W. J. Eshelman, of Lancaster, Pa., is well known to threshermen and sawmillers as a former salesman and historian of the Frick Company, and longtime announcer at several Old Threshermen's Reunions in three different states.
He is also an active member of the Lancaster County Historical Society, and the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society.
As a farm boy growing up , he was acquainted with the machinery and equipment of a former era. He carried on a family tradition that stretched well back into the 1800s.
His maternal grandfather, Jacob C. Weaver, born in 1852, manufactured the Weaver thresher and the Weaver fodder shredder. Those were not days of mass production, but products were put together to last. Two of the Weaver threshers and one of the fodder shredders can be seen today at the Rough and Tumble Engineers Museum at Kinzars, Pa.
'As a farmboy,' Wilmer recalls, 'I went along with the threshing rig of Walter Smeltz. He had an Oil Pull engine, a Frick thresher and an Ohio baler'.
Eshleman stayed in farming until before World War II, when he became interested in the sale of electrical appliances. He then conducted a small country store at Fairland, Lancaster County. He later sold that to accept a sales position with New Holland Machine Co.
In 1955 the Frick Co. offered him a position as branch manager in Canandaigua, N.Y., their largest branch at the time. Frick had branches from the Mississippi to the eastern seaboard, but the company found these too expensive to operate because of transportation costs.
Some branch managers were offered the positions of territory sales managers in given territories, 'Eshleman recalls. 'I returned to Lancaster and my territory grew to six states.'
He continues: 'I established dealerships to sell the Frick line. We were going into sawmills very strong. I sold the City of Baltimore a sawmill for $50,000.'
While with Frick, Eshleman visited Arthur S. Young, of Kinzers, 'who had collected steam engines like some people collected postage stamps'. Young, who was one of Wilmer's Frick dealers, enjoyed taking him on tours in his car and giving the story of each engine in his collection. There were three of four rows. Eshleman reveled in this. He had 'machinery in his blood' and was a historian as well.
Eshleman became affiliated with the Rough and Tumble Engineers, an organization led by Young, in 1956. He served as announcer for the annual reunions, and the rich timbre of his voice became familiar to thousands of members and guests. He kept up a newsy commentary from his seat in the tower or at the grand stand post, telling his audiences clearly what was going on and who was doing what.
He liked Frick Co., finding its management 'the soundest and finest I ever worked for', and stayed with the firm until it sold out to General Waterworks in Philadelphia in 1971. When the company was sold again, Eshleman left Frick Co. even though he had only one year to go to retirement.
Once retired from business, he continued active in history and organizations. He continued announcing for Rough and Tumble until 1983, for a total of 26 years. He also announced for the Maryland Steam Historical Society for 24 years, and the engine shows of the Delaware State Fair for several years.
He became very well known for his role in the shows, and reunions as well as for his knowledge of Frick, and many thresherman and machinery dealers. He carried with him a complete set of serial numbers of Frick engines, and also provided answers on sawmill questions.
He still receives letters for information on Frick engines. Some of the inquiries are forwarded to him by the Frick Engine Club in Climax, N.C. P.O. Box 70. 27233.
The last Frick traction engine, No. 30,519, was an 8 x 10, built in 1927, he notes. 'It left the shop in 1929. It is now owned by James Lay ton, of Federalsburg, Md.
'The last Frick portable made, in the last regular production series of 12 engines, was No. 30,637. It was not the last one to leave the shop, since they were not sold or delivered in requence. It is an 8 x 10, owned and displayed by the Georgia Agrirama Museum at Tifton, Ga.
'About 100 Frick steam traction engines and portables are still in existence.'
Wilmer has compiled a brief chronology of the Frick firm, and here are some significant dates and events:
1828, George Frick was born in Lancaster County, Pa.
1852, Frick built his first shop and steam engine to power his shop, at Ringold, Md.
1861, Frick built a new shop and moved to Waynesboro, Pa.
1826, Peter Geiser was born at Smithburg, Md. His mother was a singer of sewing machine fame. He became a neighbor and friend of George Frick.
1863, When the Confederate army retreated from Gettysburg, soldiers entered the Frick shop and took all the leather belting for shoe soles.
1850, Peter Geiser made first trial run with his thresher.
1866, Peter Geiser purchased the Frick shop at Waynesboro. George Frick went across Broad Street and built a new shop opposite Geiser. Since Frick had power and Geiser had none, a large shaft was run under Broad Street, to furnish power from the Frick engine to the Geiser shop. During the Civil War 330 Geiser threshers were built; George Frick built 200 of them under Geiser Auspices.
1870, Christian Frick Bowman, of the noted Bowman watch family in Lancaster, a cousin of George Frick, became interested in the Frick enterprise. He left Lancaster, went out over the mountain and became a partner of George Frick. The company then operated as Frick & Bowman. Two years later Bowman died and we learn Frick felt a great loss.
1884, Frick Company was incorporated.
Note from the Editor: It is a pleasure to present this article about Wilmer J. Eshelman. It was through him we were introduced to Mrs. Erlene Ritzman, widow of the Rev. Elmer Ritzman, founder of Stemgas. Mrs. Ritzman kindly agreed to sell the business to us, and we have tried to follow the pattern set by Elmer