another recession hit the economy of the United States of America. The effects of the recession were quite harsh on the operations at the Quincy Works. Diminished demand for farm and construction equipment lead to layoffs of the work force at the Quincy Works. By 1982, the workforce at the Quincy plant numbered only 400 persons.
Due to the recession and a series of strikes that affected the farm implement manufacturing industry, Firestone decided, in 1982, to shut down all operations of its Electric Wheel Division located in Quincy, Illinois. It was expected that the workforce, except for the idler wheel operation, would be totally laid of by the end of March of 1983 and the idler wheel operations would be closed down by June of 1983.
However at the last minute on March 4, 1983, the Titan Proform Company Limited of Toronto, Ontario, Canada purchased the Quincy Works factory. Titan announced their intention of suspending operations at the Quincy Works only until July of 1983, when they hoped to re-open operations at the Quincy factory site under the new corporate name of Can-Am Company of Quincy, Illinois. The Can-Am Company, had a vision and had set about consolidating all the small loose ends of businesses involved in steel wheel and rim manufacturing under the same corporate umbrella. Once organized into the same corporate body, Can-Am Company anticipated redistributing wheel rim production between the different facilities now under its corporate organization. It was planned that the Quincy Works would employ between 500 and 800 workers at the Quincy Works manufacturing “power adjust wheels” for farm tractors.
In 1986, Can-Am purchased the steel wheel and rim business that formerly belonged to the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. In 1988, the Can-Am Company purchased the former French and Hecht (F.& H.) Division of the Fruehauf Company and the F.& H. factory site located in Walcott, Iowa. Thus, old corporate competitors were linked together as 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. As of February of 2010, the old Electric Wheel Company’s Quincy Works factory in Quincy, Illinois was still employing 850 employees making wheel rims under the name Titan International Inc. Thus, the successor of the Electric Wheel Company is still living the mission of John Stillwell, founder of the original Company.