The Challenge Line

Challenge stack

Challenge stack as it looks today.

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508 Bernadette Lane Batavia, Illinois 60510

The Challenge Windmill and Feed-mill Company of Batavia, Illinois was founded in 1867 by Nelson Burr and Hugh M. Armstrong. They chose a site along the east bank of the Fox River. Today the chimney of the foundry still stands with the black fire stones spelling, CHALLENGE, in the white stone stack. However, the sight of smoke being expelled from the chimney, a familiar sight to Batavians for over seventy-five years, has not been seen since the late 1940's.

The first couple of years the company employed only two hands, but the third year thirty or forty men were employed. This increase, which continued, was due to many factors, one being that Nelson Burr had invented a successful grinding surface out of metal. Many inventors had attempted this, but in failing to do so had come to the conclusion that the stone grinding wheel could not be improved.

On March 10, 1872, the Challenge Company suffered a setback as a fire spread through the factory causing an estimated $45,000.00 damage. The company was properly insured; however, due to the great losses suffered by insurance companies that year in the great Chicago fire, the Challenge Company only received $150.00 on their claim. (The Chicago fire of 1871 caused 250 deaths and $196 million in damages.) However, this was not to stop the Challenge Company. They started the job of rebuilding on an even larger scale while the ashes of the ruins were still smoldering. On April 24, one month and 14 days later, the wheels of the factory were again set to motion. In the early days of the Challenge, on of their strong points was the ample supply of power received from the Fox River located at the factory's west edge. This same company continued the business until 1882, when a new group of men took over. Among them was Thomas Snow, who had started with the Challenge in 1870 in a subordinate capacity. In 1887, Thomas Snow became president of the Challenge Company and from this time on the Snow family held control until the sale of the company in the 1940's.

Thomas Snow was born in Devonshire, England, January 19, 1851. At two years of age he left his native land in the care of his parents, Frank and Eliza (Davy) Snow. It was during the voyage that his mother died at sea. A few months later Thomas was sent back to England and placed under the care of his grandmother and aunt by whom he was raised, until age thirteen. He then again crossed the Atlantic, joined his father and came to Illinois. Stopping in Aurora, Frank Snow placed his son in public school while he worked at contracting and building, frequently for the C. B. & Q. Railroad. In 1867, Thomas and his father moved to Batavia, which became their permanent home. Thomas, however, did return to Aurora to complete his education at the Jenning Seminary. He then began his career with Challenge Company, where he remained until his sudden and untimely death on April 25, 1903 which occurred on a business trip to Aurora. At that time not only was Thomas Snow the president of the Challenge Company, he was mayor of Batavia, president of the East Batavia school board and president of the First National Bank of Batavia. He was proprietor of the W. H. Howell Company of Geneva, Illinois and the Snow Manufacturing Company of Chicago.

On January 8, 1878, he was married to Mary Thomle of Batavia. From this marriage Thomas was blessed with five children. Two died in early childhood. At the time of his death Thomas was survived by his father, his wife, and three sons, Thomas A., Frank C. and Albert E.

At the time of his father's death, Thomas A. stepped in as president of the Challenge Company with his brother Frank holding the position of secretary, and Albert as treasurer. Thomas also served, as his father had, as mayor of Batavia from 1907 to 1909. In 1917 Frank became president of Challenge and remained in office until he sold the business to Batavia Metal Products Company on April 6, 1945 for $325,000.00.

I do not know when the company officially changed from Challenge Windmill & Feedmill Company to Challenge Company, but from the newspaper ads it appears to have been in the spring of 1905. This might be a good time to explain that the Batavia Metal Products Company, which bought Challenge in 1945, only lasted a few years and was declared insolvent by its creditors and a referee in bankruptcy was appointed. Sometime between this and the sale by the courts, all machinery and inventory was auctioned off, and all the records and wood patterns are said to have been burned before the sale. This makes research on the company extremely difficult.

In January of 1901, L. P. Barker & Son completed two new buildings for the Challenge Company. One of these was to house the gas engine department. My friend, Tom Campbell, of Zion, Illinois who collects data on collectors with Challenge engines, informs me of a 5 HP Challenge serial #39 which was patented November 6, 1900 and installed December 1902. This is the oldest one I know of and it causes me to feel that Challenge did not manufacture engines under their name much earlier. I believe these first engines were tanked cooled, followed by hopper cooled engines the hoppers having three different shapes over the years and a separate design on the 1 HP and the 1 HP solid flywheel type. Most engines were green with some of the earlier ones being maroon or red and one style 1 HP being black. I'm told by Clarence Carlson, who was a gas engine inspector at Challenge during World War I, that at that time all engines were green with white or gold stripes and had square hoppers. He also told me that they then made 1-2-3-5-8 HP engines at a rate of six engines of each horsepower per day. These engines were tested by a brake test on the flywheel and a flat scale. I do not know whether the engines were all numbered in sequence as they were manufactured, or whether numbering was done by horsepower and model. I have noted that Challenge catalogs throughout the years show both hourglass and square hoppers and a square hopper with a rim on top around the opening. The latter I have never seenit may have been a fabrication on the printer's part, but I don't believe so. I'm told that Challenge cast hourglass hoppers in the forties, but these may have been for parts orders (my source doesn't remember).

I have been told by collectors that someone in Engineland once had a list of serial numbers and years of Challenge engines. If this list does exist, please make it known to the rest of us! The only way I know of dating Challenges other than this is by comparing serial numbers to those of engines whose years when purchased new are known. I have also noticed type and HP changes in Challenge catalogs, and although most catalogs are not dated, one can still get a rough idea of dates.

Data From the Catalogs

Challenge Windmill & Feedmill Company General Catalog claims over 27 years in business (indicating a publishing date of about 1894) and offers 2, 4, 7 and 10 HP horizontal tank cooled engines.

A later C. W. M. & F. M. Co. General Catalog, probably from about 1903, offers a 1 vertical and 2, 3, 5, 8, 10 and 12 HP horizontal, all tank cooled engines offered with torch (hot tube) or battery ignitor.

The cover of Catalog #45 calls the Challenge Company successors to C. W. M. & F. M. Co., claiming over 36 years in business. This catalog offers 2, 3, 5, 8, 10 and 12 HP horizontal tank cooled and 1, 2 , and 4 HP vertical tank cooled.

Catalog #54 offers 2, 3,4,6,9, 12 and 15 HP horizontal, all ignitor fired by friction mag being either Henricks or Motsinger Autosparker. 2 to 6 HP offered in hopper or tank cooled. The hopper is the type with the rim. The 9 to 15 HP is offered only as tank cooled.

Catalog #72 offers 1, 1,2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12 and 16 HP horizontal. The 1 HP has a shape all of its own. The 1 to 6 HP is offered with hourglass hopper and the 1 to 12 HP can also be had with a square hopper with the rim, or the 8 to 16 HP is offered in tank cooled.

Catalog #82 dated October 1919 offers 1, 3, 5, 8 HP square or hourglass hopper cooled and states that all engines are equipped with Wizard Oscillating Magnetos.

Catalog #90 dated June 1, 1925, offers 1, 3, 5, and 8 HP in square hopper and 3, 5, and 8 HP in hourglass hopper on their hoisting outfit. It also offers a 1 horsepower solid flywheel engine. Engine information States that all engines are furnished with Wico magetos.

Catalog #92 dated April 1, 1929 offers the same product line as Catalog #90.

I hope this will help to give a rough idea of age of various Challenge engines.