From Panning Gold to Melting Steel:

Oliver Smith Kelly

1. Oliver Smith Kelly, as he appeared in the 1884 Biographical Encyclopedia of Ohio.

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3982 Ballard Avenue Cincinnati, Ohio 45209-1716

Oliver Smith Kelly stuck it rich. He had worked as a carpenter, but the lure of gold proved too strong to resist. He left behind his home in Springfield, Ohio, looped through Nicaragua, and arrived in California gold fields. He spent the better part of 1852 through 1856 mining 'placers,' deposits of gravel containing small particles of ore which can be washed out. Luck smiled on Kelly. The man who returned to Springfield was wealthy (Springfield Daily Republic 12 and Yester Year in Clark County, Ohio 29). Oliver had ample capital to risk in establishing a series of industrial enterprises. The Kelly name would come to be associated with steam engines, threshing machines, road rollers, pianos, trucks, and tires. Like the Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Rockefeller stories, the account of Kelly's life invited readers back to an era when it was possible to become rich through good fortune and to stay rich through inventiveness and hard work.

Born in 1824, Oliver was the grandson of James Kelly, an Irish immigrant who first settled in Virginia. James felt the despair at Valley Forge and the exhilaration at Yorktown while serving under General George Washington. Hazarding the privations of a trek through the Cumberland Gap and across the rugged highlands of Kentucky, this patriot of the Revolution and his dozen children arrived in Springfield in 1808 (Springfield Daily Republic 12). To look then at the hamlet situated on the wooded knolls of the Mad River would have given James Kelly no glimpse of the sprawling city of factories which Springfield would become, his own grandson contributing significantly to that future growth.

John Kelly had been born in 1789. He fought in the War of 1812 then returned to farming in Clark County, Ohio. His untimely death in 1825 left one-year-old Oliver without a father. Other members of the large Kelly familywhich Oliver later called 'the Kelly neighborhood'helped to raise the infant (Yester Year 28).

Oliver's earliest recollections were of the log house on the farm which his father carved from the wilderness four miles south of town (Yester Year 27 and Kelly Springfield Today Part 1). Oliver's grandfather lived a half mile to the north. Most of James' seven surviving sons and four daughters resided in the vicinity (Yester Year 28). Patches of cleared land floated like islands amid forests of oak and black walnut, mammoth sycamores sheltered the river, and every boy and girl quickly learned to handle a gun, supplementing the larder with wild game. Oliver's aunt was a crack shot: '... she could bring down a deer or anything else that crossed her path, any day,' Oliver would recall (Yester Year 28). He would also remember the self-sufficiency of pioneer families: '...we raised the flax and wool from which our mother spun our clothes; we raised the cattle and killed the beeves, from which we got the hides that we took to the tanner, who tanned them on shares, and in the fall a shoemaker would come to the house and stay several weeks, making shoes for all the family' (Yester Year 28).

Woodcut of an early Springfield portable steam engine, built in Springfield, Ohio, in the early 1880s. Note how engraver made trial gouges in black margins, which would be removed before printing. All woodcuts and copper cuts here reproduced are from the collection of Dr. Robert T. Rhode and have been printed by Otto Printing of Newport, Kentucky.

As a lad, Oliver enjoyed the responsibility of riding the horse to Springfield to run errands for his family. In the center of the village, a corduroy bridge, made by stringing together rough-hewn logs, crossed the marshes. Years later, Oliver recalled, 'as you rode along on it, the swamp would shake fifty feet on each side of the bridge, and if your horse got off, he would mire down in it in a short time, so that you could hardly get him out' (Yester Year 27). In 1830, the town of five-hundred inhabitants boasts two woolen mills, a flour mill established by Simon Kenton, a market house, and a distillery. When he was ten, Oliver and his family moved into the Adam Baker mill in the Mad River Valley.

In the mid-1830s and early 1840s, Oliver was fascinated with the bustling energy of Springfield. He admired the fire department with its 'double-deckers' on which the men stood to operate the pumps. Brigades of volunteers brought water to the double-deckers in over a hundred leather buckets. The building of the new National Road also captured young Oliver's attention. In the political convention of 1840, the parade for 'Old Tippecanoe' General William Henry Harrison came from Columbus along the new road; Oliver would remember the campaign tableau which included 'log cabins with coons clambering over them. The poles of toll houses had to be removed to allow the procession to pass (yester year 29)

In those early years, schooner wagons took six to eight weeks to bring dry goods from Baltimore. Most cattle were driven to Pittsburgh, hogs to Cincinnati. Eggs were two and half cents a dozen (Yester Year 30,). At age fourteen, Oliver decided to leave the farming and milling operation and to seek his fortune in Springfield. Completing his apprenticeship as a carpenter in 1845, Oliver did his first professional work as a contractor helping to build 'an over-shot water wheel for James Leffel, the inventor of the turbine wheel!' (Yester Year 30) Also in 1845, 'it was a great day for Springfield when James Wiggins came into town with the first locomotive' (Yester Year 30); the Little Miami Railroad had opened, an event marking vast change.

Oliver was restless. As a boy, he had dreamed of becoming a Pony Express rider. Now, as a man of twenty-eight, he wanted to ride the crest of industrial innovation, but he needed capital.

Cut of a skid engine built by the Springfield Engine and Thresher Company sometime between 1882 and 1889. Note capacity to transform engine into a double-simple, if owner wanted another cylinder attached.

Cut of a skid engine, probably a Springfield. Note vertical pump. Note also that the artist has taken liberties with the steam gauge. Stand back!

With a pioneering spirit and a hope worthy of his grandfather, Oliver, in 1852, dared to depart for California. He left behind a wife and children. Readers already know the happy outcome of Oliver's journey to the American West; he returned to his family with thousands of dollars in gold. With a small portion of his earnings, he bought a wholesale grocery business (Kelly Springfield Today Part 1).

In 1857, Oliver relinquished the grocery to join the farm-implement firm of William Whitely and Jerome Fassler. The name soon changed to Whitely, Fassler & Kelly. The works built a well-received line of reapers and mowers. A full-color poster which advertised this company hangs in the house of the Clark County, Ohio, Historical Society and shows the firm's spacious buildings and convenient railroad spur tracks. Shrewdly detecting subtle fluctuations in business, Oliver developed himself into a leader ready to adjust to new conditions before competitors were aware that change was in the wind. Satisfied with the progress of Whitely, Fassler & Kelly, Oliver stayed with this manufacturing company until 1881.

His sons coming of age, Kelly now felt that the time was ripe to focus his energies in a new direction. In 1882, he invested part of his wealth in the Rhine hart and Ballard Threshing Machine Works. With Oliver as president and son Oliver W. as superintendent, the firm reorganized as the Springfield Engine and Thresher Company. Profits increased, and the business expanded. In 1889 or 1890, the name changed again, this time to the O. S. Kelly Company (Industries of Springfield 27 and Kelly Springfield Today Part 1).The firm had a capital stock of $350,000 (Industries and Wealth of Ohio 117)

Cut of an O. S. Kelly 12 HP traction engine and Fuller tender. Placard reads, 'Manufactured by the O. S. Kelly Mfg Co., Iowa City, Iowa.' Cut appeared in 1902 catalog. Note wide vertical swing of reverse lever.

Around the time when Oliver s lucrative firm bore his name, he became enamored with British steam engines. His designers and mechanical engineers began to replace the Springfield engines with a new style of Kelly engine, closely modeled on British concepts. Locating the valve above the cylinder, encasing both in a large steam jacket, fitting the shafts on thick horn plates, and supplying a man stand with a box entered from the engine's left side were only a few of the British innovations to appear in Kelly manufacture. The company even tried to promote cable plowing, a British strategy of positioning the engine beside the field, equipping it with a winding drum, playing out cable to the plow, and retracting the cable to pull the plow across the field. The most efficient cable plowing involved placing two steam engines on opposite sides of the field and drawing the plow back and forth between them. The large acreages in the United States, however, precluded the practice of cable plowing. For perhaps the only time in his career, Oliver had failed to identify a profitable trend.

Cut of an O. S. Kelly rig: engine probably 12 HP, thresher with the word 'TELESCOPE' on elevator, and independent stacker pulled behind thresher.

He was, nonetheless, 'an industrialist of a visionary nature' (Kelly Springfield Today Part 1). He recognized that his company's sales would increase if threshing equipment were manufactured in 'America's heartland where it received the greatest use' (Kelly Springfield Today Part 1). Consequently, Oliver authorized opening an O. S. Kelly plant in Iowa City, Iowa. This factory built threshing machines, feed mills, and (eventually) gasoline engines. Cast into the fancy top-hinged smoke boxes of steam engines sold through the Iowa City office were the words, 'O. S. Kelly Mfg. Co., Iowa City, Iowa.'

Wise in selecting his staff, Oliver appointed James H. Maggard General Manager of Kelly's Western Branch. What Julia Child is to French cooking Maggard is to agricultural steam power. Steam-engine aficionados prize their copies of Maggard's popular book, Rough and Tumble Engineering, and, in Kinzers, Pennsylvania, Rough and Tumble Engineers, an organization named after Maggard's book, annually hosts one of the oldest and most widely publicized summertime exhibits of antique machinery in North America. Rough and Tumble Engineering underwent numerous editions in Maggard's day and is still available in paperback. Maggard once made a few minor revisions in the text (for example, deleting his earlier advice to dump a hatful of potatoes in an engine's boiler to prevent scale), included his proverbial two cents' worth of suggestions on gas and gasoline engines, added a thin section on threshing machines and how to run them, and reissued the book under a new title, The Traction Engine: Its Use and Abuse. The near clone of his bestseller also sold, going through new edition after new edition.

The book's phenomenal success originates in Maggard's inimitable writing style. For instance, Maggard begins a chapter entitled 'What to Do and What Not to Do' by stating: