Imitating Chromolithography for the Steam Hobby

Michigan man pours heart and soul into artwork


| August 2009



A Case 9-by-10 cylinder 15 hp simple traction engine painted by Dave Kemler.

A Case 9-by-10 cylinder 15 hp simple traction engine painted by Dave Kemler.

Don Voelker

It doesn’t take an artist to appreciate the beauty of early chromolithography produced for farm equipment manufacturers.

But it does take an artist to re-create that work, and that’s where Dave Kemler excels. A collector of vintage ephemera, the Stanton, Mich., man also creates hand-painted versions of those pieces.

One of Dave’s prized possessions is a very rare, one-of-a-kind oil painting featuring the Advance Thresher Co. “banner boy” on horseback. The 4-by-6-foot painting once hung in the home of Ammi Willard Wright, Alma, Mich. Wright was president of Advance Thresher Co., Battle Creek, Mich., from 1885 to 1912. The painting would be a gem in any collection, but what Dave really hankered for were promotional pieces.

“I wanted some of those lithographs to hang on my walls,” he explains. “But the cost was prohibitive and the chance of finding them is not good, so I made my own.” The result is nearly indistinguishable from the original, complete with achingly detailed lettering and logos. It’s work Dave seems to have been born for.

Rooted in tradition

Raised in a steam engine family, he’s long been captivated by a perfect blend of interests: old iron, history and art. “I was drawing steam engines and separators by the time I was 4,” he says. “I just kept on from there and never stopped. There were no lessons; I just painted.”

In college, Dave initially majored in history. But art remained a passion, and he ended up with a degree in art education. He went on to teach art in Indiana and later in Michigan. Old iron proved an enduring theme. Dave’s work includes paintings of threshing scenes (complete with steam engines) and pinstriping projects.

Meanwhile, he built a collection of early posters, brochures and trade cards produced by stone lithography, a printing technique of the late 1800s and early 1900s, a period corresponding to the glory days of the steam traction engine. More than 100 years later, the colors are strong and vibrant, and the pieces remain very collectible.

“Years ago it was quite common for people to keep these trade cards and posters in scrapbooks,” Dave says. “I have an image of the Advance ‘banner boy’ on a horse that had been pasted in a scrapbook, and some Port Huron information that has been cut out of an original catalog.”