The Rumely Revolution

From industrial revolutionary to rusty relic: Rumely remembered 150 years later
By Sherwood Hume
March 2003
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These colorful catalog covers from the 1920s and 1930s touted Rumely's tractors and farm equipment to farmers across the country.
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The Rumely Co.'s lively history began with a German immigrant named Meinrad Rumely. Born in 1828 in Adelsburg, Germany, he arrived in America in 1848 with a pocket full of dreams, millwright training and little else. After a few odd jobs in Chicago and elsewhere in the Midwest, Meinrad set up a blacksmith shop in La Porte, Ind., with his brother, John, in 1853. Thus, the M. & J. Rumely Co. was born. With heads full of ideas, and the majority of America's agricultural potential still untouched by mechanized farming, the brothers soon entered the burgeoning farm equipment business. Rumely built its first thresher in 1854. From those humble beginnings, Rumely Co. went on to capture a large part of the thresher business in the U.S. and abroad in years to come.

The company erected its first manufacturing building in 1862 and produced its first steam engine by 1869. By the late 1800s, business was great and larger production facilities built in La Porte to keep up with the boom times. When Meinrad finally died in 1904 at age 76, his son, William Rumely, became president while Meinrad's other son, Joseph, assumed the company's financial affairs.

An innovator like his father, William soon proved himself the mechanical brains behind Rumely Co.'s success in those pre-war years. The farm equipment industry had changed greatly since the company first opened its Indiana doors, and a new breed of tractors was needed to maintain its competitiveness in the ever-growing field.

Edward Rumely, Meinrad's grandson, took the helm in about 1907 and entirely changed the company's direction. While studying in Europe, Edward became friends with German engine designer Rudolph Diesel. They sketched an internal combustion engine, but it wasn't until John Secor and his nephew, William Higgins, came to work for Rumely that the company's internal combustion-driven tractor became a reality. That invention carried the company well into the 20th century.

Both men worked with similar engines in Germany, and Secor and Higgins brought their expertise to Rumely in 1907. By 1909, they'd built and tested the first Rumely kerosene-fueled tractor and named it 'Kerosene Annie.' Secor and Higgins eventually patented a carburetor that became a Rumely mainstay for years. The new kerosene Rumely tractors could pull a plow and do other important farm work, and full production began in 1910.

Rumely was the first company to use kerosene to fuel its equipment, and the innovation proved both timely and profitable. A mammoth new building was built to produce the new tractors, and the company adopted the famous 'OilPull' name for the modern models. As tractors rolled off the production line, each was used briefly to belt-power a generator that produced electricity for the factory. The machines were marvelous and powerful in an age when most farmers still used horses to cultivate. In fact, the Rumely 30-60 OilPull was the first tractor to pull a 16-furrow plow. There's even a famous picture of three Rumely 30-60 OilPull tractors pulling a 50-furrow plow, which must've been quite a sight in 1911.

Rumely machines became so well known that the company entered the export market. Many went to Argentina and some were even sold to Russia before the Russian Revolution. In the first decade of the new century, Rumely truly was a worldwide industry leader in the years leading up to World War I. Along with mechanical success came profits. Rumely stock sold widely, and Edward Rumely was finally competing with other industry giants. Rumely also introducted power-farming schools to teach farmers how to use the machines. Many had never seen one before, and they soon realized horses were too slow for modern farming. Along came tractor farming, and their lives were changed forever. Edward Rumely was known as a great family man, and like his grandfather, he looked after both the workers' and the community's needs. As part of that effort, the Interlaken boys' school was established in 1908. The school used a novel learning-by-doing educational model founded in Germany. Many industry leaders lectured there, including Henry Ford and International Harvester's Clarence Funk. The Rumely Hotel was erected in downtown La Porte, a building that outlasted the company by nearly 40 years.

When the company expanded its operations after the turn of the last century, the company bought Garr-Scott Co. and Advance Thresher Co. of Battle Creek, Mich. Stock was issued and profits soared. Eventually, the American Abell Co. of Toronto, Canada, was also added to the Rumely line and later renamed the Canadian Rumely Co., Ltd. The expansion worked well for a time, with Canadian Rumely as the northern manufacturer. Production capacity in La Porte was at its height, and the company's business prospered. By 1913, however, weather conditions in the West were terrible, and many farmers couldn't make payments for machinery bought on credit. As a result, Rumely couldn't pay dividends to stockholders or interest on debts. Cash was in short supply, and even the smallest tractors didn't sell well enough to keep the company afloat.

Faced with near economic ruin, Edward Rumely resigned in 1913. Charles Funk of the International Harvester Co. became president, but he fared no better than his predecessor. The company's stock dropped $87 per share in one year. In January 1915, the venerable Rumely Co. filed for bank-ruptcy and the Rumely family lost control of the company it founded in 1853.

Finley P. Mount was appointed receiver for the tractor builder and attempted to salvage what was left. He quickly made changes to save money. The Garr-Scott plant in Richmond, Ind., closed, as did the Canadian Rumely plant, but the La Porte and Battle Creek operations remained open.

By September 1915, the company changed its name to Advance-Rumely Co. with Mount as president. He tried to rebuild the company, but the once-successful OilPull tractor was quickly fading The powerful tractors were too large for the small-scale farmer, and too small for the large-scale farmer. Competitors produced lighter tractors, and Rumely needed such machines to stay in the farm equipment business.

After World War I began, farm labor was scarce in America. The downsized Advance-Rumely Co., however, developed the ideal tractor to fill the labor shortage. The Heavyweight tractors arrived in 1916, and 2000 tractors were eventually produced in four models. The big Rumely E was finally discontinued in 1923. The lighter models sold well, and power-farming schools were revived. Many branch houses were also built and dealer networks established.

To expand its market share, and to keep up with the ever-changing industry, Rumely introduced a 1-ton truck series in 1920 that was an instant hit with farmers. Rumely also produced five different sizes of steel-made grain separators in 1916, as well as silo fillers and other farm machinery. Combines revolutionized Western grain production, and many Rumely models were sold to eager farmers. Rumely was again successful, but those good times didn't last. By 1921, the Rumely Co. was again in financial trouble, just six years after Mount took the helm. As before, the company's profits slipped when farmers couldn't make payments. Mount thought the business would turn around, but it only got worse. In 1923, Rumely bought Aultman & Taylor Co. of Mansfield, Ohio. The company was a great competitor, but its tractors were large and cumbersome. Like the Rumely OilPull models, they were falling from favor with farmers. The company paid cash for the Ohio tractor producer and got very little in return for the investment. Rumely unveiled its lightweight models in 1924 in an attempt to recover. Offered in four different sizes, they were good tractors and helped keep the company competitive. By 1927, however, Rumely was forced to borrow more money, and farmers continued to fall behind in payments. The Super-Powered Lightweights were introduced in 1928, also in four sizes, and the innovation brought brief financial relief to the company.

At the same time, Rumely designers were also working on a new six-cylinder tractor called the Rumely 6A. Rumely also bought the patents for the convertible Do All tractor, first built by Toro Motor Co. in Minneapolis. With the company's new Rumely 6A and its Waukesha six-cylinder engine, Rumely regained a share of the farm equipment market. Only 800 were built, however, and the effort proved too little, too late.

Ihe company s stock value dropped dramatically after the Great Depression hit in 1929. Wheat prices continued to fall as well, and farmers couldn't make tractor payments. Mount was forced to look for a way out from the company's financial troubles by selling the business. He began negotiations with Otto Falk, president of the Allis-Chalmers Co. AC made a great tractor, but it didn't have an adequate dealer organization to promote the machines. Rumely, on the other hand, had a great dealer organization, but relied on the two-cylinder-engine design for too many years. The two companies failed to reach agreement until Edward Rumely re-emerged and helped strike a deal. In April 1931, the Rumely Co. accepted cash and shares of AC stock as payment for the company. Rumely was through as a tractor manufacturer, although Advance-Rumely continued to operate until 1935 as a corporate entity.

The company's stock was finally dropped from the New York Stock Exchange in 1938. Allis-Chalmers continued the Rumely name in Canada because, under Canadian law, it had to retain the name in order to collect debts owed to Rumely. That name lasted in Canada until 1985 when AC was bought by the West German subsidiary of Klockner-Humboldt-Deutz AG. Despite the sale to AC, Rumely tractors could be bought new out of Toronto as late as 1938. When AC bought Rumely, it intended to sell AC tractors, not Rumely machines. Consequently, the company shipped all the Rumelys it could find to Canada to get the former competitor out of the U.S. That explains the number of Rumely tractors in Toronto, Saskatoon and Winnipeg, Canada. In fact, that's one reason so many Rumely tractors exist today. Most of the Rumely tractors in Canada worked for a living well into the 1950s and managed to escape the World War II scrap-iron drive. FC

Rumely revisited 1848 - 1938

1848 Meinrad Rumely, a German soldier, is pistol-whipped for a minor infraction by a commanding officer. Meinrad leaves the army and comes to America in search of a better life.

1853  Meinrad leaves Chicago for Laporte, Minn., looking for work with a nearby railroad. He and his brother, John, establish the M. & j. Rumely Co. and build sorghum presses, flourmills and ice-harvesting machines.

1854 The newly formed Rumely Co. begins production of its first threshing machine. The machine wins first prize at the Illinois State Fair in Chicago five years later.

1887 Meinrad assumes the office of president and general manager of the newly incorporated M. Rumely Co. The 'J' is dropped after Meinrad buys out his brother's interest. The country's economic condition worsens, but the company's reputation for quality and reliability sustains it through tough times.

1907 Rumely focuses its efforts to develop a new form of plowing power after it realizes the sales potential in the Midwest and recognizes the limitations of steam power. As a result, internal combustion engineer John Alstyne Secor is hired and work begins to bring Rumely into the 20th century with a new line of tractors. 1910 Rumely's first internal combustion tractor begins production as 'Kerosene Annie,' later designated as the Model B, and has a horsepower rating of 25 on the drawbar and 45 on the belt.

1913 Rumely acquires the Gaar-Scott Co. and Advance Threshing Co. The acquisitions are made to aggressively seek international sales. Later that year, an exhibit is held at the Kiev, Russia, Industrial Exhibition.

1923  Rumely purchases Aultman & Taylor.

1924 The last Advance-Rumely steam engine rolls off the assembly line.

1925 Combine production begins. The new machine cuts, threshes and disposes of the grain and straw in one operation. While Allis-Chalmers has more success marketing the Rumely combine years later, Rumely has immediate renown for its combine design.

1928 Rumely introduces its new line of 'Super-Powered' OilPulls and purchases rights to sell Do All tractors, produced by Toro Motor Co.

1931 The Great Depression, in addition to the now-obsolete OilPull tractor line, forces Rumely to sell most of its holdings to Allis-Chalmers Co. on April 15. 1935 Rumely continues to operate until July 12 when AC announces plans to liquidate the venerable company altogether.

1938 Rumely stock is removed from the New York Stock Exchange on Oct. 11, thus ending an era in agricultural history.

Collectors convene June 26 - 29

The International Rumely Products Collectors will present the 150th anniversary show of the M. & J. Rumely Co. The sesquicentennial event will be held in conjunction with the National Threshers Association's 59th Annual Reunion, June 26-29 in Wauseon, Ohio.

'This year's going to be the greatest variety and number of Rumely products ever assembled,' says the club's president Dennis Rupert. 'We'll be showing over 100 pieces overall, and attendance will be 20,000 people over the four-day event.'

In addition to steam engines and tractors, the 11 -year-old club will feature wooden and steel threshers, combines and gas engines. Organizers also hope to have a Rumely truck at the gala, one of two known to exist. Activities include a Rumely parade, dedicated activities such as milling, threshing and tractor pulls. A dinner is scheduled for Saturday night at the Sauder Farm Museum. FC

For more information about the 150th Rumely anniversary celebration, contact Dennis Rupert, P.O. Box 225, Hillsdale, Ml 49242; (517) 437-4565; or (517) 439-1368 (evenings); or by e-mail:rupertcull@earthlink.net; www.nationalthreshers.com

Sherwood Hume is an auctioneer and avid collector. You can contact him at Sherwood Hume Auction Farm, 9313 4th Line, Rural Route #5, Milton, Ontario, L9T 2X9, Canada; (905) 878-4878; humeauction@wwdb.org 

Editor's note: Some information for this article was taken with permission from 'RUMELY: A Look Back Over 150 Years: 1853-2003' by Scott L. Thompson.


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Post a comment below.

 

Michael Huye
2/12/2013 2:56:27 PM
When you have to be successful in the market place, and then use those hard earned profits to again risk everything to expand and add new products to the mix, you have a profound appreciation for the value of your profits as they represent your life and your ruin if you mismanage it. This ethos and reality has vanished from this country. Fiat capital guaranteed it.








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