Arnold Pierson

A nice picture taken at the A. J. Smith Farm in Little Falls, Minnesota. Courtesy of Arnold Pierson, 416-3rd Street S. W., Little Falls, Minnesota 56345.

Arnold Pierson

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Sr. R. R. 1, Box 10, Mt. Vernon, Indiana 47620.

Keck-Gonnerman Co., Mt. Vernon, Indiana, for three-quarters of a century was a dominant figure in American industry in the field of manufacture, sales and servicing of mobile steam engines and grain threshers marketed under the trade-mark 'Kay-Gee'.

Location of the firm from its inception until it was sold was in Mt. Vernon, but its sales extended over grain belts in both the United States and Canada. At the peak of its operation, it had the largest payroll in the Mt. Vernon area with more than 200 male employees. Moreover, 85 per cent of these employees were skilled workmen.

The firm had branches in St. Louis, Mo., Peoria, Ill., and Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Threshers bearing the 'Kay-Gee' stamp of excellence were exported to Cuba to thresh rice. When grain combining developed, the Mt. Vernon firm manufactured thresher bodies that were converted by small manufacturers into soybean combines in Michigan and rice combines in California. In the early 1940s, Keck-Gonnerman distributed Allis-Chalmers farm implements and the Ann Arbor baler, the first successful self-tying baler, to dealerships in Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky. In the same period, thousands of 'Kay-Gee' straw walkers and straw spreaders for operation with combines were built at the Mt. Vernon manufacturing plant.

The varied and efficient skills represented in the firm's employees produced sizable income for Keck-Gonnerman in the manufacture of mining machinery, begun in 1904. Before the installation of boat building and boat servicing facilities in large number along the Ohio River, inland water transportation firms found the Mt. Vernon industry capable of making parts for and repairing marine equipment and 'Kay-Gee' machine shops hummed with their contribution to the expanding traffic along Midwestern waterways. Keck-Gonnerman even devoted several years effort to make a tungnut picker or gatherer for tungnut plantations in the Southland.

But it was in the manufacture of mobile steam engines and threshers (called 'separators' by many users) that 'Kay-Gee' achieved its peak operation and continental reputation.

In the Canadian wheat belt a total of 2,210 threshing machines of all makes were purchased in 1952. The number dropped to 701 in 1953. With the realization that the market for mobile steam engines and threshing machines was rapidly dwindling, Keck-Gonnerman Co. was sold in 1953 to two engineers, Harrison and Spencer, from California who hoped to develop the manufacture of new equipment to fit into the changing farming pattern.

Keck-Gonnerman, which exerted such a tremendous influence on agricultural operations over all of North America and on the economy of the Mt. Vernon area, was the outgrowth of a small foundry established in Mt. Vernon in 1873 by John C. Woody and Winfield Woody. John Keck, Mt. Vernon, entered the firm in 1877 when he purchased the interest of Winfield Woody upon Woody's death. Because of illness, John C. Woody retired in 1880 and his interest was purchased by John Onk, Louisville, Ky., and the firm of Keck & Onk made preparations to manufacture hollow ware. This program ended when Mr. Onk returned to Louisville and William Gonnerman and Henry Kuebler, both of Mt. Vernon, each purchased a one-third interest in the business and the firm name was changed to Keck-Gonnerman Co. The manufacture of engines, threshers, and portable sawmills began in 1884.

Louis H. Keck, also a resident of Mt. Vernon and a brother of John Keck, entered the firm in 1885 by buying the interest of Mr. Luebler. In 1901, the manufacturing establishment was incorporated as Keck-Gonnerman Co. The corporation had authorized capital of $201,000 and the following officers: John Keck, president; William Gonner-man, vice-president; and Louis H. Keck, secretary-treasurer. John Keck was in charge of purchases and sales; Mr. Gon-nerman, manufacturing; and Louis H. Keck, finances and office management.

As the years passed, sons of the original officers joined their fathers in the industry. Franck L. Keck, son of John Keck, William H. Gonnerman, son of William Gonnerman, and Louis D. Keck and Robert A. Keck, sons of Louis H. Keck, were associated with the firm for many years. With the advent of the automobile, Grover C. Keck, another son of John Keck, was assigned the operation of Keck-Gonnerman Co.'s new Automotive Department. It was this department that later became Keck Motor Co. with Grover C. Keck as its head. It is now one of the oldest Ford Motor Company sales and service firms in the Midwest. In 1937, officers of Keck-Gonnerman Co. were John Keck, president; William Gonnerman, vice president; Franck L. Keck, vice president; William H. Gonnerman, secretary-treasurer; Louis D. Keck, assistant secretary-treasurer; and Robert A. Keck, sales manager. Lloyd Quinn, currently the head of Quinn Paint & Glass, Mt. Vernon, entered the employ of Keck-Gonnerman Co. in 1937 as a bookkeeper and following World War II became sales manager.

Chronological 'first' of Keck-Gonnerman Co. were:

First steam engine and thresher built in 1884.

First kerosene tractor, a two-cylinder model, built in 1918.

First tractor-size separator built in 1921.

First steel separator built in 1926.

First four-cylinder 'Kay-Gee' tractors built in 1928: 18-35 with a Buda motor; 25-50 with a Waukesha motor; and 30-60 with a LeRoi motor.

(The last 'Kay-Gee' steam engine was built in 1930 with a 19 hp engine on a 22 hp boiler).