The Gold Standard in Steam

Nichols & Shepard built on a foundation of quality but was resistant to change.

| July 2008

Of all the companies that manufactured steam traction engines in the U.S., Nichols & Shepard Co. was one of the earliest and most stubbornly resistant to change. Company leaders believed gasoline tractors were but a passing fancy, according to C.H. Wendel in The Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors. Nichols & Shepard continued to build steam traction engines long after most other companies had succumbed, and its unofficial motto was 'Steam is, was and always will be king.'

From humble roots

Nichols & Shepard started small, manufacturing basic agricultural products until it invented the ones that made the company famous. In 1848 John Nichols started a small blacksmith shop in Battle Creek, Mich. A few years later he added a small foundry and asked Charles H. Shepard to come in as a business partner. In 1851, Charles' brother, David, newly returned from the California gold rush of 1849 (but no richer), bought out Charles' interest in the company.

'Virtually nothing is known of the early products from Nichols, Shepard & Co.,' Wendel notes. 'Apparently the products were sold on a more or less localized basis, and word-of-mouth was the primary advertising method.' At that time, the company produced mill irons, small stationary steam engines and agricultural implements.

But that was just practice for the company's first great product, the thresher. From 1837 to the 1850s, the Pitts Bros. thresher represented the top of the line. 'For some years,' Wendel explains, 'the actual separating of the grain from straw and chaff was achieved by a slatted apron behind the cylinder. These so-called 'apron machines' were the accepted standard.' But the slatted apron-type thresher was rife with problems, not the least of which was grain loss.

Using only blacksmith's tools, Nichols abandoned the apron type and began designing his first thresher with his son, Edwin. In 1861, the company entered one of its completed products, a Vibrator thresher, in the San Joaquin Valley Fair at Stockton, Calif. In a research paper (see Iron Men Album, May/June 2001), Charles O. Olsen reports that 'a huge crowd turned out at the factory on the day Nichols & Shepard's threshing machine was loaded on a rail car and hauled westward. Several competitors exhibited quality machines at the fair, but the premium award was given to Nichols & Shepard for the flawless performance of their all-wood threshing machine.'

Crude as it was, the Vibrator immediately became the best thresher on the market. With modifications, subsequent Nichols & Shepard Co. thresher lines were renamed the Flagg (for designer Eli Flagg) and Red River, and continued to be the pre-eminent machines in the U.S. until the 1920s.