A History of Marion Mfg. Co.

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A regal lion features prominently in the Leader logo.
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Early photo of a Leader separator.
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Early photo of a Leader traction engine.
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Leo Bard’s 20 hp Leader traction engine.
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An 1890 Leader separator on display at a Florida Flywheelers show.Above: The Leader separator’s conveyor stack.Left: Front view of the Leader, showing feeder and toolboxes.
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Tom Spires, Lancaster, Ohio, at the controls of his 1906 16 hp Leader.
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One lone Leader steam traction engine, bellowing a cloud of smoke and filling the air with the sound of its screaming whistle, prowls the show grounds at the National Threshers Association show at the Fulton County Fairgrounds in Wauseon, Ohio. It is the only Leader engine that shows up each year, taking its place among 40 other steam engines. This 20 hp Leader, owned by Leo Bard, Dearborn Heights, Mich., is one of the few Leader traction engines still operational after all these years.

Leader traction engines, manufactured by the Marion Mfg. Co., stand out because they are colorful. The main engine is black with a silver smokestack and a red canopy, wheels and engine. A large, red logo with a gold circle encloses an image of a regal lion with full mane. The lion symbolizes the manufacturer’s intent to be a leader in the field, a goal reinforced in script above the lion’s portrait: “As I am to the animal kingdom, so is ‘Leader’ threshing machinery in comparison to others.”

To be lucky enough to spot one of these rare engines – or better yet, a wood separator/threshing machine – is a real treat for antique farm equipment enthusiasts. Marion was rather small in terms of production and distribution. The company manufactured machinery for only about 25 years. Although the company produced a quality machine, Marion’s size and distribution network kept it from competing with such companies as J.I. Case or even its in-town neighbor, the Huber Mfg. Co.

Leader was the trade name of the Marion (Ohio) Mfg. Co., which was organized in 1886. The plant covered about three acres at the corners of West Center and Leader streets in Marion. Its first officers were John Hopkins, president and treasurer; W.H. Schaffner, secretary; J.W. Stringer, general manager; and Frederick Strobel, superintendent of the separator department.

A June 15, 1895, article in the Marion Star attributed the company’s existence to the inventive powers of Strobel and Stringer. Strobel owned and operated a thriving washing machine business where he made and distributed Strobel washing machines and Marion wringers. Later, he joined Edward Huber at the Huber Mfg. Co., where he designed a grain separator that Huber manufactured and marketed. Wanting more credit for his work, Strobel left Huber and helped form the Marion Mfg. Co. His washing machine plant became a part of the new manufacturing plant.

Marion Mfg. Co. produced two separator models: the Leader Western Special and the Leader Junior. The Western Special came in sizes 33-by-48-inch and larger. The Leader Junior came in sizes 24-by-40-inch to 28-by-45-inch. Options included a swinging conveyor straw stacker or a wind (pneumatic) stacker, automatic feeder and band cutter, and a bagging attachment with weigher. Marion also made a complete line of threshing implements, including water wagons and pumps.

Stringer, the creative force behind the Leader traction engine, made continual improvements to enhance the engine’s performance and durability. One of his main concerns was the engineer. He sought ways to make the engine not only safer to use, but easier. He put controls within reach to make it easier to shift gears, operate the clutch and line up the belt with the pulley.

Hopkins, on the other hand, excelled at financial management and managerial skills. Under his direction, Marion recorded gross annual sales of nearly $200,000 in 1895. The company’s sales territory extended as far west as the Mississippi River, east to the Susquehanna River, north to Michigan and south to Tennessee. A number of Leader engines were even sold in Canada.

By 1904, company officers were aging and beginning to consider retirement or other endeavors. Strobel, Stringer and Hopkins left the company and new officers (including company President Warren G. Harding, who would be elected president of the U.S. in 1920) took over. Marion was reorganized under New Jersey law and continued to thrive with annual sales of more than $300,000. By then its line had grown to include special Leader steam road locomotives and rollers. Branch offices operated at Des Moines, Iowa; Indianapolis, Ind.; Nashville, Tenn.; Minneapolis, Minn.; and Fargo, N.D.

The tide turned by 1910, however, when Marion entered bankruptcy proceedings. During that period, Harding was named the company’s trustee. In September 1910, the company was sold to the Ohio Tractor Mfg. Co., of Upper Sandusky, Ohio. Production of Leader engines and separators continued in Marion; Leader steam road rollers, gasoline/kerosene farm tractors and kerosene road rollers were produced in the Upper Sandusky plant.

In 1913, Marion was renamed the Ohio Tractor-Roller Sales Co., and took on the sales function for the entire manufacturing division. In 1915, the company went into bankruptcy. A year later, the plant was sold to a group of investors who announced plans to build hearses and motor trucks.

Proving brick is more durable than any business, the main factory buildings at West Center and Leader streets in Marion are still standing. From above, you can see the Leader name on the roof of the building along Leader Street. If you look carefully and the light is just right, you can still make out the Leader sign painted on the building’s brick exterior.

Now, when you see an old Leader separator or traction engine, you will know a little of its history. Keep a sharp eye out at antique tractor shows. Once in a while, you will see one of these lion-hearted Leaders of the old threshing world. FC

James N. Boblenz grew up on a farm near New Bloomington, Ohio. He now lives in Marion, Ohio, and is interested in antique farm equipment, particularly rare and lesser-known tractors and related items. Email him at jboblenz@aol.com

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