Russell Steam Traction Engines: 100 Years of Threshers, Road Rollers, Tractors

The long history of Russell & Company, the "Old Reliable Line”

| Fall 2006

On the night of May 9, 1898, the red glare of a magnificent fire stopped an opera in the middle of its performance in the Massillon, Ohio, opera house. The Russell & Co. steam traction engine business was on fire, and the blaze attracted a horde of sightseers from Canton. They saw the flickering on the horizon and bicycled 12 miles in the dark to take in the spectacle.

“Drawn by the red glare in the skies,” wrote Edward Thornton Heald in The Stark County Story, “hundreds of other Cantonians rushed to the scene by train, interurban and carriages.”

Though the fire at the steam engine business provided a display for the sightseers, the Canton Fire Department arrived an hour and a half after the blaze started with a fire engine, wagon and four horses. It was not a good time for Russell & Co., the largest employer in the city. It wasn't the first time the business was on fire.

The Beginnings of Russell & Co.

After their carpentery shop burned in 1840, a trio of Russell brothers – Charles, Nahum and Clement – formed C.M. Russell & Co. on Jan. 1, 1842, to make threshers and horsepowers in an old whitewashed two-story building called the “White Shop.” They used a blind white horse to drive an iron and wood trimming lathe and a grindstone. “The senior partner had seen and carefully examined the Pitts-Buffalo Separator, which had already been constructed and in use,” says Herbert T.O. Blue in The History of Stark County Ohio, “and on that examination Mr. Russell believed that he saw where improvements might be made, and with characteristic energy set about trying to make it better, and so succeeded that the improved machine took the premium at the Ohio State Fair at Columbus in 1845.”

After the local shipping canal was clogged with boats filled with a bumper wheat crop in 1846, citizens realized a railroad was needed. The Russells not only bought stock in the Ohio & Pennsylvania Railroad to urge it to come through Massillon, they built railroad handcars and stockcars for the company, so their new business, N.S.&C. Russell, flourished. Three more brothers joined in 1864 and the organization became Russell & Co. In 1871 the company divided; C. Russell & Co. moved to Canton, to make reapers and mowers.

On May 17, 1878, a fire destroyed the Russell iron-working machinery, wagon stock and 36 years’ stock of patterns, worth $75,000 – a small fortune. Other losses totaled an additional $75,000 and insurance covered only $53,100, a third of the total. This threw 250 men out of work. Two-thirds of the main building was saved, and the next day new machinery was ordered. Several companies actually loaned machinery to the company until theirs came. With the addition of gas put into the works, a week later, the iron department was in operation again on double shifts, and within 30 days the full complement of machines was being turned out again.


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