Unraveling the forgotten story of Rick Kaufman’s circa-1896 Walls engine.
Fifteen years ago, Gas Engine Magazine editor Richard Backus penned the article “The Wonder of the Walls,” (April 2003) discussing the only known surviving Walls engine, which was owned by Rick Kaufman of Danvers, Illinois. Rick still owns the engine, and it is still the only known Walls engine. As I love a challenge, I decided to research the Decatur Gasoline Engine Co., maker of the Walls engine. Comparing notes with Rick, we have pieced together the following history on this short-lived engine company.
Cicero Volney Walls was born in Edgar County, Illinois, in 1848. He and his brother Cyrus N. Walls started in the newspaper business right out of high school, both men owning and operating numerous newspapers in Illinois during their lives. In 1892, Cicero broke from his chosen profession to submit his first gas engine patent, number 498,700. This patent, which was granted a year later, illustrated a horizontal engine with a unique chain-driven camshaft located under the engine’s head to operate the valves. The engine was fired by hot tube, though the patent states that electric ignition could be substituted. What prompted Cicero to design an engine is unknown, but his brother Cyrus patented a document folding attachment for a printing press about the same time. The April 29, 1893, issue of the Decatur Herald-Despatch said, “The Walls family seems to have been blessed with an abundance of inventive genius.” It should be noted that Cyrus Walls founded the Decatur Herald-Despatch in 1879, though he sold it a few months later.
While Cicero’s patent was still being reviewed by the Patent Office, the Aug. 12, 1893, edition of the Mattoon Gazette reported that J.F. Chuse & Co. of Mattoon, Illinois, had built Walls’ first engine. The Gazette’s Labor Day issue the following month announced that Chuse & Co. had produced four engines, including one that was on display in the Labor Day parade. The paper said: “For several months Mr. Walls has been engaged in perfecting the engine which threatens to revolutionize the mechanical world.” Dubbed “the Little Wonder,” the engine’s price was said to be “lower than other makes.” Later, in September, the Gazette said Cicero had one of his engines running a broom corn thresher on the G.W. Parish farm near Mattoon at a cost of two cents per hour to operate. For the following year, the Gazette would occasionally mention a Walls engine being sold in a 50 to 60 mile radius of Mattoon. It was even reported that Cicero exhibited a 6 hp model at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Cicero’s next patent was applied for in 1894 and issued about a year later (number 537,370). It covered a vertical, 2-cycle engine with a belt-driven governor and an “incandescent igniting tube” (which, again, could be substituted for electric ignition). The engine featured a poppet valve in the piston to bring the fuel into the combustion chamber – an unusual idea to say the least. The same year this patent was applied for, the March 23 issue of the Mattoon Gazette boasted that Chuse & Co. had constructed a 20 hp Walls engine to run a hay press near Newman, Illinois – the first model larger than a 6 hp to be built by the firm.
Things were looking up, but at the end of June the Gazette broke the news that the Keystone Iron Works in Ft. Madison, Iowa, would be the new builder of the Walls patented engine. The following April saw advertisements in the nationally circulated American Elevator and Grain Trade magazine for the Ft. Madison-built Walls. The engine pictured in these ads is the same as Rick’s engine, and was advertised as available “from 1 to 100 H.P.”
The May 1895 issue of American Elevator and Grain Trade carried a short article about the Walls engine. The article mostly pontificated about the usefulness of the gasoline engine in modern industry, but did boast the Walls’ simplicity, with few working parts, and a galvanized water jacket that was easy to repair or replace if damaged by frost (a feature not found on Rick’s engine). The Walls engine was said to be available in both 2- and 4-cycle models. The drawing that accompanied the article illustrated a two-flywheel engine, with the governor on the opposite side of Rick’s Walls, but was otherwise similar in appearance.
Advertisements for the Keystone Iron Works’ Walls engine appear in American Elevator and Grain Trade for the rest of 1895 before ads for the Decatur Gasoline Engine Co. appear. According to the Decatur Herald, Cicero was looking to build his own engine factory in Decatur as early as 1893, but was not able to rally the needed investors. By October 1895, Cicero was back in Decatur looking for financial backers. At that time the Herald claimed “the engine can be built and sold at $600,” which could also buy you a 7 hp “Electro Vapor Engine” from the 1895 Montgomery Ward catalog.
In December, Cicero and his brother-in-law B.F. Huff, who owned a hardware store in Decatur, were again looking at buildings in Decatur, though they still lacked the capital. Finally, by January it was announced that the newly formed Decatur Gasoline Engine Co. would move into the Thatcher Building at 723 North Water Street. The building was being outfitted for the new venture, and J.C. White, J.F. Chuse’s son-in-law and former shop manager in Mattoon, moved from Chicago to Decatur to manage the new factory. The Decatur Herald quoted Cicero as saying that the shop could turn out 50 engines by the end of the year.
Advertisements for the Decatur Gasoline Engine Co. ran in the American Elevator and Grain Trade magazine through 1896. While the advertisements pictured a stationary engine identical to Rick’s, the ads also mentioned “light engines for motor wagons and carriages.” This started when Cicero was approached to re-power a “motocycle,” or motor carriage, in the summer of 1896. The carriage was built in 1895 by John W. Hall of Jacksonville, Illinois, for local banker M.P. Ayers. It was originally powered by a Kane-Pennington engine, which was found insufficient. Why Cicero was chosen to build the new engine for this vehicle is unknown. I can find no connection between Walls and Ayers, although Ayers’ daughter lived in Decatur. Besides this, the H. Mueller Co. had recently opened in Decatur to build motor wagons and engines, and had even won second place in a big race in Chicago the winter before with one of their own motorized carriages.
Whatever the reason, Walls took the job and built a 2-cylinder, 2-cycle, 4 hp igniter-fired oscillating engine for the vehicle. It performed well, and was promoted by Walls in the August 1896 issue of The Motocycle magazine. In September, Cicero drove the carriage some 75 miles to Jacksonville. The Decatur Herald wrote, “Mr. Walls went overland with the motocycle and made the trip without incident.” They admitted that Cicero “has received many inquiries concerning his motor, but he has not received any more orders.” It would seem that his local sales dried up quickly. One embarrassment was the 15 hp engine installed in the Kitchen Elevator at Mattoon in July, which was not powerful enough to run the machinery and was sent back (a fact made public in the Mattoon Gazette). The Dec. 10, 1896, issue of the Decatur Herald revealed that Cicero had “gone back to his first love, the newspaper business.” The Decatur Gasoline Engine Co. was no more.
The Walls engine, built by three different companies, was only in production about three years. It is doubtful that more than a few dozen were produced, if that. At least one is still extant – Rick Kaufman’s, which carries serial number 306. Could this number indicate that it was the sixth engine built by the third manufacturer?
When Rick purchased his engine, he was told it was possibly used at a Decatur newspaper – very likely considering Cicero’s journalistic background. The only reference I could find to an engine being sold to a newspaper was in the May 1, 1896, issue of the Decatur Herald, when the New Era paper at Cerro Gordo, Illinois, purchased a 2-1/2 hp model. Coincidentally, Rick believes his engine to be around a 2-1/2 hp, so there is a good chance this was the same engine.
When Rick got the engine, it took some creative engineering to make it operational, as told in the 2003 GEM article. It came with a parts engine, which was needed in the restoration. Rick believed the engine was originally hot-tube fired, but missing the hot tube. He was able to get the engine running on a spark plug. He was also missing the original carburetor, and only recently did advertisements like those in the American Elevator and Grain Trade magazine come to light to show what the original carburetor looked like. Rick was able to get his engine going using a Lunkenheimer carburetor, which appears to be very similar in function to the original shown in the 1896 advertisement illustrations. Both have a valve built into the carburetor body, necessary as the engine does not have an intake valve in the head.
The advertisements call it an “Electro Vapor Engine,” which would make me think the engines were spark-plug fired originally instead of using a hot tube. The advertisement drawings make it difficult to tell for sure, and none of the information I found in period newspapers or magazines gives any clue as to the type of ignition. With no other known examples, we may never know.
And what about the Keystone Iron Works back in Iowa? After losing the Walls engine, they started to manufacture the Lamos engine, which is pictured in C. H. Wendel’s American Gasoline Engines Since 1872. Looking closely, you’ll see this engine featured an eccentric-operated camshaft under the engine’s cylinder. This setup is covered by the 1896 patent of George Lamos (number 562,307), who was proprietor of the Keystone company. This patent bears a resemblance to Cicero Walls’ first 1893 patent, replacing the chain with an eccentric. As it is referred to in early advertisements as the “Lamos Improved” engine, it was probably an updated version of Walls’ earlier design. The Keystone Iron Works was still offering the Lamos engine until around 1900, when they too faded from view.
Cicero V. Walls died in 1917, and outside of a few written references, is pretty well forgotten. Every year, though, the lone surviving engine carrying his name is exhibited by Rick Kaufman at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, and other shows in the Midwest. It stands as a testament to the era in which it was built – the early days of gasoline engine development when hundreds, if not thousands, of “inventors” all thought their engine design was the best. A lucky few were able to scrape together enough capital to try their hand at manufacturing, with most eventually fading off into obscurity, just like Cicero.