We are greatly indebted to Mr. Jesse Conour, R. D. 3, Evansville, Indiana, for this article which was published in the Sunday Courier and Press. Both the Press and their very generous Editor, Mr. R. H. Kirkpatrick have given us permission to copy the same. I am sure we all appreciate this.
THE KITTEN WAS ONE of the lesser known makes of engines and it may be new to some of you. However, they played an important role in the threshing industry. There is one at the Pontiac Reunion, owned by Wilbur Collins.
Mr. Conour gives us some interesting history of that section of Indiana where the Kitten was built. We here quote part of his letter:
(Speaking of Ferdinand, Indiana). 'They have their own railroad which is six miles long connecting with the Southern at Huntingburg. They had a little Porter engine until a few years ago when they got a coal oil engine. Stinks too.
That man Kitten knew what he wanted and built it. He had to have something light and strong for the hills around there. The farmers there sure can raise wheat on those hillsides, and are they steep. Three years ago I was up there and saw horses pulling a binder where a tractor would have turned over. The threshing machine had to go where the wheat was so something had to be done. They put wings on the separators. They were somewhat smaller than 2x4's which were hinged to the 'BOX' as they call the separator down south. The wings would fold back against the separator when not in use. When the outfit was going around a side hill a few men could unfold the wings, some on one side and some on the other. The ones on the up hill pushed down and those on the downhill side pushed up. So then everything got on without turning over. Then if the engine wanted to climb her gears going up a stiff hill a bunch of men would be ready to throw a rope over the water tank and hold down. Then up the hill she would go and steam, they really do.
I watched a crew set up and start threshing one time. The engineer backed into the belt, blocked the wheels and started up. Just as soon as they started bundles were going in the machine. The engine was doing a hula dance. He only had 115 lbs. of steam and couldn't hit the fire door. Soon he got in enough to hold her. Then he took an armful of wooden blocks and wedges and started to drive them here and there, and when he got done she set there like a rock.
Your non-drinking cousin
OLD STEAM ENGINES KEEP PUFFING AWAY'
(From the 'SUNDAY LOOK')
By Paul Dewig
On a hot sultry day in late summer 1867, Ferdinand townsfolk were awed by four young men who tugged at a cumbersome wagon caught between the large double doors of the old Kitten home. To many persons, the object that came rumbling from the second floor of the old frame building was a wagonful of junk.
Perhaps some folks even chuckled as they watched the men strain their suspenders as they pushed and squeezed the odd-looking contraption to the street. But the laughter was short lived. Skepticism turned to enthusiasm when the horse-drawn thresher clanked its way through fields of ripe grain, cutting, chaffing and separating as it chugged along.
Harvesting, which normally took days of backbreaking work done by hand, was done painlessly in a day by Kitten's 'wonderful machine.'
To most bystanders this new machine was revolutionary, the very end of modern conveniences. But to one man this was just the beginning. Almost before his 'invention' hit the fields Florenz Kitten was working on improvements for this and ideas for a multitude of there machines.
Today, Kitten is a man well remembered. Some folks claim he was an inventor of many things. Others believe not. Many say he was a man of numerous abilities; others, that he was merely a skillful mechanic. Regardless how he is remembered, Kitten was a man with imagination and a knack for making things work.
The threshing machine was his first finished idea, but he is best remembered for a steam engine which he developed several years later. Only a few of these cumbersome boilers are still intact, and these are showpieces, but many others are still in use. The age of steam for pulling farm equipment was relatively short. Gas-operated machines, lighter and more functional, soon took over the fields.
But before this occurred, Kitten and his workers had produced 224 of the old puffer-bellies. There seemed to be just one thing wrong with them they never wore out. When they were pushed off the farm they weren't scrapped. The variety of uses for the old boilers is amazing. Some were dismantled and used to power sawmills, laundries, boats, and scores of different factories.
The last Kitten engine is still operating to day in Ferdinand. The owner Joe F. Lueken, uses it to power his sawmill.
'When I first bought it from a fellow in 1942', Lueken declares, 'it was just like new. I left the wheels on it and used it one day to run the sawmill and the next to do the chores at the farm.'
It's on blocks now, and hasn't been moved for about 10 years. Its nameplate bears the number 224 and testifies that the patent, No. 409,594, was obtained Aug. 20, 1889, by Kittens Machine Works, Ferdinand.
The first Kitten products were built and assembled on the second floor of his home.
Many persons remember their parents telling of this tall, powerfully built man who stayed up for days without sleep while working on a problem.
Kitten liked to attend the fairs at St. Louis where he took notes of the inventions displayed by persons throughout the country. Once, while jotting down notes about a particularly interesting object, Kitten was arrested and jailed for allegedly patent regulations.
When orders for Kitten threshers and steam engines began to overcrowd the second floor of the homestead, Kitten constructed a two-story factory on the property adjoining his home. It was here that he and his workmen set up hand machinery which is still in use today. F. J. Stallings, present owner of the machine shop, points to a huge boring machine. 'You won't find a piece of machinery like that anywhere. And it's still as good as the day it was made.'
'Why, just the other day a couple of men stopped in and asked where they could take a gear six feet in diameter to have it rebored. I told them we would turn it on the old handmade machine,' Stallings relates with an understanding smile.
'The men, who operate a local construction company, indicated disbelief, but agreed to let us try since otherwise it would require a trip to Evansville and a delay of several days. There aren't a lot of fancy gadgets on the borer, and a person has to know what he's doing to operate it, but when the men returned later the gear was waiting.'
Stallings eyes twinkled mirthfully when he told them to check the measurementsthey were true to the 'n'th' degree.
Another old machine which is still functioning is a massive lathe, which, according to the present owner, was also handmade. 'It's just a little bulky to use regularly, but there's nothing wrong with it. I'll bet that old lathe will still be working when our new ones are worn out,' he adds.
Kitten was born in Prussia in 1840. He was the son of a wooden shoe maker. When he was 10, he moved with his family to this country where they settled in a promising farming area near Ferdinand. Florenz helped his father on the farm until he was 19; then for six years he worked as a carpenter. It was at the end of this period that the name Kitten began to spread in popularly.
Throughout his adult life, Kitten ate five meals a day, using the extra energy in developing hundreds of mechanical patterns for existing and nonexistent implements. While working in his shop, he and his work force honored the then well-accepted custom of gulping brew on the job. Each day, at his four after-breakfast meal breaks, Kitten would send his boy apprentice to the local tavern with an empty ale bucket for each of his employees.
Kitten never allowed his employees' buckets to remain empty.
Although the name Kitten isn't as widely known as McCormick or Whitney, to folks here the name conjures the ghost of a man who was a giant in their midst.