The Short, Odd Story of the Abenaque Tractor

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Tank-cooled engine
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Abenaque tractor
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Semi-Portable engine
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Abenaque tractors

The founder of the Abenaque Machine Works, Frederick M. Gilbert, was traveling in a party of six in the late 1880s headed to Portland, Maine, when one of the horses developed pink eye. ‘They stopped in Westminster, Vt., to seek aid,’ write Patricia A. Haas and Alice C. Caggiano in Abenaque Machine Works. ‘A good man across the Connecticut River in Walpole (N. H.) was recommended. The horse was left in his care and a replacement purchased.’

On the way back, the party stopped and discovered the horse had died. But the time spent in the area had been fruitful. Frederick Gilbert had been so impressed by the Westminster-Walpole area that he chose to build his home there.

So in 1893, Frederick Gilbert and his family ‘packed their belongings,’ say Haas and Caggiano, ‘including all their money, gold and jewelry, in barrels.’ The barrels were then transported by a team of horses and a wagon to a bank in Keene, N.H., where, Haas and Caggiano write, ‘Mr. Gilbert simply backed the horse and wagon to the door (of the bank) and unloaded the containers.’ A curious method of making a deposit, and the curious beginning to the interesting history of the Abenaque tractor.

By the middle of 1893, Frederick was constructing the buildings that would house the Abenaque Machine Works. Rumor had it he was building a corn-starch factory, as he had previously been in the starch business, and his new buildings were near the corn canning factory.

Instead, he signed up an inventor for his new machine business. He convinced John Ostenberg, who was working in the Des Moines, Iowa, business of Frederick’s father, to move to Westminster Station, and sign a five-year contract at $1,000 a year to create inventions for the new business.

However, Gilbert and Ostenberg must not have gotten along, because before the five years were up, John Ostenberg moved to San Jose, California, where he opened the Ostenberg Manufacturing Company.

Ostenberg’s moving doesn’t seem to have affected Abenaque Machine Works a great deal, in part because he had already applied for five patents – all of which were approved and assigned to Gilbert’s name, from 1898-1903. The most important was for an ‘explosion,’ or gasoline (or as they spelled it, ‘gasoline’) engine.

Ostenberg described his engine and hinted at how it was named in his patent application: ‘The invention is preferably embodied in what is known as a four cycle engine in which every other stroke is idle, the return of the piston serving to compress the air and gas before the explosion takes place …’ He also invent ed a circuit-breaker to be used as an igniting device for the engine, a separate invention for improved construction for inlet and exhaust ports in the engine, as well as an improved water jacket for stationary gasoline engines.

Using Ostenberg’s plans, the engines were manufactured in sizes ranging from two hp through 25 hp. As the Abenaque Gasoline Traction Engine booklet says, ‘Abenaque gas and gasoline engines are made in sizes of from 2-25 H.P., of several different types, and, we believe, are adapted to more varied applications than any other one make of engine at present on the market. For portable work particularly we believe they are unexcelled, as, being entirely self-contained, the engine is ready to be started up at any time, there being no connections to be made after each change of location.’

For the next 15 years, these ‘explosion engines’ were staples of the Abenaque Machine Works line.

But the company manufactured or handled many other products, as well: a circular saw outfit, portable combination drag and circular saw outfit, stationary saw frames, portable air compressor out fits, Papecensilage cutters, feed grinders, hay presses, grain threshers, and power pumps.

Companies have always published testimonials to show the world how good their product was, and the Abenaque Machine Works was no different. A man wrote on November 5, 1896: ‘As I have used one of your gasoline engines for about a year and a half (or, rather seven teen months), I believe a long enough time for a fair trial, I must say it has filled the requirements in first-rate shape, not only by doing the work well, but without repair expense. I use the engine to run sewing-machines for stitching heavy cloth, and those who do the work and have used other power say they have never had better or more even than this … I positively know that ALL so called gas or gasoline engines are not good, some being practically useless, as I have tried some of this kind. Some others are good, but I believe I have THE BEST engine made, which is your make.’

In 1906, James E. Hattan wrote, ‘My engine has never given me any trouble at all – most satisfactory in fact. Am using it right along and have nothing but good words for it.’

It is, perhaps, understandable that Abenaque avoided publishing the following letter, dated July 28, 1905, from the So. Lancaster Printing Company: ‘Please send us one set of brushes for our dynamo, also a spring for same. For several months our engine has not been giving good satisfaction. It leaks air in cylinder, the rings seem to be worn on the lower side. It seems to us that this ought not to be in an engine guaranteed as this one is. We have not had it a year yet. Kindly let us hear from you.’

That the Abenaque tractor ever became a viable machine is a mystery, if only because it was manufactured in a city and state – Westminster Station, Vt. – far from the largest market for tractors: The U.S. central plains, where farmers would doubtless have been attracted to its strong suit, as written in its advertising literature: ‘The Abenaque tractors have been developed to meet the hilly conditions which obtain in the East, and hence are all the more suitable for work in a more level country.’

The first Abenaque Tractor was produced in 1908, according to C.H. Wendel in The Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors. By this time, the originator of the company, Frederick Gilbert, was gone, having died while visiting his mother during a 1902 business trip. In another curiosity, Gilbert’s wife, Alice, took over management of the company; a woman at the head of a company during those days was unusual. During her reign, the company designed its first tractor. ‘First marketed in May, 1908,’ C.H. Wendel writes,’ this 15-horsepower model weighed in at 11,000 pounds -over 733 pounds per horsepower. The husky chassis carried a stationary-type engine that had been patented by John A. Ostenberg. The 15-horsepower engine had a bore of 8 5/8 inches and a 12/12-inch-stroke, developing its rated power at 270 RPM.

Abenaque engines and tractors used a very unique and obvious evaporative cooling system’ based on Ostenberg’s water-jacket patent. The first Abenaque tractors – originally called ‘gasoline traction engines’ because ‘tractor’ was not yet in popular use – were crude, essentially wheeled portable engines with a steering wheel attached.

During the next three years, the Abenaque tractor underwent a huge makeover. When the 1911 model was released, it had greatly strengthened rear wheels, an improved operator’s platform, with a much-improved seat and steering wheel, steel instead of semi-steel gears, a sliding-gear transmission with three for ward speeds and one reverse, and a canopy covering the entire tractor, like those of many other tractors of the era. One of the first Abenaque machines was reported in the Vermont Phoenix newspaper in October 1911: ‘A trackless engine belonging to the Abenaque Company passed through here Wednesday evening on its way to the Loomis Brothers farm in Putney with machinery for plowing and harvest work. It was a curiosity, the engine and machinery being as long as two freight cars.’

One of the directions in the booklet that went with the tractor said ‘Great care should be taken in oiling the engine while running, that the fingers or clothing are not caught in any of the moving parts. This applies especially to the governor, valve levers and belting.’ It is possible that this directive was included because of the memory of two occurrences in the Abenaque Machine Works shop. In 1894, two men received hand injuries. In 1905, a 26-year-old worker got his legs entangled in a belt, and then was swung around and around repeatedly, hitting his head against a solid object each time. Two days later he died.

Abenaque Machine Works manufactured several sizes of tractors. The smallest was the 12 hp Abenaque, which came with 14 inch or 20 inch tires on the driving wheels, as desired.

The Abenaque 15 hp tractor had drive wheels that were 56 inches in diameter, exclusive of cleats, with 20-inch tires. Front wheels were 36 inches in diameter.

Abenaque also made a 25 hp tractor. The company praised the machine for its short turning radius. It could pull three 14-inch bottom plows under favorable conditions, getting through eight acres a day. It could haul loads of 20,000 pounds.

The booklet also says, ‘We are advised by the road commissioners of a New York town owning and operating one of our machines, that the weekly expense when using six horses on the road machine has been $84 per week (including two-horse team hire at the rate of $4 each per day). They state that when operating the scraper by means of the Abenaque tractor they accomplish one third more work at a total weekly expense, including cost of gasoline, cylinder oil and operators, of $36, or a net saving of $48 per week plus one third more work.’ That, in a nutshell, could explain why tractors were becoming favored over horses at this time. The gasoline traction engine booklet also gave directions on how the tractor could best be used on the farm, for contractors’ work, or highway construction.

The Abenaque tractor only did well for four years; in 1915, the entire company went bankrupt, at which time an announcement was published (on September 23):

PUBLIC, ATTENTION. The business of the Abenaque Machine Works, Westminster Stations, Vt, manufacturers of the famous Abenaque Gasoline Engine and Wood Sawing Outfits was on September 1st, 1915, taken over by new interests and the purpose of this advertisement is to advise the public that business will be continued along the same lines as formally except under greatly improved conditions.

Our stock of both engines and repairs is very complete and if you are considering the purchase of an outfit can assure you it will be to your advantage to get our catalogue and prices before purchasing. Write today.

The business limped on for six more years, still under the Gilbert family auspices, until it filed its final bankruptcy in 1921.


The 1900 Abenaque catalog offered the following answers to the question: WHY SHOULD YOU BUY AN ABENAQUE GASOLENE ENGINE?

BECAUSE it is built of the best material and is of the best workman ship.

BECAUSE it can be put to more uses than any other single engine ever built.

BECAUSE it consumes less gasoline than any other engine.

BECAUSE it is not an experiment. It has been tested by a variety of users and has never been found wanting.

BECAUSE it has no gasoline or water tanks to be moved and connect ed every time the engine is moved. Everything is on it at all times, ready for use.

BECAUSE the parts of the engine receiving the greatest strain are at rest at all times except when needed to fill their functions, and will therefore last longer.

BECAUSE it starts easier and quicker than any other engine you ever saw. No starting machines are necessary. One turn of the fly-wheel is all that is necessary to start it.

BECAUSE it is not built on wheels like other portable engines, thereby causing a great additional expense and making the engine useless for indoor work. It can be carried on a wagon body or a sled, and set to running in any position without truing up.

BECAUSE each engine is used to run our machinery for several days before it leaves our shop, and is known to be in perfect working order.

OUR GUARANTEE. Each engine is guaranteed to be made from the best material and of the best workmanship, and to develop five actual brake horse power.

Bill Vossler is a frequent contributor to Farm Collector.

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