Wisconsin Gas Engine Companies

Manufacturers Flocked to the Badger State in the Early Days of the Gas Engine Industry


The badge on this Fairbanks-Morse engine, manufactured in Beloit, Wis., reveals its 25 HP size.

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Over the years, Wisconsin could boast of at least 150 operating engine manufacturers, ranking the Badger State the fifth-largest engine manufacturer nationally.

Wisconsin's engine manufacturers included some of agriculture's biggest names, like J.I. Case and Allis-Chalmers, well-known for tractors, for example, but not necessarily for building engines. Other names included LeRoi and Briggs & Stratton, whose engines were well-known but not generally associated with agriculture. And then there were well-known agricultural companies with reputations for building tractors and engines, like Fairbanks, Morse & Co., Eagle Mfg. Co. and John Lauson Mfg. Co., as well as dozens of companies most people have never heard of.

When Fairbanks, Morse & Co. of Beloit began manufacturing engines in 1893, they had a built-in advantage. Since 1880 they had been selling Eclipse windmills to railroad companies and farmers, and had purchased Eclipse Wind Engine Co. of Beloit in 1890. When F-M hired James A. Charter from the established Charter Gas Engine Co. of Sterling, Ill., railroad companies and farmers, who had already had successful dealings with F-M, flocked to buy Fairbanks-Morse engines. Though early F-M engines were merely renamed Charters (newer ones under Charter's tutelage soon took on a different look, becoming more compact and neater-looking), F-M charged to the lead in building farm engines.

Fairbanks-Morse's large, early horizontal engines used air starters because of the difficulty of turning them over by hand. Instead of a carburetor, they used a metering pump. Over the years, F-M introduced many popular engines, like Type Y verticals and Jack-of-All-Trades engines, staples in the company line from 1895 to 1916. Oil-cooled Jack-of-All-Trades engines were designed expressly for cool weather, and despite the heavy radiator, were still popular. The Type Z engine was introduced in 1915 and was so popular, it put many smaller companies out of business. Fairbanks-Morse engines came in almost every size from 1-1/2 to 44 HP, as well as some larger ones. Some were built specifically for mining concerns, including a gasoline hoist that could be broken into 300-pound-or-less pieces to allow them to be carried into the mountains by mules. The company also made engine/generator outfits like the 11-ton, 54 HP unit. Fairbanks-Morse still survives, and makes engines in Beloit today.

Name them "Wisconsin"

At least three engine companies used "Wisconsin" in their corporate names: Wisconsin Engine Co. of Corliss, Wisconsin Motor Co. of Milwaukee and Wisconsin Machinery & Mfg. Co., also of Milwaukee.

Wisconsin Engine Co. migrated from Chicago in 1908 where it had been Sargent Engineering Co., selling Sargent engines. These were renamed "Wisconsin" engines in Corliss, then renamed "Adams" engines in 1912. The company produced only large engines up to 65 HP for electric generators. In 1912, Edward A. Rumely tried to buy the company, and had already begun advertising Rum-ely-Adams engines when his negotiator died; the deal, and company, fell through.

In 1909, Wisconsin Motor Co. began manufacturing "Wisconsin" engines, which would become the real success story in engines bearing that name. Determined to make high-quality engines from the start, the company was hugely successful. Within three years they had a new factory, employing 300 workers on both day and night shifts.

The earliest engines from Wisconsin Motor Co. were for automobiles, and three famous racers, Ralph de Palma, Bill Endicott and Sig Haugdaul, all preferred Wisconsins. Well-known automobiles, like Stutz, Case and Kissell cars filled their hoods with Wisconsins, as did Four-Wheel-Drive (Automobile Co.) trucks. In 1929, Wisconsin Motor Co. began manufacturing air-cooled engines, and by 1959, the firm had made three million engines. Teledyne Wisconsin Motor later purchased the company, and today, Wisconsin engines are produced under the name Wisconsin Motors LLC.

Wisconsin Machinery & Mfg. Co. made 2-cycle auto or marine engines starting in 1912, probably for local markets. Little else is known about this producer of "Wisconsin" engines.

Lauson and Wisconsin

"Wisconsin" engines were also manufactured by the Lauson-Lawton Co. of DePere, making 4 to 20 HP stationary engines starting in 1908. A few years later, they introduced a 1-1/2 HP model. The company also produced complete electric lighting plants from 15-300 volts, including dynamo, storage batteries and switchboard. Although the company did not invent hopper-cooled engines, they claimed theirs was the first successful one, using a cylinder projecting full length over the bed, to relieve expansion stresses. Larger 24 and 30 HP models were added in 1913. Though they quit manufacturing engines four years later, their successor, C.A. Lawton Co., still makes die-cutting presses and rebuilds machinery, though now in Green Bay. The original factory buildings in DePere were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, and are owned by the local government.

"Lauson" was also a popular name for Wisconsin engines, with two other companies containing that name: A.H. Lauson Co. of Milwaukee, and the largest, John Lauson Mfg. Co. of New Holstein.

A.H. began operations in 1905, manufacturing marine engines in 1-1/2, 3 and 5 HP 4-cycle, single-cylinder sizes using a 4-cycle, single-cylinder engine, 2-cylinder 8 and 15 HP engines, and a 4-cylinder, 30 HP machine. A year later, the company was renamed Badger Motor Co., but probably only lasted a few months longer.

John Lauson Mfg. Co. began in 1895, with an 1,100-pound, 4 HP engine that used hot tube ignition. By 1904, tank-cooled engines in 5 to 20 HP sizes had been added to the line, as well as an open jacket or hopper-cooled engine, which was completely self-contained. This led to the development of the Frost King engines, which were not actually frost-proof. By 1916, hopper-cooled sizes ranged from 1-1/2 to 28 HP. In American Gasoline Engines Since 1872, C.H. Wendel writes that "Lauson was early in adapting built-in magneto ignition - a feature that soon paid for itself by eliminating dry cell batteries and their frequent replacement." John Lauson Mfg. also built a sawing outfit mounted on sleigh runners. Lauson was also making the Lauson Forty, which weighed more than 12,000 pounds, and an advertisement noted that this engine didn't require any torch or preheating to get it started.

Though John Lauson Mfg. Co. made it through the agricultural depression of the early 1920s, it could not make it through the Great Depression. It was reorganized in 1935, and sold in 1941.

The Wisconsin Badgers

With Wisconsin known as the Badger State, it's no surprise that companies appropriated "badger" for their name: Badger Concrete Mixer Co., Badger Engine Co. and Badger Motor Co., all of Milwaukee, as well as Badger Mfg. Co. of Oshkosh, formerly A.H. Lauson Co.

Badger Concrete Mixer Co. sold a 1-1/2 HP Sexton Jr. engine of 3-7/8-by-4-inch bore and stroke, but that's about all that's known about them. Even less is known about Badger Engine Co. and Badger Mfg. Co.

Additionally, two other Wisconsin companies - C.P. & J. Lauson and Christensen Engineering Co., both of Milwaukee, produced engines named Badger.

C.P. & J. Lauson began in 1893 with engines built by Otto Gas Engine Works of Philadelphia. By 1903 the Badger sideshaft design came in 4-1/2 to 25 HP models, in portable, stationary and traction types. Badger engines were finely detailed to enhance their salability. As Wendel writes, "Fancy pinstriping was a cardinal feature of the Badger engines. It reflected in part a time-honored custom, and certainly enhanced the overall appearance. Cyrus Hall McCormick discovered some years earlier that his bright red reapers sold much better than the drab brown ones of earlier years, even though the machine was otherwise the same."

C.P. & J. also built vertical Badgers and saw rigs. The Badger "Farmer's Friend" engine, as well as other C.P. & J. engines, continued to be sold when the company became Christensen Engineering Co. in 1908. They also made Farmhand engines until their 1917 demise.

The Big and Small

Fuller & Johnson Mfg. Co. of Madison was another big player in Wisconsin engines, with engines built by Gisholt Machine Co. of Madison from 1901 to 1903. Several early engines were oil-cooled, including a 1-1/2 HP oil-cooled engine that weighed in at 1,300 pounds. Until 1910, oil cooling with regular home radiators was standard on F&J's 2, 3-1/2 and 6 HP engines.

The company also produced a water-cooled line of 8 to 15 HP sizes, incorporating a separate subbase that could be removed for portable mounting. Some F&J lines included the Double Efficiency (see feature on page 17 of this issue) and People's Price engines, which was changed to the Model N in 1913. They also developed an engine equipped with a vapor vent so it could be used safely in buildings; it could also be connected to an auxiliary water tank.

Starting in 1905, they also made hopper-cooled engines up to 16 HP. Wendel writes: "Without a doubt, Fuller & Johnson engines were built as well as anything on the market. In addition to excellent design, these engines were all finished in heavy enamel with the addition of elaborate lettering and striping."

In 1909, F&J began making pumping engines. In the 1920s, they produced two direct-connect power plants with storage batteries, at $450 for the No. 8 (850 watts) and $605 for the No. 15 (1,500 watts).

Progress was the company's final undoing. Fuller & Johnson had used most of their assets developing multi-cylinder engines, and in 1929, investors forced asset liquidation. Parts were sold until 1954.

Ingeco engines (short for International Gas Engine Co.) were built in Cudahy beginning about 1910. Although the company only lasted seven years before it was purchased by Worthington Machinery Co., it made some interesting and unique engines. Their early 1-1/2 HP engine, for example, used extra-heavy bolted-hub flywheels, like their larger models, and also had a speed control lever on the low-tension make-and-break ignition.

One Ingeco line was the Standard line, with stationary vertical engines, including hopper-cooled types. Lubricators, batteries and tools were shipped standard.

The company made 1-1/2, 2-1/2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12 and 15 HP engines. They also made some huge engines, like their 17,800-pound, 60 HP monster that used flywheels 6-1/2 feet in diameter. These were the standard flywheels; extra-heavy could be bought when the machine was used as an electricity generator.

About 1915, the company began manufacturing Ingeco tractors, using the same engine as in their 20 HP portable outfit. It weighed just over a ton, had magneto ignition, and a built-in clutch pulley.

Despite filing a patent for a stationary engine as their first order of business, Termaat & Monahan Co. of Oshkosh began life in 1895 by manufacturing light marine engines. In 1905 their 1-1/2 HP reversible engine weighed but 100 pounds, and sold for $60. The 2-1/2 HP was $81, the 4 HP $108, the 6 HP $220 and the 8 HP model $286. Each year, T&M improved their marine engines, eventually manufacturing up to 100 HP sizes.

They also produced generator outfits, which used T&M's specially-designed governor. "The 2-cycle design," Wendel writes, "with an explosion every revolution, probably made it much easier to maintain accurate speed, thus minimizing the annoying flicker caused by varying voltage." Termaat & Monahan also built pumping outfits in 2-1/2, 4, 6, 9 and 12 HP sizes, all in a similar style. In 1917, the company went into receivership and was reorganized as Termaat & Monahan Mfg. Co., but disappeared soon afterwards.

Like many engine companies across the U.S., Reliance Iron & Engine Co. began making engines in one city - Racine, in 1906 - and then moved to La Crosse, where they changed names (Sta-Rite Engine Co.), but continued to manufacture engines.

Reliance began in 1906, making Sta-Rite engines with "none of the annoyance and expensive repairs that go with complicated engines," one advertisement said. However, within two years they used a completely new engine design, then moved to La Crosse in 1911, where 1-1/2 to 8 HP engines with a governor inside the flywheel, and 10-16 HP engines with a flyball governing system were manufactured. They made Types A, B, C, D, E, F and G engines, as well as others, with distinct varieties - B1, E2, etc. By 1917 they were absorbed by the Happy Farmer Tractor Co. of La Crosse and Minneapolis. In 1922 the company folded.

The Rest

Wisconsin had many other engine companies worthy of mention, like Eagle Mfg. Co. of Appleton, a major player in tractor manufacturing that also made engines, but little is known about them. There was Turner Mfg. Co., of Port Washington, which began life with one of the longest company names of all - Western Malleable & Gray Iron Mfg. Co. - with their line of Simplicity engines. Oshkosh Mfg. Co. of Oshkosh; Piera Vapor Engine Co., United Machine Works and Wisconsin Wheel Works, all three of Racine; Shaefer Mfg. Co. of Berlin (which made "Berlin" engines); J.C. Vanderbloom of Milwaukee; Waukesha Motor Co. of Waukesha, and many more. Some were fly-by-night, some had brief lives like shooting stars and some have lasted parts of two centuries. For some, a great deal of information is known; for others, for various reasons, very little is known. It is just known that they existed.

New York, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois each had more engine companies (New York the highest at 291) than Wisconsin, but in the end, it is not the number of companies, or even the number of engines each company made, but the distinctiveness of the engines and their collectibility that makes the difference.

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; bvossler@juno.com