Electric Wheel Co. Titans of the Steel Wheel Business

John Stillwell founded the Electric Wheel Co. in 1890, and the steel wheel business was never the same

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Sam Moore

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The Electric Wheel Co. became a 'titan' among wheel makers

A growing number of antique tractors are sporting newly made, Titan-brand tires during the past few years, and some would assume the tires we: made in Yugoslavia, Mexico or some other country where labor is cheap. As it turns out, Titan has a long and interesting lineage that traces back to Quincy, Ill., before the turn of the 20th century.

About 1888, a young man named John A Stillwell left his family home in Hannibal, Mo., and traveled a short distance up the Mississippi River to Quincy, Ill. He met and married Elizabeth Newcomb, the oldest daughter of Richard Newcomb, one of the richest men in Quincy.

John Stillwell and his partners founded the Electric Wheel Co. at Quincy in 1890 to build wheels for farm implements, wagons and other equipment. Exactly why they chose the name 'Electric Wheel' is unclear, although they probably planned to use the electric welding process just invented by Elihu Thomson.

William Bettendorf invented built-up steel wheels in the 1880s, but virtually all farm wagon and equipment wheels still used hubs, spokes and rims made of wood, all held together by a steel 'tire.' While the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Co. - which later became the French & Hecht Co. - began steel wheel production two years earlier in 1888, the Electric Wheel Co. was certainly an early competitor in the newfangled steel wheel business.

In spite of the steel wheel's advantages, many farmers questioned its durability. An undated letter from an Alabama man to the Electric Wheel Co. demonstrates the opposition to steel wheels: 'Mr. Mason is a country raised mechanic and said the wide tire steel wheels would not suit this country; that they would crimp and bend between the spokes, and later after I bought my wheels and had used them he contended that the tire would soon wear out, etc. So two or three weeks ago we were hauling bridge iron from Watumpka to Irma and I put on 4,000 lbs, had four small mules to my wagon, came right on with it to the astonishment of all who saw my load and team. Messrs. Mason & Holley told my brother that I would never pull 4,000 lbs. with the team I had nor would the wagon bear it. So when I drove onto their (Mason & Holley's) scales, my gross load was 5,042 lbs.'

The Electric Wheel Co. subsequently built wheels for most types of wagons, farm machinery and construction equipment. It also built a variety of wagon running gear for both farm and city use, including gear for wagons used in orchards, oil fields, lumberyards, heavy log hauling, as well as cook houses, peddler wagons and heavy dump wagons for construction. Several models of complete wooden wagons with grain boxes were also offered.

The firm eventually expanded its product line and began to experiment with tractors in 1904. By 1908, it offered a traction truck that allowed customers to mount their own engine onto the frame to make a crude tractor. Other innovations followed. In 1911, the Electric Wheel Co. introduced the Model 'O' Quincy 20-30, with a cross-mounted engine, a tubular radiator and automobile steering.

The company unveiled its Light Allwork tractor in 1916. A four-cylinder engine with a 5-inch bore and 6-inch stroke - also designed by the company - powered the machine. The Allwork weighed 4,800 pounds and provided 27 to 30 hp on the belt and 12 to 15 hp at the drawbar. The tractor used a two-speed transmission and burned kerosene fuel.

The tractors were painted a variety of colors as depicted in catalogs from the era. A circa-1916 catalog shows the tractor in sepia tone photos painted a very light color, while the Allwork II kerosene tractor in the Woodland, Calif. Heidrick Museum is painted yellow. However, another 1916 catalog with an Allwork picture was hand-colored red, so it's difficult to say exactly what color the machines were routinely painted.

Catalogs reveal other details about Electric Wheel Co. products. A 1920 catalog lists the Allwork kerosene tractor with a cross-mounted, four-cylinder engine. The same issue also shows the Allwork II kerosene tractor, with a four- cylinder, conventionally mounted engine with a 4 3/4-inch bore and a 6-inch stroke. Thus, the company clearly produced several models with different specifications for each.

In 1927, the Electric Wheel Co. expanded its line and produced the huge EWC 80 crawler tractor. It came with a Waukesha 6 3/4-inch bore by 8-inch stroke engine that put out 110 hp at 800 rpm. Consequently, the crawler carried a 60-gallon fuel tank to feed that big, thirsty engine. The company also built a smaller version, known as the EWC 5-ton crawler, that same year.

Wooden wheels vs. steel wheels

Farmers and other equipment users distrusted steel wheels when they were first introduced in the 1890s, mostly because they'd always depended on the wooden variety. The strength of a wooden wheel depends on the steel 'tire.' It must be tight enough to hold the felloe - or rim -on the spokes, and the spokes firmly in the hub. When wood dries, it shrinks and the spokes become loose, which makes the wheel weak and breakable. To repair a loose wheel, the tire must be removed and a section removed to shorten the tire. The tire is then rewelded and heated, after which it is pressed over the wheel rim while hot. When the tire cools, it shrinks and tightens the wheel. Of course, many wise teamsters applied a temporary fix by stopping their vagons in a stream and allowing the wooden wheels to soak up the water and swell tightly. The spokes of steel wheels, on the other hand, are riveted into the tire, and usually cast or forged into the hub, which keeps them from coming loose. Steel wheels are lighter in weight, and smaller in diameter than the high wooden wheels. Thus, the wagon bed is lower to the ground, which makes loading easier. Tires on steel wheels are generally wider than those on wooden wheels, and don't tend to rut soft fields and roads, and significantly reduce draft.

The Electric Wheel Co. quit the tractor business entirely by 1930, likely because of the Great Depression, but continued to make wheels and wagons until 1957. That's the year Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. bought the firm, and in turn sold the wheel division of the business in 1983 to Titan Proform of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, which renamed the original Quincy, Ill., facility Can-Am Industries. Can-Am then bought Goodyear's 'power-adjust' wheel-production assets in 1986 and William Bettendorf's original French & Hecht factory in Walcott, Iowa, in 1988. In 1990, Can-Am was restructured and renamed Titan Wheel International. Then in 1994, Titan purchased the Pirelli-Armstrong Tire Corp.'s Des Moines, Iowa, plant, which specialized in making agricultural tires.

Today, there are two separate corporate divisions: the Titan Wheel Corp. and Titan Tire Corp. Both furnish a variety of off-highway wheels and tires to the agricultural community, including Deere & Co., AGCO and Case-New Holland. Titan's wheels and tires are found on ATVs, recreational vehicles and lawn and garden equipment, as well as many different trailers. Caterpillar and Komatsu are just two of the many construction machinery outfits that use Titan products. In addition, Titan is a major supplier of wheels, tires and brake assemblies to manufacturers that produce vehicles for the U.S. military.

And to think, that mighty tire and wheel business started with John A. Stillwell's boat ride up the Mississippi River more than a century ago. FC

- Sam Moore became interested in agricultural machinery while growing up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. Now, he lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items.