The Gold Standard in Steam

Nichols & Shepard built on a foundation of quality but was resistant to change.

Flywheel side of a double-cylinder Nichols & Shepard

Flywheel side of a double-cylinder Nichols & Shepard steam traction engine offered in 16, 20, 25 and 30 hp sizes. All burned coal, wood and straw except the 16 hp model, which burned only coal and wood.

Content Tools

Of all the companies that manufactured steam traction engines in the U.S., Nichols & Shepard Co. was one of the earliest and most stubbornly resistant to change. Company leaders believed gasoline tractors were but a passing fancy, according to C.H. Wendel in The Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors. Nichols & Shepard continued to build steam traction engines long after most other companies had succumbed, and its unofficial motto was 'Steam is, was and always will be king.'

From humble roots

Nichols & Shepard started small, manufacturing basic agricultural products until it invented the ones that made the company famous. In 1848 John Nichols started a small blacksmith shop in Battle Creek, Mich. A few years later he added a small foundry and asked Charles H. Shepard to come in as a business partner. In 1851, Charles' brother, David, newly returned from the California gold rush of 1849 (but no richer), bought out Charles' interest in the company.

'Virtually nothing is known of the early products from Nichols, Shepard & Co.,' Wendel notes. 'Apparently the products were sold on a more or less localized basis, and word-of-mouth was the primary advertising method.' At that time, the company produced mill irons, small stationary steam engines and agricultural implements.

But that was just practice for the company's first great product, the thresher. From 1837 to the 1850s, the Pitts Bros. thresher represented the top of the line. 'For some years,' Wendel explains, 'the actual separating of the grain from straw and chaff was achieved by a slatted apron behind the cylinder. These so-called 'apron machines' were the accepted standard.' But the slatted apron-type thresher was rife with problems, not the least of which was grain loss.

Using only blacksmith's tools, Nichols abandoned the apron type and began designing his first thresher with his son, Edwin. In 1861, the company entered one of its completed products, a Vibrator thresher, in the San Joaquin Valley Fair at Stockton, Calif. In a research paper (see Iron Men Album, May/June 2001), Charles O. Olsen reports that 'a huge crowd turned out at the factory on the day Nichols & Shepard's threshing machine was loaded on a rail car and hauled westward. Several competitors exhibited quality machines at the fair, but the premium award was given to Nichols & Shepard for the flawless performance of their all-wood threshing machine.'

Crude as it was, the Vibrator immediately became the best thresher on the market. With modifications, subsequent Nichols & Shepard Co. thresher lines were renamed the Flagg (for designer Eli Flagg) and Red River, and continued to be the pre-eminent machines in the U.S. until the 1920s.

Progressive approach strengthened labor relations in early era

With the success of the Vibrator threshers, Nichols & Shepard turned to products to operate them, which meant adapting the great power source at the time: steam. In 1869 the company expanded into new facilities and began building portable steam engines to power its Vibrator threshers.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Nichols & Shepard Co. was the company's relationship with its workers, according to Olsen's research paper. 'John Nichols and David Shepard were among the most prominent citizens of Battle Creek,' he writes. 'Visiting salesmen and colleagues alike were astonished to discover that both owners engaged in production activities on numerous occasions.'

The two men were revered in Battle Creek because they not only created jobs but also contributed to hospitals, social clubs and even fire departments through philanthropic endowments. 'They seemed to value their laborers to a higher degree than the steel magnates of this time,' Olsen adds.

In the 1870s, the company devised an unusual social club and began a modest profit sharing plan. For more than 40 years, members of the Vibrator Social Club (made up of workers and managers) boarded a train in Battle Creek each November bound for remote upper Michigan, where they hunted and fished. From Olsen's paper, 'Bernice Lowe, wife of a participant, gave this description of the 1877 foray: 'Club members paraded about with feathers in their caps as they showed off the quarry of the expedition. Included were no less than 48 deer, 23 turkeys, untold number of geese and ducks, along with an abundance of over a dozen species of fish. Members then proceeded to cook their prize catches as friends and relatives gathered to partake in this lavish banquet which was fit for a king.''

Though the company name in the early days is unclear, in 1886 the company was incorporated as Nichols & Shepard Co. A year later the firm began the annual practice of distributing $50,000 of stock to loyal and dedicated employees. Low-interest construction loans for homes on company property were also available to workers.

In 1891 John Nichols died. Feelings toward him were clear: More than 300 people participated in the funeral and most businesses in Battle Creek were closed for three days.

Success in traction engines

The first Nichols & Shepard steam traction engines were built in 1891 and quickly became known for their solid construction. In his Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines, Jack Norbeck writes: 'The Nichols & Shep-ard steam traction engine had the most substantial boiler made, with the thickest boiler plate used in traction engine construction. It steamed easily and had ample steam capacity for its engine. It had steel traction wheels, platform frame and drawbar. It had an extra large main shaft and counter shaft. The extra large main and counter shaft boxes were arranged for thorough lubrication.

'Extra large brackets were strongly attached to the boiler. Each engine was thoroughly tested to twice its nominal horse-power. All the actuating levers and vital working parts were immediately under the hand of the engineer. The throttle, reverse and friction levers, and the steering gear, were handy in their natural places for prompt action.'

The steam gauge and water gauge glasses were in plain sight of the fireman and engineer. The injector and pump valves as well as lubricator and governor advance were within easy reach.

One of the most important gauges (if not the most important) on steam engines was the steam pressure gauge, which, Norbeck says, '... measures the outward pressure of the steam on the walls of the boiler. The gauge measures this pressure in pounds per square inch, and all boilers and boiler plate are measured and rated in tensile strength of pounds-per-square-inch. If the gauges register 150 pounds, it means that every square inch of wall inside of the boiler is being subjected to an outward pressure of 150 pounds.'

Additionally, Nichols & Shepard claimed (in a common boast of the day) that its drive wheels were the strongest made by any steam engine manufacturer. 'However,' writes Wendel in Oliver Hart-Parr, 'Nichols & Shepard used an all-steel wheel with cast steel bull gears.' The company's traction wheels had municipal (or road) lugs intended to limit damage to road surfaces. The wheels built for plowing and other heavy work were built with three rows of spokes and could only be used on two Nichols & Shepard steam engines: the 25-85 single-cylinder and 25-90 double-cylinder styles.

Nichols & Shepard built engines in simple and compound configurations, single-cylinder and double-cylinder, direct flue and return flue straw burning, contractor and plow, and rear-mount, many in combination with each other, as in the double-cylinder rear-mounted. Practically every size was offered, including 8, 10, 13, 16, 18, 20, 22, 25, 26, 30, 35, 45 and 120 hp. Some of these ratings were later altered to 16-50, 20-70,16-60, 20-75, 25-85 and 25-90. The engines burned coal, wood or straw, or combinations of the three. In 1927, a Nichols & Shepard 16-50 cost $2,550 (with 10 percent discount for cash), the 20-70 went for $3,190 and the 25-85 for $3,590.

End of an era

In 1911, Nichols & Shepard announced its first gasoline tractor, a very ruggedly constructed machine unveiled at a time when tractor weight wasn't a great consideration. The company's mainstay continued to be manufacture of steam traction engines but it also sold grain, rice, alfalfa and small-seed threshing machines, mounted water tanks, low-down tank pumps, and steel-frame horse powers. Branch offices were opened in six Midwest states, along with Houston, Salt Lake City, Blairsville, Pa., and Auburn, N.Y. A parts network was also launched.

But the writing was on the wall. As a power source, steam was reliable, quiet and inexpensively fueled. Still, inventors sought an alternative, primarily because of the engines' weight. Even small engines weighed several tons, and all steam traction engines were heavy enough to bring down the wooden bridges that had to be crossed to get to fields. Time and safety were also concerns. Steam engines took up to an hour to fire and they could be dangerous. Water levels required constant monitoring; failure to do so could result in an explosion.

Because Nichols & Shepard Co. had never experienced financial hardship, it was not prepared for what happened as sales of steam traction engines dropped off in the 1920s. The company did not have enough different models of gasoline or kerosene tractors to sell to make up the difference, and the coming Great Depression began to take its toll. In 1929, Nichols & Shepard Co. was bought out by Oliver Farm Equipment Co., Charles City, Iowa. All Nichols & Shepard steam traction engine and tractor lines were discontinued. FC

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56569; e-mail: bvossler@juno.com