George Frick and His Steam Empire
Of the hundreds of companies that built farm equipment over the years, those surviving today can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand. One of these survivors, and an unlikely one at that, is the Frick Co., Waynesboro, Pa.
George Frick was born in 1826 on a large farm in Lancaster County, Pa., that had been in his family for almost 100 years. Then, in 1835, Abraham Frick, his father, bought a farm in the Cumberland Valley near Quincy, Pa., a tiny village about 20 miles west of Gettysburg.
The elder Frick dammed a stream on the new farm and built a water wheel with which he powered an up-and-down-type sawmill. Abraham also used the water wheel to run a pump that lifted water from a well to his house.
Young George had little formal education, but he was good at math and had natural mechanical aptitude. At 17, he apprenticed himself to a millwright in nearby Maryland. After two years, George felt confident enough to move back to Quincy, where he went into business for himself. He was kept busy traveling around Franklin County, Pa., where there were some 75 grist or flour mills that frequently needed the attention of a skilled millwright. However, in 1848, George gave up traveling and took over an old building where he built horse powers, along with fanning mills for cleaning grain.
Inspired by teakettle: the Frick steam engine
In December 1849, George married and settled down to wedded bliss. In this happy state, while watching a teakettle whistle on the stove, he supposedly got the idea for his next project, a steam engine. Most accounts say that it was doubtful if George had ever seen such an engine, but he determined to build one.
Accordingly, in 1850, George drew plans and either made his own castings or had them made. He bored the cylinder on his lathe, using a homemade boring bar (some say the lathe was foot-powered, others horse-powered). The flat surfaces, such as the crosshead and guides, were cut with a hammer and chisel and hand-filed flat. George even fashioned a governor for his engine.
After a lot of time and hard labor, Frick assembled his engine on the second floor of his shop. The boiler was on the first floor and a pipe connected the two. After lighting the fire in the boiler and getting up steam, George was ready to try his engine. From downstairs, he cautiously opened the valve that fed steam to the engine and listened for an explosion. There was no bang so George climbed the stairs and gingerly poked his head above the floor, where he saw his engine humming merrily away. A year or two later, Frick moved to Ringgold, Md., where he built a shop and installed his little 2 hp engine to run it. An ad in a local newspaper of the day reads in part: “I am now prepared to make to order steam engines of various sizes. I use good material. My hands are experienced workmen. All my machines are sold under warrantee. George Frick.”
In the country at that time were thousands of flour, grist, saw, paper and woolen mills, as well as forges, iron furnaces and tanneries, all of which required some sort of power source. Most had gotten by with water power, which was inefficient and unreliable, or horse power, which was expensive. Frick’s expertise as a millwright, and his ability to furnish small steam engines, made him the man of the hour and quickly boosted his business.
Frick began building sawmills and threshing machines, along with horse powers and portable steam engines to run them. Business grew; in 1861, he built a larger building in Waynesboro, Pa., and moved his plant there.
When Gen. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia invaded Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863, the Confederates desperately needed shoes and harness. The story goes that they raided the Frick factory and liberated all the leather that was intended to make belting for threshing machines. After the war, the southern states were just as desperate for sawmills and threshers and managed to scrounge enough leather to replace that which had been taken from George Frick. In return, the Frick firm furnished the much-needed machinery to the South, often being paid in lumber and other products in lieu of cash.
Tragedy struck the Frick family on Oct. 18, 1867, when George’s 8-year-old daughter was caught in an open revolving shaft outside the factory. According to a newspaper account of the incident, “The girl was playing with other children when her clothing was caught by the shaft. Before she could be rescued, her body was so badly mangled as to cause almost instant death. A guard rail was built around the deadly shaft at once.”
Building for the future: the Frick Co.
In the late 1860s, Frick built a larger brick factory across the street, and Geiser Mfg. Co., which also built threshing machines, took over the old Frick works. Frick sold his thresher business to Geiser and concentrated on boilers and steam engines.
Frick’s business continued to expand and George needed capital. He formed a partnership with a cousin named Bowman in 1870, but Bowman, as well as Frick’s oldest son, Frank, died of typhoid in 1872. Still in need of capital, and handicapped by the absence of rail service to Waynesboro, Frick considered offers to move his plant to another town with a rail line. Finally, 13 Waynesboro businessmen raised enough money to rescue Frick, who gave up his financial interest in the company to the new partnership, but remained as general superintendent, manager and treasurer.
At Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876, a Frick Eclipse farm traction engine won the gold medal for the best in its class. Four years later, an Eclipse engine won out over 25 other engines at an exposition in Melbourne, Australia. Business was booming and a new factory was built in 1881. In 1885, the Frick Daniel Boone traction engine was shown at fairs and won 39 first premiums. That year, the firm was incorporated and, in 1888, George Frick retired.
More next time about the subsequent activities of the Frick company and its present day descendant, Frick York Refrigeration. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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