History of Nichols & Shepard and Port Huron Companies

Steam in Transition: An in-depth history of the Nichols & Shepard and the Port Huron Engine and Thresher Company
Charles O. Olsen,
May/June 2001
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Threshing rye on the Lester Olsen farm near Coopersville, Michigan, August 26, 2000. Power supplied by Chuck Olsen's 1913 16 HP Baker.
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12595 Mt. Garfield, Ravenna, Michigan 49451

Editor's note: We have excerpted from the following paper that Charles Olsen wrote for a college course. The accompanying photos are ones he sent for our readers' enjoyment, but they are not part of the story. He writes, "I spent many weekends traveling to the cities of Battle Creek and Port Huron perusing literature in the public libraries and reading diaries of former employees and local historians. While at Port Huron, I arranged an interview with Mr. Eugene A. Moak, whose father had been a plant superintendent with the Port Huron Steam Engine and Threshing Company. We also toured the remains of the buildings where Mr. Moak operated an industrial supply house. I believe the contents of the paper are historically accurate and can provide readers with an enlightening account of the lives of all employees from both companies. I hope everyone in engine land enjoys the paper as much as I have had in my research and writing." 

The Nichols & Shepard Company of Battle Creek opened for business in 1848. The original owners and co-founders were John Nichols and Charles Shepard, a transplant from upstate New York. Operating a modern foundry works as well as a blacksmith shop, the two mechanically inclined entrepreneurs had a fledgling enterprise by 1850.1 In these earlier days custom work preceded daily productions.

Charles Shepard wrote to his younger brother David, who was a farmer in New York, to tell him of the success of Nichols' and Shepard's business. David Shepard was experiencing some health problems that prohibited him from continuing farm operations, and he decided to relocate to Battle Creek in 1849. Charles Shepard hoped to work the sharp mechanically minded David into the firm, but David chose instead to seek his fortune and fame in the California Gold Rush of 1849-1850.2 

David Shepard did not find gold in California and returned to Battle Creek at the urging of his brother. Charles then formally introduced David to John Nichols, who promptly hit David with an offer to design and construct agricultural machinery. David accepted Nichols' proposition and in a bold stroke of genius bought out his brother's interest in the company.3 Why Charles Shepard sold out in 1851 remains a mystery.

With Nichols holding down the production of various machinery such as sawmills, Shepard began to design a threshing machine. In 1859 Edwin Nichols, son of John, joined the company. During 1861, Nichols & Shepard decided to enter one of their threshing machines in the San Joaquin Valley Fair at Stockton, California. A huge crowd turned out at the factory on the day Nichols & Shepard's threshing machine was loaded on a rail car and hauled westward. Several competitors exhibited quality machines at the fair, but the premium award was given to Nichols & Shepard for the flawless performance of their all wood threshing machine. Shepard applied for a government patent on September 24, 1861, and selected the name "Vibrator" for this particular model of a threshing machine.4 Battle Creek had become home for other competing companies in the threshing machine business: The Upton and Brown Manufacturing Company (1851) and the Advance Thresher Company (1881).5 

In 1869 the company decided to expand manufactured steam engines into their repertoire. This called for an expansion program, and several buildings were constructed on 40 acres at Marshall and Michigan Streets.

During the 1870s and throughout the rest of its existence, Nichols & Shepard emerged as one of the leading manufacturers of reliable steam engines and efficient threshing machines. John Nichols and David Shepard were among the most prominent citizens of Battle Creek. Visiting salesmen and colleagues alike were astonished to discover that both owners engaged in production activities on numerous occasions.6 More data concerning the relationship with the owners and their employees will follow later.

The death of John Nichols in 1891 created a void in the company's managerial hierarchy, and Edwin Nichols succeeded his late father as President. The elevation of Edwin to President might indicate that the Nichols family controlled more stock than David Shepard, who remained as Vice-President. Other elected officers included: C. C. Beach who became Treasurer, and Shepard's son Freedom George, who functioned as Secretary and head of the Directorate.

Steam engine and thresher sales continued to be brisk during the 1890s, and the company opened branch offices in Kansas City, Missouri; Peoria, Illinois; Fargo, North Dakota; Des Moines, Iowa; Billings, Montana; Madison, Wisconsin; Lincoln, Nebraska; Houston, Texas; Auburn, New York; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Blairsville, Pennsylvania. Regional branches in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta handled Canadian transactions.7 All machinery was shipped by rail and delivered to the company's agent at each respective office. A parts network was distributed throughout the branch offices when repairs were needed.

At the turn of the century, the Nichols and Shepard Company revamped their established line of reliable "Vibrator" threshers and changed the name of the new improved models to The Red River Special Line. These redesigned threshers were available in three sizes made of galvanized steel and six sizes consisting of traditional hardwoods. Internal improvements in cylinder design and shakers took place on all models. The company also developed several sizes of steam engines of both single and double cylinders. Special grates in the firebox were structured to allow western farmers the option of burning straw as a fuel to generate steam.8 

By 1910 the tractor manufacturing industry found itself in a stage of transition which, fortunately opened up a new market. Since the late 1880s and early 1890s, several tinkerers had experimented with various two and four cycle engines with aspirations to create an alternative power source. The impetus behind their motives was due to several factors. First, steam engines were heavy, often weighing a few tons. This placed the operator in a precarious position when wooden bridges had to be crossed. Many operators were killed or seriously maimed when the steam engines crashed through old timbers and plunged into creeks and ravines. Steam engines were dangerous, and the water level in the boiler required constant supervision. An unwatched boiler would create foam and increased the possibility of an explosion. Finally, steam engines needed thirty to sixty minutes of warm-up time each morning before enough steam pressure could rotate the crankshaft. Oil companies exploited the situation by refining and distributing cheap kerosene and gasoline to the industry.

Like most manufacturers, Nichols & Shepard management recognized the importance of this evolution and new market. In 1910 they hired mechanical engineer P. R. Hawthorne, who had previously built gasoline tractors for the Fairbanks-Morse Company and International Harvester Corporation. What Hawthorne unveiled was a sound prototype available in three sizes: a small 20-42 horsepower model; a mid-size 25-50 model and the giant 35-79 tractor.9 Incidentally, horsepower of either the steam or gasoline variety, was measured at the drawbar and the pulley. Therefore, the largest Nichols & Shepard gasoline tractor developed 35 horsepower at the drawbar and generated 70 via the crankshaft pulley, which was the derivative for the operation of belt driven machinery. These tractors proved to be very reliable and were especially popular with farmers in the American and Canadian prairies where soils were extremely tough to cultivate. Overseas accounts in Europe and South America opened up new markets and helped contribute to annual production totals of 1,500 grain threshers and 700 steam and gasoline tractors annually through 1912.10 

Nichols & Shepard continued to build its fine line of steam engines, gasoline tractors and threshing machines during the 1920s. However, the sales of steam engines and large gasoline tractors had slumped industry wide due to the introduction of smaller 4-cylinder tractors produced by a host of manufacturers. Henry Ford and International Harvester led the path to this market.11 Nichols & Shepard never realized the potential of the market for small tractors and continued to manufacture the same line of machines until 1929. It appeared that the company never experienced financial hardships during its lifetime. The Board of Directors held a meeting in 1929 to discuss a proposed buyout by the Oliver Farm Equipment Company of Charles City, Iowa. Oliver's offer was accepted, and the company was sold. The management of Oliver disbanded the entire line of steam and gasoline tractors of Nichols & Shepard, and replaced them with their own models, which consisted of the small four cylinder variety. These tractors were marketed under the name Oliver-Hart Paar, which had been derived from a takeover of Hart-Paar in 1916. The popularity of these tractors, along with other implements garnished a fine reputation and Oliver prospered through the Great Depression until 1960 when the White Motor Company bought Oliver. The history of another Michigan tractor manufacturer now begins.

Port Huron

The earliest beginnings of the Port Huron Steam Engine and Thresher Company have their roots in the city of Battle Creek. In 1851, a blacksmith named William Brown undertook custom blacksmithing and foundry work. Soon overwhelmed with requests, Brown constructed a small building and hired a few men to assist in the work orders. Brown named his facility the Upton Manufacturing Company. Gradually, Upton secured jobs related to the lumber industry and agriculture as well.12 

In 1875, a debate took place during a city council meeting in Port Huron. The question of establishing a successful industry in that city had gone unanswered for several months. Deciding to take action, the city council concluded that such an industry was vital to the growth of Port Huron. The council authorized the task of securing a good business over to Charles E. Harrington, one of the city's prominent citizens. Harrington, along with two associates, met with several other citizens from Port Huron and received verbal commitments to invest capital in the proposed project.13 Knowing he had financial backing, Harrington proceeded to Battle Creek specifically to visit the Upton Manufacturing Company.

Harrington and Brown apparently struck a bargain, because three years later, Upton Manufacturing relocated in Port Huron. A total of fifty-one people subscribed for approximately $100,000 worth of stock in the company. Brown retained a large minority interest in the business, and functioned as plant manager because of his experience in manufacturing. A building plan of various stages accommodated the facility. By 1885, 20 buildings of different heights and sizes were constructed on a 40 acre parcel near 24th Street and the tracks of the Electric Light Railroad Company. A board of directors came into existence at this time, and its first officers were: President, Charles F. Harrington; Vice-President, Henry Howard; Secretary and Treasurer, Frank A. Peavey: and Superintendent, Rueben Shettler.14 

In 1889, Upton Manufacturing Company employed 102 factory assemblers/machinists, 15 traveling salesmen, and eight office workers. The Upton line of agricultural machinery consisted of the following:

  • Upton Horsepower available in two sizes
  • Upton Plain Portable engines available in three sizes
  • Upton Traction Engines including 'Longfellow' boilers came in five sizes
  • Upton "Combination" separators three sizes
  • New Port Huron separators in three sizes15 

In the following years, the remaining stock of William Brown was purchased, and the name of the company was changed to the Port Huron Steam Engine and Thresher Company. During the early 1890s, America experienced a depression and at several occasions the company was on the verge of financial ruin. What appeared to save the company from liquidation and receivership was a bicycling craze that swept over America in the mid 1890s. The company recognized the necessity for road improvements and repair for bicyclists through the design and deployment of steam rollers and road graders. This new line of machinery led to a meeting of the first International Good Roads Congress in Port Huron on July 4, 1900 where the company provided the equipment and staged a demonstration in road paving.16 More importantly however, the road construction machinery propped up sagging sales. The following figures give a yearly total of sales in dollars: 1897 – $300,273; 1898 – $561,572; 1899 – $700,814; 1900 – $989,110; 1901 – $1,110,000.17 

The relatively swift turnabout in sales resulted in an attempted takeover of the company in 1902. A group of Indiana businessmen had traveled the Midwest and purchased a few agricultural manufacturing firms; moreover, these companies had been absorbed and incorporated into a single entity called the Thresher Trust. The Port Huron Company called a meeting of all stockholders to ponder the question of whether to sell out. The Secretary-Treasurer was so positive that the company would be sold, that he presented several possibilities to promote new businesses. However, Eugene and Edward Moak, along with Edgar Vaness, addressed the stockholders and proposed to remain in Port Huron and expand the business into other areas such as manufacturing sawmills and corn shellers. The stockholders embraced this alternate proposal, and voted to purchase 40 acres of land on the St. Clair River from the Electric Light Railroad Company.

This location was ideally situated near the river and rail lines and also was served by an electric streetcar. By 1902, three new buildings had been constructed. The largest facility was 300 feet long and housed the thresher works. Extra space in this complex was allocated for new offices, a medical facility to treat work related injuries, and a post office. Electrified overhead cranes carried heavy iron tonnage which resulted in greater efficiency and worker productivity.18 

Regional market expansion became a reality during 1905, as branch houses sprang up in Des Moines, Iowa; Lincoln, Nebraska; Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota; Peoria, Illinois; and Logansport, Indiana. A large staff of trained mechanics present out on the road to effect repairs on all lines of Port Huron machinery. This practice, also called experting, became commonplace in the tractor industry. Looking to tap into foreign markets to secure contracts, Port Huron had early success in the South American markets, but collecting monies became difficult if not impossible; thus this venture proved not to be as lucrative as first envisioned by the company.

Like other traction engine manufacturers. Port Huron was forced to complement their existing line through the development of a gasoline tractor. The Port Huron gas tractor materialized in 1915, after nearly three years of planning. All components were produced by the company, with the exception of the engine, which was purchased from an outside source. Unfortunately, the basic design of the tractor, particularly the drive train, proved to be so poor, that hardly any farmers wanted one. Instead of employing a standard gear to gear transmission, Port Huron engineers incorporated a friction drive mechanism which consisted of rotating fiber disks driving against each other at perpendicular angles. When the tractor was under a load, these disks produced excessive slippage and disengaged the drive train. High fuel consumption and spark plug fouling compounded the miseries of this seemingly cursed tractor.19 Very few were built between 1917 and 1921 and none are known to exist in this world today.

Facing growing financial instability, Port Huron authorized H. W. Stevens who was a member of the Board of Directors, to journey overseas to England in 1916. The purpose behind Stevens' voyage was to persuade a wealthy friend originally from Port Huron, to inject some badly needed cash into the sagging company. Because England was in the midst of war, Stevens' request was politely refused.20 

The following year, President A. E. West and Treasurer J. I. Sullivan formally acknowledged that overall sales had diminished, and the attempt to break into the gasoline tractor market had not been realized, because of flaws with the tractor. Continued marginal sales forced the company into receivership in 1920. With a skeleton work force, the company managed to manufacture threshing machines until 1925. The company met its unfortunate end in 1928 and liquidated its inventory, also.21 

The demise of the Port Huron Steam Engine and Thresher Company epitomized the transitional crises which faced all tractor manufacturers between 1910 and the Great Depression. Nichols & Shepard survived because they adapted to meet changes in the market. Companies like Port Huron failed, because they did not comprehend the market and/or produced inferior machines that garnered unfavorable reputation. The impact of these companies in their communities and relationships with their workers will be scrutinized next.

The enterprising men behind these companies were highly revered in their communities. Not only did these industrial entrepreneurs bring jobs to their cities, they also contributed to hospitals, social clubs and even fire departments through philanthropic endowments. Even though the companies instituted a Pullman type system in their employee relationships, they seemed to value their laborers to a higher degree than the steel magnates of this time. In the 1870s, the Nichols and Shepard Company devised an unusual social club and began a modest profit sharing scheme. An all employees social club came to fruition under the heading of the 'Vibrator Social Club.' Each November, for over 40 years, workers and managers alike boarded a train in Battle Creek that carried them to remote areas in upper northern Michigan, where they engaged in hunting and fishing exploits. Bernice Lowe, wife of a participant gave this description of the 1877 foray: "Club members paraded about with feathers in their in their caps as they showed off the quarry of the expedition. Included were no less than 48 deer, 23 turkeys, untold number of geese and ducks, along with an abundance of over a dozen species of fish. Members then proceeded to cook their prize catches as friends and relatives gathered to partake in this lavish banquet which was fit for a king."22 The Port Huron Company sponsored several Sunday outings for their workers.

In 1887, the Nichols & Shepard firm began the practice of annual distribution of some $50,000 worth of stock to loyal and dedicated employees. The criteria for qualification was probably based on tenure and good work habits. The rationale behind this venture was that the affected employee had a vested interest in the company, and would work toward achieving the aims of the company. Another popular device used by these firms involved the availability of cheap loans for that same loyal employee. Loans were to be used for construction of a dwelling on company property which was conveniently located near the factory complex. The Port Huron Company aggressively pursued this endeavor and created a mini-city complete with a park and electric streetcar. The implications behind these gestures were that employees would stay put and the chances that these workers would seek other employment, unionize or become competitors themselves, were reduced.24 

Therefore, unions were not surprisingly absent in most tractor manufacturing firms. Most management teams printed company newsletters through social clubs and often penned anti-union editorials in local newspapers. The publicity of the 1873-1874 rail strikes, as well as the Homestead and Pullman obstacles probably reinforced owner prerogatives. The Nichols & Shepard Company explained their anti-union position in a Battle Creek Examiner editorial dated October 3, 1891.25 These sentiments filtered throughout the community that when John Nichols died later that year he was given an elaborate funeral with more than 300 participants. Most businesses remained closed for three days as a final tribute.26 

The prospect for mobility within a company was not as restricted as opportunities were in the steel and mining industries. Many young men succeeded in fulfilling their apprenticeships as machinists, and found careers as plant superintendents, mechanical engineers, salesmen, and foremen. John and Horace Dodge completed their apprenticeships with the Port Huron Company and left the firm in 1898 to work for Henry Ford. 27 

A final look at the tractor industry emphasizes the competition that faced the Nichols & Shepard Company and the Port Huron Steam Engine and Thresher Company. Annual improvements in carburetion, cooling, and ignition systems drew the attention of farmers, and resulted in more firms' entering the industry. Tractor production doubled from approximately 2,000 units in 1907 to around 4,000 by 1910. Aggressive advertising in farm magazines contributed substantially to this surge in sales. However, most machines were too large for the small farmer, who relied on his loyal team of horses.

The tractor industry grew phenomenally prior to World War I. In 1912, about 47 manufacturers produced almost 11,500 machines. By 1916, 107 companies sold nearly 30,000 units. This explosion in tractor sales was due to high prices for agricultural commodities, particularly in foreign markets. These profits and the idea that tractors were changing American agriculture stimulated the mechanization craze. Larger companies provided easy terms of payment.

By 1925 approximately 165,000 units were constructed by 54 manufacturers.30 

The turbulent boom and bust cycles of the 1920s effectively weeded out unstable companies while stronger companies matured financially because they correctly interpreted the market and strove to improve the quality of their machines. The era of steam passed into the twilight and within a few short years that faint resiliency would be gone forever.

Endnotes

1. Knowles, Donald, Engineers and Engines February-March 1986, page 3. 

2. Battle Creek Examiner, February 27, 1962. 

3. IBID, Feb. 27, 1962.

4. IBID February 27, 1962.

5. IBID February 27, 1962.

6. Lowe, Bernice, "A Persona! Diary of Battle Creek," Willard Public Library, Battle Creek, Michigan.

7. Best sources are company catalog reprints in 1912 and 1922.

8. IBID, 1912, 1922.

9. Knowles, Donald, Engineers and Engines, February-March 1986 page 3. Reprinted company catalogs illustrate models. 

10. Battle Creek Examiner, March 17, 1963.

11. Wendel C. H., 150 Years of International Harvester, Crestline Publishing Company, Sarasota, Florida (1981) pages 258-260. 

12. Moak, Eugene A., History of the Port Huron Steam Engine and Thresher Company (1982) page 53. 

13. IBID page 54.

14. Reprint from Factory Land Company (1986) page 3, courtesy of Sara Larson and Eugene A. Moak.

15. Moak, Eugene A., History of the Port Huron Steam Engine and Thresher Company (1982) page 54. 

16. Port Huron Times Herald, July 5, 1900; also Moak, Eugene A., History of the Port Huron Steam Engine and Thresher Company (1982), page 57.

17. Moak, Eugene A. History of the Port Huron Steam Engine and Thresher Co., (1982) page 55.

18. IBID pages 58-59.

19. Wendel, C. A., Nebraska Tractor Tests (1985) page 34. Tractor tested by University of Nebraska October 20-27, 1920, see also Moak, Eugene A., History of the Port Huron Steam Engine and Thresher Co., (1982) page 61.

20. Moak, Eugene A., History of the Port Huron Steam Engine and Thresher Co. (1982) pages 60-61.

21. IBID page 64.

22. Lowe, Bernice, "Personal Diary of Battle Creek," Willard Public Library, Battle Creek, Michigan.

23. IBID: see also Battle Creek Examiner March 17, 1963. 

24. Reprint of Factory Land Company (1986) courtesy of Sara Larson and Eugene A. Moak.

25. Battle Creek Examiner October 3, 1891. 

26. Lowe, Bernice, "Personal Diary of Battle Creek," Willard Public Library, Battle Creek, Michigan. 

27. Moak, Eugene A., History of the Port Huron Steam Engine and Thresher Co., (1982) page 55. Also, Gutman, Herbert G., Work, Culture, and Society In Industrializing America(1976). Gutman provides numerous examples of mobility in the steam locomotive manufacturing industry, pages 211-229. 

28. Knowles, Donald, Engineers and Engines, December-January 1986, pages 27-32. 

29. Knowles, Donald, Engineers and Engines, February-March 1986 pages 26-27. 

30. Knowles, Donald, Engineers and Engines, June-July 1986 page 27. 

Bibliography

Bidwell, Percy W. and Falconer, J. I., History of Agriculture in the Northern United States 1620-1860. Carnegie Institution of Washington 1941. Brody, David, Steelworkers in America, Russell and Russell, New York 1960. 

Gates, Paul W., Agriculture and the Civil War, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1965. 

Gutman, Herbert G., Work Culture and Society In Industrializing America. Random House, New York 1976. 

Heilbbronner, Robert L., The Economic Transformation of America: 1600 to the Present, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York 1984.

Hughes, W. J., Fowler Steam Road Vehicles, David and Charles Ltd., Devon, England 1970.

Knowles, Donald, Engineers and Engines, Knowles Printing Ltd., Joliet, Illinois 1985, 1986.

Larson, Sara, curator of Museum of Arts and History, Port Huron, Michigan furnished reprinted materials. Lowe, Bernice, A Personal Diary of Battle Creek Michigan Room of Willard Public Library, Battle Creek, Michigan.

Moak, Eugene A., History of the Port Huron Steam Engine and Thresher Company 1982. 

Schlebecker, John T, Whereby We Thrive. A History of American Farming 1607-1972, Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa 1975. 

Wendel, C. H., 150 years of International Harvester, Crestline Publishing Co., Sarasota, Florida 1981.

Wendel, C. H., The Nebraska Tractor Tests, Crestline Publishing Co., Sarasota, Florida 1985.


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