Hamilton, Ohio's Contributions to Agricultural Steam Power

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Hooven, Owens & Rentschler Company works.

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3982 Bollard Avenue Cincinnati, Ohio 45209-1716

Reflecting on conditions in the late teens, The Republican-Newsof Hamilton, Ohio, reported, 'The smoke from hundreds of factories, mills and machine shops indicates clearly that a considerable business is being transacted here; the thousands of men who daily find employment in the hundreds of industries attest to the city's power as an industrial center... [The products of its shops...will be in demand as long as the industrial world revolves on its axis' (48). In actuality, Hamilton had been a hub of technological activity since the 1850s. When The Republican News commented on Hamilton's importance, steam engines, threshing machines, and other agricultural implements had been steadily issuing from Hamilton's foundries for over two generations.

Job E. Owens provided the opening chapter of Hamilton's agricultural steam history. Owens was born in Morgan shire, Wales, in 1819 (General Machinery Corporation 10). He arrived in newly settled Columbus, Ohio, in 1824, moved to Hamilton in 1845, and founded the firm of Owens, Ebert & Dyer in that year. He established his works on the southeast corner of Fourth and Heaton Streets immediately west of the canal fed by the Miami Rivera fortunate choice of locations because, later, the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad was built near the canal, passing along the west side of his shops, and, later still, the Pennsylvania Railroad erected a trestle along the canal. Owens' new foundry 'made nearly everything in metal,' with iron and coal shipped down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh and up the Miami and Erie Canal to Hamilton.

In the mid-1840s, a depression had concluded, announcing a decade of prosperity. In February of 1846, Owens won the contract to create the iron portions of a new jail. Business took off running, and, in 1847, the growing firm was reorganized and renamed Owens, Lane, Dyer & Company (Kessling). The factory built 'iron castings, moldings and iron stoves...By 1853, they were producing steam engines and papermaking machinery. In the 1860s and '70s, they became known for their steam threshers and other farm machinery.' At the time of the Civil War, the firm's agricultural products and mill gearing were being marketed under the trade name 'Eclipse,' not to be confused with the Frick Company of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, which, according to a Frick catalogue, was using the Eclipse trademark for portable engines by 1874.

On early models of portable and skid engines designed by the Eclipse Machine Works of Hamilton, Ohio, the steam dome resembled a teakettle on a constricted pedestal. The cylinder clung to the side of the boiler beside the firebox, and the crankshaft ran across the smoke box end. Although the Eclipse engines were as popular as they were, Owens, Lane, Dyer & Co. anticipated the development of a traction engine. In 1873, the firm experimented with a chain drive (Norbeck 196); however, in 1874at about the time the name changed to Owens, Lane & Dyer Machine Company the manufacturer brought out a radically redesigned traction engine with gear drive, a tilted cylinder near the smoke box end, piston and connecting rods on an incline toward a massive flywheel with a diameter larger than the driver wheels, and a pair of belt pulleys on a shaft across the smoke box door. Billed as a 'traction or road engine,' this new machine and its chain-driven predecessor gave Hamilton a mark of distinction: '...Job E. Owens was presented with a Gold Medal for the first traction engine built west of Pittsburgh.' [General Machinery Corporation 10.) Owens accomplished this honorable feat by the slimmest of margins, as companies like C. & G. Cooper of Mount Vernon, Ohio, were experimenting with traction at almost the same time.

A public gradually adjusting to the idea of steam-powered farming, saw milling, and general manufacturing welcomed the firm's stationary, skid, portable, and traction engines: '...thousands of these engines were sold all over the world, and the owners grew gray in the service.' (Centennial Anniversary of the City of Hamilton. Ohio 257.) Selling engines and other equipment from the headquarters at Hamilton and from the Owens, Lane & Dyer Machinery Depot located at 717 North Second Street on the corner of Morgan in St. Louis, Missouri, the manufacturer distributed special handbills proclaiming the success of the 'Road or Field Locomotive 'the engine which won the Grand Gold Medal presented by the Ohio State Board of Agriculture at the Ohio State Fair in 1874 as the first traction engine west of Pittsburgh. One of these handbills reprinted the September 11, 1874, Cleveland Herald's account of the engine's tests:

'The third event was the trial of a traction engine, or steam road wagon more properly speaking... Through the woods we went, turning out to the right and left to avoid trees, and backed up to a huge threshing machine, which was coupled on, and away we went again.

'The little engine responded nobly, as we passed over the rough ground until we reached the road. Seemingly the crowd had abandoned everything else. They covered the hill side and filled the grand stand until it was one dense mass of humanity. Closely following the wagon came a regiment of boys and men, each eager to see the novel sight. Then a piece of wet ground was crossed, the drivers sink deep into the yielding soil, but without any effort the engine regains the firm ground, and then we go down a steep declivity, and out into the ring, past the judges' stand. The thresher is then detached, and the wagon is put through some very fancy movements, in fact going through all the motions that a span of horses are required to do. The Committee on Machinery are then taken aboard and we pass out of the ring up an abrupt little hill nearly at an angle of forty-five degrees, and up the avenue to the President's headquarters... Every one was highly pleased with the exhibition, and many prophesied that a new era had arrived in the application of steam to agricultural purposes, for the engine can be used as a stationary as well as a traction engine.' (Owens, Lane & Dyer Machine Company's Traction or Road Engine 2.)

The engine came in two sizes, ten horsepower and twelve, both suitable for 'moving and operating Threshing Machines, and for Hauling Loads of any kind, within the power of the Engine.' (Owens, Lane & Dyer Machine Company's Traction or Road Engine 1.) The company admitted that '[we have not yet... tested them in Plowing, but we have no question (from our knowledge of the construction of others) that in every respect they will perform in such work equal, if not superior, to any that have as yet been tried for use in this country.' One engine 'threshed 25,326 bushels of grain in 48 days, including time lost by wet weather.' Another 'threshed 25,796 bushels of grain in 49 days, that also including several days lost by wet weather.' Belted to an Owens, Lane and Dyer traction engine, the 'California Chief,' as the company's separator was named, could thresh '3,814 bushels in 5 days,' while moving and setting the machines 'eight times.'

Despite the success of the firm, a resolution appearing as early as 1873 sounded an ominous note: 'Owing to the large aggregate amount of unsettled accounts unpaid or partially unpaid Notes, at times accumulating upon our Books, and due to us from our customers, the board of Directors on the 9th day of May, 1873, adopted the following Resolution... .'RESOLVED, that no past due Notes or Accounts will be carried by this Company and that the privilege of renewal and extension of time, will be allowed only, when promptly made and with satisfactory security.' In 1876only two years after the stunning achievements of the firm's road and field locomotive the Owens, Lane & Dyer Machinery Company applied for a receiver so as to continue business. According to the written request, dated August 31, 1876, 'fully two-sevenths of the entire indebtedness of the Company is due to the former firm of Owens, Lane, Dyer & Co., all of whom are stockholders under the new organization of the Owens, Lane & Dyer Machine Company.' Clark Lane, one of the original partners, was appointed the receiver (General Machinery Corporation 11). The late 1870s witnessed an economic slump harder on some farmers than on others with currency deflation and record numbers of farm foreclosures (Bogue 283-85); not even a leader with Lane's reputation for sound financial planning could rescue the Owens, Lane & Dyer Machine Company, which went out of business in 1879 (Centennial History of Butler County, Ohio 746). Public minded Lane went on to donate to Hamilton the city's library, which has perpetuated the Lane name.

The second chapter of Hamilton's history of agricultural steam power begins with John C. Hooven. While Hooven's parents were born in Pennsylvania, he was born September 29, 1843, in Montgomery County, Ohio (A History and Biographical Cyclopaedia of Butler County, Ohio 386). His father worked as a farmer and cooper. After his family moved to Franklin, Ohio, in 1849, Hooven attended the common school there. In 1864, Hooven's father began a hardware business in Xenia. Called Hooven & Sons, the firm soon moved to Hamilton and specialized in agricultural implements. Young Hooven was a member of Company B of the 146th Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry of 100-day service men. In 1876, Hooven's father retired, but the sons retained the shop's name. In November of 1878, Hooven's brother, E. P. Hooven, retired, and the firm's name was changed to that of the only one of the original partners still involved in the business John C. Hooven. Since 1876 the firm had manufactured threshers and engines (Centennial Anniversary of the City of Hamilton, Ohio 257). His machines were called 'Monarch,' a trade name bearing no connection to the Monarch road rollers produced by the Groton Manufacturing Company in New York. Hooven's 'boilers were built in one shop and his engines were built in another shop' (Republican-News 48)'and his thresher parts in several shops.' (Centennial Anniversary of the City of Hamilton, Ohio 257.) Although '[in three years he had sold seventy-five of these engines and sixty-five of the threshers,' in September of 1879, Hooven sold the implement business (but not the patents and patterns for engines and threshers) to Clark & Stanhope. Hooven sensed that change was in the wind.

The once-great Owens, Lane & Dyer Company had dissolved that year. Hooven, 'as bright a commercial man as one will meet in many a day,' hoped to capitalize on that fact. He needed partners.

Enter George Adam Rentschler. Born in Schmee, Wirtemberg, County Calw, Germany, on July 8, 1846, Rentschler had come to America in 1852 with his father and his six older siblings (A History and Biographical Cyclopaedia of Butler County, Ohio 358). His mother had died 'in his infancy.' Rentschler, his father, his brothers, and his sisters began their new life in Newark, New Jersey, where Rentschler attended school. The death of his father in 1858 prompted Rentschler to seek a trade. He spent seven years with Oscar Barnett & Company starting as an apprentice in molding and pattern-making, then quickly passing through the journeyman phase to genuine mastery of his craft. Working long hours, he managed to attend high school.

In 1864, Rentschler began a series of moves which would carry forward his knowledge and experience while bringing him to Hamilton. First, he traveled to Peru, Indiana, in 1864. After a year of molding work there, he went to Indianapolis to take charge of the Novelty Iron Works. From 1870 to 1871, he ran the stove foundry of Adams & Brith in Cincinnati. In 1872, he accepted the position of superintendent of Variety Iron Works in Indianapolis. The firm transferred to Hamilton in March of 1873, and Rentschler remained with Variety Iron until June of 1875. At that time, he joined the firm of Sohn, Rentschler & Balle, makers of shelf hardware. The sturdy German master 'had acquired a vast stock of experience, and he thought he could utilize it more thoroughly for himself than by working for another man.' With little capital but vast energy, the new manufactory survived. On July 25, 1876, Balle retired from the company; the new business was known as Sohn & Rentschler or the Ohio Iron Works. Rentschler began to make money, as is said, 'hand over fist.' With Joseph B. Hughes, he founded the Royal Pottery Works. He developed financial interests in the Phoenix Caster Company, the Fairfield Township Ice-House, and the Cincinnati Brewing Company of Hamilton. Indeed, Rentschler's success was 'not owing to any advantages given him by his parents or his friends' but resulted from 'his own hard labor' and 'by observation and reading.' Rentschler could take over any task from the craftsmen in Ohio Iron Works and perform as well as or better thanthey. His talent and ability earned him the respect of his employees.

Hooven turned to Rentschler, persuading him to absorb the Owens, Lane & Dyer firm. Rentschler turned to his partner Henry C. Sohn and to George H. Helvey to discuss the prospect. Helvey had apprenticed in the machine shop of Long & Allstratter in Hamilton and had become a journeyman machinist 'working in various parts of the country.' (Centennial Anniversary of the City of Hamilton, Ohio 257 and General Machinery Corporation 11.) In 1873, he returned to Hamilton. Like Rentschler, Helvey 'was ambitious and worked in the shops by day and studied at nights.' Soon, Helvey 'had developed into an outstanding engineer.' Helvey joined Sohn and Rentschler in Hooven's plan to buy the Owens, Lane & Dyer Machine Company, now for sale. Entering into the association was James E. Campbell, later Governor of Ohio. Job E. Owens came on board. Accordingly, the firm of Hooven, Owens, Rentschler & Company was founded with a capital stock of $250,000 (Centennial History of Butler County, Ohio 254), and, in 1880, the group took over the Owens, Lane & Dyer facilities at the corner of Heaton and Fourth Streets (Centennial Anniversary of the City of Hamilton, Ohio 265 and Centennial History of Butler County, Ohio 254). Eventually, the manufacturer would expand from Lowell Street on the south to Vine Street on the north (Republican-News 48).

As president, Hooven contributed to the firm his Monarch portable engine, Monarch traction engines, and Monarch thresher. By January 1882, the factory had made 'one hundred of the Monarch [portable] engines, fifty traction engines, and one hundred and fifty threshers' (Centennial Anniversary of the City of Hamilton, Ohio 257). The former Owens, Lane & Dyer productsthe Eclipse line also were built and sold. The manufacturer thus became known as the Monarch and Eclipse Machine Works (A History and Biographical Cyclopaedia of Butler County, Ohio 386). Stationary, skid, portable, and traction engines, threshers, and sawmills lined the shipping docks of the new company.

In 1882, Owens retired from the firm, although his son Joe Owens became a stockholder (Centennial Anniversary of the City of Hamilton, Ohio 258). Retaining the Owens name, the reorganized business became known as the Hooven, Owens & Rentschler Company.

The factory concentrated its efforts on designing and building 'high-class stationary engines of the Corliss style' (Centennial History of Butler County, Ohio 254). The first of these engines appeared in 1883 (General Machinery Corporation 11). It boasted 'a cylinder eighteen inches in diameter and forty-two inch stroke...and produced results as to economy of fuel and close regulation of speed which were up to the highest standard.' (Centennial Anniversary of the City of Hamilton, Ohio 258.) By 1892, 750 'of these magnificent engines' had been constructed, varying from thirty-five to two thousand horsepower. In 1901, the manufacturer's name again changed to The Hooven, Owens, Rentschler Company, and, in 1902, '[the present shop with its very high bays was completed' (General Machinery Corporation 11). At the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, Hooven, Owens, Rentschler stationary engines powered several machinery exhibits (Republican-News 48).

The future held vast promise for Hooven, Owens, Rentschler. In 1928, the well-known Niles Tool Works merged with the company to form General Machinery Corporation (General Machinery Corporation 12). Hooven's 1880 plan to acquire the firm of Owens, Lane & Dyer thereby contributed to the birth of an industrial giant.

In the late nineteenth century, Rentschler attained considerable prominence, gaining a 'standing in business and social circles' which was 'of the highest order' (A History and Biographical Cyclopaedia of Butler County, Ohio 358). His opulent mansion stands today in Hamilton's historic district.

The third chapter of Hamilton's agricultural steam heritage began with William Dyer, an original partner in Owens, Lane & Dyer. Not content to remain for long outside the production of steam engines and related machines, Dyer, by 1881, had entered into a new manufacturing agreement. With William Ritchie as Senior Partner, the firm of Ritchie and Dyer had begun operation (Kessling).

Ritchie was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 26, 1839 (Kessling, A History and Biographical Cyclopaedia of Butler County, Ohio 396, and Centennial History of Butler County, Ohio 746). Educated in the public schools, Ritchie at age fourteen apprenticed as a machinist in Hamilton. By the mid-1850s, he was with Owens, Lane, Dyer & Company and became the superintendent of the works a position he occupied until Owens, Lane & Dyer ceased operations in 1879. Ritchie's tenure with the firm sustained a significant interruption, however.

In 1861, Ritchie, 'responded to the President's call for three-year troops' (Centennial History of Butler County, Ohio 746). He enlisted in the 50th Ohio Volunteer Infantry but was transferred to the 69th 'and served over three years at the front' (747). Shortly after the battle of Murfreesboro, 'he was transferred to the engineers' corps of the Cumberland Army, and was there enabled to turn his mechanical knowledge to good account...' Such engineers were known as 'sappers and miners' and were not only exposed to the most 'dangerous positions' in advance of the troops but often 'under fire while the main army was sleeping.' Their work demanded endurance, 'hence only strong, able-bodied men, with fearless hearts, were selected.' They felled trees to protect crossings or bridges, hefted heavy planks to strengthen bridges, and strung pontoon boats across unaffordable streams. More than once, Ritchie faced harrowing circumstances:

'He was in Atlanta at the time the city was burned, and was ordered by General Sherman to return to Chattanooga to conduct a pontoon train to Atlanta. Returning with the train as far as Big Shanty, he was stopped by pickets, who reported that Rebel General French was between his train and Big Shanty. They retired to Moon Station, where they lay until about one o'clock at night, when scouts reported French's advance within half an hour's march of the station. The train was then backed to Altoona Pass, where there was a fort garrisoned by twelve hundred soldiers, while there was a million and a half of rations there awaiting shipment to Sherman's army at Atlanta. About twenty minutes after his arrival at Altoona he received a dispatch from General Corse, at Rome, Georgia, to unload the train and hasten to Rome for troops. This was done and the train returned with General Corse and about twelve hundred soldiers to reinforce the garrison at the fort. They arrived about five o'clock the next morning and immediately after unloading, the pickets were driven in by the advance of French's army. Here was fought one of the bloodiest little battles of the Civil War. Out of twenty-six hundred men engaged, twelve hundred fifty were killed and wounded in the fort; but they held possession, thus saving to the government a million and a half of rations, and enabling Sherman to make his memorable march to the sea.' (747-48.)

After he was mustered out at Savannah, Georgia, in 1865, Ritchie returned to his former post with Owens, Lane, Dyer & Company, only to see the firm dwindle by 1879 and be purchased by Hooven, Owens, Rentschler & Company in 1880. Ritchie served as chief of the fire department from his election in 1879 through 1880, then, in 1881, he joined Dyer. They established their factory on the south side of Vine Street between Fourth and Lowell Streets (Kessling).

The partners began business with 'only about two thousand dollars. . .and the new concern had a hard time in getting along' (Centennial Anniversary of the City of Hamilton, Ohio 265). The shops made new patterns for sawmills, steam traction engines, ice-cutting implements, and small machinery (Centennial Anniversary of the City of Hamilton, Ohio 265, Kessling, and Centennial History of Butler County, Ohio 746). Despite lack of capital, the young firm succeeded, largely through the drive and business acumen of the partners. In 1882, Dyer retired, leaving Ritchie in full command (History of Hamilton):

'Mr. Ritchie pushed the business and everything turned out splendidly. Selling agencies were established in all prominent cities north and south and west and the line of products was increased to include traction engines from ten to forty horsepower, and various sizes of saw mills, varying in capacity from three thousand to seventy thousand feet of lumber per day.' (Centennial Anniversary of the City of Hamilton, Ohio 265.)

Approximately fifty traction engines and three-hundred sawmills were sold annually. The manufacturer employed between forty and fifty mechanics (Centennial History of Butler County, Ohio 746).

The Butler County Historical Society & Museum has Ritchie & Dyer Company stationery, dated 1884, bearing the subtitle 'Owens, Lane and Dyer Machine Co.' By that year, the Hooven, Owens & Rentschler Company had begun to concentrate exclusively on the building of Corliss engines and had relinquished rights to the Owens, Lane & Dyer business. Ritchie & Dyer then traded on the reputation of the old firm's name and kept Owens, Lane & Dyer equipment in repair.

Ritchie possessed 'the sterling qualities of energy, intelligence, economy and personal push' (748). An excellent mechanic, Ritchie was 'never better satisfied than when examining and studying the constituent elements of some complicated piece of machinery' (746). He 'accumulated a handsome competence through industry and wise management, and...reached the point on life's journey where he need not be further annoyed by the perplexities of business life.'

In 1887, Ritchie, with a capital stock of $50,000, created a new firm, the Advance Manufacturing Company, not to be mistaken for the Advance Thresher Company of Battle Creek, Michigan (Kessling). The Advance Manufacturing Company built gas and gasoline internal-combustion engines which Ritchie designed. The works were located at North B Street and Wayne Streets on the northwest corner. In the process of establishing his new shops in 1887, Ritchie sold his road-engine manufactory and relevant patents to the Reeves Company of Columbus, Indiana (History of Hamilton). Reeves had built threshing machines for over a dozen years and needed steam engines to accompany the threshers. By acquiring Ritchie & Dyer's patterns, Reeves secured rear-mounted, double-cylinder enginesa foundation on which Reeves would build a prosperous business.

In 1892about the year when, according to city directories, Ritchie entirely closed out the Ritchie & Dyer Company to concentrate his efforts in the Advance Manufacturing Company Benjamin Harrison, the twenty-third President of the United States, appointed Ritchie a federal commissioner to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (Centennial History of Butler County, Ohio 748). Ritchie chaired the committee on machinery and planned 'the marvelous exhibit in Machinery Hall.' In Hamilton, Ritchie served on the Board of Education, where he championed 'Manual Training and Domestic Science Courses,' and on the Board of the Lane Free Library (History of Hamilton). He passed away in 1905. The Ritchie name is perpetuated in the Ritchie Auditorium, part of the Butler County Historical Society & Museum facilities.

To the history of agricultural steam power Hamilton, Ohio, contributed as many as three significant chapters. The city's industrial story spans the pioneer era, through the age when Civil War veterans walked the factory floors, to the zenith of steam-engine production, and beyond. When The Republican-News surveyed Hamilton's industrial might, the paper accurately reported, 'If a city is to be judged by its products, and there seems to be no more certain method of judging a city, then Greater Hamilton may well boast of its unexcelled reputation as a manufacturing city.' (48.) For steam enthusiasts and history buffs, Hamilton occupies a prominent place on the map of America's agricultural and industrial legacy.

Works Cited

Bogue, Allen G. From Prairie to Corn Belt. Ames: Iowa State UP, 1994.

The Centennial Anniversary of the City of Hamilton, Ohio. Ed. D. W. McClung. Hamilton: n.p., 1892.

Centennial History of Butler County, Ohio. Ed. Bert S. Bartlow. Hamilton: B. F. Bowen, 1905.

General Machinery Corporation. Hamilton: GMC, 1945.

A History and Biographical Cyclopaedia of Butler County, Ohio. Cincinnati: Western Biographical Publishing, 1882.

History of Hamilton. Ed. Stephen Cone. N.d. Typescript copy in collection of Butler Co. Historical Society & Museum.

Kelly, Maurice. The American Steam Traction Engine: A History of Trans-Atlantic Variety. Stamford, England: CMS, 1995.

Kessling, Helen. 'Faces Out of the Past.' Hamilton: Butler Co. Historical Society, n.d.

Norbeck, Jack. Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines. Sarasota: Crestline, 1976.

Owens, Lane & Dyer Machine Company's Traction or Road Engine. Hamilton: n.p., 1874.

The Republican-News. Greater Hamilton Ed. n.d.