A TALE OF TWO BROTHERS
If there was a more unusual pair of brothers in the
tractor-manufacturing world than Marshall T. and Milton O. Reeves,
they have been well hidden. Between them, the Columbus, Ind., pair
invented a six-wheeled and an eight-wheeled automobile, wrote a
booklet of directions on how to play the game of roque, founded and
pastored a church, included sermons in Reeves & Co.
agricultural products catalogs, donated half a million dollars to
church missions, invented the variable transmission, had a
well-known writer dedicate a work to the Reeves auto, worked
side-by-side with factory hands, and, oh yes, manufactured Reeves
steam traction engines, cars, buses, tractors and gas engines.
Youth No Hindrance
Marshall Reeves was still in his teens, plowing corn on his
father’s farm with the old conventional double shovel plow in 1869,
when he was struck with an idea. As The Evening Republican
newspaper of Columbus, Ind., reported, “The day being hot and the
task not a pleasant one, the youth began thinking in terms of
labor-saving machinery with the result that he devised a plow on
which two double shovels were fastened, one a right-hand and the
other a left. He was then able to plow a row of corn at one
operation instead of merely a half row as he had done in the
Thus, the inventive genius of Marshall Reeves was unleashed. His
father helped improve the device and in 1874 Marshall, his father
and uncle Alfred B. Reeves formed Hoosier Boy Cultivator Co. They
began manufacturing that childhood invention, the “Hoosier Boy
Tongueless Corn Plow.” In 1879 the name Reeves & Co. was taken,
as Marshall had been busy inventing other Reeves items as well:
threshers, straw stackers, separators, corn shellers and clover
hullers - all under the Reeves name. During his lifetime, Marshall
was credited for more than 50 patents.
In the same year, the other half of the dynamic duo, Milton
Reeves (13 years younger than Marshall) worked in a sawmill in
Columbus. There he saw that workers could not control the speed of
the pulleys used to power woodcutting saws. The high speeds caused
wood to split and resulted in a great deal of profit-cutting waste.
After some months of study and experimentation, he in-vented a
variable-speed transmission to control how fast the saws cut.
During his lifetime, Milton patented more than 100 different items.
In September 1888, Milton, along with Marshall, M.M. Reeves and
A.B. Reeves bought Edinburg Pulley Co., moved it to Columbus, and
renamed it Reeves Pulley Co.
“The day being hot and the task not a pleasant one, the
youth began thinking in terms of labor-saving machinery.” – The
Evening Republican newspaper of Columbus, Ind.
Reeves Gas Engines
Though it is unclear when Reeves Pulley Co. began manufacturing
gas engines, it appears it might have been about 1911. In 1913, 1
HP and 2 HP engines were introduced “to replace the 1-1/2 HP size
announced in 1911,” according to C.H. Wendel in American Gasoline
Engines Since 1872. Other sizes built included 3, 4, 6, 12 and 15
The engines lasted through 1915, something of a surprise
considering the company spared no expenses for their machines and
thus had them priced higher than others on the market. They bored
and reamed each piston, adding two brass bushings and a wrist pin,
which floated in the piston rather than in the connecting rod.
Split flywheel hubs, the best, and more expensive engineering
practice, were featured on most Reeves gas engines. The engines
were painted “rich, brilliant red, nicely striped in gold, with
neat scrolls at the corners, and our name ‘The Reeves’ applied to
the hopper in gold,” their 1913 catalog proclaimed.
The crank end also had this “fancy work,” which, as Wendel
wrote, was sure to increase costs. “The company laid great emphasis
on (the finish of) their engines,” Wendel adds. “Noting at one
point that filling and sanding to a good finish was a prerequisite
before entering the paint room.”
Milton worked back and forth from automobile engine work to
portable gas engine work, incorporating “the best automobile
practice,” as he wrote. Reeves gas engines included eccentric
piston rings, for example.
Other advantages of Reeves engines included make-and-break
ignition, hit-and-miss governing, and a spark-adjusting lever to
retard ignition when starting and advance ignition when running.
Reeves engines were sold to Cummings Machine Co. of Minster, Ohio,
in 1915, and were probably not manufactured after that.
During the summer of 1896, Milton began working earnestly on
automobiles. He realized his variable-speed transmission would work
in the “horseless carriage,” so he built one for his homemade
Motocycle automobile, and another to vary the speed on a
24-by-10-inch lathe in the pulley plant. He was half-crazed by the
idea of an automobile.
The first successful test of the Motocycle was Sept. 26, 1896.
The first automobile in Indianapolis, Ind., it was noted for having
variable speeds of 1-15 MPH, while other autos of the time
generally ran in one gear.
He built a second Motocycle, essentially a bus, called the “Big
Seven,” which held seven people. He also put together two smaller
Motocycles. In January 1898, Milton reported to the Reeves
directors: “So far as the devices which I placed on the machine
were concerned, they have done their work as well as I had
expected, but so many other things have annoyed me at times that I
have been discouraged with the machine as a whole. Among these I
might mention vibration, odor and vapor from exhaust of engine,
vapor from cooling water, and others too numerous to mention
Milton built a 20-passenger bus in 1898, and sold it to a
Pierre, S.D., businessman. Though it worked well, its track was
wider than already-established wagon-wheel ruts, so it was returned
to the company, where it was used on the Big Four Railroad from
Columbus to Hope, Ind. Parts of these buses were possibly used to
make other Reeves vehicles.
In 1899, Milton dropped out of the automobile business
temporarily because better transmissions had been invented for
cars; however, in industrial uses, his variable speed transmission
was doing very well. The thought of automobiles did not leave
Milton. He tinkered and made Reeves prototypes – two air-cooled,
4-cylinder, gasoline engine designs. Ten cars were made by 1905 –
four Model Ds and six Model Es.
The Model D used a 3-1/4-by-3-1/4-inch bore and stroke engine of
12 HP, while the Model E had a larger 4-by-4-inch bore and stroke
18-20 HP engine. Reeves only offered engines for sale for 1906 as
testing on the cars continued. Other Reeves automobiles were built
and sold over the next few years, including the Model S, Model N
The Octoauto and Sextoauto
In 1911, Milton formed the Reeves Sexto-Octo Co. of Columbus,
Ind., and turned to manufacturing some of the oddest, yet
sleek-looking cars ever made: the Sextoauto and the Octoauto,
multi-wheeled cars with six and eight wheels. These were titled
“The easiest riding cars in the world,” and followed the premise
that the more tires on the ground, the more comfortable the ride.
Reeves wanted an auto that would “float” over bumps and rough
streets. Thus came the eight-wheeled Octoauto, which was praised in
two pages of prose by a well-known writer of the time, Elbert
“In the Reeves Octoauto,” Hubbard wrote, “the load is
distributed over eight wheels, instead of being concentrated on
four. In a four-wheeled automobile, a wheel at each corner carries
one-fourth of the load. In case of an imperfection in the road or
the sudden dropping down into a rut, one wheel may for an instant
carry half the load, and it is this sudden jolt and burden that
causes tire trouble.”
The Octoauto was simply a modified 1910-1911 Overland
automobile. The length of the Octoauto – 248 inches – was a huge
drawback, in addition to its price of $3,200. None were ever
In the summer of 1912, Milton bought a brand new Stutz, and
converted it into the six-wheeled Sextoauto. Its price was $5,000,
and none were ever sold. This ended Milton’s ventures in the
In 1910, Reeves & Co. built their first tractor, a large
4-cylinder machine with an engine built by Minneapolis Steel &
Machinery Co. It was identical to the Twin City 40-65 engine. The
Reeves 40 was a 40-65 with a 4-cylinder engine of 7-1/4-by-9-inch
bore and stroke. But the tractor never did do well, partly because
Reeves & Co. was sold to Emerson-Brantingham Co. of Rockford,
Ill., in 1912. EB continued to make the Reeves tractor through
1920, as well as Reeves steam traction engines.
“For more than a third of a century, Mr. Reeves was
president and general manager of the Reeves & Company’s
manufacturing concern … at the time of the sale of the company,
the annual business done by the company totaled approximately two
million dollars.” – The Evening Republican
Despite the difference in the brilliant brothers’ ages, they
died within six months of each other – Marshall in December 1923
and Milton in May 1924. The Evening Republican remembered Marshall
this way: “For more than a third of a century, Mr. Reeves was
president and general manager of the Reeves & Company’s
manufacturing concern here, and during that time he and his
associates succeeded in building up the business from a mere
blacksmith shop to a mammoth manufacturing concern which sent its
products everywhere and which at one time employed approximately
1,000 men. Reeves & Co. manufactured threshing and kindred
machinery and at the time of the sale of the company to the
Emerson-Brantingham Company, the annual business done by the
company totaled approximately two million dollars.”
The Evening Republican obituary of Milton remembered him thus:
“An inventive genius, M.O. Reeves originated and designed the two
chief products manufactured by the Reeves Pulley Company, the
Reeves variable speed transmission and the Reeves pulley. After the
variable-speed transmission had been brought out, Mr. Reeves’
inventive and mechanical ability began to assert itself and much of
his time for many years was spent in experimentations and in the
perfection of mechanical devices of various kinds.”
With the deaths of these brothers, the saga of Reeves & Co.
of Columbus, Ind., came to an end.
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;
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