Back Home Again in Indiana

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Princeton, Wisconsin 54968

Over the years we have traveled first from Michigan, then from Illinois, and now from Wisconsin to Indiana. Invariably, when we have crossed the state line into Indiana, my wife has sung 'Back Home Again in Indiana.'

Recently we returned to Indiana and once again she sang her song. But this time, besides visiting relatives, we stopped at a number of places where steam traction engines and grain separators had been manufactured. In each town I sought information from local libraries and museums, interviewed persons related to those who had established companies, talked with those who had owned and operated threshing equipment. Suffice it to say, it was great fun and quite informative.

Let me share with you some lore I was able to obtain concerning the Keck-Gonnerman Company of Mount Vernon, Indiana. This company was established in 1873 and was incorporated in 1901. It built such equipment as steam traction engines, separators, bean hullers, grain cleaners, corn shellers, saw mills, pumps and coal mining machinery. The Keck family now owns and operates the Keck Motor Company in Mount Vernon.

I found Mr. John Keck, the grandson of one of the founders of the company at his desk on a very busy Monday morning. In spite of the press of duty, he was most generous with his time. I wanted to find out from him, among other things, why Keck-Gonnerman continued its business longer than most companies and, contrary to the experience of many other such companies, never seemed to have had a major financial crisis. John suggested that the reason might be that 'the company was financially solvent because it was conservative.' John's copy of a 1910 catalog tends to bear this out. The following indicates, I believe, a no nonsense policy with regard to credit for items purchased:

'When engines and threshers are bought on time they are to be settled for by notes payable in one, two or three seasons, secured with a chattel mortgage on the machinery sold, and other property if necessary to justify accepting the sale. When parties placing orders for machinery are not freeholders, then we require in advance a cash payment sufficient to pay the freight charges that may accrue in shipping out machinery and returning same to the factory, in case the purchaser should refuse to carry out his part of the contract.'

John Keck suggested that the company was conservative in other respects mainly because the founders continued to operate the company even when they were 'in their eighties.' Thus new blood was not pumped into it. The second generation apparently had little input before its members had reached the age of 60, when they were themselves conservative or had lost interest in the company. This conservatism was beneficial in certain respects, but in other respects it was a drawback. No research and development department was ever created. The combine, the machine of the future, doomed the conventional threshing machine and the company had no combine to sell. Finally a man was brought in from California to develop a rice combine, but he ran through quite a bit of cash within a year, and he never produced a machine that the company could market. This failure did not lead to the demise of the company. Although it produced its last steam engine about 1930, Keck-Gonnerman continued to rebuild engines for several years. Moreover it continued to build such machinery as was indicated earlier. Separators, for example, were built as late as 1953.

During our conversation, John suggested the names of a few persons with whom I might talk about the history of the company. Among these was a Mr. William Booth of 200 Vine Street, Mount Vernon, who had worked in the separator division. I found Bill at home fixing his roof. He lives within a stone's throw of the old Keck-Gonnerman plant. Two buildings remain. The old office building now houses the Production Credit Association. The other building, the grey iron foundry is owned by the Claybrooke Transportation Company.

For twenty years Bill assembled separators. He began working for Keck-Gonnerman on February 9, 1933 and continued until sometime in 1953. Catfishing and the Mount Vernon Fire and Rescue, Inc., are two of his interests. Bill said that a crew was responsible for building a particular separator. A good crew could assemble about two per week. At one time the company had dire crews making separators. These were sold chiefly in the midwest and in Canada and in Cuba. Once, when a member of a certain crew was absent, Bill was asked whether he could stripe a separator. His response was, 'If someone can, I can.' I striped from then on. I striped many of them.' Stencils were used for painting lettering and a transfer was used to place the emblem of the 'Home of the Prosperous Farmer' on the separators and water tanks of the engines. These transfers were varnished over to protect them from the weather. The separators, that is the wood separators, for Keck-Gonnerman also made steel separators, were red. The wood used in their construction was purchased, stacked and thoroughly cured. 'Every piece was absolutely cured.' The Keck-Gonnerman separator was called the Indiana Special. What made it 'special' was a device behind the cylinder that elevated the straw onto the shakers. Bill believes the most commonly built separators were the 28 x 50 and the 32 x 54.

Regarding the steam engines, Bill reports that the 18 and 20 horsepower engines were the most popular. Keck-Gonnerman mounted their engines on boilers which they purchased. Once he was asked to list the colors used on the engines. I included his list for those who may be engaged in restoring a Keck-Gonnerman engine.

wheels -- red
boiler -- black
flywheel & eccentric wheel --red
cylinder -- green
roof ribs & edge -- green
lettering -- yellow
tool box -- green
smokestack -- black
front door raised letters -- silver

Bill was certainly one of the most enjoyable persons I met 'Back Home Again in Indiana.' We had a great deal in common including a love of fishing, plenty of time for conversation and, an interest in threshing machinery. But, another fascinating interview lay ahead. Soon I was to encounter Mr. Roy Boatman of Bridgeport, Illinois, who has owned at least 13 steem engines including three Keck-Gonnerman engines.

I ran into Roy by chance. We had stopped at a motel in Lawrenceville, Illinois, and the manager told me there was a fellow nearby who had a whole barn full of steam engines. Roy began threshing near Dundas, Illinois, when he could 'scarcely reach the throttle on the steam engine.' When he quit threshing in 1917 he became a machinist and 'took care of the stationary steam engines for the Indian Oil Company for 30 years.'

Roy took me out to his barn to see his engines. It was quite a thrill to step onto the platform of the 22 HP Keck-Gonnerman engine and manipulate the levers and grasp that magnificently sturdy steering wheel. This engine was built in either 1910 or 1912. Unfortunately, the number has been lost. A second Keck-Gonnerman (engine number 1787), a 19 HP engine, stands beside the 22. These engines, and his Keck-Gonnerman separator are in first rate condition. He steams all his engines each year on the Sunday following his birthday, September 21. Roy claims the Keck-Gonnerman engines steam easily, are powerful and easily manuvered. As many as 500 to 1000 persons come to see his engines and he parades them before an appreciative audience at the local nursing home.

Roy has many absorbing stories to tell. It seems a man in the area owned a Keck-Gonnerman engine. The man, dying of cancer, wished to see his engine in good hands upon his death. He called Roy to his bedside and pleaded, 'I want to know where my engine is going. Will you take it?' Roy purchased the engine and kept it until the man and his wife had died. He then sold it to another man who would care for it too.

On another occasion Roy received a call from a frantic engineer who could not keep steam in his double cylinder Keck-Gonnerman. Upon arriving at the scene, he asked the engineer to start his engine. Only one cylinder appeared to be functioning. This he detected by listening at the smoke door. He asked the engineer to stop the engine. When he opened the smoke door he found that one of the exhaust pipes had fallen down and was exhausting back through the flues, thus killing the fire in the fire box. Roy tied up the pipe with some baling wire and the engine worked fine. As he repeated several times, 'I had to laugh. You would think they would have looked in the smoke door.'

Roy now lives alone. His wife died a few years ago. A son and daughter, however, live nearby. Six pictures of steam engines he has owned are lovingly hung on his living room wall. A Case, a Port Huron, two Keck-Gonnerman engines and a separator stand nearby to keep him company. He is rightfully proud of his collection. Although he sometimes wonders if he will be physically able to steam his engines next September, he is, nevertheless, thinking about purchasing another engine, 'If I can get it at the right price.' Indeed an unforgetable character.

There is much more to be told about these men, Joh Keck, Bill Booth, and Roy Boatman; and the trip 'Back Home Again in Indiana.' But that will have to wait until another time. I shall remember them always for their helpfulness, friendship and the joy they brought me as I relived some of the 'good old days' of the Keck-Gonnerman steam threshing rig.