Florenz Kitten: Full Steam Ahead

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Reprinted from The Ferdinand News Sent to us by Jerry Kitten RR 2, Box 6 Slaton, Texas 79364

Florenz Kitten, Sr. and the town of Ferdinand were born the same year. That the two names Kitten and Ferdinand should forever be intertwined now seems almost inevitable. Henry and Theresa (Heke) Kitten's son Florenz was born in Prussia in 1840. Surely his parents dreamed of a great future for him. Ferdinand, Indiana, was born from the perseverance of Fr. Joseph Kundek and there is no doubt he dreamed of great things for his brainchild.

Political upheaval in Prussia began that same year, with the death of King Frederick William III. His son and successor, Frederick William IV, lacked a practical nature and so Florenz Kitten's first eight years of life were marked by economic depression and capped by political revolution. A working class uprising in June was crushed by frightful bloodshed. Politics, war and poverty in the home land a chance for democracy, peace and prosperity in a new land. This the Kittens must have considered before deciding to emigrate to the United States, the land of milk and honey where all the streets were paved in gold.

Henry Kitten was a wooden shoe maker; places to ply that particular trade were probably limited, even in the mid-nineteenth century. Somehow the family arrived in Ferdinand where Henry had ready-made good German customers for his wooden shoes.

Employees of the Ferdinand Foundry and Machine Works pose for a picture with founder Florenz Kitten, seated at front right, who boasted a white beard.

Young Florenz was probably 10 years old. Although he attended school and worked on a farm, by all accounts Kitten was a forward thinker more interested in evolving technology than in the usual childhood pursuits.

An avid tinkerer, Florenz spent much of his time trying to re-invent the wheel. He was not alone it seems all over the world men were harnessing energy in new ways.

In 1712 Englishman Thomas New comen invented the steam engine. His newfangled piece of machinery was used to drive pumps that would clear ground water from mine shafts in Great Britain's coal mining countryside.

It wasn't until the early nineteenth century that James Watt developed the double-acting steam engine. A new industry was born. Steam power competed with waterpower and the great minds of that age invented everything from the steam turbine to the internal-combustion engine.

As the Industrial Revolution gained steam in Europe and the United States, young Florenz tinkered. But tinkering wasn't a trade and so he learned carpentry and farming. These were practical, honorable professions. Florenz helped on the family farm until he was 19 and then switched to carpentry for the next six years. Without this background in carpentry and farming it is unlikely Florenz Kitten would have changed the course of local history.

Meanwhile Florenz met Miss Katherine Luegers, ten years his junior. The couple married in 1868 and built a home at the corner of Tenth and Virginia Streets. It was here that Florenz began to seriously explore the powers of steam, in a second-floor workshop.

Using his knowledge of farming and carpentry combined with an inventor's intuition, Florenz began building steam engines and threshers in his workshop around 1880. How could he adapt the marvels of steam to the rugged hillsides of southern Indiana? The first horse-drawn engines used an upright boiler but Florenz soon switched to a short, squat, horizontal boiler in place of the elongated version favored by engine designers in flatter terrains. Kitten's engine used a 24 horsepower boiler with a return flue design. The cylinder was mounted on the right side with the flywheel/belt pulley on the left.

Area farmers were overjoyed! At last, something to make their jobs easier.

Florenz Kitten needed to expand his growing industry. He built a two-story factory and foundry adjoining his home and dubbed the business the Ferdinand Foundry and Machine Works.

In 1879, Florenz obtained a patent for an improvement in threshing machine straw carriers. After perfecting his designs, Kitten filed an application with the United States Patent Office on May 29, 1889 to receive patent rights for his steam engine. Patent number 409,594 was granted on August 20, 1889.

Two horse driven steam engines were used to move this house at Dubois. The drivers would have needed a high level of skill to pull off this feat, since just a slight error would have pulled the house apart.

He began building traction engines. This was one of the biggest improvements since the engines could now motivate without 'horse' power, pulling their machinery from farm to farm. Fully loaded with water, tools and coal, a Kitten engine tipped the scales at 17,025 pounds, which is probably the reason most were sold within a 100 mile radius of Ferdinand.

Florenz's inventions did not lack distinguishing features. The steam engines were generally painted yellow and red while all threshing machines featured yellow wheels. Even water wagons were painted to match and sometimes decorated with more intricate designs. Whimsical flowers added a festive touch. Ben Weaver dedicated his life's work to painting Kitten equipment.

Ferdinand Foundry and Machine Works completed its last steam engine in 1940. During the intervening years, 224 were built. A wooden pattern was cut for each piece and thousands of pieces were joined to form a finished engine. With each engine a water wagon would be built. Approximately 200 threshing machines were also constructed at the plant.

Yellow poplar was used for many pieces on a Kitten engine, although Florenz favored oak for the beams. Wednesday was designated steel pouring day at the foundry and would probably have been the day that attracted the most attention from outsiders.

The foundry was by far the largest employer in town. An excerpt from the June 22, 1888 Jasper Courier reads 'FERDINAND: If you pass by the new large machine shop of Florenz Kitten and see the many machines there for repairing and even new ones and the full set of hands so busy at work, it would remind you of some large city machine works. His business is booming.'

Florenz apparently provided other services as well. With Daniel Miller of Jasper, Kitten was awarded the contract to install steam heat at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Jasper. The total project would cost $2,200.

Ferdinand was running at full steam during Florenz Kitten's heyday!