The Straubel Story

| July/August 1997

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27 Loon Lake Road Bigfork, Montana 59911

I would like to dedicate this story to the Straubels of Kaukauna, Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is one of the leading states in the manufacturing of non-electrical machinery and paper products. At the turn of the century there were over 123 different makes of gas engines manufactured in Wisconsin alone. Even today some of these same famous named engines are still being made in Wisconsin.

This article is about one of the engines built in Green Bay by the Straubel family.

Louis A. Straubel was born August 1st, 1865 to F. E. and Christina Straubel. The paternal grandfather was Frederick Straubel, who with his wife and family emigrated to the United States in 1846 from Germany. He was by trade a blacksmith and followed that occupation during his life in America. F. E. Straubel, the father of Louis, was also engaged in the blacksmith trade, but in 1871 established himself in the brick-making business in which he continued until 1893.

Louis A. Straubel worked in the brick yard from age 14 until he was 23 and was foreman his last five years.

At age 23, Louis was engaged as an apprentice machinist and acquired his knowledge of that trade during one year of service. He then took up work as a machinist with the East River Machine Shop where the firm of Hudson and Sharp is now located. He then worked for two years in Oshkosh and two and one-half years in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In 1893 Louis and his brother Charles took charge of their father's brickyard for one year.

Mr. Louis Straubel was united in marriage in Green Bay, March 27,1900, to Miss Milda Mickelson. They are the parents of two sons, Clifford and James. The family resided at 518 Walnut Street in a residence which was built by F. E. Straubel, the father of Louis.

In 1894 Louis took up work with the Thomas Machine Company and later with the Milwaukee Sander Company, dividing his time of employment between these two companies for a period of two years.

Louis A. Straubel purchased the Holbeck Machine Shops at 112 S. Pearl Street (west side of Green Bay) in 1896.

Until about 1900 the business was named simply Louis A. Straubel Machine Shop. About 1905 the name became Straubel Machine Company. The company was incorporated as a closed stock company in 1907. This was after Louis' brothers, Ernest and Edward, became partners.

In 1908 the firm purchased its present location and built a structure which consists of a plant sixty by one hundred fifty-seven feet, one story high. It was built of brick and it has a 'saw tooth' roof construction which was used for better lighting. Several additions were added as the company expanded.

The Straubel Machine Company employed seventeen skilled laborers and all the officers of the company took an active part in the conduct of the business.

At this time we have no mention of types of machines that were manufactured. From what we have determined, the marine engine was likely manufactured at the Pearl Street shop.

A side note: F. E. Straubel's brickyard was near the East River, north of Mason Street Bridge, and was established in 1869. At that time the company employed 13 people and produced 10,000 bricks daily. In October 1871, the historic fire at Peshtigo burned 1,280,000 acres of land. Cost of lives was reported to be 1,152 known dead and 350 others presumed so. At least 1,500 were injured and 3,000 left homeless. Property lost was estimated at $5,000,000. After the Peshtigo fire, the demand for bricks for use in building increased enormously.

Ernest T. Straubel was born October 28,1874 to F. E. and Christina Straubel. He received his early education in the public schools of Green Bay, Wisconsin. After his schooling he went to work in his father's brickyard at Green Bay until the age of twenty. He then worked as an apprentice machinist for his brother Louis for one year, and for two years as a master machinist in the same shop. In 1899 he went to Milwaukee and worked as a machinist with the Viter Manufacturing Company for one year and later for the Gueder &. Paschke Company and then the Luther & Gies Company.

In 1907 Ernest entered a partnership with his brother Louis and conducted business under the firm name of the Straubel Machine Company and has since continued to be successful in the machine manufacturing business.

On July 25, 1906, he was married to Miss Frances A. Sprague. They became parents of one child, Ernest S. Straubel. The family resided at 314 South Madison Street, Green Bay.

Mr. Ernest T. Straubel was the secretary and treasurer for the Straubel Machine Company. He was well known throughout northeastern Wisconsin as one of the enterprising and successful business men of his county and state.

I can find no information of the types of machinery that were manufactured prior to the paper machines that were made in 1917.

The Straubel Machine Company catered to the local paper mills, designing and improving many paper converting machines. The first machine for making interfold towels in Green Bay was designed and patented by L. A. Straubel, and sold to Northern Paper Mills in 1917. In 1922 he designed and patented the first double-fold toilet tissue inter-folding machine. They also were making cabinets for the interfold toilet paper towels.

Much of the original equipment was still in good repair and being used in the factory in June 1979.

Between 1925-1926, the name was changed to Straubel Paper Company. The company was in business until at least the mid-1970s. When they went out of business we're not sure, but they have not been in business for quite some time.

I had been doing the research on this engine for over a year and wasn't getting much help from any of the people I contacted. I finally had to hire a Genealogical and Historical Research Service out of Green Bay and they have come up with all before mentioned information. They have come up with the name and address of the grandson of Ernest Straubel, his name being Dick Straubel of Kaukauna, Wisconsin.

Here is his story and comments on the Straubel Engine Company. Dick Straubel is narrating what his father, Don Straubel, is telling him:

'My father was pleased to receive your note and picture of the Straubel engine. We were a little startled to learn that a Straubel engine survives in Montana. We would be interested to hear about the circumstances that took it there. Dad is unable to write because of a partial quadriplegia caused by a broken neck suffered in an auto accident. He is 82 years old, and as is true of many elderly people, memories of his family are increasingly important to him. His father and two uncles manufactured Straubel engines. Your note roused many pleasant memories and started him talking about the old days.

'There were five Straubel brothers: Ernest (my grandfather), Louis, Ed, Otto and Charles. Otto and Charles were successful Green Bay businessmen, but were not involved in the engine business. Louis started the engine business in 1898 or 1899. His intent was to sell engines to Great Lakes fishermen. The business was successful, but he was having trouble finding reliable workers. He contacted Ed and Ernest, who were working in Milwaukee machine shops at the time, and asked them to join him in the business. They did so. They manufactured engines until about 1906 or 1908 when Kahlenberg marine engines took the market.

'I recall my father saying that one reason Straubel engines were designed for such low r.p.m. was because Grampa Straubel did not believe compression could occur at high r.p.m. Knowing this thought was in the mind of the builder may help you enjoy your Straubel more as you listen to it run.

'The power of the Straubel engines could be increased by bolting multiple cylinders together. You will notice that the ends of the crankcase are covered by circular plates bolted to the engine block. The crankshaft extends through the centers of the plates. Your 2 HP engine could become a 5 HP engine by adding another cylinder. Since your engine is stationary, you may not know that the engines were put into reverse by cutting the ignition, allowing the engine to come up on the compression stroke, retarding the spark and turning the ignition back on. The engine would begin to run in reverse. Reversing the engine must have taken great practice. 'The one Straubel I have seen was owned by Dave Eline, an heir to the Schlitz Brewery fortune. When about fifteen years old, I watched Dave, who was intoxicated at the time, come in to his slip at a concrete dock in Fish Creek, Wisconsin. Dave's timing was a little off! He thought he had the engine in reverse, but did not. He ended up accelerating forward and crashed into the dock. He had been traveling quite fast when he approached the dock (he liked to show off for bystanders on the dock with a dramatic reverse move), so the crash was quite impressive. I remember seeing Dave fly head first down the companionway. Good thing he was drunk don't think he felt a thing!

'I remember hearing that there were less than one-hundred engines made each year. Serial numbers began with the year (1901 meant that the first digit was 1) and ended with the number of the engines made that year. The first engine made in 1901 would have had the serial number 101.1 seem to remember numbers higher than that, but my father has told that story several times.

'The green paint on your engine may be original. All Straubel engines were painted a similar shade of green.

'Another story my father likes to tell is about when a salesman came to the engine company looking for my grandfather. The salesman was told where Grampa was, but he was still unable to find him. He sought better directions and was told, 'He is the man working on that engine over there. His white shirt sleeves are rolled up, his hands are greasy up to the elbows, and he is whistling 'Onward Christian Soldiers.' Evidently the salesman was looking for a dignified businessman in a three-piece suit. Grandfather may have been working on your engine at that time. If he was not, the chances are still very good that your motor was blessed with a whistled hymn of some kind. When still a young man my father asked some of the men at the shop what it was like to work for Ernest. They said, 'It is awful. He tells us how to do something, then does it himself!'

'Your Straubel engine was made by honorable men who worked hard and took pride in the engines they made.

'Ernest was a pillar of the church and community. He attended the Congregational Church every Sunday, built a fire in the church furnace everyday the weather called for it, and he was a great proponent of prohibition.

'Most of the engines died unceremoniously on rocky Door County beaches where fishermen dumped them after replacing them with more modern Kahlenberg engines. The Straubels tended to be a bit rigid in their approach to changing technology. They seemed to believe that the Straubel engine had attained a mechanical evolutionary peak which could not be improved upon. They valued reliable simplicity. Performance enhancements achieved through the complication of the engine were not desirable because complication usually meant less reliability.'

My engine is a 2 HP water cooled marine engine made by the Straubel Machine Company, Green Bay, Wisconsin. Its serial number is 1423. It has a bore of 3' and a stroke of 3'. Connecting rod is cast bronze with a con rod bearing of 1? ' in diameter. There is no babbitt in the bearing. The ignition system is of the wiper type off the crankshaft. Four l volt dry cell batteries supplied the electrical current, connected to a buzz coil. The spark plug is a Model T type.

The carburetor is of the float type as the fuel tank is mounted above the carb. There is a primer cup next to the spark plug on the head, for easier starting. There is no butterfly in the air intake side of the carb. There is a throttle lever on the carb and also a gas mixture needle valve on top of the carb. How effective the drip oiler was is anyone's guess. Oil was not mixed with the gas in those days. Also there was no drain plug on the bottom of the crankcase to drain off excess oil or gas.

To start the engine a handle is inserted in one of two holes in the flywheel, depending on which direction you want to run the engine. The two holes in the flywheel are designed in such a way that the handle would release itself once the engine was started.

How my engine ended up in Montana is anyone's guess. Perhaps someone traveling westward heard about the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi called Flathead Lake, and wanted to see for themselves how big the lake really is. (At full pool the lake has a surface area of 197 square miles with a maximum length of 27 miles and a maximum width of 15 miles.

About the only thing I have been able to find out is that the engine was used in a flat bottom launch type boat owned by the Kalispell Elks Club. The boat was between 8'-10' wide and 18'-20' long. The name of the boat was the 'Myth.' The Elks used the boat for fishing parties.

I have talked to an old-timer who used the boat and engine whenever the Elks weren't using it.

He tells of the time when he and a friend were caught out on the lake and a storm came up and they got drenched before they got to shore. They had no matches, so taking a rag they poured gas on it, then held it next to the spark plug wire; while cranking over the engine, a spark jumped and ignited the rag. They then proceeded to build a fire and get dried out.

The engine was pulled from the boat in 1926 never to be used again. It went through a few owners' hands, but no one seemed to be interested in it. The engine finally ended up beside an auto repair shop in Lakeside, Montana. It was covered up with a piece of tin, so it was hard to see it from the road. You ask how did I find the engine? Well, actually I didn't. My wife found it for me. While shopping for groceries one day she ran into our old car mechanic in the store. She visited awhile, as women do, and he asked her if I was still restoring old cars. 'No,' she said, 'John is into old one-cylinder engines and looking for more. Do you know of any?' 'Well yes,' said Neil, 'I have one I'll sell him, send him over someday.'

That evening my wife told me about her visit with Neil and what he said about having an engine. Supper could wait. I called Neil up and he said, 'Yes, I have an old boat motor called a Straubel and yes, I would sell it as I have no use for it. Come on over and look at it.' I said, 'Yes I will, how about tomorrow?' 'Fine,' said Neil. That phone call ended on a high note for me, as I could not find the name Straubel Machine Company in Wendel's book, Gas Engines Since 1872. Boy, this must be a rare one if it's not in Wendel's 'bible.'

The next day found me in Lakeside, Montana, at Neil's place looking at an engine like I had never seen before. We made small talk for a while, about how he had the engine running one year ago and how it bounced all over his yard as it is not a balanced engine, having only one flywheel. I kept eyeballing the engine and asking myself, 'Do you really want this engine?' After all, a two-cycle engine can be a cantankerous thing to get running. Something like the old Titan chain-saws. The more I thought about it, the closer I got to saying 'Yes, you need this thing. No one else in the Engine Club has a marine engine and this might be a rare find and you'll kick yourself all the way home if you don't buy it.'

A price was agreed upon and the Straubel was mine. Neil helped me load it up into my old '63 Chevy pick-up and home I went. Of course, I left it in my pick-up to show it off. Most people looking at it had no idea what it was or what it was used for. Explaining the function of the different parts made sense to some of the mechanical minded people, but I'm sure most people thought I was about three bricks shy of a full load.

I got the engine unloaded, and for a while it just sat on my shop floor, while I wondered what to do with my 'prize.'

During the winter of '95-'96 I made the cart and the four wheels to mount the engine on. The engine weighs well over 200 lbs. and is very side heavy on the flywheel side.

It was time to look inside the crank-case and check the rod bearing. I took the two side covers off and found the rod had too much slop. Adjusting for the clearance was easy as there were still shims between the rod and cap. Compression was very low and by pouring oil down the plug hole it helped a little, but not a whole lot. I did try to start it one day, just by pouring gas down the priming hole and cranking it over. I did get three or four pops out of it, but just until the gas was all used up. Right then I knew she'd run, but could see that cranking by hand wasn't the answer. The cranking handle was too hard to hold into the flywheel hole.

Next step was to come up with an easier way to spin the flywheel. Having collected Model A Ford parts for over 35 years, I was sure a Ford starter could be rigged up to do the job. The flywheel on the engine is about the same diameter as a Model A flywheel, so all I had to do was make a 2' flat pulley for the starter shaft. A two inch leather belt was made up to run this starting system. I got a good used gas tank and mounted it above the carb so the gas was gravity feed.

In June of 1996 our club, the Northwest Antique Power Association, had a Spring Crank-up and so I brought the engine to the show. With the help of Nick Poncelot and Steve Skyberg we got the Straubel running. At a low r.p.m. it really vibrated, but by opening the throttle up it would settle down. I would guess we ran it. for 15 minutes before it ran out of gas.

Before I try starting it again, I will put in a set of rings and hone the cylinder. The mains seem tight so I won't mess with them. A good cleaning and a paint job will finish this engine.

I would like to thank Mr. Frank E. Philpitt of Hicksville, New York, for helping me on getting me going on the research of this engine. He helped me with names of maritime museums to get in touch with in Wisconsin. Without his encouragement I might not have finished this story.

If a person has an engine and wants to find some history on it, and is willing to write letters, you might be surprised by what you'll come up with. If I lived in or near Green Bay it would have been easier and quicker for me to do the 'leg work' on the research.

I hope all you engine collectors enjoy reading my story on the Straubel engine as much as I enjoy reading your engine stories in GEM. Please let me know if there are any more Straubels around. I'd like to compare notes with you.


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