History of Nichols & Shepard and Port Huron Companies

Steam in Transition: An in-depth history of the Nichols & Shepard and the Port Huron Engine and Thresher Company


| May/June 2001



Threshing rye

Threshing rye on the Lester Olsen farm near Coopersville, Michigan, August 26, 2000. Power supplied by Chuck Olsen's 1913 16 HP Baker.

12595 Mt. Garfield, Ravenna, Michigan 49451

Editor's note: We have excerpted from the following paper that Charles Olsen wrote for a college course. The accompanying photos are ones he sent for our readers' enjoyment, but they are not part of the story. He writes, "I spent many weekends traveling to the cities of Battle Creek and Port Huron perusing literature in the public libraries and reading diaries of former employees and local historians. While at Port Huron, I arranged an interview with Mr. Eugene A. Moak, whose father had been a plant superintendent with the Port Huron Steam Engine and Threshing Company. We also toured the remains of the buildings where Mr. Moak operated an industrial supply house. I believe the contents of the paper are historically accurate and can provide readers with an enlightening account of the lives of all employees from both companies. I hope everyone in engine land enjoys the paper as much as I have had in my research and writing." 

The Nichols & Shepard Company of Battle Creek opened for business in 1848. The original owners and co-founders were John Nichols and Charles Shepard, a transplant from upstate New York. Operating a modern foundry works as well as a blacksmith shop, the two mechanically inclined entrepreneurs had a fledgling enterprise by 1850.1 In these earlier days custom work preceded daily productions.

Charles Shepard wrote to his younger brother David, who was a farmer in New York, to tell him of the success of Nichols' and Shepard's business. David Shepard was experiencing some health problems that prohibited him from continuing farm operations, and he decided to relocate to Battle Creek in 1849. Charles Shepard hoped to work the sharp mechanically minded David into the firm, but David chose instead to seek his fortune and fame in the California Gold Rush of 1849-1850.2 

David Shepard did not find gold in California and returned to Battle Creek at the urging of his brother. Charles then formally introduced David to John Nichols, who promptly hit David with an offer to design and construct agricultural machinery. David accepted Nichols' proposition and in a bold stroke of genius bought out his brother's interest in the company.3 Why Charles Shepard sold out in 1851 remains a mystery.

With Nichols holding down the production of various machinery such as sawmills, Shepard began to design a threshing machine. In 1859 Edwin Nichols, son of John, joined the company. During 1861, Nichols & Shepard decided to enter one of their threshing machines in the San Joaquin Valley Fair at Stockton, California. 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. Shepard applied for a government patent on September 24, 1861, and selected the name "Vibrator" for this particular model of a threshing machine.4 Battle Creek had become home for other competing companies in the threshing machine business: The Upton and Brown Manufacturing Company (1851) and the Advance Thresher Company (1881).5