Marion Steam Engine Companies

Marion, Ohio was home to two early steam engine companies: The Marion Manufacturing Company and Huber Manufacturing Company.

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A 16 hp Huber engine on parade.

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Two in one … that's what you had in Marion, Ohio, in the 1880s. Two steam traction engine and grain separator manufacturers in one town: rare, indeed. At the time, Marion had a population of about 12,000. The two were the Huber Mfg. Co. and the Marion Mfg. Co., builder of the Leader line of equipment.

Huber Mfg. Co.

The outgrowth of earlier partnerships, Huber Manufacturing Company was organized by Edwin Huber in 1874. The company began steam engine production in 1877 with a portable steam engine to power grain separators. In 1878 the company developed a self-propelled unit: a traction steam engine. Huber patented a return-flue boiler, which returned the heat back through the boiler. He claimed to have gained a 40 percent increase in fuel efficiency with the return flue compared to the straight-through flue heating system.

Huber built wood- and coal-fired engines for the Midwest and straw-fired engines for work in the prairie states. When working hard, a wood- and coal-fired engine could use up to three-quarters of a ton of coal per working day. But what about a straw-fired engine? Can you imagine how much straw it would take to fire a 25 hp engine for a day's run? Regardless, the fuel was cheap.

Huber manufactured steam engines in a range of sizes, from 5 and 6 hp portable units to 16, 18, 20, 25 and 30 hp traction engines. Huber also produced a full line of Supreme and Roto-Rack separators, a bean and pea thresher and a corn husker/shredder. Edwin Huber died in 1904; the company remained in operation under various owners until 1984.

Marion Mfg. Co.

Leader was the trade name for Marion Manufacturing Company, which was organized in 1886. The plant covered about three acres at the corners of West Center and Leader streets. John Hopkins was founding president and treasurer; Frederick Strobel and J.W. Stringer, superintendent of the separator department and general manager respectively, were generally acknowledged as the company's design geniuses. (Strobel earlier worked for Huber Mfg. Co., where he designed one of the company's separators.)

By 1904, the company's founding officers were replaced. Six years later Marion Mfg. Co. entered bankruptcy proceedings and was sold to the Ohio Tractor Mfg. Co., Upper Sandusky, Ohio. Production of Leader engines and separators continued in Marion; production of Leader steam road rollers, gasoline-kerosene tractors and kerosene road rollers was moved to the Upper Sandusky plant. In 1915 bankruptcy loomed again. A year later, the plant was sold to a group of investors, and production at the site shifted to hearses and motor trucks.

Marion's Leader engine is unique and a rare sight at shows. Leo Bard, Dearborn Heights, Mich., has a 20 hp engine, one of the few Leader traction engines still operational after all these years. The Mid-Ohio Antique Farm Machinery Club, Richwood, Ohio, owns an 18 hp engine.

Controls on Leader engines were conveniently located within the operator's reach, making it easier to shift gears, operate the clutch and line up the belt with the pulley. Leader traction engines came in 8, 12, 16 and 20 hp models.

The company never produced a large number of engines. Marion concentrated its efforts primarily in separator production. The company produced separators in two sizes: the Leader Western Special (33-by-48 inches and larger) and the Leader Junior (24-by-40 inches and 28-by-45 inches). A farmer could get by either with a swinging conveyor straw stacker or a wind (pneumatic) stacker, an automatic feeder and band cutter, and a bagging attachment with a weigher. Additionally, the company produced a complete line of threshing implements including water wagons and pumps.

Steam whistle signals

Tom Spires, Lancaster, Ohio, once owned a Leader engine. He says that every man and boy working with a threshing crew was expected to know the steam engine whistle signals:

Two long blasts, work completed for the day; 

One short blast, stop threshing machine; 

Two short blasts, start threshing machine; 

Three short blasts, more grain boxes needed; 

One long followed by a series of short blasts, water needed; 

Two long followed by two short blasts, moving to next farm; 

Continuous short blasts, unusual distress or fire.

Next time you watch a threshing demonstration at a show and the separator is powered by a steam engine, pay attention to the whistles. See if the operator is using the correct signals and watch the crew to see if they recognize them as well. FC 

James N. Boblenz grew up on a farm near New Bloomington, Ohio. He now lives in Marion, Ohio, and is interested in antique farm equipment, particularly rare and lesser-known tractors and related items. E-mail him at Jboblenz@aol.com.