The Mystery of the Lehmer Model

An Old Traction Engine Model Leads to a Modern Mystery


| November/December 2002



Wooden model of Lehmer's traction gear

Seven years ago, I bought a wooden model of an agricultural traction engine at an antique mall in Lebanon, Ohio, and thereon hangs this tale.

About 20 percent of the model's parts were missing, and I wanted to recreate them to restore the model. First, I had to learn what make of engine it was. It bore a resemblance to a Wood, Taber & Morse portable, manufactured in Eaton, N.Y., but it had an extra shaft running in front of the firebox beneath the boiler. I was stumped. I called the antique dealer to ask where he had acquired the model. He replied that he purchased it at a flea market. Since I could not trace the engine's origins, I postponed restoration indefinitely.

Wooden model of Lehmer's traction gear on a portable engine with a boiler 14 inches long. This is the model that launched Robert T. Rhode's investigation of Isaac Lehmer and his traction design.

Last year, I was paging through Jack Norbeck's Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines, and my gaze became riveted to a photograph on page 42 in the section of Jack's book devoted to portable engines. I recognized the picture as the inspiration for my model, extra shaft and all. Jack's caption contained intriguing details, which he later told me had come from Raymond Laizure, publisher of The Stumptown Steamer. The engine featured in Norbeck's book was indeed a 6 HP Wood, Taber & Morse portable, but, as Norbeck's caption informed me, in 1875, Isaac Lehmer had a 'set of patterns made from his own designs for the attachments necessary to make it a steam traction engine.'

I contacted Larry Jones, curator of agricultural exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution, to inquire if he had additional information on the Lehmer traction engine conversion package. He called my attention to a photograph on page 7 of Floyd Clymer's Album of Historical Steam Traction Engines. I noticed that the engines in the pictures in Norbeck and Clymer were similar but not the same. Both resembled my model, yet all three differed slightly from one another. Intriguingly, the Clymer photo showed the words 'Lehmer Traction Gear' on the engineer's platform. It was becoming clear to me that Lehmer had formed a company to sell his traction conversion kit. Research brought to light the fascinating story.

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