Tracking Kitten Owners

Family Finds their Kitten’s Roots

Kitten engine no. 191

Kitten engine no. 191 in 1961 with Floyd Humbles (left) and Al New, co-owners

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My dad, Alfred New, saw his first Kitten engine in the late 1940s in a stone quarry in the north part of Indianapolis, driving a pump for a gravel washer. Dad looked at it but couldn’t quite afford it. He was also warned off of it by friends who told him that Kittens were weak, flimsy engines. The number of that engine and its fate is unknown.

The story of my family’s involvement with Kitten equipment really began in 1958. We went on a trip to southern Indiana to visit a man named Lawrence Troesch. Lawrence was a farmer and thresherman who had Kitten and Keck-Gonnerman engines and equipment. Dad was looking to buy a Keck, and Lawrence had some for sale.

Lawrence had three Kecks in his barn lot that day and fired up all three when we arrived. I still have a beautiful picture of the three engines sitting in a row right after the fires were lit – I was 4 years old at the time.

Sometime while they were firing the engines, I wandered off. I wandered into a weed patch near the engines, and when Lawrence noticed me he hollered at Dad to get me out of there because there was a copperhead nest in there. Dad and Lawrence both ran to get me. Dad got to me first and pulled me out. We didn’t see any snakes, but Lawrence said that a hired hand had been bitten by one just the week before, right where I was playing.

Dad bought an 18 HP Keck that day, and we went home. What does this have to do with Kittens you ask? The connection will come later.

An indirect connection came a couple of years later. Dad had a good friend Searil Sunday of Modoc, Ind. Searil had several engines; he at one time had an undermount Avery and he ran his sawmill with a 65 HP Frick portable. He also had two Kitten engines. Around 1961, Dad, my uncle Floyd Humbles and Searil got together. Searil wound up with the 18 HP Keck-Gonnerman, Dad bought the Kitten engine, no. 215, and Dad and Uncle Floyd together owned Kitten no. 191. After a time, Uncle Floyd sold his interest in engine no. 191 to Dad, as his interest was mainly in gas engines.

Engine no. 215 was kind of rough. It needed some boiler work, and the stack and breaching were off of it. It was, however, the only Kitten engine ever built with provision for steering from the right side. When Dad had it, the steering had been converted to the left side, but the brackets and levers were still configured to put the steering wheel on the right.

Engine no. 191 was in excellent shape. It was still in its original paint, and ready to run. The head tank was painted aluminum, the wheels red. The flywheel spokes and governor flyballs were red, yellow and green. The crank disc was also painted in red, yellow and green segments. Despite the fact that Dad had several engines at the time, including a nicely restored 7-inch-by-10-inch double Frick, he seemed to have always used the Kitten for a “yard engine” and play engine. Whenever he had a few days off work in good weather, he always had that old Kitten fired up.

On one occasion, Dad had a 20 HP Russell he had sold. It had sat in the yard long enough to sink in the dirt. Dad decided to use the Kitten to pull the Russell out of its ruts so it could be loaded easier.

He fired up the Kitten and chained it to the Russell. I was 7 or 8 by then. I was sitting on the Kitten’s bunker, maybe helping to reverse the engine, as a Kitten is not too handy for one person to maneuver. Dad pulled her forward. Suddenly there was a bang and the bunker I was sitting on dropped out from under me. As it landed I bounced off of it and went rolling on the ground. Dad fell too, but he immediately got up and ran over to see if I was OK. I got up and we looked at the engine. It was sitting there steaming pretty as you please, with the whole platform, bunkers and drawbar sitting on the ground behind it!

Fortunately, Kitten’s have a wonderful safety device for such occasions. The throttle works vertically and drops shut if you let go of it. Great for this occasion, but embarrassing on a sawmill or separator, as I have found out.

With what little help I could give, we dragged the dismembered platform out of the way and chained the Russell directly to the Kitten’s rear axle. By working the controls from the ground while walking behind it, Dad manipulated the old girl as she snorted and pulled the several-ton-heavier Russell out of its ruts and onto solid ground where it could be loaded.

The platform was soon repaired, but as was usual in those days, both engines were soon gone. No. 215 went to North Carolina and a man in West Virginia bought no. 191. We found out later, to our disgust, that the new owner of no. 191 cut its front wheels off and put rubber tires on it.

Return of Two Kittens

The two Kittens were gone by 1963 or 1964, but we weren’t without a Kitten for long. In 1969 we heard about one in Osgood, Ind., that was available. Dad wasn’t interested, but I was 15 by then and wanted my own engine. To me, a Kitten was perfect for my first engine. I had a sizable collection of gas engines, plus some John Deere GPs. I sold everything to raise the $400 to buy the Kitten.

It was stuck in Mr. Humphry’s back yard in Osgood, due to road bands around the rear wheels. Dad and I went to Osgood on a cold winter Saturday to chop the frozen mud from around the wheels. We jacked and blocked the engine up so it could be loaded. Soon, Kitten no. 214 was home.

I kept the engine and tinkered with it for a few years. Boiler problems were found, and being in high school and later college, I had too many other interests and little money, so never really dedicated myself to it, as I should have. Dad had plenty of other engines for me to run anyway, including another Kitten!

Eventually, I decided to trade it for a Frick. To my dismay, the Frick was found to have more boiler problems than the Kitten, but I eventually got it in condition to fire and ran it some.

My Kitten wound up with Paul Stoltsfoos in Pennsylvania for a while and appeared in Norbeck’s Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines. It then went to Francis Lindauer, of Ferdinand, Ind. My first engine wound up in Francis’ collection in the town where it was born.

I first saw Kitten no. 220 at the Rushville show in the early 1960s. Bill Meister showed it along with several other engines he and his brother, George, owned. One year, I remember watching, amused, as it ran around the grounds with water pouring out of its head tank.

It disappeared from the show for a few years, and then the next we knew, Searil Sunday had it! Bill had done a lot of work to it, including putting a new, welded head tank on it. Bill’s son, Mark Meister, had the pleasure of putting new tubes in it. When they started leaking a few years ago, Mark informed me they were used condenser tubes that Bill had found somewhere.

In 1966, Dad bought a 20 HP Aultman & Taylor from Bill. The Aultman & Taylor needed some work and Dad worked on it some. After a time, Dad and Searil got together and decided to trade. Searil got the Aultman & Taylor and Dad got the Kitten. I already had Kitten no. 214 by that time, so for a second time there were two Kitten engines at Maplewood Farm.

We didn’t show the Kitten as we had plenty of other things to do. We were showing a lot of tractors at the time, and for a long time our primary show engine was a 16 HP Huber. We did play with it around home, though. The engine had road bands around the rear wheels, just as no. 214 did, plus the skid rings had been ground off. We found it very easy to get stuck, just as Mr. Humphry had gotten my engine stuck. The road bands soon came off: The 2-inch angle iron lugs could then grip and she could go anywhere. Steering in mud with no skid rings has and will always remain a problem when pulling a heavy load like a separator or a large portable engine.

We’d only had no. 220 a year or two before Dad and Searil decided to trade back! The Aultman & Taylor came back home and the Kitten went back to Modoc. Over the next few years this happened at least two and maybe three times. Dad and Searil just loved to trade. The Kitten was always ready to run, and whoever got the Aultman & Taylor did a little more work to it. We would fire it up occasionally to play with it and see what else needed done. Dad and Searil both always thought they got the best of the deal, but the only guy making any money on these trades was Jake Shroyer, a mutual friend from Muncie, who did the hauling.

By the mid-1970s the trading was over. Dad had the Aultman & Taylor and Searil decided to keep the Kitten. Dad finished the boiler work on the Aultman & Taylor and it was left to me to get the engine tuned. My last job was to rebuild the crosshead pump. We started showing it along with the Huber and it turned into a magnificent engine. I loved it about the best of any engine we ever had, but it and the Huber were eventually sold, and other engines came and went.

Searil Sunday passed away in the late 1970s. His collection was dispersed and Bill Nash of Winchester, Ind., bought the Kitten. Dad soon purchased a 10-ton Huber double-cylinder roller that George Meister had owned one time. My brother, Jim, and I restored it and showed it for a couple of years. One day at the Tipton, Ind., show, Jim and I were running the Huber roller around and my young son, Andy, Dad and Bill Nash were along for the ride. Bill was admiring the roller: Dad offered to trade it for the Kitten. Bill said, “OK.” So Kitten no. 220 came home again, to stay this time. That was over 20 years ago.

Since that time the Kitten has turned into our primary show engine. We now routinely show a 24 HP Port Huron, a 12 HP Advance and Dad’s Gaar-Scott portable. Whenever the Kitten has been down for repairs, everyone at the shows demands, “Where’s the Kitten? We want it back!” My son Andy and I have even discussed getting another one (again) and alternating them. She consistently pulls 65 HP on any Prony brake or dyno I put her on, and gives the Port Huron a run for the money at sawing and threshing.

We work her a lot and repairs have been few. She received new tubes a few years ago. She was down one year as we had to pull the rear wheels and axle to repair a broken boiler stud. The crosshead shoes were completely worn out at one point, and I was concerned about what to do when we went to the Plasterer auction at Huntington, Ind., to watch Kitten no. 219 sell. To my amazement, on a parts wagon sat a brand new Kitten crosshead complete with shoes and pin. Soon, our Kitten had new crosshead shoes plus a new crosshead pin!

The Kitten at Portland

One year, while showing the Kitten at Portland, some people were looking her over. They said they had a neighbor who had a lot of Kitten parts. Dad got the man’s name and contacted him. The gentleman’s name was Otto Angerer and he lived near Dubois, Ind., not far from Ferdinand where Kittens were made. We went to see him.

Otto, who was 91 at the time, had owned two Kittens over the years, sawing and threshing with them. The parts he had included new bull gears and a new intermediate gear for his last engine, plus some gears and other parts for his older one. We asked him, “Why all the gears?” He told us he had worn out several sets of gears on both engines before the guys at the factory convinced him to grease them once in a while!

Otto said he bought his first Kitten for $1,000. His Kitten separator cost $500, with the feeder and weigher costing extra, and his Kitten sawmill cost $500. He wore out the first engine and eventually junked it. He told us he bought the last engine new in 1935, drove it home from the factory and put it in his sawmill.

He said with roads being paved in the area, he had ordered the factory to put road bands on the back wheels and to grind the skid rings off the front wheels. At this, Dad, Andy and I gave each other curious looks. Dad asked Otto what had happened to that engine. Otto said he sold it to a man in Indianapolis, and last he heard it was around Muncie. Dad asked, “Bill Meister?”

Otto said, “Yes, that was the man’s name.”

You could have knocked us all over with a feather. We realized we were talking to the man who had bought our engine NEW!

Otto took a ride with us. He took us past where our engine sawed lumber for many years. All that was left was a sawdust mound on a weedy hill. The mill was gone, but we knew where the engine was! He also took us to a remote barn, where his Kitten separator was stored. I had wanted a Kitten separator for some time and thought this was my chance. Sadly, the barn roof had caved in and roof beams had partially crushed the separator.

We proceeded to buy the bull gears and intermediate gear that were new-old-stock parts for our very engine, as well as a Kitten steam gauge and some other gears. Otto has since passed away, but I wonder how many other traction engine collectors can say they met the man who bought their engine brand new?

The Pioneer Engineers Annual Reunion in Rushville, Ind., featured our Kitten in 1990, and she received a new paint job for the occasion. I have always painted it according to Robert Johnson’s article on Joseph Lueken’s recollection of paint colors in the July/August 1958 Iron-Men Album, as he had painted Kittens new at the factory.

All Kittens were painted a little different, but with some standard features, such as three colors on the flywheel, governor and sometimes the crank disc. Some had gray head tanks, some had aluminum. I always liked the picture in the 1967 March Engineers & Engines that shows the early rear stacked engine that was the first change from the original front stack design. I’ve always painted our engine similar to it.

Also for that show, Bill Raisch and Byron Leathermon brought their Kitten 36-inch separator. During the show, I took care of the engine, and let all the separator guys take care of the thresher.

For many years afterward, though, I kept bugging Byron and Bill, wanting to buy the separator. They finally priced it to me a few years ago, and I brought it home.

As Andy and I looked it over, I noticed all the paint was there, but peeling very badly. I told Andy we needed to photograph every inch of the separator’s detail so as to replace the elaborate striping and lettering on the wooden machine.

A lot of farm equipment used to have the name of the owner painted on at the factory, and this separator was no exception. In looking it over, I hadn’t gotten around to reading the name, but knew it was there. I was underneath the separator trying to figure out how best to fix a bent shaft while Andy looked the paint over. Andy read the serial number: no. 140, and found the year built: 1932. He then read the name on the tailing elevator and said, “I wonder who this was?”

I asked, “What’s the name?”

He said, “Lawrence Troesch, St. Meinrad, Ind.”

It didn’t click until I crawled out and looked at it myself. I thought, “Lawrence Troesch … Lawrence Troesch.” Then I remembered.

Andy said, “Don’t tell my you know who bought this new, too!”

I stood there a moment, then said, “Yup. He and Dad pulled me away from a copperhead nest when I was 4 years old.”

Contact steam enthusiast Alan New at: 5389 W. 900 S., Pendleton, IN 46064. 

Brief History – Kitten Engines

Florens Kitten, a German immigrant, started his business in Ferdinand, Ind., around 1880. He and later his son, Joseph Kitten, built 224 steam engines. It has been written that his first engines were portables with vertical boilers. I have yet to find any evidence of these early engines. Traction engine production began around 1889. I have copies of Florens Kitten’s original 1889 boiler patent describing in detail the “two pass” traction engine boiler with the stack at the front. This and other patents were graciously provided to my father,  Al New, a few years ago by Joseph Kitten’s granddaughter, Sue Harris. The first Kitten traction engines were of this front stack “two pass” design. These were followed by a similar looking boiler and engine, but of a simplified two-pass design with the stack at the rear of the  boiler.

Both of these  boilers were of open bottom or “dry bottom” configuration. The later two-pass, open-bottom boiler evolved into the “Scotch Marine” return-flue boiler on the engines that remain today. The later engines were built in 20 HP and 25 HP sizes, with possibly a 22 HP also being built. At least the last dozen engines appear to all be 25 HP.  According to a count done by Jerry Kitten, Joseph Kitten’s great, great nephew, 22 engines and 21 separators still exist, along with a few sawmills. I have seen one water wagon. Henry Kempf is assembling one, and I have the basic parts to eventually complete my own water wagon. Engine no. 224 was built in 1940, making Kitten the last builder of steam traction engines in the United States. Jerry Kitten currently owns this last engine.