Black Smoke and Hot Water: The Kitten Steam Engine

Steam Traction engine

Jerry's steam traction engine #224 blowing a cloud of steam at the Farmer-Stockman Show.

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Reprinted from the Fall 1998 The Agriculturist a magazine produced by the Department of Agricultural Education and Communications, Texas Tech University Sent to us by Jerry Kitten, RR 2, Box 6, Slaton, Texas 79364

Jerry Kitten is living proof that inventiveness runs in the genes. Five generations after his great-great-great uncle Florenz Kitten founded Kitten Machine Works, Jerry continues to keep his ancestor's legacy alive.

It all started in a small workshop in Ferdinand, Indiana, in 1868. Florenz Kitten was a 28-year-old carpenter with a knack for tinkering. He was fascinated by the potential uses of steam power and soon began designing and building steam engines in his home workshop. Several years later in 1889, Florenz was granted his first patent for the design of his Kitten steam traction engine.

Over the years, Kitten's company grew into a booming enterprise, manufacturing steam engines, threshing machines, saw mills, and several other types of agricultural equipment. In 1906, Florenz turned the company over to his son, Joseph F. Kitten, who changed the name to the Joseph F. Kitten Foundry and Machine Works. Throughout the next four decades, the Kitten empire changed ownership and names several times, but through it all continued to produce the same steam-powered machinery.

By the late 1930s, steam traction engines had become obsolete, so in 1940, after manufacturing 224 machines, the company ceased production.

Thirty-nine years later, in 1979, Jerry Kitten tracked down #224 and purchased it from Joseph Lueken, a former Kitten employee and longtime Ferdinand resident. It took Jerry almost three years to restore the engine back to its original condition. Jerry's engine is not only the last one manufactured by Kitten, but the last steam traction engine ever produced in the United States. He also owns two threshing machines built by Kitten in the 1920s and a Kitten-built sawmill.

Florenz Kitten's steam engines were colossal pieces of machinery made of wood and cast iron, weighing over 17,000 pounds. They were characterized by their red, green and yellow color schemes and ornate decorations. Jerry explained that the engines were designed to be flashy because they caused quite a spectacle chugging through farm fields back in the days of horse-drawn equipment. His engine still draws a crowd when he exhibits it every year at the Farmer-Stockman Show.

'I get a real kick out of seeing people gaze in wonder at the engine when we run it at the show,' Jerry said.

Just like his ancestors, Jerry Kitten is carrying on the family tradition of designing and building new creations. In addition to owning and operating Kitten Fertilizer Company, Jerry holds two patents for his inventions, which include a Kitten steam engine replica barbecue pit and an innovative cotton module hauler, which can carry modules or cotton burs. He builds and sells both products at his shop in Slaton. Still awaiting patent approval is a pesticide Jerry developed that he calls Aphid Proof. The chemical employs fertilizer to kill aphids on cotton plants.

'It's a safe and inexpensive chemical that knocks the aphids right off the plant. We're really excited about it,' Jerry said.

Jerry Kitten comes from a long line of inventors and innovators and claims that he is not about to drop the family tradition.

'I guess it runs in the blood because I'm always dreaming up new ideas or trying to improve existing ones,' he said.