The Legacies of Marshall and Milton Reeves


This 12 HP Reeves gas engine is serial no. 4229, and is probably a 1912 model.

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If there was a more unusual pair of brothers in the tractor-manufacturing world than Marshall T. and Milton O. Reeves, they have been well hidden. Between them, the Columbus, Ind., pair invented a six-wheeled and an eight-wheeled automobile, wrote a booklet of directions on how to play the game of roque, founded and pastored a church, included sermons in Reeves & Co. agricultural products catalogs, donated half a million dollars to church missions, invented the variable transmission, had a well-known writer dedicate a work to the Reeves auto, worked side-by-side with factory hands, and, oh yes, manufactured Reeves steam traction engines, cars, buses, tractors and gas engines.

Youth No Hindrance

Marshall Reeves was still in his teens, plowing corn on his father's farm with the old conventional double shovel plow in 1869, when he was struck with an idea. As The Evening Republican newspaper of Columbus, Ind., reported, "The day being hot and the task not a pleasant one, the youth began thinking in terms of labor-saving machinery with the result that he devised a plow on which two double shovels were fastened, one a right-hand and the other a left. He was then able to plow a row of corn at one operation instead of merely a half row as he had done in the past."

Thus, the inventive genius of Marshall Reeves was unleashed. His father helped improve the device and in 1874 Marshall, his father and uncle Alfred B. Reeves formed Hoosier Boy Cultivator Co. They began manufacturing that childhood invention, the "Hoosier Boy Tongueless Corn Plow." In 1879 the name Reeves & Co. was taken, as Marshall had been busy inventing other Reeves items as well: threshers, straw stackers, separators, corn shellers and clover hullers ­- all under the Reeves name. During his lifetime, Marshall was credited for more than 50 patents.

Younger Brother

In the same year, the other half of the dynamic duo, Milton Reeves (13 years younger than Marshall) worked in a sawmill in Columbus. There he saw that workers could not control the speed of the pulleys used to power woodcutting saws. The high speeds caused wood to split and resulted in a great deal of profit-cutting waste. After some months of study and experimentation, he in-vented a variable-speed transmission to control how fast the saws cut. During his lifetime, Milton patented more than 100 different items. In September 1888, Milton, along with Marshall, M.M. Reeves and A.B. Reeves bought Edinburg Pulley Co., moved it to Columbus, and renamed it Reeves Pulley Co.

"The day being hot and the task not a pleasant one, the youth began thinking in terms of labor-saving machinery." - The Evening Republican newspaper of Columbus, Ind.

Reeves Gas Engines

Though it is unclear when Reeves Pulley Co. began manufacturing gas engines, it appears it might have been about 1911. In 1913, 1 HP and 2 HP engines were introduced "to replace the 1-1/2 HP size announced in 1911," according to C.H. Wendel in American Gasoline Engines Since 1872. Other sizes built included 3, 4, 6, 12 and 15 HP sizes.

The engines lasted through 1915, something of a surprise considering the company spared no expenses for their machines and thus had them priced higher than others on the market. They bored and reamed each piston, adding two brass bushings and a wrist pin, which floated in the piston rather than in the connecting rod. Split flywheel hubs, the best, and more expensive engineering practice, were featured on most Reeves gas engines. The engines were painted "rich, brilliant red, nicely striped in gold, with neat scrolls at the corners, and our name 'The Reeves' applied to the hopper in gold," their 1913 catalog proclaimed.

The crank end also had this "fancy work," which, as Wendel wrote, was sure to increase costs. "The company laid great emphasis on (the finish of) their engines," Wendel adds. "Noting at one point that filling and sanding to a good finish was a prerequisite before entering the paint room."

Milton worked back and forth from automobile engine work to portable gas engine work, incorporating "the best automobile practice," as he wrote. Reeves gas engines included eccentric piston rings, for example.

Other advantages of Reeves engines included make-and-break ignition, hit-and-miss governing, and a spark-adjusting lever to retard ignition when starting and advance ignition when running. Reeves engines were sold to Cummings Machine Co. of Minster, Ohio, in 1915, and were probably not manufactured after that.

Reeves Automobiles

During the summer of 1896, Milton began working earnestly on automobiles. He realized his variable-speed transmission would work in the "horseless carriage," so he built one for his homemade Motocycle automobile, and another to vary the speed on a 24-by-10-inch lathe in the pulley plant. He was half-crazed by the idea of an automobile.

The first successful test of the Motocycle was Sept. 26, 1896. The first automobile in Indianapolis, Ind., it was noted for having variable speeds of 1-15 MPH, while other autos of the time generally ran in one gear.

He built a second Motocycle, essentially a bus, called the "Big Seven," which held seven people. He also put together two smaller Motocycles. In January 1898, Milton reported to the Reeves directors: "So far as the devices which I placed on the machine were concerned, they have done their work as well as I had expected, but so many other things have annoyed me at times that I have been discouraged with the machine as a whole. Among these I might mention vibration, odor and vapor from exhaust of engine, vapor from cooling water, and others too numerous to mention ..."

Milton built a 20-passenger bus in 1898, and sold it to a Pierre, S.D., businessman. Though it worked well, its track was wider than already-established wagon-wheel ruts, so it was returned to the company, where it was used on the Big Four Railroad from Columbus to Hope, Ind. Parts of these buses were possibly used to make other Reeves vehicles.

In 1899, Milton dropped out of the automobile business temporarily because better transmissions had been invented for cars; however, in industrial uses, his variable speed transmission was doing very well. The thought of automobiles did not leave Milton. He tinkered and made Reeves prototypes - two air-cooled, 4-cylinder, gasoline engine designs. Ten cars were made by 1905 - four Model Ds and six Model Es.

The Model D used a 3-1/4-by-3-1/4-inch bore and stroke engine of 12 HP, while the Model E had a larger 4-by-4-inch bore and stroke 18-20 HP engine. Reeves only offered engines for sale for 1906 as testing on the cars continued. Other Reeves automobiles were built and sold over the next few years, including the Model S, Model N and others.

The Octoauto and Sextoauto

In 1911, Milton formed the Reeves Sexto-Octo Co. of Columbus, Ind., and turned to manufacturing some of the oddest, yet sleek-looking cars ever made: the Sextoauto and the Octoauto, multi-wheeled cars with six and eight wheels. These were titled "The easiest riding cars in the world," and followed the premise that the more tires on the ground, the more comfortable the ride. Reeves wanted an auto that would "float" over bumps and rough streets. Thus came the eight-wheeled Octoauto, which was praised in two pages of prose by a well-known writer of the time, Elbert Hubbard.

"In the Reeves Octoauto," Hubbard wrote, "the load is distributed over eight wheels, instead of being concentrated on four. In a four-wheeled automobile, a wheel at each corner carries one-fourth of the load. In case of an imperfection in the road or the sudden dropping down into a rut, one wheel may for an instant carry half the load, and it is this sudden jolt and burden that causes tire trouble."

The Octoauto was simply a modified 1910-1911 Overland automobile. The length of the Octoauto - 248 inches - was a huge drawback, in addition to its price of $3,200. None were ever sold.

In the summer of 1912, Milton bought a brand new Stutz, and converted it into the six-wheeled Sextoauto. Its price was $5,000, and none were ever sold. This ended Milton's ventures in the automobile world.

Reeves Tractors

In 1910, Reeves & Co. built their first tractor, a large 4-cylinder machine with an engine built by Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co. It was identical to the Twin City 40-65 engine. The Reeves 40 was a 40-65 with a 4-cylinder engine of 7-1/4-by-9-inch bore and stroke. But the tractor never did do well, partly because Reeves & Co. was sold to Emerson-Brantingham Co. of Rockford, Ill., in 1912. EB continued to make the Reeves tractor through 1920, as well as Reeves steam traction engines.

"For more than a third of a century, Mr. Reeves was president and general manager of the Reeves & Company's manufacturing concern ... at the time of the sale of the company, the annual business done by the company totaled approximately two million dollars." - The Evening Republican

Final Days

Despite the difference in the brilliant brothers' ages, they died within six months of each other - Marshall in December 1923 and Milton in May 1924. The Evening Republican remembered Marshall this way: "For more than a third of a century, Mr. Reeves was president and general manager of the Reeves & Company's manufacturing concern here, and during that time he and his associates succeeded in building up the business from a mere blacksmith shop to a mammoth manufacturing concern which sent its products everywhere and which at one time employed approximately 1,000 men. Reeves & Co. manufactured threshing and kindred machinery and at the time of the sale of the company to the Emerson-Brantingham Company, the annual business done by the company totaled approximately two million dollars."

The Evening Republican obituary of Milton remembered him thus: "An inventive genius, M.O. Reeves originated and designed the two chief products manufactured by the Reeves Pulley Company, the Reeves variable speed transmission and the Reeves pulley. After the variable-speed transmission had been brought out, Mr. Reeves' inventive and mechanical ability began to assert itself and much of his time for many years was spent in experimentations and in the perfection of mechanical devices of various kinds."

With the deaths of these brothers, the saga of Reeves & Co. of Columbus, Ind., came to an end.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact Bill at: Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369; (320) 253-5414; bvossler@juno.com