Gas Engine Builders of Eau Claire, Wisconsin


Crew at Northwestern Steel & Iron Works, Eau Claire, WI. Note the Casey Jones engines in. the foreground. (Circa 1912.)

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21321 County X Cadott, Wisconsin 54727

This article was originally supposed to be about just one engine builder of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. As I was doing the research for it, I found a couple others and decided to include them.

I've been an engine collector for several years. I don't have a large collection, but what I do have I am very proud of. I have three sons and two of them are interested in old iron too, and hopefully, the third one is coming around.

I was born and raised in Eau Claire and still live only 20 miles away. I've always found its history very fascinating and quite colorful.

The Northwestern Steel & Iron Works began business in 1905 and was to manufacture cement mixers, marine engines, farm engines and various other products. They were capitalized at $50,000 and were in the hands of Messrs. Kim Rosholt and Peter J. Holm. Kim Rosholt was born in Scandinavia, Wisconsin, on December 27, 1864. He came to Eau Claire from Thorp, Wisconsin, and opened up land offices. With the acquisition of cut-over land that he got from the logging companies, he was able to sell the land and bring in many new settlers. As he disposed of these lands, he gradually got into banking and the manufacturing business and at this he was most successful. He became president of the Northwestern Steel & Iron Works from the beginning and remained so until his untimely death due to a diabetic condition on January 5, 1920.

Peter J. Holm was born in Sweden September 19, 1851. He came to the United States in 1880 and to Eau Claire in that same year. He was a resident for 22 years and was a foreman and pattern maker for the McDonough Mfg. Co. for 14 years. He also was connected with the Holm Concrete Manufacturing Company (also known as Holm Concrete Machine Company), of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

He had invented the Holm Gasoline Engine, which was taken over by Northwestern Steel & Iron Works, and had perfected several other patents including Patent No. 973,505 on October 25, 1910 which covered a governor mechanism that became a major development in gas engine design. (See Wendel's book, page 233, for more information).

In May of 1905, the Eau Claire Commercial Association was to meet with P.J. Holm and hear his proposal for building a new industry in Eau Claire. They asked for no bonus from the city and for no rebate in taxes. They would stand on their own merits and manufacture their own patents. After careful consideration, banker Kim Rosholt told Holm that he need not look any further and that he would supply the capital needed to start the plant. Ground was broken at the corners of Ball and Spring Streets on May 20, 1905.

The main building was 50 x 150 feet with other continuous buildings that were to be erected, including a foundry, pattern shop, warehouse, etc. The first floor was for the iron work machinery and the second floor was for the woodworking. One unusual feature of the building of the plant was that the concrete blocks used in its construction were made on site by machines that were to be manufactured at the new Eau Claire industry. These machines came from the Holms Concrete Manufacturing Company of Minneapolis and were being tested here. The firm would then relocate to Eau Claire and become Northwestern Steel & Iron Works.

They were owned and operated entirely by Eau Claire capital. Besides the concrete machinery, they built 6 to 10 HP stationary engines, 2 to 8 HP marine engines, a 2 HP portable, 1 HP cream separator engines, a 3 vertical engine, a potato digger, cultivator, wood saw and several other products, including a pressure cooker/canner that would perhaps be their most famous product.

In 1908 P.J. Holm severed his ties with the Northwestern Steel &. Iron Works, but remained as a major stockholder. He and 11 men, including two sons, left for Sparta, Michigan, to organize the Holm Manufacturing Company. They were to start production in the spring of 1909 and were becoming quite successful. In March of 1910 Holm sold his interest to Sears &. Roebuck who then moved the plant to Evansville, Indiana, and sold it to the Hercules Buggy Company. Thus became the Hercules and Economy built engines.

P.J. Holm returned to Eau Claire and, along with several others, started a business on Water Street known as the Western Machine Manufacturing Company, maker of Western King Gasoline Engine. The factory was at 313 Water Street, and the shop was across the street at 302. The first engine was built in July of 1910 and it was run by his son, John. Sizes were to be l to 8 HP and were to sell from $45 to $300. They also made the Western King Pump Jack that sold for $12.50. The Western King engine was gaining quite a reputation, according to the newspaper reports. How many of these engines were built and if any of them still exist is unknown.

P. J. Holm died on June 3, 1911, due to complications of gallstones and a severe urinary infection. The Western Machine Manufacturing Company remained in business until sometime in 1912 and it is unknown what actually became of the company after that time.

In 1910 Kim Rosholt organized the Northwestern Motor Company strictly as a selling organization apart from the Northwestern Steel & Iron Works. The main purpose was to sell a motor car engine to section foremen to replace the old pump type of hand car. They first sold them a marine engine mounted on a base that would drive the rear axle with a belt which was tightened and loosened by an idler pulley. It was soon apparent that this was not a good design and so an engine was designed on a sliding base, water cooled and of two-cycle design. This was the famous Casey Jones engine design. These were sold to the section foreman for $85$ 15 down and $5 per month. These were manufactured by the Northwestern Steel & Iron Works for the Northwestern Motor Company.

In July of 1911, the Gas Corliss Company of Minneapolis made a contract with the Northwestern Steel & Iron Works to build the Sorg 6 HP stationary kerosene engine. Mr. W. A. Sorg, the inventor, represented the Minneapolis firm and licensed the Northwestern Steel & Iron Works to manufacture his invention. The engine was quite a marvel for its time. The piston remained stationary while the cylinder became the moving part. The piston was water cooled and the cylinder kept warmer and this was to avoid excessive heat and give perfect lubrication. It was the only engine with the piston bearing on the outside. No oil would get into the combustion chamber so troubles with carbon deposits, pitted valves and ignitors were avoided. How many of these engines were built is unknown.

Sometime during the period between 1912 to 1914, most of the products that were built by the Northwestern Steel &. Iron Works were being jobbed out, sold or discontinued so that they could concentrate on making canning equipment for industrial and home use. Food preservation was up and coming.

A contract was made with the Lansing Company of Lansing, Michigan (formerly the Lansing Wheelbarrow Company), for them to take over the entire output of the concrete machinery equipment. This was in September of 1912. The Lansing Company had been jobbing the goods for about a year and was now in full control. It was the only plant in the country building such a full line and it was with a volume of $200,000 per year.

The Northwestern Motor Company was now having to find a new supplier for their Casey Jones engines, so they turned to the U.S. Switch Company. This continued until about 1919 when U.S. Switch was bought out by Eau Claire Manufacturing, builders of the Keller gas engines. The company was run by Charles Keller and R.B. Gillette. Keller was formerly the founder of the Bloomer Machine Works, Bloomer, Wisconsin, and the Gillette name became famous for building tires. Eau Claire Manufacturing was now building the Keller and Casey Jones engines. This went on until about 1926, when the gas engine building was phased out.

Northwestern Motor Company is still in business today in the same place they've been since 1918. They have made many different products over the years. In 1918, they developed an industrial tractor called the Shop Mule, and a smaller one called the Midget Shop Mule. These were for transporting loads around the railroad yards and were built for the W.F. Hebard of Chicago. Today they build a similar tractor in various sizes for transporting loads around airport terminals and they also build end loaders and commercial composters along with other types of light industrial equipment.

A fire destroyed the plant of the Northwestern Steel &. Iron Works on March 18, 1922. Only the foundry was left, and operations resumed at the Phoenix Manufacturing Company until a new factory was built. They moved into their new plant in the latter part of 1922.

On January 7, 1929, the Northwestern Steel & Iron Works became the National Pressure Cooker Company. They were in full operation of making canning equipment for commercial and home use. In 1946, Martin Motors came into the picture. They built some very well known outboard motors, some of which are still in use today or sitting proudly in some fishing museum or hiding in some garage or barn. Martin Motors also toyed with the idea of building a small, two-cycle engine. One experimental engine was built. It was two-cycle, 1 HP and air cooled, but for unknown reasons, the idea and the engine were scrapped. Thanks to a quick thinking employee who saw the engine sitting in the scrap pile, this one engine was saved and still exists today. Martin Motors was bought out by the Oliver Company in about 1958.

On and after May 1, 1953, the National Pressure Cooker Company was named National Presto Industries. Yes, this is the world famous Presto that still makes pressure cookers and canners, popcorn air-poppers, salad shooters     and many other well known small appliances. Except for the Martin Motors era, they are pretty much unaware of their colorful past and most of them never heard of Northwestern Steel & Iron Works.

Most of this information came from old newspaper articles that I was able to track down with help from the Chippewa Valley Museum Library of Eau Claire and librarian Eldbjors Tobin, and I would like to say thank you. I had a lot of fun researching these companies and I hope I'm not done.

If anyone has any further information on these companies or any literature on them or their engines, or if you have any of the engines mentioned, please contact me. I WILL get back to you. Thanks.