Lavosier Spence

1 / 2
2 / 2

While much more is now known about steam traction engines than
ever before, many chroniclers of North American steam traction
engines have overlooked Lavosier Spence of Martins Ferry, Ohio,
which today is the area located just across from Wheeling,
W.Va.

Lavosier was born Jan. 14, 1829, on a farm in a cabin his
parents rented in Mount Pleasant Township, Jefferson County, Ohio.
On Aug. 20, 1857, he married Elizabeth Dakan, a native of
neighboring Belmont County. The couple had two sons. John was born
on Nov. 3, 1862, and died on Aug. 6, 1895. John was married to Texa
Arnett, who died in 1899 at the age of 24, and had two children:
Elizabeth and Grover. Lavosier’s other son George was born Nov.
11, 1866. George became a prosperous citizen of Martins Ferry, a
city founded by Ebenezer Martin in 1835.

A book entitled Centennial History of Belmont County and
Representative portrayed Lavosier as resembling ‘the majority
of self made men’ who became a capitalist ‘by climbing up a
hill of toil.’ With few educational opportunities, Lavosier was
a laborer in his youth. Centennial History concludes that ‘his
struggles developed his character as well as his mental and
physical being.’

THE EARLY YEARS

He manufactured other farm machinery prior to his traction
engine, but Lavosier’s infatuation with steam probably had more
to do with someone else’s success. On Nov. 4, 1858, Joseph
McCune of Warrenton, Ohio, a town about seven miles north of
Martins Ferry, wrote that he drove a traction engine built by the
Newark Machine Works ‘out to the Cadiz Fair, and back, a
distance of 46 miles.’ (See related article on this early Ohio
traction engine in the March/April 2003 Steam Traction.)
Lavosier undoubtedly was aware of the Newark engine’s amazing
accomplishment, and its success may have influenced him to begin
the manufacture of steam traction engines.

First a carpenter, then a machinist, Lavosier began building
threshing machines in Martins Ferry in 1857, the year of his
marriage. Between the 1840s and the 1870s, no fewer than six
factories for the production of agricultural implements stood
closely together in the narrow lowland between the steep bluff to
the west and the Ohio River to the east. The location for business
was ideal, with the river at First Street and the Cleveland &
Pittsburgh rail line at the foot of the high cliff. Recognizing the
area’s advantages, Lavosier based his Ohio Valley Agricultural
Works on lots bounded by Hickory Street, Walnut Street and First
Street.

A view of the L. Spence factory from Eli L. Hayes’
Illustrated Atlas of the Upper Ohio River, 1877. Note the 85-ton
furnace engine, a horizontal stationary engine, a horse power and
threshing machines. (Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection,
www.davidrumsey.com)

BUSINESS BEGINS

Lavosier built his first steam engine in 1867. Martins Ferry
numbered 3,000 residents in 1870 when the census described Lavosier
as a threshing machine builder, but by 1872 he supplied steam
engines to Belmont Furnace in Wheeling. Lavosier’s son George
attended Ohio State University in 1886. The Wheeling Daily
Intelligencer on Sept. 14 of that same year stated L. Spence
employed about 25 workers, paid about $250 per week and also ran a
general repair shop. In his sophomore year, George left college in
Columbus, Ohio, to join his father in his engine and thresher
business.

A trade card showing the L. Spence traction engine, which
appears to be a double-simple with a power-steering assist shaft
extending to the kingpost. The slant evident in the trade card is
how it was originally printed and distributed, presumably by
accident.

In 1890, George was made a partner in the L. Spence Co., and on
Oct. 12, 1892, George married Flora A. McCord. The couple had two
daughters, Emma and Gertrude. In the 1892-1893 Belmont County
directory, Lavosier’s business was listed as L. Spence &
Son, manufacturers of portable, stationary and rolling mill and
blast furnace engines.

The Spence traction engine appears to have featured a
power-steering assist shaft leading from the crankshaft to the
kingpost. Details of the engine’s construction suggest that an
engineer activated the power-steering mechanism when desired.

BRANCHING OUT

The Spences continued to produce steam engines until 1899, when
L. Spence Co. merged with the Riverside Bridge Co., in which Spence
held a vested interest. George presided over the Stanton Heater
Co., and Lavosier also served on its board of directors. In
addition to his other company interests, Lavosier was president of
the People’s Savings Bank and vice-president of the First
National Bank of Bridgeport, Ohio. He was also a member of the
board of directors of both the Aetna and the Standard Steel Works
and held interests in other manufacturing firms in Martins
Ferry.

Lavosier had begun to build stoves in 1873, as well, and by the
following year he had accepted partners, and the firm had become
known as Spence, Baggs & Co., a name retained by the firm until
1900, when it incorporated as the Spence-Baggs Stove Co. George
served on the firm’s board of directors, and the stove business
prospered.

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

As a well-earned result to his hard work, perseverance and many
company holdings, Lavosier built a handsome residence on the
precipitous bluff overlooking the Ohio River. He staunchly
supported the interests of Martins Ferry, felt proud of its
achievements and looked on its future with hope. He had started out
only as a common carpenter, but his infallible work ethic and
business savvy truly led him to achieve the American dream of
success through hard work and investment.

Today, not much is mentioned about his contributions to the
world of steam, but Lavosier Spence shouldn’t be overlooked for
furthering the innovations of steam traction engines.

I wish to express my deepest gratitude to Stacy Anderson,
reference librarian at the Martins Ferry Public Library, for her
tireless efforts to ferret out long-forgotten information on
Lavosier Spence.

Contact steam historian Robert T. Rhode at: 990 W. Lower
Springboro Road, Springboro, OH 45066;
case65@earthlink.net

Sources

Centennial History of Belmont County and Representative
Citizens. Chicago: Biographical, 1903.
Historical Collecti0ons of Ohio. Vol. 1. Cincinnati, Ohio: C.J.
Krehbiel, 1902.
History of the Pan-Handle. Wheeling, W.Va.: J.A. Caldwell,
1879.
Knight & Co. ‘s Bellaire, Ohio, and Belmont County
Biennial Directory 1892-93.
A Town of Grandeur: Essays on the History of Martins Ferry, Ohio.
Tanks, Annie C, 2nd edition. Martins Ferry Area Historical Society,
1995.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment