An excerpt from Glenn Karch’s new book: The Kewanee Engine Story
Front and back cover of a Kewanee catalog.
Kewanee, Ill., was settled in 1854 according to a painted wall located in the center of town. The city is situated in the southeast corner of agricultural Henry County. The city’s population is now around 13,000, down from around 20,000 during the city’s industrial heyday. During that time, Kewanee Boiler Co. was toward the west side of town and once employed hundreds of workers making various kinds of boilers and tanks.
The company eventually known as Kewanee Water Supply Co. (later Kewanee Private Utilities Co.) began in 1897. A man by the name of Xenophon Caverno started a pump and water supply business selling and installing various units and equipment he obtained from other suppliers. He promoted water supply systems for farms and homes beyond the reach of city utilities.
The 1900 Kewanee City Directory lists a Kewanee Pneumatic Water Supply Co. located in downtown Kewanee at 118 N. Tremont St., with Caverno listed as president. Kewanee Light & Power Co. is also listed at the same address and, again, Caverno is president. He was also an inventor and was awarded several patents, mostly pertaining to pumps or water system regulators. He was awarded a design patent for the stand Kewanee Type 24 and 25 units rest on.
The 1905 directory lists the Pneumatic Water Supply Co. as manufacturers of pneumatic tanks, automatic regulators, pumps, engines and water works supplies. The business had a new location at the west edge of town facing Franklin Street just south of the CB&Q Railroad. Around 1900, a new two-story brick building about 30-by-70 feet had been erected to house a machine shop and testing room. A large line shaft about 50 feet long with a multitude of pulleys still hangs from the second floor ceiling. On one end of the shaft is a large pulley with a long clutch operating lever, but there is no evidence as to what powered the shaft. Interestingly, this building is just south and across the railroad tracks from Kewanee Boiler Co.
The company’s 1907 catalog used the name Kewanee Water Supply. The catalog has many photos of places using the Kewanee water systems and has mnumerous testimonials from satisfied users. It also shows various pumps, engines and pneumatic tank combinations. All engines and pumps shown are from other manufacturers. The various engines used include Rider-Ericsson, Monitor, National Pump, Cleveland Standard, Olds, Temple and two from an unidentified supplier.
The head of a Kewanee Indian warrior appears frequently in company literature as its trademark. In this catalog there are photos showing water tanks of all sizes scattered around in two large lots. There is no space in the Kewanee buildings where such equipment necessary to cut, roll, stamp or rivet the steel sheet to make these large tanks could have been located. There was also no apparent location suitable for a foundry within the buildings.
Keep in mind that Kewanee Water Supply Co. was now supplying engine/pump units that required several large castings weighing 100 pounds or more. Walworth Mfg. Co. located at the north edge of town made castings and was very likely the supplier to Kewanee for these and other small castings. Kewanee Water Supply Co. also offered steel pressure water tanks ranging in size from 2-by-6-foot to 9-by-40-foot. Kewanee Boiler Co. was only a short distance across the railroad tracks from the company. Although not verified, it seems quite probable the boiler company, with its boiler making equipment could have easily supplied the water tanks.
Soon, another smaller two-story brick building about 30-by-45 feet was erected about 10 feet west of the first one, facing west on Franklin Street. It was said to be primarily an office building. Sometime later, an even larger two-story brick building was added to the east. It appears to have been more of an assembly and storage building with an open-steel-truss-supported roof.
The 1907 and 1909 Kewanee Water Supply catalogs show various brands of pumps and engines used at the time. There are also many photos of homes and institutions using Kewanee water equipment along with testimonials from customers.
Around 1909, Caverno bought out one of his suppliers located in Chicago. It was a business owned by Earl Canedy and employed a man by the name of James Jelinek. Much of the equipment, along with some of the workers and Jelinek were moved to Kewanee.
As early as 1907, Canedy had developed a pump/engine unit marketed under his name. It is shown on page 81 of C.H. Wendel’s American Gasoline Engines Since 1872, and on page 27 of Alan King’s Gasoline Engines, Vol. 8. Even though the unit and right to manufacture it were acquired by Caverno’s company, Canedy applied for a patent on Dec. 10, 1910, and was subsequently awarded patent no. 1,156,886 on Oct. 19, 1915. On March 16, 1905, Canedy also applied for and was awarded a patent on Jan. 24, 1911, for a spark plug of his design. It is known as the Breech Block and appears on the various illustrations in the catalogs and literature. This kind of spark plug was manufactured by a company in Torrington, Conn.
The first appearance of Kewanee engines with commentary about them is in a 1909 prospective customer catalog. From this document, I am also led to the conclusion that the no. 6 double-flywheel, water-jacketed engine had also been introduced; however, no photo of it shows up until the 1911 catalog. One such engine had serial no. 330, which certainly would make it early enough to have been available in 1909.
I have learned there are two different 1909 catalogs. One is apparently for prospective customers while the other appears to be a dealer-only catalog. Although the embossed covers seem to be the same on both, some of the illustrations are different between the two.
The only engine size mentioned in 1909 is the 4-by-5-inch bore and stroke, 2-1/2 HP size. The pumping units illustrated have no clutch lever shown, but in the text it mentions the engine can readily be disengaged from the pump and used for other power purposes. However, there is no auxiliary pulley shown, nor does the flywheel have a crowned surface for belt drive. In the top view, you can readily observe just two grease cups. They are on the engine and pump connecting rods. Except for the cylinder oiler, all other moving joints were simply oiled with a few drops every half-day of operation. At some later time, a drip oiler was added to the suction pump units to oil the pump crosshead. You can also notice the Canedy patented Breech Block spark plug with the little handle sticking out.
The engine illustrations in the 1911 catalog show engine/pump units similar to those shown earlier as an Earl Canedy engine. Basically there are two engine/pump sizes, namely the 1-1/2 and the 2-1/2 HP engine and the shallow and deep well pumps. In addition, there is a standalone 2-1/2 HP Type 6 engine. The Kewanee engine/pumps then had a clutch lever so the engine could be disengaged from the pump. It made the engine easier to start and it could also power other pieces of belt-driven equipment. Engines in the 1911 catalog continued in the Kewanee line-up for several years with some modifications.
The earliest known Type 25 pumping unit apparently is a pre-Kewanee Earl Canedy. It has no tag and no Kewanee Water Supply cast on the supporting base. It has no auxiliary pulley, no clutch on the pump drive, no gear guard and only two grease cups, which were only on the engine and pump crankshaft throws. Although I have seen such a unit, it was in a rather inaccessible location to photograph.
By 1909, the 24 and 25 types were mounted on the base designed by Caverno. A gear guard had now been added. Both types were rated 2-1/2 HP. Soon an auxiliary pulley was added to operate other equipment and an optional clutch to disengage the pumping unit from the engine was available.
Somewhere around serial no. 1200, the 18 and 19 type engines were introduced. They were of the same general design, but smaller and lighter. They were also mounted on a similar base but with supports only on the four corners. They were rated at 1-1/2 HP. Around serial no. 3500, the engine base was extended and the engine cylinder now rested directly on the base and was held by three bolts through the bottom. Prior to that, the engine cylinder was held to the engine base by flanges along each side of the cylinder.
Also around this time, a line of three hopper-cooled engines were introduced. They included the 1 HP Type 6A, the 2 HP Type 6B and the 4 HP Type 6C. Except for size, the engines were identical in appearance and their mechanisms very similar to the pumping unit engines. A similar non-hopper-cooled Type 6, 2 HP cooled by circulating water was also introduced. It had smaller, heavier flywheels and counter balances on the crank throw rather than in the flywheel rims.
This new line of hopper-cooled engines was sold primarily to be belted to Kewanee electric generating units and/or water pumps. Kewanee was not in the business of selling engines by themselves. Also around serial no. 3500, grease cups were added to lubricate several more moving parts.
A suffix of A, B, C or D was added to the pumping engine type number. These letters indicated the volume and pressure the pumping unit was designed to furnish, there being four different volume/pressure combinations available for each size unit.
There are several features common to most units that are somewhat unique to the Kewanee line.
Auxiliary feet and pipes: Originally, any auxiliary equipment belted to the engine or pumping unit sat on wooden skids. Later, special sub-feet were available for engines and pumping units that permitted the use of pipes running under the unit to mount auxiliary equipment. Such equipment mountings could then be slid back and forth on the pipes to give proper belt adjustment.
Hopper overflow hole: All Kewanee hopper-cooled engines have a small hole on the front toward the top of the hopper. This was a water overflow for engines that operated for long periods of time and had a small portion of the water being circulated through the hopper.
Magneto drive tab and pushrod: At some point, an early WICO magneto was available. It mounted on the rear of the engine base and was operated from a pullrod, the rod attached to the hole in the projection on the bottom of the pushrod assembly. Engines equipped with this feature had a different shaped camshaft than those that simply activated the exhaust valve.
Belt-tightener mounting holes: Pumping units with sub-feet also had mounting holes for a belt-tightener to mount to the base.
Detent stop pin: A detent stop pin was added just behind the detent catch at some time. Apparently this prevented the detent blade from moving too far in relative to the detent catch.
Clyinder petcock: All Kewanee engines and pumping units have a small petcock located on the bottom front of the cylinder. Its exact purpose is unknown, but it could have been a compression release or a means to blow fuel out of a flooded engine.
Lever for timing adjustment: All Kewanee engines used the same timing adjustment, which consisted of a moveable brass lever with an insulated ignition contact point. This contacted a spring-loaded ball in the timing gear to complete the electrical circuit to the buzz coil. One wire from the buzz coil and battery attached to the timing lever and the other wire attached to the grounding terminal. During the idle strokes, when the pushrod was forward, the ground connection remained open to save on battery drainage.
Magneto mounting holes: For engines equipped with the early WICO magneto, there were mounting holes in the rear of the engine base for this purpose. So far, none of the existing engines are known to have a magneto mounted there.
All Kewanee units, except the very earliest, were equipped with a tag showing the type and serial number. The first tags had the name Kewanee Water Supply Co. on them. They measured 1-1/2-by-3 inches and were held by brads at the four corners. They were made of cast brass with raised lettering.
In 1914, when the hopper-cooled engines were introduced and the company name was changed to Kewanee Private Utilities Co., a new tag was used. It measured 1-1/2-by-3-3/8 inches, was made of etched brass plate and held by two brads. The change from the old to the new took place somewhere around serial no. 3700 or 3800.
Kewanee muffler: Both literature and a couple of collector’s photos reveal a muffler for Kewanee engines. However, no exact detail is available. A non-authentic muffler has been developed. Using the logo from the water hopper, the Indian head image has been cast onto a 7-inch iron plate. The back half of a 7-inch gas engine ball muffler with the proper size pipe threads completes the job.
Although no detailed information exists for determining the date of production for Kewanee engines and pumps, there are a couple of clues from statements: Engine no. 3562 is a 1912 and engine no. 7792 was built in July 1917, and engine numbering likely started some time in late 1908. From this limited information, I leave it to each to make his own estimation of his engine’s age.
On the bottom of the Kewanee engine bulletins, an Eastern factory and warehouse located in Lancaster, Pa., is mentioned. I made an inquiry with the historical society, but no helpful information came from it.
I contacted an engine collector there and he searched everywhere, but to no avail. However, a company where he had worked for a number of years made what they called a Kewanee Pipe Union. It was made with some kind of special seat material, which made for a tighter and more leak-proof fit. One can only guess that this was some kind of spin-off left from the Kewanee factory activities sometime in the past.
At the museum in Kewanee there is an interior door on display that came from one of the Kewanee Water Supply Co. buildings. On it is a brass plate with Indian heads and “The Kewanee System of Water Supply.” A similar design is cast onto the pumping engine base and on the base of some of the 4 HP hopper-cooled engines.
The Kewanee pumping engines were mounted on a special base that had a sump under both the engine and pump connecting rods. This sump had a hole in the bottom tapped for 1/4-inch pipe. To that, appropriate piping was attached with a petcock on the end and a small container below so accumulated oil could be caught and drained so it didn’t drip on equipment or the floor.
During World War II, Kewanee Private Utilities Co. supplied electric generator parts, mine detonators, conveyor parts, rocket shells, etc., to the U.S. War Department. The company played a big part in the war effort, making some 4,465 shells in 22 hours at one point. But trying to bring business back to usual after the war proved difficult, and in 1949, Portable Elevator Co. of Bloomington, Ill., bought the company’s property and inventory. It tried to continue the pump manufacturing business with no experience and went bankrupt after only two years. Kewanee stock holders fared well, though, receiving dividends and interest in excess of their 1910 and 1914 investments. (Some information gleaned from History of Kewanee Private Utilities Co. by Robert Richards Sr. of the Kewanee Historical Society.)
It’s been 110 years since Xenophon Caverno started a water supply business in Kewanee. Who would think that as a result of his business venture, we gas engine hobbyists would now be interested in those early pumping and generating engines he brought to life. It is interesting that Caverno wasn’t really interested in the gas engine business as such. The production of the engines was only a means of supplying durable, dependable power for the water supply and electrical generating equipment he built for those who lived beyond public utilities.
When you look back, it is unfortunate someone didn’t gather the available information. Back in the 1970s, there was some interest in the Kewanee company’s history. It is certainly too bad more questions weren’t directed toward George Jelinek and Robert Richards while there was an opportunity. Luckily, they did give us a glimpse into the history and, finally, the demise of the company in 1951. Even though Kewanee was but a small player as far as gas engine production was concerned, its history needs to be preserved for future generations of gas engine hobbyists.