Tracing the Career of Frank M. Underwood Part 5

The Underwood Elmore, Ohio, Venture — Part five of an ongoing series.

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courtesy of Coolspring Power Museum
An Underwood engine on display at Coolspring Power Museum.

We will continue F.M. Underwood’s story from where we left off with his departure from Sandusky, Ohio.

The Elmore Venture

Of incidental interest, the Elmore Independent, dated December 1899, covers the story of Harry Rice and Chas. Gallant, Elmore natives. Together, they built one gas engine during the period of February to April 1899. The engine was reported to weigh about 300 pounds and generated more than 2 horsepower. This data is included in this compilation only because Harry Rice was later an employee of the Underwood Co. in Elmore.

The Elmore Independent, December 14, 1900, reports, “For some time, our Board of Trade has been trying to secure a factory of moderate proportions to locate in Elmore, and they have succeeded. Last week they closed a deal with F.M. Underwood to move his gasoline engine from Sandusky to Elmore. The plant, consisting of numerous large lathes, drill presses, planers, and all the other machinery and tools sufficient to equip the shop for the manufacture of engines from 1 to 50 horsepower, arrived here Thursday. The new works will be in the building formerly occupied by the Elmore Bicycle Co. The building is being remodeled to suit the new industry, and it is expected that the plant will be in full operation by January 1.

“The Underwood engine is no experiment but to the contrary there are several thousand now in use, Mr. Underwood being one of the oldest manufacturers of gas engines in the state. The new enterprise has enough orders booked to tax the factory to its full capacity for several months.”

As a comment from your author of this series, I consider this above newspaper article to be a fine example of turn-of-the-century expansive writing. The buildings occupied by Underwood were barely large enough to contain an assembled single-cylinder 50hp engine of that period, let alone the space required to manufacture it. I also think the claim of several thousand engines built is wildly exaggerated. My personal estimate would be that no more than a few hundred Underwood engines were built over an approximate five-year period prior to this 1900 newspaper article.

The backstory here is the Elmore Bicycle Co. building had been recently vacated, presumably with a loss of local employment, as the business unit moved to Clyde, Ohio, to begin the Elmore Mfg. Co. (which built Elmore automobiles). Although I have not found any print suggesting a competition between the Elmore automobile and the Sandusky/Courier automobile, their development of prototype engines, trial runs of automobiles, and launch of automobile manufacturing were within months of each other. Clyde and Sandusky are roughly 20 miles apart.

Other references indicate that the Elmore Bicycle Co. was founded in 1892 and occupied a building on Ottawa Street that was formerly occupied by a foundry. There is a photo at the Harris-Elmore Public Library of the Elmore Foundry; the date ‘1907’ is marked on the photo. The building shown is a block two-story building, about 32 feet square, and with a single-story addition extending perhaps 45 feet along a railway siding. The addition has a metal stack, about 25 feet high. Ottawa Street runs for about five blocks along a former railway bed, so this is probably the building that Underwood occupied. This likely indicates that while in Elmore, Underwood did its own metal casting. From the photo, it’s unclear if the building is vacant or in use; this matches with the date of 1907 and the fact that the engine-building aspect of the business moved to another town in 1906.

The Elmore Independent, December 21, 1900, contains a full-page advertisement of all the businesses in Elmore, and it is interesting to note that Underwood’s company is not yet listed.

The Elmore Independent of February 8, 1901, records, “On Wednesday, Mr. Underwood of the Underwood Gas Engine and Motor Co. started the first engine completed in the new shop. The machine is a one and one-half horsepower gasoline engine and is a marvelous piece of mechanism. It is built for marine and pumping purposes. It weighs less than 100 pounds and develops more than one and one-half horsepower. It can be run at a speed exceeding 1,500 revolutions per minute. The engine is simple in construction, having but one valve, and all other parts automatic. It has attached a silent muffler weighing but four pounds. A new feature about the engine is that it has three ports, instead of two, as a more positive safeguard against firing in the base. The Underwood engine is not a new experiment, Mr. F.M. Underwood being a pioneer in the gas and gasoline engine business and having many of his engines in active service for years.”

The Elmore Independent of March 8, 1901, contains a full-page advertisement (see above). I know it is not very legible, but please keep in mind it is a 119-year-old newspaper.

Toward the upper right is a small air-cooled 4-cycle motor described as an automobile motor. As shown in the photo, it has no flywheel or fan for cooling purposes.

Toward the lower right is a 2-cycle engine. The footnote to this photo reads, “Marine Motor. From 1-1/2 to 8hp, single. Large power, double.”

Note that this marine engine has a “double-faced” flywheel similar to the large engine; evidently this was an identifying feature of the Underwood design.

In the lower right it reads, “Successor to Ohio Gas and Gasoline Engine Works, Bucyrus, Ohio.” and “Underwood Machine and Supply Co. Sandusky, Ohio.”

Above the center engine is the following testimonial: “Gentlemen: The 10hp gas engine I bought of you in 1895 has, and is still giving the best satisfaction, and have not used any repairs whatever, since I bought it. It is today in as good condition as when first put into use. Your engines are very neat in appearance and workmanship, are first class, and as to durability are much superior. As proof of this, I bought, in 1896, a 2hp; since then have bought two more, 3 and 6hp. They are all giving perfect satisfaction. It seems there is no wear or give-out to them. Respectfully Yours, M. Marks, Proprietor Joy House.”

The left column of text reads: “Mr. Underwood enjoys the distinction of being the first in his field for utilizing his motors for well drilling, and for stake driving for fishing purposes in Lake Erie and elsewhere. Mr. Underwood has recently introduced new features and principals of meritorious value, in the construction of 2-cycle engines, which he claims absolutely prevent any firing in the base. These gasoline engines are especially adapted for use in motor vehicles, marine and electric light purposes. The company also manufactures all kinds of stationary and portable engines of the 4-cycle type, and claims for all of them the greatest simplicity, power, durability, and light weight. The company is now in first-class position for the prompt execution of all orders for gasoline motors, all possessing new and important improvements, which it is claimed are not found in other engines. The Underwood engine of the 2 to 6hp type, is especially a favorite among printers. Catalogues describing gas engines can be had on application.”

rusty gas engine

The footnote to the heavy 4-cycle in the center reads, “Engines this style from 2 to 6hp. All sizes above 6hp without base.”

The advertisement also contains a list of Underwood gas and gasoline engine users.

It is interesting to note that most of the reported sales are in or around Bucyrus, Ohio. This fact plus the above recommendation mentioning a 10hp engine purchased in 1895 suggests that the 1895 10hp engine would have been built in the shops of the Quast firm, and between Quast Gas Engine Co., Frey & Scheckler, and the Ohio Gas Engine Co., a significant number of engines were built – likely more than a hundred. I have found no evidence whether they were built with nametags that read Quast, Frey & Scheckler, Ohio, Underwood, or perhaps no tag at all. However, it is clear Underwood did not hesitate to claim them as his engines, regardless of where they were built. The same recommendation mentioning another engine bought in 1896, plus two more engines in the 1897 – 1901 time period, show us that although Underwood changed jobs rapidly, he seemed to be able to continue to sell engines built by the firms he had left.

The mention of S.W. Lambert of Anderson, Indiana, buying automobile engines from Underwood seems very strange. First, I assume that the “S” is a printing error, and it should be J. (John) W. Lambert. By 1900, Lambert had approximately nine years of experience in engine design and manufacturing. John W. Lambert was the principal of the Buckeye Mfg. Co. (of Union City; later Anderson, Indiana). Underwood appears to have copied Lambert’s engine design closely despite possible patent infringements. Lambert successfully built and sold a few thousand cars, trucks, and tractors over an approximate 20-year period. Multiple early engine and automotive historians consider Lambert to be one of the best mechanical designers of his day, and he holds a large number of patents. Why would Lambert buy a few prototype automobile engines from Underwood?

Regarding the heavy 4-cycle in the center, notice the close resemblance to the Ohio Motor Co. engines. Figure 1 is from a 1904 Ohio Motor Co. catalog. I’ve heard there are few five-spoke flywheel engines remaining today that are of the Ohio/Underwood design; I believe at least one of them has a Palmer Bros. nametag.

The Elmore Tribune, April 19, 1901, contains an article mentioning an Underwood engine being installed in a launch. The same publication contains a story of two Underwood motors being installed in a 25-foot-long boat.

There is an engine at the Coolspring Power Museum which has no nameplate but is agreed to be an Underwood engine (See Page 20). It is undetermined where or when this individual engine was built; it could have been any of several locations over a span of almost 10 years. My understanding is this engine was found at Catawba Island, Ohio, which is reasonably close to all of the known locations where Underwood engines were built. Thus, we don’t have any strong indicators as to where it was built.

Underwood’s stay in Elmore was not long. The Elmore Tribune of June 7, 1901, reports, “Wednesday a deal was consummated between F.M. Underwood and Chas. Reed which made the latter the proprietor of the F.M. Underwood Gas Engine Works. Negotiations were pending for several weeks but were not closed until Wednesday morning. In the transfer of the plant, Mr. Reed assumes the contract between Mr. Underwood and the Business Men’s Association. Mr. Reed took immediate possession of the plant. He comes here from Toledo, highly recommended as a thorough mechanic and businessman. He will move here at once and put forth every effort to make the business a success.”

Other Elmore Engines

About 20 years ago, I was at an old-engine dealer’s shop and saw this engine (Figure 2), which the dealer claimed is an Underwood engine built in Elmore. A small, 4-cycle, vertical engine with a minimum of castings and several pieces which could easily be made in a home shop, it is very likely a prototype. It has no nameplate or other identification. Its most distinctive feature is the pie-shaped balancing absent in the flywheel. The dealer assured me that if I went to the Elmore library there was a photo of this engine in one of their history books. I did visit that library multiple times and was not able to locate anything that resembled this engine. Was this engine built by Underwood? My personal opinion is no, based upon the fact that I have not been able to locate any historical photos similar to it. Besides the horizontal double flywheel design that appears largely copied from Lambert, Underwood seems to have been only interested in 2-cycle engines. Perhaps the small 4-cycle engine shown is actually Harry Rice’s original prototype, and perhaps there is a photo of it somewhere in the Elmore library.

There is a photo at the Harris-Elmore Public Library of the “Elmore Hardware Co. Engine.” This Elmore engine photo started my search for a connection to Underwood. After consulting with local Elmore engine collectors, we determined that these Elmore Hardware Co. engines were re-badged Sattley or Montgomery-Ward engines, and were built about 10 years after Underwood left Elmore.


This series will continue in future issues of Gas Engine Magazine. The next installment will detail what happened to The Underwood Motor Co. of Elmore, Ohio, after Underwood left Elmore.

Sources: Elmore, Ohio: A History Preserved, Grace Luebke, 1975; Unigraphic, Inc., Page 272-273; Elmore Independent, December 1899, December 1900, December 1900, February 1901, March 1901; Elmore Tribune, April 19, 1901, June 7, 1901, August 19, 1901, March 7, 1902, April 9, 1903; Ohio Motor Co. Catalog, 1904.

Will Cummings is a regular contributor to Gas Engine Magazine and can be reached at will.cummings1927@gmail.com.

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