History of the Appleton Company

By Staff
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The 1918 Appleton Tractor catalog.
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An early Appleton Mfg. Co. trade card, when manufacturing was still done in Appleton, Wisconsin.
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The portable Chanticleer, which ranged from 8 to 22 HP, and weighed between 2,750 and 5,800 pounds.
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The Stationary Chanticleer was available in sizes 4 to 22 HP, weighing in from between 1,000 to 5,500 pounds.
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Cover of 1900 Appleton Mfg. Company catalog.
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The number plate for Appleton #11157.
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Closeup of the original paint and stripes on Alan Fannin's 3 HP Appleton.
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Alan Fannin's 3 HP Appleton as seen in Xenia, Ohio, in September 1990.
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Ronald Rooks' Appleton, #11157.
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Other side of Alan Fannin's Appleton.
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4 HP Appleton from Dan West.
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Allan Fannin's No. 5 American pulley grinder.
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Dick Morine's Appleton mill.
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Enlarged view of a tractor illustration from a letterhead used in a January 10, 1917 letter from the Appleton Manufacturing Co.'s Columbus, Ohio, office. At this time, John Van Nortwick was President and Treasurer; Wm. Van Nortwick was Vice President.

It all began with the purchase of an Appleton Tractor catalog. This was a tractor we could not recall seeing anywhere, and thus we set about to find out what our subscribers might know about the Appleton tractor. What resulted was very little about the tractor, but a significant amount on the company and the Appleton engine.

Thanks to Glenn McMurray, a Batavia, Illinois, resident, we received a copy of a section of a 1990 book by Thomas Allen Mair, entitled Batavia Revisited. Here is a synopsis of the company history extracted from that book:

“The company was originally formed in Appleton, Wisconsin, February 5, 1872, and made farm equipment and related products such as wood and steel windmills named after their developer as ‘Goodhue Windmills,’ corn shelters, feed cutters, seeders, wood saws, galvanized steel water tanks, feed grinding mills, manure spreaders, and at one time, even a gasoline engine, about which more later. Some of their products bore the name ‘New Hero,’ such as the ‘New Hero Cutter,’ and ‘New Hero Force Feed Sheller.’ I believe the Van Nortwick family was deeply involved in the paper industry in the Appleton area in the 1870s and for some now unknown reason involved with the Appleton.

“It is believed that the Van Nortwick interests caused the company to be moved to [Batavia]. By 1885 the officers were: William M. Van Nortwick, President; G. D. Rowell, Vice-President; H. J. Rogers, Secretary and Treasurer; Peter Hobler, Manager of the Chicago office.

“The Van Nortwick interest in the company began in 1883, so the rise to the presidency of William might be called meteoric. (It might also be called financial control.)

“Early in 1894 the Appleton moved to a large plant on the site and in the middle of that year a post office was opened bearing the name of Van Nortwick. The plant was to employ as many as 160 men at its peak in that location.

“The Appleton moved into its new building at Fargo, shortly to become Van Nortwick. The building has been variously described as 500 to 800 feet long. It apparently was the principal endeavor in that place and the company continued to make pretty much the same product lines. Its life there was fairly short for their building was to fall victim to the bane of industrial plants in those days before the advent of modern fire fighting equipment. On November 14, 1900, a disastrous fire struck the new location and the plant was completely destroyed at a loss estimated at $150,000. This very substantial sum was reportedly covered by only $57,000 in insurance.

“Following the fire the Batavia city fathers exerted much effort to induce the company to move into the city, and they did, going temporarily into what was called the bag factory. This location housed the Western Paper Bag Company, owned by Van Nortwick, and probably was located on First Street between Island and Water Streets. The company remained in those temporary quarters until new buildings were built on North Island Avenue north of the Batavia Body Company. This was completed in 1901 and the operation was moved.

“The plant was built in two parts, each running north and south, about 500 feet in length, the east portion running near the main branch of the river and the west branch running parallel near the pond. These two legs were joined at the north end by a building of stone forming a square U. When first built the entire structure was one story in elevation. The second and third stories on the east leg were added sometime in the first years after the original buildings were built.

“The buildings were constructed entirely of limestone quarried in the Batavia area. In the east branch at the north end, near what old timers will remember as the cut, lay the foundry. The Appleton made almost all of its own iron castings in its own foundry until late in the 1920s. They had their own machine shop in which the castings were finished into usable parts; their own paint shop; wood working shop; assembly room and storage or ware house areas. Early in the life of the plan when the two additional stories were built on the east wing that entire section of the structure was used as a ware house to store their finished inventory.

“At one time there was a very large elevator that ran from the ground to the third floor to carry the large pieces of finished products for storage until the farm industry decided it was time to buy. The power to move the elevator was derived from a line shaft driven by a large steam engine located near midway in the west leg of the buildings. This steam engine provided the power for all the machinery in all parts of the plant, the lathes, saws, planers, the whole works. A huge belt ran between the two legs turning line shafts in both sections to transmit the energy form the steam machines for the entire operation. In the west segment, beginning at the north end near the cut, was the machine shop, then the boiler and steam engine room, the woodworking shop, assembly room, paint shop, and finally the office spaces.

“As an insight into working conditions in such factories at that time I should describe some of what has been told me by a Batavia citizen who went to work for the Appleton in 1912. John Gustafson wrote that when the Appleton came to this area there came with it three men in the shop worthy of remembrance: William Gunnon, General Foreman; George Pfeiffer and Fred Bergquist. I know nothing of the last two named, but my elder friend, the citizen of Batavia and I know something of William Gunnon. He had begun with the company about 1885 when he was 20 years old, and remained as shop foreman and superintendent almost to the end of the Appleton’s existence.

“My citizen friend, now deceased, told me that at the age of fifteen, in 1912, newly arrived from England, he sought work in the shop and was thereupon gainfully (?) employed by William ‘Bill’ Gunnon in the stock room for six cents an hour. After a few weeks of this affluence he said to his friend, ‘Bill, I can’t make it on six cents.’ Gunnon’s response, true to his generous Irish nature, was to raise him to eight cents per hour. The unions, coming later, could hardly top this. It was an increase of 33-1/3 percent.

“Things must have been substantially easier for the superintendent for he found time to raise chickens under the loading platform along the east side of the east building, near the river. Gunnon and his friend, Bill Eager of East Wilson Street, raised a lot of chickens under the old loading platform overlooking the river, a part of which platform seems still to be in place. It is the strong suspicion of this writer that most of the chickens raised were fighting cocks, and when Bill’s wife did not know where he was on Saturday nights, the fighting cocks and their aficionados knew. Fighting such roosters was illegal then as I think it is now, but these two were never apprehended.

“The company continued their machine shop operation, machining their own forgings into the required parts. This may be of some importance because not only did most of the Appleton products require some iron forged and machined parts but because sometime in or about 1915 or 1916, the company bought out the rights to a gasoline engine manufactory then operating in DeKalb, Illinois, known as the Jacob Haish Gasoline Engine Mfg. Co. and began to manufacture the reciprocating engine under that name. In the years of World War I in which these Haish engines were being made and sold by Appleton, a trend away from the dependence on central line shaft energy transmission was making itself known. Gas engines were one source of power that was leading to the death of the shaft. That death was years away, but it was coming.

“In the late 1940s and early 1950s many of the old line companies like the Appleton, the Challenge [another Batavia manufacturer] and others of a similar makeup were dying out, not just here but across the country. This writer believes it to have been a kind of industrial incest. Before such companies were widely traded on the exchange market they were run by succeeding generations of family members. Initiative and interest may have been diluted by lack of necessity and ambition. Bigger and more aggressive concerns took over the product lines, improved on them, cheapened them, learned to market them. The Van Nortwick family faded from all but the old memories; the companies now are part of a roll call we hear no more. But without them, there would be no Batavia and in many parts of our country there would be no such grand old memories as those we share in this city on the mighty Fox [River].

“I remember Bill Gunnon. He was my grandfather.”

In addition to the excerpt from the above book, Glenn McMurray and Alan Fannin provided copies of company catalogs of different years. It is interesting to note that in the 1900 edition of its catalog, the only gas engine offered for sale was the Rumsey engine. There were two models, stationary vertical in sizes 2, 5, 8 and 12 HP, and portable in 8 and 12 HP. These engines were no doubt the products of Rumsey Williams Company of St. Johnsville, New York. How Appleton chose to carry this particular product for resale is unknown. Also, as an aside, C. H. Wendel in his American Gasoline Engines Since 1872 tells us that Rumsey-Williams were offering engines by 1901, but the Appleton catalog includes a testimonial about a Rumsey engine purchased in September of 1899, indicating they had surely begun manufacture by that date. Perhaps further light can be shed on the actual beginning of Rumsey’s manufacture and/or the relationship with the Appleton firm.

In any case, by 1913, Appleton offered its own complete line of engines, with the Appleton name on them. By 1917, a 22 HP model had been added to the portable line. Mr. Mair’s history talks about a 1915 or 1916 buyout of the Haish engine business, but his documentation for this is unknown.

A serious Appleton collector, Alan Fannin of Wheelersburg, Ohio, sent photos of his 3 HP engine:

“My gas engine is a 3 HP, battery and igniter fired. It has the original battery box, and was complete. It came from a well house off of a local farm where it had pumped water for many years. I obtained it from a neighbor who had taken it apart to restore it but was unable to finish it as he passed away. The serial number is 5625.”

Alan also has an Appleton corn grinder which he purchased at a show last summer. He included copies of many pages of company catalogs from 1902, 1911, 1913, and a 1917 letterhead which includes an illustration of the company’s tractor, leading one to believe manufacture of the tractor had definitely started by then.

Other readers also sent helpful information about their own Appleton engines. Charles Gray of Chardon, Ohio, wrote about his 4 HP Appleton gas engine, s/n 6283. The engine is unrestored and he guesses the date to be about 1915.

“The s/n tag says 385 rpm. It is a heavy engine with 28″ diameter flywheels. It has a brass base Webster tri-polar magneto with triple nested magnets. It has an unusual ‘push/pull’ speed control device with a sector gear on the end. There is a dish-shaped guard over the governor weights on the flywheel. It has a 12” pulley.

“It had original skids under it when I got it, but one of them fell apart as I was moving it. The muffler and gas tank are missing, which usually indicates that the engine was originally used indoors with the muffler and gas tank in a remote location.

“I can only recall seeing one other Appleton engine. It is 7 HP and bears no resemblance to mine other than the name. The gentleman who owns it brings it to the LaGrange engine show in Wellington, Ohio, every year.”

Ronald C. Rooks of Norfolk, Va., 23518 sent two pictures of his Appleton, serial number 11157, 1 HP.

We know that at least one Appleton engine made its way to the island of Martha’s Vineyard! Dan West of Chilmark, Mass. sent a copy of a 1913 company catalog and a photo of a 4 HP Appleton.

It’s not an engine, but Dick Morine of Omaha, Neb., 68134 sent a photo of his Appleton Mfg Co. feed grinder.

Norman Marks of Geneva, Neb., let us know that T. Lindsay Baker, Editor of Windmillers’ Gazette, had published articles on Appleton.


One of the firm’s aquisitions was the 1895 purchase of the Goodhue Wind Engine Company of St. Charles, Illinois. For about the next 25 years, Appleton produced windmills and related items.

In Lindsay Baker’s book, North American Windmill Manufacturers’ Trade Literature: A Descriptive Guide (1998), he lists numerous pieces of Appleton literature dating from 1898 to 1920.

And now, back to the original topic, the Appleton tractor! When we acquired the tractor catalog, there was a letter with it dated September 8, 1936, addressed to a Mr. A. H. Hutchings, Jr. of Dimmitt, Texas. In it, A. A. Johnson told Mr. Hutchings, “We have not manufactured the APPLETON tractor over a long period of years but were fortunate in locating an old tractor catalog which we are enclosing with this letter.” The letterhead shows John Van Nortwick to be president and treasurer at the time, and John Van Nortwick Jr. as vice-president, so the Van Nortwick family involvement spanned at least fifty years.

On the next page is a list of the specifications of the Appleton tractor, which was rated as 12-20, and some pictures from the catalog, presumed to be circa 1918.

Charles Wendel, in Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, draws the connection between the Rockford Engine Works of Rockford, Illinois, organized by George Cormack, Jr., and Fred Zumdahl. In 1917 Cormack, after his 1910 retirement and the 1912 sale of Rockford to Emerson-Brantingham, applied for Patent No. 1,259,962 for a tractor. The patent was issued March 19, 1918 and later assigned to Appleton Manufacturing Co. Wendel’s opinion is that there can be no doubt that Appleton’s tractor was based on Cormack’s design.

The foreword of the catalog indicates that the tractor “was designed by men who have had years of experience in tractor designing and manufacture,” but unfortunately, it does not identify them by name.

Unfortunately, no owners of Appleton tractors responded to our requests for information or pictures. Perhaps there are some of these tractors still in existence, and owners who will now come forward.

Appleton Gasoline Engines

APPLETON Engines are built to meet every need from the small 1 HP for operating the pump, washing machine, churn, hand shellers, etc., to the 18 H.P. for operating large silo fillers, corn huskers, etc. They are all of the Open Jacket or Hopper Cooled Type, which does away entirely with all water tanks, pipes, circulating pumps, etc. The 4 HP and larger sizes are made with detachable hoppers, but can be furnished with closed cylinders if desired with circulating cooling systems.

The Hopper, Cylinder Head and Base are all cast separately, properly machined and perfectly fitted together. If, for any cause, any one of them are injured or ruined the one part only will need replacing. On many engines these are cast together; injury to any one requires replacement of all threean unnecessary, excessive cost which we save you by making them separate and spending more money to properly fit them together.

Double collar bearings and plenty of extra strong stud bolts hold the cylinder to the base.

The Bearings are placed at an angle of thirty degrees, the thrust of the engine works against the bed itself.

The Piston is of proper length to provide ample wearing surface on the cylinder, the Rings have the lap joint, as these have proven to be the best to hold the compression.

The Connecting Rods on the 8 H.P. and larger sizes are made from steam hammered forgings, the crank pin end is of the Marine Type made of Phosphor bronze and adjustable, the piston end is fitted with an adjustable phosphor bronze bushing.

The Connecting Rods on the 1 to 6 H.P. are drop forged, the crank pin ends are lined with copper-hardened babbitt, the piston end is fitted with a phosphor bronze split bushing which is easily adjusted to take up for any wear.

The Crank Shafts on the 8 to 18 H.P. are steam hammered from open-hearth steel billets free from welds; on the 1 to 6 H.P. they are drop forged.

Every engine is tested under a brake test on an average of at least 15 hoursevery bearing must run free and cool, every fly wheel perfectly balanced, all settings properly made, every engine must under severe brake test develop more than its catalog rating, and we take such care to see that every engine will run properly without vibration that they are placed on the floor without bolts and run at a high speed.

All Appleton Engines are equipped with a speed changing device of excellent pattern, which gives a variation of about 33 percent in speed and may be changed while the engine is in motion.

Size for size, Appleton Engines have more bore and stroke, are heavier, simpler in construction and easier to operate than most engines.from 1913 Appleton Mfg. Co. catalog

Jacob Haish

Jacob Haish was a colorful character who claimed to be the inventor of barbed wire. He was also a leading manufacturer and benefactor of Dekalb, Illinois, where he lived and worked to the ripe age of 99.

The 1908 “menu” of the Jacob Haish Co. includes both horizontal and vertical engine models carrying the “Chanticleer” logo and referred to as “cock of the walk” engines.

At the portable which ranged from 8 to 22 HP, and weighed between 2,750 and 5,800 pounds.

The Stationary Chanticleer was available in sizes 4 to 22 HP, weighing in from between 1,000 to 5,500 pounds.

A later Haish catalog in our archive offers additional horizontal models, in sizes from 1 to 22 HP, plus a pump jack and several saws.

Whenever the late Appleton engines were manufactured, their resemblance to the Haish is vary powerful. GEM

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