Farm Collector

HISTORY OF THE KITTEN

We are greatly indebted to Mr. Jesse Conour, R. D. 3,
Evansville, Indiana, for this article which was published in the
Sunday Courier and Press. Both the Press and  their very
generous Editor, Mr. R. H. Kirkpatrick have given us permission to
copy the same. I am sure we all appreciate this.

THE KITTEN WAS ONE of the lesser known makes of engines and it
may be new to some of you. However, they played an important role
in the threshing industry. There is one at the Pontiac Reunion,
owned by Wilbur Collins.

Mr. Conour gives us some interesting history of that section of
Indiana where the Kitten was built. We here quote part of his
letter:

(Speaking of Ferdinand, Indiana). ‘They have their own
railroad which is six miles long connecting with the Southern at
Huntingburg. They had a little Porter engine until a few years ago
when they got a coal oil engine. Stinks too.

That man Kitten knew what he wanted and built it. He had to have
something light and strong for the hills around there. The farmers
there sure can raise wheat on those hillsides, and are they steep.
Three years ago I was up there and saw horses pulling a binder
where a tractor would have turned over. The threshing machine had
to go where the wheat was so something had to be done. They put
wings on the separators. They were somewhat smaller than 2×4’s
which were hinged to the ‘BOX’ as they call the separator
down south. The wings would fold back against the separator when
not in use. When the outfit was going around a side hill a few men
could unfold the wings, some on one side and some on the other. The
ones on the up hill pushed down and those on the downhill side
pushed up. So then everything got on without turning over. Then if
the engine wanted to climb her gears going up a stiff hill a bunch
of men would be ready to throw a rope over the water tank and hold
down. Then up the hill she would go and steam, they really do.

I watched a crew set up and start threshing one time. The
engineer backed into the belt, blocked the wheels and started up.
Just as soon as they started bundles were going in the machine. The
engine was doing a hula dance. He only had 115 lbs. of steam and
couldn’t hit the fire door. Soon he got in enough to hold her.
Then he took an armful of wooden blocks and wedges and started to
drive them here and there, and when he got done she set there like
a rock.

Your non-drinking cousin

JESSE CONOUR

OLD STEAM ENGINES KEEP PUFFING AWAY’

(From the ‘SUNDAY LOOK’)

By Paul Dewig

On a hot sultry day in late summer 1867, Ferdinand townsfolk
were awed by four young men who tugged at a cumbersome wagon caught
between the large double doors of the old Kitten home. To many
persons, the object that came rumbling from the second floor of the
old frame building was a wagonful of junk.

Perhaps some folks even chuckled as they watched the men strain
their suspenders as they pushed and squeezed the odd-looking
contraption to the street. But the laughter was short lived.
Skepticism turned to enthusiasm when the horse-drawn thresher
clanked its way through fields of ripe grain, cutting, chaffing and
separating as it chugged along.

Harvesting, which normally took days of backbreaking work done
by hand, was done painlessly in a day by Kitten’s
‘wonderful machine.’

To most bystanders this new machine was revolutionary, the very
end of modern conveniences. But to one man this was just the
beginning. Almost before his ‘invention’ hit the fields
Florenz Kitten was working on improvements for this and ideas for a
multitude of there machines.

Today, Kitten is a man well remembered. Some folks claim he was
an inventor of many things. Others believe not. Many say he was a
man of numerous abilities; others, that he was merely a skillful
mechanic. Regardless how he is remembered, Kitten was a man with
imagination and a knack for making things work.

The threshing machine was his first finished idea, but he is
best remembered for a steam engine which he developed several years
later. Only a few of these cumbersome boilers are still intact, and
these are showpieces, but many others are still in use. The age of
steam for pulling farm equipment was relatively short. Gas-operated
machines, lighter and more functional, soon took over the
fields.

But before this occurred, Kitten and his workers had produced
224 of the old puffer-bellies. There seemed to be just one thing
wrong with them they never wore out. When they were pushed off the
farm they weren’t scrapped. The variety of uses for the old
boilers is amazing. Some were dismantled and used to power
sawmills, laundries, boats, and scores of different factories.

The last Kitten engine is still operating to day in Ferdinand.
The owner Joe F. Lueken, uses it to power his sawmill.

‘When I first bought it from a fellow in 1942’, Lueken
declares, ‘it was just like new. I left the wheels on it and
used it one day to run the sawmill and the next to do the chores at
the farm.’

It’s on blocks now, and hasn’t been moved for about 10
years. Its nameplate bears the number 224 and testifies that the
patent, No. 409,594, was obtained Aug. 20, 1889, by Kittens Machine
Works, Ferdinand.

The first Kitten products were built and assembled on the second
floor of his home.

Many persons remember their parents telling of this tall,
powerfully built man who stayed up for days without sleep while
working on a problem.

Kitten liked to attend the fairs at St. Louis where he took
notes of the inventions displayed by persons throughout the
country. Once, while jotting down notes about a particularly
interesting object, Kitten was arrested and jailed for allegedly
patent regulations.

When orders for Kitten threshers and steam engines began to
overcrowd the second floor of the homestead, Kitten constructed a
two-story factory on the property adjoining his home. It was here
that he and his workmen set up hand machinery which is still in use
today. F. J. Stallings, present owner of the machine shop, points
to a huge boring machine. ‘You won’t find a piece of
machinery like that anywhere. And it’s still as good as the day
it was made.’

‘Why, just the other day a couple of men stopped in and
asked where they could take a gear six feet in diameter to have it
rebored. I told them we would turn it on the old handmade
machine,’ Stallings relates with an understanding smile.

‘The men, who operate a local construction company,
indicated disbelief, but agreed to let us try since otherwise it
would require a trip to Evansville and a delay of several days.
There aren’t a lot of fancy gadgets on the borer, and a person
has to know what he’s doing to operate it, but when the men
returned later the gear was waiting.’

Stallings eyes twinkled mirthfully when he told them to check
the measurementsthey were true to the ‘n’th’
degree.

Another old machine which is still functioning is a massive
lathe, which, according to the present owner, was also handmade.
‘It’s just a little bulky to use regularly, but there’s
nothing wrong with it. I’ll bet that old lathe will still be
working when our new ones are worn out,’ he adds.

Kitten was born in Prussia in 1840. He was the son of a wooden
shoe maker. When he was 10, he moved with his family to this
country where they settled in a promising farming area near
Ferdinand. Florenz helped his father on the farm until he was 19;
then for six years he worked as a carpenter. It was at the end of
this period that the name Kitten began to spread in popularly.

Throughout his adult life, Kitten ate five meals a day, using
the extra energy in developing hundreds of mechanical patterns for
existing and nonexistent implements. While working in his shop, he
and his work force honored the then well-accepted custom of gulping
brew on the job. Each day, at his four after-breakfast meal breaks,
Kitten would send his boy apprentice to the local tavern with an
empty ale bucket for each of his employees.

Kitten never allowed his employees’ buckets to remain
empty.

Although the name Kitten isn’t as widely known as McCormick
or Whitney, to folks here the name conjures the ghost of a man who
was a giant in their midst.

  • Published on May 1, 1958
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