5Each year at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, a gas engine manufacturer is chosen to be featured. The featured engine program has enticed exhibitors to bring a number of excellent engines to the show over the years, and several strive to have a featured engine each year. For the 2021 show, the Brownwall gas engine was selected; the Brownwall Engine & Pulley Co. manufactured engines in Lansing and Holland, Michigan.
There were 14 Brownwall engines on display at the show. All were of the smallest offered size, 1 to 1-1/2hp. It was an even split between air-cooled and hopper-cooled engines at seven each. Five exhibitors brought a pair to the show, air- and hopper- cooled. Three of the hopper-cooled engines had a Webster magneto ignitor set up.
For 2022, the featured gas engine company will be Dempster Mill Manufacturing Co. of Beatrice, Nebraska. Dempster made a variety of different styles of engines, in several sizes, so it should be an interesting feature. We look forward to seeing many Dempster engines at the 2022 show!
The early 1900s were the heyday of the single-cylinder gas engine. Many companies sprang up to build gas engines, with the company founders usually believing that their new engine would have the features to convince customers to buy. By 1910, Lansing, Michigan, was home to several early gas engine builders, including Olds, Bates & Edmonds, and Ideal.
Another new engine builder incorporated in January 1912 in Lansing; the Brownwall Engine & Pulley Co. was located at 325 E. Michigan Ave. A railroad track separated it from the Michigan Central railroad freight building. Officers of the new company were Homer D. Parker, president; E.A. Brown, vice president; and Frank A. Wall, secretary and treasurer. The company had already commenced building gasoline engines and governor pulleys prior to their incorporation.
Brownwall Engine & Pulley Co. was the successor to Parker Manufacturing Co., which had been engaged in building governor pulleys since at least 1909. The governor pulley was patented by Fred E. Parker (U.S. patent No. 937851), filed in February 1909, and granted in October 1909. Governor pulleys were useful when operating cream separators, as they allowed for easier start up and better speed regulation. The Parker governor pulley was actively advertised from spring of 1909 to late 1911 by the Parker Mfg. Co. The Parker firm was also located at 325 E. Michigan Ave., so Brownwall began operation in the same facilities.
Homer D. Parker was likely the money behind the new Brownwall company, and he had controlling interest in Parker Mfg. Co. Parker was also the owner of a jewelry store in Lansing, called Parker & Templeton, located on East Washington Avenue.
The gas engine offered by Brownwall was a new design attributed to Edsill A. Brown. Brown had previously been employed with Air Cooled Motor Co. of Lansing as plant superintendent, so he was experienced with gas engine design and manufacture. The initial engines made by Brownwall were air-cooled. They carried a simple inline valve operating mechanism, with the valve chest cast on the side of the cylinder. A belt-driven fan was used to cool the engine. Initial sizes offered ranged from 1 to 6hp.
Frank Wall was the other key founder of the Brownwall firm, thus the company name is a combination of Brown and Wall. Wall also had prior experience in the gas engine and auto industries, having spent several years working at Olds Motor Works, Reo Motor Co., and others as a salesman and factory representative. From its inception in 1912, Brownwall was an active advertiser in trade magazines of the day, such as Gas Review and Gas Power. They also participated in local fairs and demonstrated their engines at the annual gas engine show held by the National Gas Engine Association.
Brownwall seems to have been quite successful with its new engine. The company also continued to promote and sell the governor pulleys. The company’s output began to be limited due to the size of the factory; the company officers wanted to hire more men and increase output, but they needed more space. The factory building in Lansing measured about 50 by 150 feet, with part of it two stories. The fire maps from 1913 show no foundry on site, so they likely were purchasing castings elsewhere.
Growth and relocation
By mid-1913, Brownwall had added water-cooled engines to its line up. This was accomplished by exchanging the air-cooled cylinder and fan assembly with a hopper-cooled cylinder. The rest of the engine remained the same. Water-cooled engines proved a popular seller for Brownwall. Water-cooled engines were made in five sizes, from 1 to 10hp, and were later equipped with Webster magnetos and ignitors.
In 1913, the company claimed to be 70 engines behind, with no way to catch up, and they were actively looking for more suitable quarters in Lansing. In February, an opportunity came to relocate to Charlotte, but the company was offered a better solution in June 1914 and moved to Holland, Michigan. The move was completed in September 1914. Their new factory in Holland (per the 1916 fire maps, see opposite page) looks slightly larger than what they had in Lansing, measuring 50 by 275 feet. The new building was shown as being all one level. Similar to Lansing, there does not appear to be a foundry, so again castings would need to be brought from another source.
In January 1916, it was reported in the St. Joseph, Michigan, newspaper that Brownwall was planning to triple its capacity with the addition of a two-story, 50-by-100-feet, building. They claimed to have 287 orders for engines pending from mostly foreign markets. In March 1917 the industry periodical Gas Engine reported that Brownwall intended to double production capacity. It is not known if the additional building was ever built, or if capacity was ever increased.
Brownwall also went through a shift in its advertising. During the year of the relocation to Holland, Brownwall dropped out of industry periodicals. They reemerged in 1916 with a focus on the construction industry and had ads in American Builder and Concrete Age. Their focus also seemed to be on sales outside the U.S., as referenced in articles in newspaper and magazines talking about potential expansion primarily for sales to the foreign market. Brownwall also made a number of contract engines for other firms, who affixed their own nameplates. These companies included Charles Jager Co., Lister, Vermont Farm Machinery Co., and several others.
Many gas engine manufacturers suffered during the late teens, and Brownwall was no exception. The company went through a reorganization in August 1919, and changed its name to Holland Engine Co. (engines still retained the Brownwall name). As sales dwindled further on the Brownwall air- and hopper-cooled engines, they began looking for a newer and better engine to offer. In May 1922, the company began advertising a 4hp Holland Auto-Type engine. This was a lightweight vertical engine with a fan-cooled radiator. Few of these engines are seen today, so it is likely that sales were not strong.
The company continued to struggle and, in early January 1925, it was announced the company had merged with Burke Engineering Co. of Chicago. Burke manufactured furnaces, and it is likely that the newly merged company continued to make at least a few engines, as it was still listed in the Farm Implement News Buyers Guides through 1927 as a manufacturer of engines. The Burke Engineering Co. continued to provide repair parts for Brownwall engines as late as 1948.
Total production for Brownwall engines is not known, but many Brownwall engines survive today. The most common surviving Brownwalls are the smallest sizes, 1 or 1-1/2hp, either hopper- or air-cooled. Very few of the larger air-cooled engines have survived, but a few of the large hopper-cooled engines (including the 10hp) exist in collectors’ hands.
Barry Tuller is a collector of gas engines and related belt-driven equipment, literature and advertising. He enjoys learning about engines and researching the people and companies that made them. Email him at email@example.com.