We thank the Badger Steam and Gas Engine Club, Inc. of Baraboo, Wisconsin for allowing us to reprint this article. This came from their Annual Show book 1975. And thanks to Verne W. Kindschi, Route 1, Prairie Du Sac, Wisconsin 53578, for submitting it.
As we have done in each of the past years in which we have published an Annual Showbook, we have again researched an old Wisconsin Farm Machinery Company. This year we are featuring the Gilson Manufacturing Company of Port Washington, Wisconsin. After much inquiring and searching we have obtained the following information on this company.
Actually, when one hears the name of Gilson, it could be any one of three different companies. The Gilson we are mainly interested in is the one that built the gasoline engines.
In 1850 Theodore Gilson, a native of Luxembourg, started a foundry at Port Washington, a city located on the shore of Lake Michigan. In association with Nicholas Martin, they built plows until 1866 when Martin established his own company.
In 1866 the firm was called Theodore Gilson and Son, as his son had joined the company at an early age. During these years they built threshing machines and horse powers, as well as improved models of their plows.
It is interesting to note that in 1897 John Gilson invented the first adjustable office chair irons. The Gilson Company became very well known for their chair irons, which they produced under the name of the Gilson Manufacturing Company. Stockholders in this company were H. W. Bolens and Boerner Brothers.
In about 1905 they came out with the gasoline engines. Also, in 1905 and 1906 John and J. E. Gilson built several two-cylinder cars at their plant in Port Washington.
Some years later, the exact year is not known, this company was known as the Gilson Bolens Manufacturing Company; then in 1914 the Gilsons sold out to Bolens.
It was during the years of the Gilson Manufacturing Company, Gilson Bolens, and Bolens Manufacturing Company that they built gasoline engines. We were not able to find out how many engines were actually built, or just exactly which dates they were built; however, from some old production records it would appear that they built engines from about 1905 until the 1920s. All of the engine records were destroyed or lost.
Gilson also had a plant in Canada where they built gas engines; also, it is interesting to know that they had a silo patented which they built there.
Mr. H. W. Bolens became president and principle owner of the Bolens Manufacturing Company; at the time of his death in 1944 they had become the largest producer of office chair irons and one of the earliest and largest producers of garden tractors. Bolens, today, is still a large producer of lawn and garden tractors, etc. They are now a Division of Food Machinery Corporation where they are still building the equipment at Port Washington.
After the Gilsons sold out to Bolens in 1914, they formed the J. E. Gilson Company in 1916 to manufacture gray iron castings and garden tools. In the early 1920s they suffered a fire at their plant. It was rebuilt; however, in 1962 fire again destroyed the plant. At this time George I. Gilson decided not to rebuild. At this time a fifth generation of Gilson, George U., had become briefly associated with the plant.
It was George U. Gilson, along with I. O. Heatwole, (who is related to the Gilsons through marriage), who were able to give us some of this information. Mr. Heatwole is the president of the Heatwole Foundry Company in Port Washington. We appreciate the time Mr. Heatwole spent with us and the information which Mr. Gilson gave us to use in this history.
Another interesting sidelight on Gilson is that in 1911 John & Michael Gilson, who were related to the other Gilsons and had actually worked for them at their plant, started their own small foundry and machine shop, Gilson Brothers Co., at Fredonia, Wisconsin, which is near Port Washington. Here at their factory they went into production of cement mixers, feed cutters, limestone crushers, hand cement tile making machines and other equipment and tools. This company is still in business today, having grown into a large manufacturer of lawn and garden equipment, outdoor recreation equipment and cement mixers.
Contrary to what some gasoline engine collectors have thought, we were informed through correspondence with this company that they never did build any gasoline engines. All Gilson gas engines were built in Port Washington.
In addition to Mr. Gilson and Mr. Heatwole, we wish to thank Mr. John M. Posewitz of Gilson Brothers Company at Fredonia, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and the W. J. Niederfcorn Library at Port Washington.