Belle City Manufacturing Company (Part I)

 The Belle City Manufacturing Company (Part I)


Brian Wayne Wells

  with the assistance of

Del Gendner of Grand Prairie, Texas

Joe Thome of Racine, Wisconsin

Bob S. McFarland of Sauk City, Wisconsin

Ed Mortensen of Racine, Wisconsin


Gary Oechsner of Fond-du-Lac, Wisconsin

 As published in the May/June 1999 issue of

Belt Pulley Magazine

Belle City logo and sign from 1930.

(NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: Brian Wells relates to us that this is a significant article in one very important way: It is the first truly “interactive article” he has written. Brian says that this article could not have been written without the help of Belt Pulley readers who responded to requests for information on the Belle City Company. When all of his usual sources–local public libraries, local and state historical societies–had failed him in his pursuit of information on this company, only the responses from readers made this article possible. Thus, Belt Pulley has becomes a forum of two-way communication–an interactive magazine. We hope this trend will continue and grow. As noted in our last issue, Brian has been attempting to write an article on the Wood Brothers Threshing Company of Des Moines, Iowa. Once again, a search of his usual sources has yielded very little information. Brian relates that he has received some calls and letters from readers with good information; however, he is still looking for material on the corporate history of the Wood Brothers Company.)

In 1878, David Lawton was already the owner of a successful flour, feed and implement store in Racine, Wisconsin (1870 pop. 9,880), when he started a manufacturing concern called the David Lawton Company. The company was first located at 300 Fourth Street in Racine where it began manufacturing feed cutter for the growing Midwest farm market. The feed cutter, or ensilage and fodder cutter, was a small machine, about the size of a typical fanning mill, made of wood, with a long elevator attached to the rear of the machine which could raise the chopped ensilage up into the barn or silo. (An 1886 advertisement for a feed cutter shows it being powered by a two-horse treadmill. One of these Belle City machines is owned by Paul Coussens of South Bend, Indiana. Paul and his son, Daniel, are currently attempting to restore this very early product of the Belle City line of farm machinery.)

An advertisement of Belle City threshers, dating from 1902, which also shows the Belle City ensilage cutter.

In 1882, the David Lawton Company merged with the Racine Brake Company to become the Belle City Manufacturing Company, formed under the corporate laws of Wisconsin, with $30,000.00 in capital. David Lawton became President of the new company, with Frank K. Bull, a former owner of the Racine Brake Company, as Vice-President, and Louis E. Jones as Secretary/Treasurer.  The Company established their factory at 346 North Wisconsin Street in Racine where the made a line of farm implements including carts, feed cutters and wagon brakes.

Even though David Lawton sat in the office of President of the Belle City Corporation, he was quite busy with many of his other business concerns, such as operating a flour and feed store located at 219 5th Street in Racine.  Indeed, David Lawton was pretty much a figure head as President of the Belle City Company with the real power devolving to the Vice-President–Frank Kellogg Bull.

Frank Kellogg Bull was Vice-President of the Belle City Manufacturing Company.

In addition to serving as vice president of Belle City, Frank Bull was also serving as treasurer for the J.I. Case Company, a major farm equipment manufacturing company which also happened to be located in Racine. (Frank Kellogg Bull can be seen in his role as president of the J.I. Case Company on page 87 of Full Steam Ahead: J.I. Case Tractors and Equipment 1842-1955, by David Erb and Eldon Brumbaugh [American Society of Agricultural Engineers: St. Joseph, Missouri, 1993]). In today’s world, serving on the board of directors of competing companies is called an interlocking directorate.  would never be allowed.  Officers and board members of corporations owe a duty of loyalty to the shareholders of the corporation. This duty requires them to put the interests of the corporation ahead of all other economic interests–even their own economic interests. In the law, such a duty is called a “fiduciary duty.” When an officer or director has an economic interest which conflicts with this fiduciary duty, he stands the risk of being sued by the shareholders of the corporation for a “breach” of his/her fiduciary duty.

The City of Racine is located in Wisconsin, but very near the border between Wisconsin and Illinois–north of Chicago and south of Milwaukee

In this case, Frank Bull owed a fiduciary duty to two corporations which were competitors serving the same market–J.I. Case and Belle City.  Frank Bull had a clear conflict of interest. The shareholders of either corporation would be justified in asking which corporation was obtaining Frank Bull’s “best efforts.” Frank Bull’s conflict of interest was never so clear as when Belle City made a major policy decision in 1893.

When Belle City began production of grain threshers in 1893, they did so with the small, stationary “Columbia” thresher. The company could have entered the market producing large threshers or they could have produced a full line of threshers of all sizes. However, Belle City confined itself to the small thresher market. They did so “with the blessing of J.I. Case Company” according to John Jones, a Belle City employee, writing in a company memorandum. Case had decided not to enter the small thresher market and kept to the production of large threshers.  Channelling, Belle City toward the small thresher market would eliminate another potential competitor for Case in the large thresher market–the market that was thought to be the prime market.

An advertisement of the Columbia thresher which was manufactured by the Belle City Company of Racine, Wisconsin.

No doubt Frank Bull had a hand in guiding Belle City in making this decision and no doubt Frank Bull was the communicator (possibly the originator) of the “blessing” granted to Belle City, by Case, regarding this decision.  He was an officer in both corporations and served on the board of directors of both corporations.  One might have wondered at the time, without the benefit of hindsight, whether Belle City was best served by this decision of whether it might not have been in the best interests of the Belle City Company to compete directly against Case in producing a full line of threshers of all sizes, including large threshers.  Belle City’s relative smallness and efficiency as a corporation, compared with the J.I. Case Company, might have made Belle City a “lean and mean” competitor for Case in the production of large threshers.

Note that this caption acknowledges that the Belle City Manufacturing Company “specialized” in small threshers withour knowing the limitation imposed on the company by the interlocking directorate that Belle City shared with the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Company.

Furthermore, Belle City’s very fine thresher design might also have allowed the company to become a very strong competitor of Case in the production of large threshers. In addition, the average shareholder in the Belle City Company may have felt this decision cheated the company out of potentially high profits which it might have had in the large thresher market–a decision made by board members who also were deciding policy at Case. No wonder, then, that a cry of protest went up which resulted in the United States Congress declaring such interlocking directorates illegal under Section 8 of the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914. (Louis B. Schwartz, John J. Flynn and Harry First, Antitrust [Foundation Press: Mineola, N.Y. 1983] p. 214.)

An aerial view of the Belle City Company factory site as seen from the corner of Racine Street and DeKoven Avenue in the city of Racine, Wisconsin.  This is the southeast corner of the factory site where the offices of the Company are located.  As noted below the factory site is also bounded by Junction Avenue on the west and 17th Street on the north.  In this picture Belle City Manufacturing Company’s access to the Milwaukee Road and to the Chicago Northwestern tracks is in the upper left side of the picture.

However, the 1890s was still the time of unbridled, foot-loose, free-wheeling capitalism. Consequently, Frank Bull’s position on the board of J.I. Case was looked upon as an advantage for the company. Ironically, the decision to limit Belle City to the production of small threshers would come back to haunt Case.

(Both Frank K. Bull and David Lawton can be seen sitting front and center in the first row of a gathering of Belle City employees in a picture taken in the 1880s.)

In anticipation of the company’s expansion into the thresher market, Belle City relocated to an 11-acre site at DeKoven Avenue and Racine Street in Racine. This site had modern brick buildings which would become Belle City’s foundry, blacksmith shops and machine shops. Power on the site was provided by a huge 60 horsepower Peerless engine supplied with steam by an 80 horsepower boiler.   In addition, the site was served by a spur to both the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad (nicknamed the Milwaukee Road) and the Chicago Northwestern Railroad.

The Milwaukee Road Railway and the Chicago Northwestern Railroad were the two railroad connections used by the Belle City Company at their factory site in Racine, Wisconsin.

There in 1893, the Belle City Company began its manufacture of the newly introduced Columbia threshers by building 25 machines for the mass market. By 1896, Belle City was building and selling 175 to 200 Columbia threshers per year for the small thresher market. Belle City also expanded its farm product line to include truck and feed carts, horsepower treadmills, root cutters, adjustable harrows, and hay forks. The company was using over a quarter of a million board feet and its monthly payroll was in excess of $4,000.

The Chicago, Milwaukee, St.Paul and Pacific Railroad (known as the Milwaukee Road for short) was one of two railroads by which the Belle City Company reached its market with their threshers.

In 1906

In 1909, the International Harvester Company (IHC), who did not have a thresher of its own, entered the thresher market for the first time by purchasing the rights to sell Belle City threshers. This was the start of a beneficial relationship for both companies, with Belle City becoming the beneficiary of the huge IHC network of more than 500 dealers and agents. In 1910, Belle City manufactured five different sizes of threshers (20 x 32, 24 x 40, 32 x 52, 36 x 52 and 36 x 56) under the brand name of New Racine. Upon signing this contract with Belle City, IHC instantly became the primary marketer of this entire line of small threshers. This emphasis on the small thresher had put Belle City, and thus IHC, in a very favorable market position as the First World War came to a close and the small gasoline-powered tractor made its appearance on North American farms.

Some time during the period prior to the First World War, the Belle City Manufacturing Company employed a young bookeeper for their front office.  This person was George Andrew Nelson.  The hiring of George Andrew was to prove significant to the history of the Belle City Company.

George was the son of Niels P. and Marie M. (Hanson) Nielson.  George’s father, Niels Peter Nielson had been born in Denmark on April 6, 1868 and had migrated to the United States in 1890 at the age of 22 years,.  Like many young immigrants, Niels Peter was searching for a new and better life in the New World.  Arriving in New York City, Niels moved west to the rich agricultural land of the frontier, eventually settling in Cass County, Iowa.  (Somewhere along the process of setting in the new country, the family name was changed from “Neilson” to “Nelson.”  Likewise, Niels Peter shortened his first name to “Nels.”)

A county map of the state shows the location of Cass County in the southwest part of Iowa.

Settling in the small town of Atlantic, (1890 pop. 4,351) the county seat of Cass County, Nels Peter employed his skills as a shoemaker and opened his own shop in the town.  Atlantic was a booming railroad town served by the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad (nicknamed the Rock Island Line“).  The town had experienced rapid growth since its founding in 1868.  The population of Atlantic had grown by 18.8% in the 1880s, the decade before Nels had moved to town and would grow by another 16.0% in the decade of the 1890s.  New families were settling in Atlantic every day.

Steam Engine and Tender of the Rock Isand Line

In 1892 another Danish family arrived in Atlantic.  A daughter of this family was named Marie M. Hanson.  Nels met this young woman at the local Lutheran Church.  He was immediately struck by this pretty young woman and they fell in love.  Nels and Marie were married in January of 1893 and purchased a house located at 704 Olive Street in Atlantic.  On December 8 of that same year, the couple had their first child, a son, George Andrew.   Later, on March 27, 1896, a daughter, Lydia M. Nelson was born to the family and still later, on February 19, 1901 another daughter, Clara E. Nelson was born to the family living at 704 Olive Street.

However, the booming economy that Atlantic had been experiencing ended abruptly with the start of the new century.  Hard economic times hit the small city of Atlantic, Iowa, hard starting with stock market crisis called the “Panic of 1901.”  The Panic had been initiated by the titanic struggle between railroad magnates James J. Hill of the Great Northern Railway and Edward H. Harriman of the Union Pacific and Illinois Central railroads, for control of the Northern Pacific Railroad.  Hard times hit the small community of Atlantic during the early years  of the new century.  Although, Atlantic, Iowa was served by the Rock Island Line which had no connection with the railroads involved in the fight between James J. Hill and Edward Harriman, the Panic had spread throughout the whole railroad sector of the economy and then spread to the national economy of the United States as a whole.  For the first time since the city’s founding, Atlantic, Iowa, actually lost population–falling by 9.6% between 1900 and 1910.

The residual economic recession created by the Panic of 1901 stretched on into 1902 and created financial hardship for Nels Peter and his family.  Finally, the family was forced to give up their shoe making business and move from Atlantic altogether.  The family moved to Racine, Wisconsin, (1900 pop.  29,102) and rented a house at 1705 West Sixth Street.  Nels Peter opened a shoe store.  Shortly after establishing themselves in Racine, the family was blessed by the arrival of another boy.  On August 27, 1905, Valdemmar Emanuel Nelson, was born to Marie and Nels which completed the family.

For Nels, the job at the shoe store became unpredictable and during the First World War Nels Peter felt that he could make a better income by seeking work in the booming war industries.  Consequently, he obtained a job working for the Ajax Rubber Company.  This job allowed the family to move from the rented house at 1705 West Sixth Street intoa home of their own at 1614 Quincy Avenue.  However, he soon found that he was having trouble with his lungs as a result of the atomosphere inside the rubber factory and he had to quit the job and return to the shoe store.

A 1918 Poster advertising the Ajax Rubber Company.

Racine was an important hub of the industrial belt of the United States.  Although, the Nelson family was not yet familiar with the Belle City Manufacturing Company, they were shortly to become aware of the significance of the Company to their family.  In 1902, the

Shortly after the Nelson family arrived in Racine, young 16-year old George Andrew Nelson also obtained a job as an office worker for an automobile factory in Racine.  This was his apprenticeship–where he learned a bookkeeping.  By 1917, George had obtained a position as a bookkeeper for the Belle City Manufacturing Company.  Diligent at his work, George became knowlegable of all sectors of the Company.  His depth of knowlege of the Belle City Company was recognized by the management of the Company and soon he was included in the wider management side of the Belle City Manufacturing Company.

After only a few years at work at the Belle City Company, the United States became involved in the First World War.  George Andrew entered the U.S. Army on May 11, 1917.  As a part of the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) in France, George Andrew fought in every major battle in which the A.E.F was involved.  Following the Armistice on November 11, 1918 and his discharge from the U.S. Army, George Andrew returned home to Racine, Wisconsin.  As a returning veteran, George Andrew was welcomed back to work for the Belle City Manufacturing Company.  However, this time he was hired into the more lucrative and responsible position of purchasing agent for the Company.

Many changes had occurred within the company while George was gone.  Women had come to work at the previously all-male office.  No longer were the stenographers at the company all male.  One of the new stenographers now working at offices of Belle City was Lucia Miller.  Lucia had been born in Racine on March 30, 1893 to William and Lucia (Goedeke) Miller.  William and Lucia were both immigrants from Germany, who had come to the United States in 1869 and 1874, respectively, and had been married in 1879.  Their daughter Lucia and George Andrew Nelson fell in love with each other and were married in about 1920.  Together George Andrew and Lucia purchased a house at 1322 Deane Boulevard in Racine and set up housekeeping together.

Another change at the Belle City Manufacturing Company over the period of the First World War was that the upper management of the Company had also experienced changes.  In 1921, John Reid Jr. was the President of the Belle City Company with John H. Jones serving as Vice-President, Walter J. Tostevson as Secretary and Milton M. Jones as Treasurer.  However, John Reid Jr. died in 1925.  So his father-in -law returned to the Company to assume the office of President on a temporary basis until a suitable candidate for the Presidency could be found.

Changes were occurring in the city.   Racine’s first telephone exchange had been established by P. J. Tacy in 1879.  At first their were only 24 subscribers to this service.  By 1923 Belle City had obtained telephone service for their factory offices and was advertising that these offices on the corner of 17th Street and Junction Avenue, could be reached at number 109 on the telephone exchange.

Additionally, changes had occurred in farming across the nation.  The most significant of these changes was the development the internal combustion engine as a means of power on the farms.

Credit usually goes to Charles W. Hart and Charles H. Parr for design of the first internal combustion, engine-powered farm tractor.  Soon after the Hart-Parr tractor was introduced to the farming public, many other farm machinery companies began to offer their own version of the internal combustion powered tractor.   However, many of these early gasoline tractors were almost as bulky and expensive as steam powered engines. For example, the 1903 Hart-Parr Model 22-40 weighed 8½ tons, the IHC Type D weighed 14,000 pounds, and the Case Model 60 weighed 25,800 pounds.

The true revolution in tractor power did not come until 1916 when the 2700 pound Fordson tractor was introduced by Ford Motor Company.

The small light weight Fordson Model F tractor was a revolution in the design of internal combustion farm tractors.

The Fordson was much smaller and lighter than the behemoths being produced by other farm equipment companies, and Henry Ford offered the Fordson to the farming public at $890.00.  This attractive price gave the small farmer a first real opportunity to be able to afford a gasoline-powered alternative to horses on the small family farm.  Farmers put the little Fordson to work on a great number of farming tasks and sales grew like wildfire across the United States.  In the post-war depression year of 1921, Henry Ford cut the price of his popular little Fordson by $165, to $625. (Lee Klanchner, Farmall Tractors [Motorbooks International: Osceola, Wisc. 1995] p. 21.) Originally, it was the 5,708 pound Titan 10-20 that was regarded as the “small tractor” for the “small farmer.” At $1,250, it was an attractive alternative to the much larger, pre-World War I gasoline-powered tractors. (Lee Klancher, International Harvester [Motorbooks International: Osceola, Wisc. 1996] p. 37.) Until 1921, IHC’s Titan 10-20 tractor was the most popular tractor in terms of sales.   In 1921, 7,729 Titans would be sold to American farmers. However, in comparison with the Fordson, the Titan was still a large, bulky tractor with a high price tag. Furthermore, the Titan was difficult to start and operate. (See “Farming with a 10-20 Titan” at page 16 in the May/June 1996 Belt Pulley.) Consequently, the Fordson easily surpassed the Titan in sales in 1921, with 36,000 Fordsons produced that year–nearly five times the number of Titans sold that same year. Clearly, in the post World War I era, the future of farming belonged to the small tractor. This trend represented a revolution in the production of farm tractors, and also affected other farm machinery markets–for instance, the thresher market. Smaller tractors were unable to power the large threshers and farmers turned in droves to small thresher manufacturers, like Belle City.

As noted above, Belle City had been producing small threshers since they were founded, and this production continued on a limited basis through the First World War. Now, with the increasing sales of small tractors, Belle City threshers suddenly became popular products. In an ironic twist of fate, the very decision made in 1893, which steered Belle City out of the large thresher market and into small thresher production, intended to preserve for Case the bulk of the large thresher market, actually put Belle City in a better position than Case to meet the requirements of the new farm market following the war. Now it was Case that was scrambling to make changes in its threshers.

Besides selling its threshers for the United States domestic market, Belle City also did business in Mexico and South America. Belle City became a major employer in the city of Racine, and by 1916, at the beginning of the period of the boom, the company employed 175 workers.

Prior to 1890s threshers had a table mounted on the front at which a person stood to hand feed the bundles into the thresher, Meanwhile at the other end threshers had only an elevator to move the straw away from thresher.

Meanwhile, Belle City continued to improve its threshers: First, they added the Farmers Friend windstacker. In this improvement, Belle City was not alone. The Farmers Friend windstacker had been developed by the Indiana Manufacturing Company. (C.H. Wendel, Farm Equipment and Antiques, [Motorbooks International: Osceola, Wisc. 1996] p. 345.) After developing the air-blown, tube straw discharge system for threshers, the Indiana Manufacturing Company then licensed its new product to other thresher manufacturers. Being a substantial improvement over the straw elevator for stacking straw behind the threshing machines, the Farmers Friend windstacker soon became universal on threshers of all makes for the remainder of the threshing era.

The straw from a thresher was blown into a large pile by the Farmers Friend Wind Stacker.

Secondly, Belle City added self-feeders to their threshers. Prior to self-feeders, threshers were fitted with platforms near the mouth of the thresher where the operator would stand and receive bundles one at a time from the person on the wagon or on the stack. The operator would then cut the twine on the bundle and hand-feed the bundle into the thresher. (Hart-Parr/Oliver Collector readers will remember that a hand-fed thresher was used at the Steam Engine Joe Rynda Show held each year near Montgomery, Minnesota in the 1940s and 1950s. See “Build It and They Will Come,” in the Summer 1996 issue of Hart-Parr/Oliver Collector Vol. VII, No. II, p. 33.) Hand-feeding one bundle at a time was a slow, time-consuming process. The invention of the self-feeding mechanism for threshers was generally credited to the Wood Brothers Threshing Company of Des Moines, Iowa. Self-feeders would automatically cut the twine on the bundles and regulate the rate at which the bundles were fed into the thresher. It was another of those great improvements in thresher technology that would become universal on all threshers and remain a standard until the end of the threshing era. However, the name that would come to dominate the market in self-feeding mechanisms was the Hart Company.

As explained in the caption of this picture, the Hart Company bought out many its competitors in the automatic self feeder market These companies were absorbed in the Hart Company line. However, although, Hart made all the self-feeders themselves they allowed the feeders to be marketed under their original trade names.  Thus, this self-feeder appears as a “Langdon Ideal self-feeder.

The Hart Company also manufactured the third improvement in thresher design that became universalized on all threshers of whatever manufacture. Grain weighers were clam shell devices that sat atop the vertical clean grain elevator. The clean grain elevator would pour clean threshed grain into the clam shell bucket until a half-bushel had been weighed out. When the proper weight for the half-bushel had been reached, the clam shell would open and allow the grain to fall into the wagon elevator or the bagging attachment. Belle City followed suit in this trend also, and began installing the Hart grain weigher on all its threshers. Thus, by 1911, Belle City threshers sold to the public by IHC under the New Racine name were offered complete with the Farmer’s Friend windstacker, the Hart self-feeder and the Hart grain weigher.


Pictured here is a Hart grain weigher mounted on the top of the vertical grain elevator of a John Deere thresher. The vertical elevator deposits the grain into the “clamshell” type container on the Hart Company weigher. When the weight of the grain becomes the equivlent of 1/2 a bushel the clamshell will open and the grain will be dumped into the hopper connected to the horizontal elevator to be moved to the wagon. Each time the clam shell opens a small mechanical counter records the next highest number. At the end of the work day, the threshing crew then has only to multiple the number by two in order to discover the exact number of bushels that were threshed during that particular day.

J.I. Case made history in 1904 with the introduction of the first all-steel thresher. There was a reason for this: All-steel threshers were less of a fire hazard when used with a steam engine. Since Case’s line of large threshers required large horsepower demands which could only be supplied by steam power, it was natural that Case would seek the protection of an all-steel model thresher. Because smaller threshers tended to be powered by the somewhat less hazardous gasoline-powered tractors, there was a natural lag by the producers of small threshers in switching over to all-steel construction. Nonetheless, the producers of small threshers eventually became aware of the advantages of all-steel construction in terms of longer machine life, and eventually they ceased producing wooden threshers. In 1917, Belle City changed its New Racine thresher from an all-wood construction to a thresher with a wooden frame and sheet metal side pieces. In 1926, they went to all-steel construction.

In 1925, the Belle City Manufacturing Company introduced its new line of all-steel threshers. As seen in this picture this particular thresher is equipted with all the modern features, the Farmers Friend Wind Stacker, the Hart Company self-feeder and the Hart Company grain weigher.

In 1926, IHC decided to manufacture its own line of threshers consisting of three models–20″ x 28,” 22″ x 36″ and 28″ x 42″. Aware that the small thresher market was the only lucrative market, IHC offered no thresher larger than its 28″ x 42″ thresher. Indeed, the new IHC threshers bore a great deal of similarity to the Belle City New Racine threshers it had marketed prior to 1926; not the least of which was the new IHC threshers outfitted with Hart self-feeders and grain weighers, and the Farmers Friend windstacker manufactured under the license of the Indiana Manufacturing Company.

Realizing they were losing the benefit of the large IHC dealer network, Belle City entered into a joint venture arrangement with Ford to sell its Belle City/New Racine thresher through Ford dealerships. Now Belle City was squarely on the Ford team. Their advertisements began to claim the “Belle City New Racine thresher was the universal thresher ideally matched to the Fordson–the universal tractor.” The name Fordson even appeared on Belle City threshers. During the period of time of the joint venture with Ford, Belle City continued to improve its little thresher by installing Timken roller bearings at 20 locations on the thresher.

In 1926, and for a short time thereafter, Belle City sold its own tractor, which was really a conversion kit made to modify a Fordson into a crawler/track-tractor. (The Belle City tractor is pictured on the bottom of page 44 in the Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors by C.H. Wendel [Crestline Books: Sarasota, Fl. 1979].) Unfortunately, neither the tractor nor the semi-mounted cornpicker were successful products for the Belle City Company.

By the mid-1920s, sales of the Fordson had dipped behind other, more modern small tractors. By 1928, all United States production of the Fordson tractor ceased. (Robert Pripps and Andrew Moreland, Ford Tractors [Motorbooks International: Osceola, Wisc., 1990] p. 19.) From 1929 to 1932, all Fordson’s sold in the United States were manufactured by Ford at its facility in Cork, Ireland, and had serial numbers from 757,369 through 779,135. (Michael Williams, Frod and Fordson Tractors, [Farming Press: Frome, England, 1985] p. 66.) In 1932, all Fordson production was transferred to the Ford factory at Dagenham, in Essex in England, and all tractors were painted dark blue with orange wheels. This color design remained consistent until 1938 when the entirely orange Fordson was produced. In 1939, the Ford/Ferguson 9N was introduced and quickly replaced the outdated Fordson in the United States. (Production of the Fordson [dark green] continued at Dagenham in order to meet the needs of British agriculture, now that Britain was at war.) Through all these reorganizations of Fordson production, Belle City remained the thresher “built for Fordson” and sold at Ford dealers.

The depression struck Belle City like all other farm machine manufacturing companies. Yet, as the 1930s progressed, the advertising efforts of the company paid off. The company was able to sell its small threshers in sufficient numbers to allow for continued expansion of the company. In 1938, Belle City sold its factory site at DeKoven Avenue and Racine Street for $84,000 and purchased the old Ajax Tire Company site on Taylor Avenue.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, while the country was still trying to avoid involvement in the war in Europe, Fred Gunther was a boy growing up in his parents’ home on Taylor Avenue near the Belle City factory. Fred remembers seeing train load after train load of threshers leaving the plant for farms all across the midwest.

On one particular day, one of those trains, containing a 28″ x 44″ Belle City thresher, rolled out of the Taylor Avenue factory and onto a Chicago Northwestern railroad flat-bed car where it was secured for a trip across Wisconsin to Minneapolis. After the flat-bed car with the thresher was joined to other railroad cars loaded with more Belle City threshers, the Chicago Northwestern train headed to Milwaukee. On its way out of town, it might have been noticed by young Fred Gunther. Once in Milwaukee, the railroad cars with the Belle City threshers were hooked to a train headed west to Minnesota while other car loads of freight continued north, up the Chicago Northwestern tracks to Door Peninsula, the summer vacation destination of many Chicagoans.

The train carrying this particular Belle City thresher passed through the gently rolling hills in the heartland of Wisconsin’s dairy industry, passing pasture after pasture of grazing Holsteins, Ayershires, Guernseys and Brown Swiss cattle, and crossing the Wisconsin River between the towns of Dellwood and Necedah. Crossing over the Mississippi River at Hudson, Wisconsin, the train entered Minnesota for the short journey to Minneapolis/St. Paul. There, the flat-bed cars carrying the Belle City threshers were taken to the spur at the Keegan Farm Equipment Co. of Minneapolis. Keegan’s was the “block house,” or main distributor, for Fordson tractors and other Ford farm equipment products servicing Ford dealers in small towns all across Minnesota. Belle City’s joint venture with Ford allowed Belle City to have access to its widespread dealer network. One of the Ford dealerships selling tractors in Minnesota prior to entry of the United States into the Second World War was the Frank Balek dealership of Lonsdale, Minnesota. This particular 28″ x 44″ thresher, which had been off-loaded at Keegans in Minneapolis, was eventually delivered to the Balek dealership on the south edge of the town of Lonsdale. Frank Balek, together with his son, Ray, who helped him in his dealership, had sold the thresher–the largest model ever made by Belle City–to an area farmer. Throughout the remaining period of peace, prior to United States involvement in the Second World War, the thresher was put to work threshing small grains, most likely as part of a neighborhood ring, where many farmers in the same neighborhood combined resources and labor at threshing time. During the Second World War, when farm commodity prices rose sharply, we can picture the 28″ thresher being employed more profitably than ever before, serving faithfully as part of the homefront in the war effort. Not long after the war, no doubt it was replaced by combines that individual farmers were buying.

Long after the 28″ Belle City thresher had been idly stored away and nearly forgotten in a shed, the thresher was purchased by Archie Babek of New Market, Minnesota. In the 1990s, the 28″ Belle City thresher was purchased by Wayne Svoboda and brought to the showgrounds of the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association in rural LeCenter, Minnesota. Currently, the thresher resides indoors on the grounds in an unrestored condition. People attending the 1999 Show–to be held on August 27, 28 and 29–will be able to see the Belle City thresher as part of the permanent display of threshers. This will be a fitting exhibit, because in 1999 the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association is hosting the 1999 National Summer Convention of the Ford Collectors Association, featuring the Fordson and Ford/Ferguson tractors.

Attempts have been made to have the thresher restored by Pioneer Power members Doug Hager, Dwight Yaeger and Mark Meyer of Good Thunder, who have restored many of the operating threshers on the showgrounds. It is hoped that in the not too distant future restoration can be completed and the machine made a part of the field demonstrations at future shows–a fitting tribute to the little company from Racine, Wisconsin, that pioneered in development of the small thresher.

The Belle City Manufacturing Company (Part II)

The Belle City Manufacturing Company


Brian Wayne Wells

                                                     with the assistance of
Del Gendner of Grand Prairie, Texas

Joe Thome of Racine, Wisconsin

Bob S. McFarland of Sauk City, Wisconsin

Ed Mortensen of Racine, Wisconsin


Gary Oechsner of Fon-du-Lac, Wisconsin

As published in the July/August 1999 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine

          (NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: Brian Wells relates to us that he was able to write the history of the Belle City Company only with the help of the reading public of the Belt Pulley magazine. Thus, this is the first truly “interactive article” Brian has written. We hope this trend will continue and grow. As you know, Brian has been attempting to write an article on the Wood Brothers Threshing Company of Des Moines, Iowa. He is also doing some research on the Rosenthal Cornhusker Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the Electric Wheel Company of Quincy, Illinois. He would appreciate any material on the corporate history of any of these companies.)

All through the 1930s, the Belle City Company enjoyed access to the farm equipment market through the distribution and dealership network of the tractor division of the Ford Motor Company. However, with the introduction of the new Ford/Ferguson 9N in 1939, Ford gravitated toward the Woods Brothers Threshing Company of Des Moines, Iowa. Woods Bros., of course, manufactured the famous “Humming Bird” thresher which was offered in the 21″ x 36″, 26″ x 46″, 28 x 46″ and 30″ by 50″ sizes. (Robert N. Pripps and Andrew Moreland, Threshers [Motorbooks International: Osceola, Wisc. 1992] p. 122.) These threshers covered the entire gambit of the small thresher market, and Ford had no further need of the joint venture with Belle City. Thus, after 1938, Belle City was on its own, and had to start advertising independent of Ford.

At first, Belle City suffered from the lack of the dealership network which it had enjoyed under its contract with IHC during the 1920s and with Ford during the 1930s. Fortunately, however, Belle City had insisted that the slogan “Belle City Built” appear on all its threshers sold by Ford and International Harvester Company. Thus, farmers had become so familiar with seeing that slogan on its threshers that, both during the contract with IHC prior to 1926 and during the joint venture with Ford, farmers began to insist that their threshers be stamped “Belle City Built” if their new thresher had slipped through manufacture without that slogan stenciled on the sides. Consequently, by 1939, when the company had to go it alone as far as advertising, sales, and distribution, Belle City had already succeeded in becoming somewhat of a household name with farmers in the upper midwest.

Among the advertising possibilities for Belle City was the Wisconsin State Fair held on a 200-acre site in West Allis, Wisconsin. In the years just prior to the Second World War, the Wisconsin State Fair consisted largely of tents. There were very few permanent structures. However, it was a very popular event with Continue reading The Belle City Manufacturing Company (Part II)

The Family’s First New Tractor: The Ford 8N

The Family’s First New Tractor: the Ford 8N


Brian Wayne Wells

As published in the March/April 1999 issue of

 Belt Pulley  Magazine         


The evening milking was all done and the family had eaten their supper. In the farm house on the hill overlooking the snow-covered fields of western Fillmore County in southeastern Minnesota in January of 1948, Howard and Ethel Hanks sat down with their eldest son Fred to review their farming operation and to make plans for the coming spring. As related elsewhere (See “The Case NCM and a Family’s Crucial Year” in the January/February 1995 issue of Belt Pulley, Vol. 8, No. 1, p. 31. and the article on the Ford/Ferguson 2N in the January/February 1998 issue of Belt Pulley Vol. 12, No. 1.), 1947 had been a critical year for the Hanks family. The spring of 1947 had started with such miserable prospects and had gotten worse as the year progressed because of the unrelenting rain. However, in July the rains had stopped and the rest of the year was almost perfect. As a consequence, the Hanks family had gotten all their crops harvested before the snow started falling on the evening of November 14, 1947.

          Now in mid-January 1948, as the family gathered around the table discussing the upcoming year, the short winter day had ended and it was already dark. Howard lit a lantern and placed it on the table. (Rural Electric Association (REA) service would not reach this area of Beaver Township in Fillmore County until February of 1949). The family realized that their financial position was somewhat more secure than it had been in the previous year, thanks both to the weather and the gamble the family had taken in purchasing a Case NCM baler to perform some custom baling. As noted in a previous article (January/February 1998 issue of Belt Pulley Vol. 12, No. 1.), the baler had been purchased together with a Ford/Ferguson 2N and a series of accompanying Ford/Ferguson implements.

          The Hanks family and Howard and Ethel’s, son-in-law Wayne Wells, had used the 2N and the Case baler to augment their farm income through custom baling of hay and straw in the neighborhood. Howard and Ethel’s 11-year-old son John had driven the 2N around and around many a hay field in the neighborhood. The used Ford\Ferguson 2N and the Case NCM baler that they had purchased in the spring of 1947 had really saved the family from financial ruin. The 2N was a good match for the Case NCM baler in terms of the proper slow speeds for the field. Furthermore, the addition of the Sherman step-up auxiliary unit to the transmission had meant that the little tractor would waste less time in moving the baler and hay racks around the neighborhood, helping the Hanks family complete all the custom baling that the family had contracted that year.

          Now, as Howard, Ethel and Fred sat by the kitchen table, they realized that they would need to do a good deal of custom baling again in 1948 to further consolidate their economic position on the farm. They looked at the potential manpower that they would have available for custom baling and they also looked at their current farm equipment. Although there had been substantial changes in the family over the last year, with three marriages in a single year (Bruce Hanks in April, Lorraine (Hanks) Westfall in June and Marilyn (Hanks) Wells in July), one strong point remained in favor of the Hanks family: the number of people available to help out in the busy summer season. On this particular night in January, Howard and Ethel’s youngest daughter, Hildreth, was not in the house. Currently, she was involved in school activities as a member of the LeRoy High School Cardinal annual staff which involved many meetings after school hours. Hildreth intended to join her brother Bruce at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in the fall of 1948. In the interim, however, Hildreth would be available to help the family for the summer.

          Wayne Wells, who had originally proposed the idea of purchasing the Case NCM baler to his brothers-in-law Fred and Bruce Hanks, was now farming on his parents’ farm two miles to the west of the Hanks farm. He had owned 1/3 interest in the baler and the Ford/Ferguson 2N tractor together with Fred and Bruce. He had cooperated with the Hanks family during baling season and also with the custom baling they did in 1947 and would do so again in the coming year.  

          Besides Fred, young John, and son-in-law Wayne Wells, Howard and Ethel’s second son Bruce would be available during the month of August. While Bruce’s course of study at Moody occupied the entire year, the month of August was summer vacation. Bruce and Mary intended to return to the farm in LeRoy in August of 1948 and for each year after until Bruce graduated. Therefore, Bruce would also be available to help out on the farm for one very busy month of the summer season.  

          Additionally, the Hanks family knew they would probably have to hire some help just as they had in 1947. Accordingly, the family assumed that they would again be hiring Keith Hall, Billy Blade and some other high school age boys from the town of LeRoy to help out at different times during the year when the workload was the heaviest.

          In a review of their farm machinery, the Hanks family began considering the little 2N tractor. While the Ford\Ferguson 2N had served the family well in the previous year, the little gray tractor did have its imperfections. One of the most striking shortcomings of the Ford 2N which was noted by the Hanks family was the awkward arrangement of its operator foot brake pedals. As pointed out in a previous article (January/February 1998 issue of Belt Pulley Vol. 12, No. 1.), the Ford Company designed their tractors to have a low center of gravity. While this was an appealing feature, especially where farming was conducted on steep, hilly fields, the low center of gravity was obtained by having the operator of the tractor straddle the power train, with one foot on the right side and one foot on the left side of the transmission. Like the Ford/Ferguson 9N which had preceded the 2N in production, in addition to the left-side brake pedal being located on the left side of the tractor, the foot clutch of the 9N and 2N was also located on the left side of the tractor. For sharp left turns from a dead stop, the operator was already using his left foot to release the clutch and therefore could not engage the left brake to aid in a turn. This was a definite disadvantage when pulling the manure spreader in the cow yard and positioning it near the barn for loading from the manure carrier, when backing any farm wagons or other farm implements around the yard, or when making sharp turns in the fields while cultivating corn or beans. Additionally, although the Model 2N had been equipped with the auxiliary Sherman Step-Up transmission, the little three-speed transmission was still out of date.

          In the fall and winter months of 1947-1948, Fred was attracted by information about the new Ford tractor–the Model 8N, which had just been introduced. Models of the new red and gray Ford 8N had been on display at Regan’s, the local Ford car and tractor Continue reading The Family’s First New Tractor: The Ford 8N

The Family’s Ford/Ferguson Model 2N

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The Family’s Ford/Ferguson Model 2N


Brian Wayne Wells

 As published in the January/February 1999 issue of

Belt Pulley Magazine


The Ford/Ferguson 2N’s stay on the Howard Hanks farm was short. Purchased in the spring of 1947, it was traded in on a new 1948 Ford 8N during the winter of 1947-48. However, it served the family well during a very crucial period in family history. (See “The Case NCM and a Family’s Crucial Year” Belt Pulley January/February 1995, Volume 8, No. 1., p. 31.) By 1947, The Howard and Ethel (Buck) Hanks family had been on their newly purchased 400-acre farm near LeRoy, Minnesota, for only two years. (See “The Wartime Farmall H,” Belt Pulley July/August 1994, Volume 7, No. 4, p. 13). During those two years, the national economy did not cooperate in helping the Hanks family realize much financial gain. As the Second World War ended, there was a general decline in milk prices and prices for pigs, corn, oats and soybeans. It was probably the wrong time to venture out into farm ownership.

Then, too, the rain that had created problems during the harvest season in the fall of 1946 returned unabated in the spring of 1947. The fields and roads were a messy quagmire. The planting of crops was delayed. The Hanks family did not get the last of their soybeans planted until July 6, 1947, and they feared that the crops would not have sufficient time to mature by the time of the first freeze in the fall. The family’s situation was becoming increasingly desperate.

As haying season approached, the Hanks family anticipated storing the loose hay in the barn as they had in past years. They were also planning on cooperating with their new son-in-law, Wayne Wells, during hay season. Wayne Wells was just starting his own farming operation on the 160-acre farm of his parents, George and Louise (Schwark) Wells, located two miles to the west of the Hanks farm. Wayne Wells would be marrying Howard Hanks’ eldest daughter, Marilyn, that summer.

In the early spring, Wayne Wells saw an advertisement for a used Case NCM baler for sale. In addition to modernizing their own hay making operations on the Hanks and Wells farms, Wayne was struck with the idea that the baler could provide the families with an opportunity to earn extra income by doing custom hay and straw baling in the neighborhood. (Wayne had already cooperated with his neighbor Mel Anderson to buy a new Wood Brothers one-row corn picker in the fall of 1946, and had used the corn picker to do custom work in the neighborhood.)

The Case baler was offered for sale by a farmer in Emmetsburg, Iowa. As part of the package deal, the farmer was selling his 1946 Ford/Ferguson 2N. The 2N was also accompanied by a number of Continue reading The Family’s Ford/Ferguson Model 2N

The New Idea Company (Part II): The Model 6A Cornpicker

     The New Idea Company (Part II):

The Model 6A Cornpicker

                    As published in the November/December 1998 issue of

  Belt Pulley Magazine


Brian Wayne Wells



Immediately after the Second World War in September of 1945, a tremendous pent-up demand for power farm machinery was released. After four years of deprivation, the farming public was starved for new farm machinery and buying soon outstripped the supply. This demand presented a good opportunity for all farm equipment manufacturers, pro0vided they were correctly positioned, to take advantage of that market. During the Second World War, the New Idea Company like all United States farm machinery companies found that raw materials for the production of farm machines were in the extremely short supply. As aresult, they experienced reduced sales, which meant reduced profits and consequently reduced capital. Finding itself short of cash at the end of the war, the New Idea Company struggled to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the new post-war world. To raise the necessary capital, the company management determined to sell out to the Avco Manufacturing Company in October of 1945. New Idea became a major sub-division of that new company. This strategy proved successful and New Idea exploded into another period of growth after the war. With a new infusion of capital New Idea introduced their famous trailing mower that same year in 1945. Additionally, Avco/New Idea initiated a $5,000,000 expansion and modernization of its factory facilities.

An aerial view of the New Idea Company factory works located in Cold Water, Ohio from 1940 thru 1945.


Just as in the 1920s, following the First World War, when the company experienced tremendous growth based in large part on the sales of one product—the revolutionary Model * manure Spreader—so now, following the Second World War, another period of growth was begun once again based in large part on another single farm implement—the Model 6A two-row, pull-type cornpicker. Continue reading The New Idea Company (Part II): The Model 6A Cornpicker

The New Idea Spreader Company of Coldwater, Ohio

        The New Idea Spreader Company of Coldwater, Ohio: 

(Part I)


Brian Wayne Wells

          As published in the September/October 1998 issue of

                                                   Belt Pulley Magazine



The golden age of American agriculture, from 1865 until 1921, saw a revolution in the development of labor-saving mechanical devices. Part of that revolution was the development of the manure spreader, a great improvement over spreading manure by fork from the rear of a wagon. Yet, manure spreaders of the 1890s were heavy, cumbersome farm implements. Tim Littleton, of Grayson, Kentucky, has restored an old John Deere manure spreader which was typical of the early design of manure spreaders and has exhibited it at the West Virginia Pumpkin Festival in Milton, West Virginia.
Early model manure spreaders, like the Littleton manure spreader, contained a single beater which was attached directly to the axle of the rear wheels. Therefore, the manure tended to be forked out into a swath directly behind the manure spreader with very little spreading to the sides. As a result, the manure was spread in the fields in narrow bands which tended to be too thick for good incorporation into the soil. If left in these thick bands, the manure would causing burning of the grass or crop. Consequently, following the spreading of manure, farmers would head into fields with peg-tooth drags or similar implements to smear the swaths of manure across the field. This was an extra, time consuming step to be undertaken by the farmer who was already over-worked.

Joseph Oppenheim, Inventor of the “widespread” on the rear of a manure spreader.  This was the “new idea” that provided the name for the company that Joseph founded–the New Idea Farm Equipment Company.

In the 1890s, Joseph Oppenheim, a schoolmaster in a one-room country school in the small town of Maria Stein, Ohio, through circumstances not currently know to us today, pondered this problem, and one day during recess at the school, he was struck by an idea. Every day during recess the students would form teams and play a variation of baseball, called “tom ball.” For a bat, the students used a flat paddle with a handle. The ball would be pitched to the batter who could use the paddle to hit the ball in any direction by simply striking the ball with the paddle held at the desired angle. This well-known effect of paddle and ball struck Joseph as the solution to the problem of manure spreading. He felt that a series of paddles could be attached to the rear of a manure spreader to spread manure in a wide pattern several times the width of the spreader.

A map of Ohio, showing the location of Mercer County in the state.


To test his theory, Joseph, with the help of his son B.C. Oppenheim, knocked the end out of a cigar box and built a small rotary paddle Continue reading The New Idea Spreader Company of Coldwater, Ohio