For a tractor manufacturer, John Lauson was an unusual man. But then, his early life had not been so usual, either. His life and company of New Holstein, Wis., ‘is a history as interesting as it is inspiring,’ says the New Holstein Centennial Souvenir Booklet of 1948, ‘a history of courage and achievement…’
John Lauson came from hardy Schleswig-Holstein German immigrants who were highly skilled artisans and expert craftsmen in whatever they chose to do. His father, H.A. Lauson, and his four brothers opened a small implement and repair shop, Lauson Brothers Implement Company. In 1882, H.A. Lauson died unexpectedly. Fourteen-year-old John was expected to step into the work void created by his father’s sudden death, which he did admirably. In fact, he worked so well that only two years later he became a full-fledged member of a new machine shop, along with his uncle, George Lauson, and J.H. Optenberg. A mere year later, that business burned down, and a new one was organized: John Lauson, H. Optenberg & Co. So, by the age of 17, John Lauson had earned top billing in his firm. John had already made his mark as a first-class machinist and repair man. The company used only a windmill to generate power for its steelwork.
They manufactured boilers, tanks, smoke stacks, as well as other heavy steel and iron products. They also repaired steam traction engines, and soon gained a reputation as a firm which did high-quality work. Everything they did was by hand. As the Centennial booklet says, ‘All products were painstakingly built by hand, and consequently it was necessary that each shop employee develop a high degree of hand skill. For example, all their boilers were riveted and hand calked, resulting in a quality seldom equaled by the present day air-hammer process.’
Shortly after the new firm was established, the owners decided to take on new work. With all the work they had done on steam machines, the next natural progression was easy: the manufacture of steam traction engines, the first standardized product ever made by the plant. They manufactured 25 Uncle Sam steam traction engines (one reference says about 150), and in 1891, John Lauson bought out his partners and became John Lauson Company. Whatever the number, John Lauson knew he could manufacture large farm equipment.
As the Centennial booklet says, ‘The firm accepted jobs of all types and descriptions, whether it was putting a patch on a boiler, installing a new set of boiler tubes, adjusting and setting the slide valves of steam engines, locating troubles in steam plant operations, or doing a complete job of steam power plant installation.’
Though John Lauson worked long and hard hours on the line with his men (they simply called him ‘John’), he also had a life outside the plant. Each spring, for example, as the flowers began to bloom, John gathered up area orphans (it is unclear whether John himself was an orphan after his father died; no mention is made of his mother so it is entirely possible) and took them out into the woods to gather flowers. The New Holstein Reporter wrote in 1922 that ‘When the early spring flowers peeped forth from mother earth, Mr. Lauson would load up his big automobile with children, and go to the swamp or woods where great armsful of flowers would be gathered. He enjoyed these annual pilgrimages as much as any of the children.’
In the mid-1890s, John’s brother, Henry, joined the firm after a stint with a small gasoline engine manufacturing company in Chicago. Jacob C. Schmidt also joined, and the company was renamed the John Lauson Manufacturing Company. They immediately made plans to take the company in a different direction, and manufacture the Lauson Gasoline Engine. As the Centennial booklet says, ‘In those days electrical ignition was in its swaddling clothes and therefore used little in the engine business. So this first engine was designed with torch tube hot ignition. A brass tube extending up from the cylinder was heated by a blow torch, the combustible mixture when drawn into the cylinder entered the brass tube and was ignited by the heat.’ That first engine weighed 1140 pounds and produced a . mere four horsepower. It was hooked up and used in the plant. And so was born the Lauson gasoline engine. Their most successful was the Lauson Frost King, a horizontal engine with eight inch cylinder bore by 10 inch piston stroke, with electrical ignition. By 1907, demand for the Frost King was so great that a new factory had to be built. In 1915, a local history book, Enter Into New Holstein, said, ‘From a 4 HP engine, the present line of Lauson and ‘Frost King’ gasoline and kerosene engines, from 1 1/2 to 100 HP has been developed and today Lauson engines are operating in every climate from the Arctic to the Tropics. Owing to their high-grade construction, which has become the standard in the gas engine industry, they have made New Holstein famous throughout the world as the ‘Home of Quality.”
John Lauson was always in the forefront of the newest and the best, and it was no different with tractors. They experimented in the 1910s, and by 1915 had two Lauson tractors ready for market, a 15-25 and 20-35, using the same chassis. Both used Erd engines, the 15-25 a four-cylinder with a 4 X 6 inch bore and stroke, and the 20-35 a four-cylinder with a 4 3/4 X 6 inch bore and stroke. Their motto for these two tractors was, ‘Built up to a standard, not down to a price.’
They hadn’t rushed the building of their tractors, and unlike many of the fly-by-night tractor companies in it just to make a killing, the Lauson Company was in it for the long haul. Their first tractors exhibited the normal quality to be expected of a Lauson product. For a long-established company to win first prizes in the tractor contests of the day was remarkable. But John Lauson and his company went one step better: in 19 starts at the National Tractor Pulling Contests, the company took 17 firsts, a remarkable feat.
These early tractors, like the ones made by other companies of the time, retained a nostalgic canopy-type hood that looked much like those on horse-drawn buggies.
By 1918, Lauson had upgraded its tractors. The 15-25 now used a Beaver engine of 4 1/2 X 6 inch bore and stroke, and the line had taken on the moniker of ‘Jeweled Tractors.’ Unfortunately, it is unclear just what the ‘jewels’ were. In a 1919 ad, headed ‘The Lauson 21-Jewel Kerosene Tractor,’ the company says the tractor had ‘twenty-four fine roller and ball bearings.’ They then go on to list the advantages of the tractor – heavy duty four cylinder engine, sliding gear transmission, protected bull gears, and so on, but never another word on what ‘jewel’ might mean. C. H. Wendel in Standard Catalog of Farm Tractors 1890-1960, writes, ‘By this time (1918), the ’24-Jeweled’ trade name had been associated with the Lauson tractors.’ An ad from about 1918 helps clear up some of the confusion while it adds other: in this case, the tractor is called a ‘Full Jeweled’ tractor, but the ad tries to make clear what the ‘jeweled’ part means: ‘Full Jeweled – insured against excessive wear and friction reduced to a minimum through the use of twenty-four Hyatt and Timken Roller and Ball Bearings.’
In 1919, the 15-25 added a more powerful engine (4 3/4 instead of 4/12 inch bore), which upped its rating to a 15-30. This tractor was tested at the Nebraska Farm Tractor Tests, with an even higher drawbar rating of 18 hp.
As usual, the John Lauson Manufacturing Company did the unusual. Before 1918, they not only made no changes in their 15-25 tractors for three consecutive years, but they chose to highlight these similarities. They called it the ‘Pattern Tractor,’ and said, in their ads, ‘In the making of a tractor, manufacturing experience is what counts. There has been scarcely a change in design or construction of the Lauson Full Jeweled Tractor for three years. It is not a tractor experiment but the result of practical understanding of the conditions which a tractor is called on to meet in the field and on belt work. It is best described as the ‘pattern’ tractor – the machine which many other makers have studied in their own design. We never ‘oversell’ the Lauson. Every claim we make for it can be backed up with a 25 percent factor of safety. More power than rated both at draw bar and belt pulley. It has the lines which denote strength and attention to every detail of construction.’
They also built a Lauson ‘Road Tractor’; this was the 15-30, which was first built in 1920. It came as a conventional field tractor, which weighed 6,000 pounds, or a Road Tractor, whose cast-iron rear wheels added almost two tons of weight to it, at 9,500 pounds.
In another peculiarity, the company built a 12-25 Lauson tractor that they had tested in the Nebraska Farm Tractor Test in 1921. In test number 75, the testers discovered that it more than met its requirements – it measured at 21-37. But instead of rerating the tractor, the company continued to advertise it as ‘a 20-35 tractor with a 12-25 rating and price.’
Despite the success of the company -and perhaps bowing to the pressures of the great agricultural depression of the early 1920s – the company did another unusual thing: they offered ‘rebuilt and second hand tractors and engines,’ in a listing below the ad for their Lauson 16-32 tractor. They also had rebuilt Lauson tractors, all 15-25s (two in Al condition, one in good, and one in fair); as well as tractor bargains, which included a Case 60 hp steam traction engine, and a Rumely Oil Pull 16-30, ‘cheap.’
On April 15, 1922, after being taken to a Milwaukee hospital, John Lauson died at the age of 54. The town was saddened and shocked. Half of the front page of the New Holstein Reporter was dedicated to his death. The article read: ‘He was of sterling character, just, upright and outspoken but ever ready to help those in need. Enemies he had none, among his associates, fellow citizens or competitors. He was ever popular in all social gatherings and contributed freely to the betterment of the community in which he lived. He was beloved by all…’ A huge crowd gathered at the railroad depot when his body was brought back from where he had been visiting.
That same obituary credited him with ‘virtually creating an entire community’ of New Holstein. ‘It can be truthfully said,’ the obituary continued, ‘that ‘none knew him but to love him.”
Despite the death of their leader, the John Lauson Manufacturing Company continued proud and strong. Lauson had, in fact, been ill for a number of years, and his associates knew well what had to be done to keep the company going.
In succeeding years, the New Holstein company continued to make other tractors: in 1926, the 16-32, and the 20-40 (in three types: the Farmer, Thresherman’s, and Road Builder’s Specials); in 1927, the 20-35; and in 1929, the 25-45 and the Lauson 65 (a 25-35 rating).
But then came the 1930s, and the Great Depression. During that time, the company gave too much credit to farmers, could not pay their bills, and was liquidated in bankruptcy in 1935. It returned a year later in a different form, selling small engines once again, and was eventually purchased by Hart-Carter of Peoria, Ill., and then Tecumseh Products Company in 1956.
Bill Vossler’s most recent book is entitled The Complete Book of Farm Toys and Boxes.