In 1893, Frederick M. Gilbert and his family backed up their horse and wagon to the Keene, N.H., bank and wrestled barrels full of gold, jewelry and money through the front door for deposit. This was both an ending and a beginning: The end of the saga of how the Gilbert family, of Glencoe, Md., transplanted to the area, and the beginning of the Abenaque Machine Works, Westminster Station, Vt.
A little history
Very little is known about the history of the Abenaque Machine Works and its main constituents, say Patricia A. Haas and Alice C. Caggiano, authors of the Westminster Historical Society's booklet, Abenaque Machine Works. What is known is that the Gilberts took a trip in a four-in-hand coach from Glencoe to Portland, Maine, sometime in the late 1880s. On the way, one of their horses came down with pinkeye, and they stopped in Westminster for help. With their horse left in capable hands, they purchased a substitute animal and made the trip to Maine. They returned a few weeks later, only to find their horse had died. During the second visit, however, and perhaps because of the beauty of the land, Frederick Gilbert decided to move to the area, which he and his family did in June 1892.
For reasons unclear, the start of Abenaque Machine Works was shrouded in secrecy. Doubtless, Gilbert already had his business plan in mind when he moved to Vermont. In February 1893, Gilbert bought 64 acres in the part of Westminster known as Westminster Station, and started remodeling a tobacco barn already on the property and laying foundations for other buildings, where, Haas and Caggiano write, 'He planned to introduce a manufacturing industry.'
Gilbert wouldn't say what kind of business he was starting, and evidently he let rumors circulate without debunking them. The major rumor indicated the new business would involve starch-making. This made sense because Gilbert had been previously involved in the starch-making business, and the Westminster corn-canning factory was next door.
Construction took off in earnest in 1894. A barn was turned into a shop, a new machine shop and woodworking shop, both of brick with slate roofs, were built, and people began to figure out the business would not involve starch making.
By the latter part of 1894, the factory was in full swing, and it was clear what the business was all about - manufacturing automatic scales and farm and marine gas engines of 3/4 to 15 HP. These engines, forerunners of the Abenaque engines collectors treasure today, were used throughout the factory as a vote of confidence in their own products. A 25-foot boat was kept on display with a marine engine mounted on it.
The business did not have an official name at this time. Town meeting records from 1893 state simply, '... to exempt from taxation for a term not exceeding ten years the manufacturing establishment proposed to be established by F. M. Gilbert near Westminster Depot.' By 1895 that changed, as all the buildings, machinery and related property was transferred to the Abenaque Machine Works by the Gilberts, who received $60,000. Less than a year later, Abenaque Machine Works was sold back to Frederick Gilbert for $1.
Abenaque is really Ostenberg
Meanwhile, Gilbert had been negotiating with a worker in his father's Des Moines, Iowa, starch-making business to move to Vermont and work on machines for Abenaque Machine Works. In 1896 the deal was consummated, and John H. Ostenberg signed a five-year contract at $1,000 a year, agreeing to spend all his time, as the contract read, '... superintending the designing and mechanical department ... and the invention and perfection of new arts, machines, manufactures ... including the perfection of the inventions and improvements now in use in said business.'
On July 22, 1895, six months before the signing of the mutual contract of May 20, 1896, Ostenberg had applied for his first patent for a gas engine under his own name. Without a doubt that engine was why Gilbert wanted Ostenberg to work at Abenaque Machine Works. Future patents were applied for as 'John A. Ostenberg, assignor to Frederick M. Gilbert,' and belonged to Abenaque Machine Works.
Ostenberg described his gas engine in his patent application thus: 'The invention is preferably embodied in what is known as a 'four-cycle' engine in which every other stroke is idle, the return of the piston serving to compress the air and gas before the explosion takes place ...' Ostenberg's gas engine patent no. 612,756 was granted Oct. 18, 1898. By this time, he had applied for patents on a 'Circuit Breaker for Gas Engines' (applied Nov. 6, 1897, approved May 1, 1900, no. 648,520), and an 'Explosive Engine' (June 1, 1897, granted Nov. 18, 1902, no. 713,793).
In his patent application for the circuit breaker, Ostenberg explained how the process worked: 'In circuit-breakers which are intended for the production of a spark, it is desirable that the terminals should be separated to a considerable extent with a rapid and sudden movement to produce the spark, it being further desirable, however, that they should be restored with a gradual movement in order not to come together with a shock, which in the operation of a gas-engine, for example, soon wears out the terminals so that they have to be renewed.' His device would do just that with judicious re-arranging of the terminals.
Regarding the 'Explosive Gasolene (sic) Engine,' as it was sometimes called, Ostenberg wrote, 'The invention is mainly embodied in an improved construction and arrangement of the inlet and exhaust ports,' and then explained what he meant. Later in the application he noted that, 'The invention farther relates to certain details of construction and arrangement, which will be hereinafter more fully described.'
Out of these plans, Abenaque gas engines in 2 to 25 HP were built for the next two decades.
This was Ostenberg's last patent for Abenaque Machine Works, as he and Gilbert parted ways in 1898, about half-way through their five-year agreement (their contract stipulated it could be terminated by any party at any time). Ostenberg moved to San Jose, Calif., built a home and formed the Ostenberg
Mfg. Co., where he built igniter-fired Ostenberg gas engines of 10, 15, 20, 25, 32 and 40 HP, all identical in design, until he was bought out by John Bean Spray Co. in 1912. Today, Ostenberg Drive marks the family home site.
Meanwhile, Abenaque Machine Works was thriving. It had its own electric plant running 60, 16-candlepower lights, and was building Abenaque farm engines of 3, 4 and 5 HP, all with, as C.H. Wendel writes in Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, 'A very unique and obvious evaporative cooling system.' A catalog described it thus: 'The cooling apparatus used on all Abenaque engines is extremely simple, and consists of flat tanks which have a large radiating surface, but which require a small volume of water only. This device does not require a circulating pump with its attendant problems.' Examples can be seen in several photos accompanying this article.
More of the same, along with changes
Although the company continued manufacturing automatic scales and gas farm and marine engines, they expanded into other areas. In 1900, they decided to build the Abenaque gasoline automobile, although that plan never panned out. Despite the death of company founder Frederick M. Gilbert in 1906, the company continued under the able leadership of his wife, Alice C. Gilbert. In 1908, they began experimenting with a farm tractor they called a 'gasoline traction engine,' a 15 HP machine weighing 5-1/2 tons. Its single-cylinder had an 8-5/8-by-12-1/2-inch bore and stroke. Abenaque tractors were remodeled over the next few years, but the company found the competition fierce and abandoned production some time after 1911. Mo examples of Abenaque tractors exist today, though there are rumors of one in California.
A circa-1913 catalog touted Abenaque Machine Works' 'very latest product,' a kerosene engine the company claimed was much better than the 'makeshifts' that had beer on the market. 'In nine cases out of 10,' the catalog says, 'In following up such machines you will find that the purchaser has either disposed of his engine or is using gasolene (sic) as a fuel.' The catalog explains that to operate an engine successfully on kerosene, 'It is absolutely necessary to vaporize the kerosene before it is taken into the cylinder,' which meant the fuel had to be heated evenly. The Abenaque kerosene engine accomplished this - very well, the company claimed. The kerosene engines, which were manufactured in sizes from 6 to 15 HP, were started on gasoline and then switched to kerosene.
By this time, the company was also manufacturing Abenaque semi-portable hopper-cooled engines from 6 to 12 HP and semi-portable tank-cooled models from 6 to 25 HP, along with Abenaque stationary engines from 6 to 25 HP, a portable mounted on steel trucks, a circular saw outfit, a combination drag and circular saw outfit, stationary saw frames, portable compressor outfits, Papec ensilage cutters, Kelly Duplex feed grinders, Ann Arbor Columbia hay presses, American Mills saw mills, Doylestown grain threshers, and power pumps.
Abenaque Machine Works claimed its farm engines were adapted to more varied applications than any other make of engine on the market. The company was also building concrete mixers, hoists, electric generating sets and pumps. At its height, the company employed 40 workers.
The company limps on
Unfortunately, well-designed products themselves don't always guarantee the solvency of a company. On Jan. 28, 1915, Abenaque Machine Works filed bankruptcy, due, perhaps, to investing money in building a tractor during a time of fierce tractor-selling competition and despite the fact Abenaque Machine Works was the only tractor manufacturer ever in Vermont. After its 1915 bankruptcy, the company continued with a variety of products until its second bankruptcy, in 1921, about the time of the widespread U.S. Agricultural Depression. After that, parts for Abenaque engines were available through Abenaque Engine Co. of Marlboro, N.H., at least until 1927.
Old-timers called Abenaque engines 'Abneeks,' or more commonly, 'Abbys.' Today, Abenaque engines are difficult to find and are highly prized by the collectors who have them, helping keep memories of Vermont's Abenaque Machine Works alive today and into the future.
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 56569; (320) 253-5414; firstname.lastname@example.org