The Lauson Legend

Dedicated to Producing Quality Products, John Lauson took this Company from Thought to


This 6-cylinder machine had a canopy unique to Lauson tractors.

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"The Lauson Frost King is the highest priced engine on the market and has no competition." So stated a circa-1911 advertisement for the premier engine built by John Lauson Mfg. Co. And though it sounds like hyperbole, it was probably true. The Frost King had just taken the Gold Medal for the second time in a Norwegian competition, and the official report showed that the engine "will pay for itself in saving of fuel running 700 days ..."

In the Genes

Among the skilled craftsmen to help establish the new community of New Holstein, Wis., were the five Lauson brothers, who started a repair and implement shop.

One of those brothers was John Lauson. When his father, Detlaff, died when he was 14, John joined the newspaper machine shop. Two years later, he was so well-regarded that his uncle George Lauson and John Optenberg asked him to join them in a three-way partnership to start a machine repair shop together, using a windmill for power. A year later, in 1885, the plant was destroyed by fire.

Out of the ashes came the John Lauson and H. Optenberg and Co. business, which specialized in repairing steam traction engines, and also began making Uncle Sam steam traction engines. Twenty-five were built by 1887. By this time, John was a first-class machinist and repairman. At age 19, he bought out the Optenberg shares and became sole owner of the renamed John Lauson Co.

Company employees were expected to be highly skilled, and it showed in Lauson's products. All boilers were riveted and caulked by hand, producing a quality far better than the then-contemporary standard of air hammering.

Now John Lauson began to forge the direction he wanted for his own company. The Uncle Sam was dropped, but steam boiler production, heavy machinery repair and the manufacturing of sheet metal products were continued. But John Lauson had another idea: He wanted to build gas engines. Perhaps as part of a greater plan, his brother Henry had been working in a gas engine manufacturing plant in Chicago. In 1895, Henry, Jacob Schmidt and John incorporated as the John Lauson Mfg. Co., and began planning for the first Lauson gasoline engine. Spark ignition was practically unheard of at the time, so the first Lauson used hot tube ignition. A brass tube extended up from the cylinder, which was heated via a blow torch. Once drawn into the cylinder, the fuel mixture was ignited by the heat of the tube.

Planning the new engine took many weeks. Patterns were made and remade, then remade again, until finally everyone was satisfied. Patterns were sent out, and in due time castings for the engine arrived at the plant and "were wonderingly stared at and discussed and eventually cussed by apprentices and machinists alike," the New Holstein Centennial Souvenir Booklet of 1948 says.

Initial Engine Success

Production methods of the era were slow, and the Lauson desire for high quality probably made them even slower. The New Holstein Centennial Souvenir Booklet says, "As work on the first engine gradually progressed, the men in the shop feverishly and anxiously awaited the outcome. At long last the engine was completed and ready to start. The torch was lit! After a few trials, it gave a hesitant cough, and then, somewhat reluctantly, started running.

By carefully adjusting the needle valve, Henry Lauson, who had charge of the test run, was finally able to get the engine up to its proper speed, the long exhaust pipe emitting whip-crack explosions."

John Lauson shouted to belt the engine up, and within minutes that first Lauson gasoline engine was providing power to a line shaft in the plant. This 4 HP engine weighed 1,140 pounds; by comparison, later 4-1/2 HP air-cooled Lausons weighed just 85 pounds.

Henry Lauson and worker H.N. Edens began to study gas engineering in detail, and designed and built several other Lauson engines in those early days. Eventually, an engine of 8-by-10-inch bore and stroke, with electric ignition, was built, and named Frost King. By 1904, it was a staple on the market, as was the striping on the flywheels and bases.

Other engines followed, including tank-cooled engines of 5 to 20 HP sizes, including portable saw rigs. A pan-cooled system was featured on Lauson 15 and 20 HP models.

In 1904, the Lauson company introduced a new type of engine that led to a revolution in the field: open jacket, or hopper-cooled engines. They were the first of their type on the market. The huge demand pushed the firm to develop a variety of sizes of these hopper-cooled Frost Kings. By 1916, Frost King hopper-cooled engines were available in 12 sizes, from 1-1/2 to 28 HP, with the same original design. Though the name "Frost King" hinted at non-freezing, that was not true.

By 1916, Lauson added kerosene stationary engines from 3-1/2 to 28 HP to their line. These Frost Kings had a throttling governor design, built-in magnetos, and redesigned cylinder heads and fuel mixers to handle the low-grade fuels. A force-feed lubricating device could also be added.

Some Frost Kings were huge. A 3-1/2 HP hand portable weighed 1,400 pounds, and the 28 HP portable tipped the scale at more than 3 tons. Frost King Jr. engines were another staple of the Lauson line. These 1-1/2 HP engines used a drop forged crankshaft and connecting rod as standard equipment, like their larger sisters. Skid and portable models were available.

Other Lauson Engines

Lauson made portable screen-cooled engines with hit-and-miss or volume governing, and instead of batteries, Sumter built-in magnetos were standard equipment. A drop-forged cam and camshaft, connecting rod, and nickel valve stems are all testaments to Lauson's commitment to quality

By 1916, the entire line of Lauson engines had become quite sophisticated. The firm was building 2- and 4-cylinder vertical models, as well as engine-generator sets for power houses. These engines were of 35, 50 and 60 HP, which operated at 450 RPM. Eighty and 100 HP engines in the series operated at 300 RPM.

Two-cylinder opposed models were built from 25 HP up and used volume governing for precise speed regulation. They had huge intake manifolds and mechanically-operated intake valves, with a standard-included air compressor and other accessories for a complete air starting system.

Lauson special electric plant engines had extra heavy flywheels and an exceptionally sensitive governor. These engines also had force-feed lubricators so they didn't have to be watched for long periods of time.

Lauson also built vertical engines. The 1905 line had 2, 2-1/2 and 4 HP verticals intended for light duty at home or in the shop, using a fuel tank which held enough for two days of work.

Even though Lauson's 1905 catalog downplayed oil cooling and said water was far more effective, the company built at least one oil-cooled engine.

The Town Rallies 'Round

In 1907, New Holstein had a close call. The company had outgrown its factory, and city fathers of Plymouth, Wis., tried to induce John Lauson Mfg. Co. to move there, offering five years without taxes. "However," the New Holstein Centennial Sou-venir Booklet says, "the people of New Holstein refused to stand idly by and permit 'their factory' to move out of town. They subscribed to all available preferred stock, and A.A. Laun Sr., presented free New Holstein land where a new 100-by-200-foot factory was built."

Without a foundry, engine castings had to be purchased elsewhere, and many were large, heavy and expensive to ship. So in 1913 A.A. Laun Sr., along with John and Henry Lauson, brought expert foundryman Edward Alyward to town and organized Alyward Found-ry Co., which was in full production within a year, making castings of all sizes for Lauson, and other companies as well. In 1915, John Lauson Mfg. Co. bought the company.

Tractor Time

That same year, 1915, the Lauson company decided to stop building very large engines, and built high quality 15-25 and 20-35 tractors. Many Lauson tractors were sold in Europe. The 15-25 (also called the 21-Jewel Kerosene Tractor) used an Erd 4-cylinder engine with a 4-by-6-inch bore and stroke (later a Beaver 4-1/2-by-6); the 20-35's Erd had a 4-3/4-by-6-inch bore and stroke.

Other sizes of Lauson tractors included:
• 12-25, with a 4-cylinder Lauson-Midwest 4-1/8-by-5-1/4-inch bore and stroke;
• 15-30 and 20-40, both of which had the 4-cylinder Beaver, 4-3/4-by-6-inch bore and stroke;
• 20-35, with a 4-cylinder Erd, 4-3/4-by-6- inch bore and stroke;
• 16-32, with a 4-cylinder Beaver, with a 4- 1/2-by-6-inch bore and stroke;
• 22-35 (also called the Lauson 65), with a 6-cylinder Wisconsin and 3-7/8-by- 5-inch bore and stroke;
• 25-45, which used a 6-cylinder LeRoi, 4-1/2-by-6-inch bore and stroke.

Some of the models were specialized as "Thresherman's Model" or "Roadbuilder's Special."

Due to overextension of credit and competition in the 1930s, Lauson could no longer compete. By 1937, production of Lauson tractors was discontinued.

Founder's Death

In 1922, 54-year-old John Lauson died very suddenly. His eulogy in the April 21, 1922, New Holstein Reporter could not have contained more adulation. He was "John" to all his workers; he worked on the line with them; he took carloads of children into the woods each spring to look at flowers; he was kind, unassuming, modest, "possessed the very highest qualities of mankind," the article said. His death left a void that could not be filled. Though the rest of the Lauson family picked up the slack, the agricultural depression of the early 1920s and Great Depression of the 1930s spelled the end for the New Holstein firm.

In 1930, the company developed the small 4-cycle, air-cooled engine and became established in that field. Along with losses from tractors, the development costs of the new engines helped push the company into receivership. In 1935, it was reorganized as the Lauson Corp. and sold to outsiders. Hart-Carter Co. of Peoria, Ill., took over in 1941, and brought out a new line of 4-cycle marine engines, both inboard and outboard.

Tecumseh Products Co. bought the Lauson Division in 1956, and in 1966, the Lauson Engine Division had 1,600 employees. The Lauson Division of Tecumseh Products Co. still exists today.

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;