Who Was James Kermath, and the, Kermath Manufacturing Company?

Cross-section of the Kermath model 20

Cross-section of the Kermath model 20.

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7964 Oakwood Park Court, St. Michaels, Maryland 21663

In the spring of 1990, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland was offered a model 20 Kermath marine engine, serial number 19951. Thirty-three years earlier, it had been removed from a buy-boat when the boat was scrapped. Then it was stored in the woods behind the donor's house. During most of the 33 years it had been covered by a tarp. The manifold and carburetor were missing and the engine was stuck and very rusty.

I do some volunteer work for the Museum. Despite the condition of the engine, we decided to accept it. The photographs show the restored engine.

 My approach was in three directions-to learn the history of the manufacturer, to start restoring the engine, and to find a manifold and carburetor. This article is mainly about researching Kermath Manufacturing Company of Detroit, Michigan.

James Kermath, the founder of the company, was born May 4,1874 in London, Ontario and came to Detroit in 1899. From 1901-1907 he was part owner of Eclipse Manufacturing Company, a machine shop where he built engines on contract for Detroit Auto Marine Company. They built fifteen hundred 11/2 HP engines the first year. That original shop was in the old Boydel building on East Congress. The Dodge Brothers shared the building and built engines for Henry Ford before they went into the automobile business for themselves. The Detroit auto fever must have infected Kermath, for he built an experimental automobile in 1907.

During 1907-1909 Kermath was employed by Gies Gear Company in Detroit as superintendent, and in 1909 or 1910 he formed the Kermath Manufacturing Company, of which he was part owner.

1911 was the year that 'The Kermath' marine engine was introduced. It was a four-cycle, four-cylinder L-head engine with the cylinders cast in pairs, and rated at 12 HP. It would appear to be the first engine to bear the Kermath name. The reverse gear was a Gies; remember that Kermath worked for Gies Gear Company 1907-09. The engine was not distributed by Kermath Manufacturing but by Morton Motor Company, which was located at the Kermath factory.

An 8-page booklet dated 1915 introduces the 20 HP model 20, the star of our drama. That booklet assures the public that production of the new model 20 will not interfere with manufacture of the model 12. They planned to build 200 of the new model 20's in 1915.

Kermath Manufacturing Co. appears in the 1916 Detroit directory, but not under incorporated companies. The 1917 directory does list it under incorporated companies, operating at 45-49 Fort St., John B. Farr, President. James Kermath is not listed as an officer. 1916 or 1917 must have been the year the company was incorporated. The 1924-25 directory shows the company at 4880 Commonwealth Ave., as manufacturers of tractor and marine engines, John B. Farr, president. It seems likely that investors bought into Kermath Manufacturing about 1916 and installed Farr as president. James Kermath either lost control of his company or sold his interest. The factory was at the Commonwealth Ave. location for the remainder of its existence.

In either 1914 or 1919 James Kermath and James Webber organized the Kermath-Whitcolm Company at 5629 McGraw in Detroit; later, they were at 5780 Commonwealth, near the New York Central railroad. Webber was president and Kermath was vice president. The stated objective of the company was the design of engines and other machinery. Webber was the son-in-law of J. L. Hudson, the Detroit department store owner. Kermath-Whitcolm were listed in the Detroit directory as engineers and machinists. That company was dissolved in 1929 after Kermath went to work for General Motors.

Meanwhile, the Kermath engine line continued to expand. By 1923 they were building engines from 3 to 50 HP. All the engines were similar, having non-removeable cylinder heads with screwed-in valve access plugs. The lineup was as follows:

Model

Cyl.

Bore & Stroke

HP

3

1

3? x 4

3@1000

4-5

2

3?x4

5@1000

6-8

2

3? x 4

8@1000

12

4

3? x 4

12@ 1000

16

4

3? x 4

16@ 1000

20

4

4x4

20@1000

35

4

43/8 x 5?

35@1000

50

4

4? x 5?

50@ 1500

Kermath advertisements in Motor Boating Magazine during the 1920s show that the larger four cylinder engines were being revised to have removable heads. New models were introduced, including 100 and 150 HP L-head sixes and a valve-in-head six rated at 200 HP. Some Kermath ads consisted of four or more full pages.

John B. Farr died in 1932 at the age of 52. His obituary tells that prior to joining Kermath Manufacturing Company he had worked in sales and distribution for several automobile makers. He had been active in cruiser racing and had donated the Kermath Trophy for power boat racing. His wife was Alma Gray Farr and he had a son named Gray Farr. One wonders if his wife was from the Gray Motor Company family. The GM personnel records list an engineer named John B. Farr who worked for the Eastern Airlines Division during 1944 and 1945. That man was born in 1915. Was he the son called Gray Farr or another son?

James Kermath went to work in the Die and Machine Department of the Fisher Body Division of General Motors in January 1928. Over the years he held positions of inspector, diemaker, and foreman of tool grinding. Kermath must have been a valuable employee as he worked all through the depression years. He retired from GM in 1952 at the age of 78 and was the oldest employee to retire that year. He died May 1, 1967 at the age of 93. Surviving him were two daughters, one son, 10 grandchildren, and 28 great grandchildren.  

The 1937 Kermath catalog shows 24 models, including three diesels and marine conversions of the Ford V8 and Lincoln Zephyr VI2. The models 20, 35, and 50 were still there, but the model 12 had been dropped. I believe that many of the other models were conversions of Hercules industrial engines.

After World War II, Kermath introduced two very small engines of their own design, the Sea Pup 5 HP single cylinder engine and the Sea Twin 10 HP engine.

The last catalog that I have seen has an October 15, 1954 price list. The gasoline engines offered were the Sea Cub and Sea Twin, two four cylinder engines (one being a Sea Jeep), six 6 cylinder models, and a 580 HP V12. The VI2 was offered on special order only. There were five diesel models from 27 to 250 HP. I suspect that only the largest gasoline engines were of Kermath manufacture and the others as well as the diesels were conversions. The last ad I found in Motor Boating was a very small one in the September 1955 issue.

The 1954 price list states that Kermath Manufacturing was then a subsidiary of Barium Steel Corp. The Kermath Manufacturing Company must have closed in 1956 or 1957. The rights, tools, etc. for the Sea Pup and Sea Twin were sold to Ballantine Industries of Absecon, NJ and they continued to build those engines a few more years. I checked on Barium Steel Corp. and found that it was sold to S. Kirk in 1959 and he changed the name to Phoenix Steel Corp. Phoenix Steel closed in 1985.

I am grateful to the Detroit Public Library for finding the obituaries of James Kermath and John B. Farr. Other sources were Detroit city directories in the Detroit Library, early catalogs in the library of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association, and some personnel records of General Motors. Those GM records included Kermath's own state ments regarding his prior employment. Joe Karshner of Huntington Woods, Michigan aided my research greatly. Bill Sweetman of Orr's Island, Maine sent photocopies of 1913 and 1925 Kermath catalogs, a 1940 service manual, and loaned the 1954 literature. The diagram below is from the 1940 manual. The 1925 catalog contains some interior pictures of the factory. In 1925, Bosch starter and generator were an option on the model 20.

The restoration of the museum's engine was a great success. The internal condition was fairly good. We jacked the pistons out and cleaned the cylinder bores with a glaze-breaker hone. The engine had been fresh-water cooled, so jacket rust was not damaging. Kermath collector John Clark gave us a needed piston ring, a set of gaskets for the valve access plugs, and a quart of Kermath green paint. From the serial number he felt that the engine was built in 1915 as the serial number was lower than that of a Kermath known to have been built in 1916; however, that is in question as will be shown. Dick Day furnished a good rotor for the Bosch magneto. An ad in GEM located Gerald Crouterfield who had a manifold. We failed to find the correct Kingston carburetor, but a local man gave us a nice brass Strom berg carburetor. The old engine runs beautifully.

The Kermath Green that John Clark sent is DuPont Centari in a grey-green like Centari 546, except that it is slightly lighter. I found traces of that color in protected places on our model 20. Bill Sweetman told me that Kermath went to a stuffing box on the output shaft of their engines in 1925. If that is correct, then our engine was built in 1925 or later as it has a stuffing box.

I should tell about the buy-boat which was powered by the Kermath. In the old days, power boats called 'buy-boats' were common on Chesapeake Bay. They went to where oystermen or crabbers were working, bought their catch, and took it to market. Today, watermen have powerful engines in their boats and they take their catch to market themselves. The buy-boat of this story blew ashore during Hurricane Hazel in 1954- After lying there three years, she was cut up and burned. By 1990, no one was absolutely certain of the name of the vessel. However, I believe she was the Honey Bee, 88 feet overall, with Cambridge, Maryland as home port. She was built as a schooner in 1882 in Sussex County, Delaware and carried general cargo. Her name at that time was Edward L. Martin. Many years later, she was renamed and converted to a buy-boat with her sailing rig removed, a pilot house added, and the Kermath engine installed. Hurricane Hazel eventually ended her long life.

I used 1901 as the beginning of Eclipse Manufacturing; that date is based on a statement in the 1913 catalog. Kermath's GM employment record says 1903.  

I would be pleased if someone who lives near Detroit would look for descendants of James Kermath and John B. Farr. They might have photographs of James Kermath and the factory. There may be more material in the Burton Historical Collection which is in the Detroit Public Library. The incorporation papers for Kermath Manufacturing probably exist in the Michigan Archives. Is there a list of serial numbers vs year somewhere, perhaps from a dealer's files?

Who was Whitcolm of the Kermath-Whitcolm Company? Might he have been the designer of the early Kermath engines? The 1917 Detroit directory lists Kermath Manufacturing as builders of marine and tractor engines. Have any readers seen a Kermath engine in a tractor?