Versatility of Frick Co. Ensured Success

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A circa 1921 Frick gasoline tractor at the 1999 Portland, Ind., steam show. It’s unclear whether this is a 15-28 or a 12-20 model, as they looked much alike.
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A period Frick Co. illustration of the Frick Model A 12-25 kerosene tractor. As a result of Nebraska Test No. 47 in August 1920, the tractor was re-rated to 12-20 hp.
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The first Frick refrigerating machine. The 12-by-18-inch cylinder on each side compresses ammonia gas for cooling, while the 16-by-20-inch center cylinder is the steam engine that drives the rig.

Read the first half of the George Frick story in George Frick and His Steam Empire.

And now, the rest of the Frick story. George Frick had sold his thresher business to Peter Geiser in the 1860s. Things went well, with Frick building steam engines and Geiser making separators, until 1881, when Geiser came out with the Peerless steam traction engine. This upset Frick, and he went back into the thresher business. Also during the 1880s, Frick Co. got into the business that continues to this day.

A chilling effect

There were lots of breweries in those days, and all of them needed a way to cool their products. Natural ice cut from ponds was hard to get and difficult to store, and while some beer makers installed complicated refrigeration equipment imported from Europe, it inevitably broke down, and Frick Co. would get called in to make repairs.

Frick decided refrigeration was the wave of the future, especially since the huge ammonia compressors then used were built almost exactly like vertical steam engines, and were driven by steam engines, as well. In 1883, a complete Frick refrigeration machine was built and installed for a customer in Baltimore. It was a great success. By the end of 1887, a dozen Frick machines were in operation, including a 150-ton unit for Armour & Co.

By the time an ailing George Frick retired from the company in the late 1880s, a network of dealers had been established around the country to handle the old standby threshers, sawmills, steam traction engines, and stationary steam engines and boilers. Before long, the refrigeration business overshadowed the traditional lines as breweries, meat packers and ice-making plants adopted the new machinery. 

Keeping it in the family

George Frick died Dec. 23, 1892, but by then his sons had taken over Frick Co. Abram O. (known as A.O.) and Ezra Frick were born in 1852 and 1856, respectively. The story goes that the two lads took turns getting up at 3:30 a.m. to fire the boilers in the shop and feed and harness horses for the daily 6 a.m. trip to the train station in Greencastle, Pa., in the days before the railroad came to Waynesboro.

A.O. started working in the shop as an apprentice at age 15, and then worked as foreman, draftsman and mechanical engineer. He was named vice president in 1896 and president in 1904, a post he held for 20 years. Ezra followed a similar path: apprentice at 18, foreman, general clerk and purchasing agent, before becoming president in 1924.

The Frick tractor

Frick Co. continued to improve its products during the first decades of the 20th century. During the 1920s, the company made balers, husker-shredders and silo fillers, in addition to grain and peanut threshers and tractors. A 12-25 gas tractor was introduced in about 1918, powered by a cross-mounted Erd 4-cylinder engine with a 4-by-6-inch bore and stroke. In 1921, a larger 15-28 model with a Beaver engine came out.

With a side-facing radiator mounted between large front wheels, the Frick tractor resembled the Huber Light Four. Frick quit making the tractors about 1927, possibly due to growth of the refrigeration business. At about the same time, production of steam traction engines was slowing in response to sales declines. In 1928, Frick became the eastern distributor of Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co. tractors and stationary power units. MTM became part of Minneapolis-Moline in 1929, and Frick continued the same relationship with MM.

With the spread of electrification, the stationary steam engine business died out as well, although the last two units (a 7-1/2-by-10-inch bore and stroke and a 10-by-12-inch bore and stroke) were shipped from the Frick plant as late as 1945. Frick began building peanut combines in about 1952, and a few threshers were built as late as the 1960s. Also during that time, Frick made farm wagons and served as distributor for Ann Arbor, Rosenthal, Fox and Bear Cat farm implements. That all ended during the early 1970s, and Frick sold the sawmill business in 1973.

Progressive company

Frick built a brick powerhouse with five boilers in 1904. Two of those boilers were fueled by sawdust and wood shavings from the thresher and sawmill works; the other three took a carload of coal every 24 hours. The coal was all hand-shoveled into the fireboxes. The steam engines in the powerhouse ran a DC generator to make electricity for the factory, as well as a compressor to run pneumatic tools and pressure-test boilers. Exhaust steam was used to heat the plant. In 1961, the coal-fired boilers were replaced by two natural gas boilers. The powerhouse is now a museum containing several engines, including a 1903 Frick 24-ton 22-by-40-inch cross-compound Corliss, a 1902 Frick simple Corliss with a 16-by-30-inch bore and stroke, as well as a marble, open-panel Edison switchboard that controlled the DC electric.

Ironically, although Frick introduced unit air conditioners in 1938, the firm’s home offices weren’t air conditioned until 1960.

Still going strong in the refrigeration and air conditioning business, Frick was sold to York International in 1987. The plant is still in operation, making a line of industrial refrigeration equipment.

The Frick company’s agricultural roots are largely forgotten, although Frick steam engines and threshing machines are still seen at steam shows around the country. The Sell family of Salem, Ohio, owns and exhibits a Frick steam traction engine at local shows. George Gromley still operates a Frick sawmill south of Salem, and a lot of Frick machinery scattered over the country has been preserved by enthusiasts. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.

Learn more about the Frick steam empire and life before refrigeration in these related articles:
History of a Frick Steam Engine
Logging with a Frick Sawmill
The Coldest Harvest

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