Better By Design: A Century of Allis-Chalmers Tractors

AC 49

Wow, what a fun experience speaking at the West Allis Historical Society fall banquet about Allis-Chalmers tractors. I met a few people with some great stories about  the company. I had a great time preparing my presentation and sharing it. So, I thought ahead and recorded the event for you, my follower, to hear. I also linked to my Prezi presentation to scroll through and follow along. Enjoy!

 

 

Speaking Event

BBD

I have a big talk coming up in 2 weeks! The West Allis Historical Society contacted me about a month ago about giving a talk about Allis-Chalmers tractors at the fall banquet. How could I turn it down?! What an honor to go to the city named after the company that was its center and talk about the tractors! I have been working hard on a Prezi presentation. I plan to give an overview of the tractor line history, innovations, and the making of an AC tractor. I joke with my wife, Molly, that I have to take a subject that I could talk about for hours and narrow it down into 20-30 minutes. If you are interested in attending the event contact the WAHS for tickets ($20 each) to the banquet. It is being held at on Monday, October 20th from 5:30-6:30 pm at the Knights of Columbus Hall (contact the historical society for more details).  For those of you unable to attend, I am going to attempt to record the talk and post it on the blog sometime after that Monday. I will also include a copy of my Prezi for viewing. I am looking forward to this fun opportunity!

Pioneer Power- Chapter 1

I recently acquired a book published by Allis-Chalmers in 1942. This book covers the history of the firm and products since 1847. Instead of scanning this book, which could damage it, I will transcribe each chapter in a series of blog posts.

Forward:

The following pages tell a story about this company’s growth that covers practically a century. Many real discouragements were met along the way and it would have been easy to let others carry the torch. But red-blooded men always came forward at just the right times and prodded rusting ideas into perfected realities. Our story deals with the facts surrounding these accomplishments and it is tendered to our many friends with the hope that they will find it interesting. At the same time, the Company welcomes this opportunity to show that its aims have always been to serve above the average and to build products which not only promote the advancements of peace, but those as well which satisfy the full requirements of national defense.

Chapter I – Go West Young Man

In the Spring of 1824, a well known allegorical stork settled down gently on the Allis home near what is no Cazenovia, New York.  He was unruffled and no stranger to the Allis generations. In fact, he’d been a frequent visitor at their households in England for centuries.

The name Cazenovia doubtless has its derivation in the Portuguese words “casa nova” meaning new house. But there was nothing new or pretentious about that settlement or the squatty frame house where our feathered friend deposited Edward Phelps Allis on May day over eleven decades ago. Allied to practically all pioneer dwellings of the time, it was endowed with a humble cleanliness, and a warm hospitality that is now seldom equalled.

During his first decade Master Edward Allis was naturally heedless of the history making movements about him. Most of his time was spent scouting the surrounding sugar maples or toy-boating in the cast-iron horse trough directly in front of his home; a good meeting point for migrating strangers. It was probably here that his pioneer instinct was born.

By the time young Allis was nineteen, the Erie Canal had been opened, the first metal vessels had been built at Savannah, the Atlantic had been crossed by steam power in 15 days, and the first telegraph line was functioning between Baltimore and Washington.

Small wonder then, with these stirring events and his country reaching out into pulsing, rich territory, that this young man should turn his eyes toward the New West immediately after graduation (1845) from Union College at Schenectady. Sturdy settlers were expanding their acreages in Ohio and Indiana new homes were being hewed out of thick stands of hemlock and white pine in Michigan; and glowing reports came in about the prospects in distant Illinois and Wisconsin. The New West was beckoning with no uncertain gesture.

Important events continued to time their peaks with young Allis’ life. Even as he pulled a bulky handbag from beneath a high-posted bed and smoothed the crown of his plushy hat with the back of his arm, the Unites States declared war on Mexico. Hardy railroad pioneers were pushing their difficult lines west out of New York and Pennsylvania. The “grasshopper” type of engine had given way to an improved “crab” locomotive, a forerunner of today’s design. Steam powers was threatening horse and canal transportation. But these fingers of communication were still stubby and disjointed. Allis’ trip to Wisconsin, by the very nature of these disruptions was an interesting and enlightening one.

With the dawn of a balmy, mid-Spring day in 1846, Mister Edward P. Allis waited expectantly by the grayish cast-iron horse trough and gazed somewhat sadly at the old homestead which had sheltered him for so many years. He knew that he was leaving  behind much that was dear to him. But the soberness of home-leaving soon gave way to his hunger for pioneering when he heard the muddled rumble of the approaching stage coach. Even as the driver unloosed the check-reins and the horses buried their velvety noses in the cool water, he flung his heavy bag onto the carrier deck and stepped excitedly into the dust-covered coach. Across the way a lone wisp of smoke floated skyward out of a kitchen chimney. The driver clucked vigorously to his horses and Allis headed northwest through the wooded hills toward the Erie Canal.

Twilight of the same day found him supping at a three-story lodge in Syracuse and his bulky bag already stowed deep in the nearby canal boat. It was a long, squatty, blunderbuss of a craft with a full-breasted prow and sufficient cabin space to support a small, upper promenade deck. With the morrow he would start the second leg of his long journey west; on a ribbon of calm waterway, winding prairie-ward to Lake Erie.

Early the next morning, before the sun had topped the silver maples, young Allis was gazing interestedly from the small deck as the horseman fastened the tow chain into the hame ring and the muscled dapple-gray bent to her share of the long pull; Buffalo, the new gateway to the great West lay over 150 miles ahead.

Two weeks later Allis was pacing the rounded deck of an oaken schooner bound for Detroit about 225 miles away, his brown cloth coat now somewhat bedraggled. Before they were opposite of what is now Cleveland, our young man had made many friends with his fellow passengers. Each nourished his or her own particular plan for the new territory ahead; all had those same healthy hopes so common to vigorous pioneers.

Then a short trip by small boat to Monroe, a brief forty miles to the south. Here a vehicle that was neither coach nor wagon carried him across a 180-mile stretch of southern Michigan to New Buffalo. Then rolling stage coach wheels to busy Chicago and hilly Wisconsin, the silvery expanse of broad Lake Michigan glistening at intervals on Allis’ right between dark clumps of evergreens or white rounded sand dunes. And then Milwaukee, his final destination; his home for the next forty-three years; the setting for a great industrial expansion in which he would play an all important part.

With Allis safely located in Milwaukee, we can now parallel the efforts of two other robust young men who believed that Milwaukee was destined to be something else beside a summer  camp for Pottawatomie Indians at Walker’s Point. These men were Charles Decker and James Seville.

At this time (1846) Milwaukee was considered about equal to Chicago in population and, on account of the expanding lake traffic, likely to take the lead. Seville didn’t overlook this point nor other lively prospects around him. As he said years before:

“On my arrival, I found A. J. Langworthy, Turton & Sercomb, and Nelson & McCracken the only mills in the region supplying flour and sawmill machinery; products greatly needed by the incoming settlers. The firm of Ludington & Company was acting as agents for machinery made by J. T. Noyes of Buffalo. The making of flour with steam-driven machinery was to come and bandsaws had yet to bite into the clean-smelling logs of virgin timber. I saw a splendid opening for good business and the chance to render a real service to my countrymen. I decided to look into the matter.”

To satisfy himself, and to see the country first-hand, Seville visited Chicago. He then scouted another segment of the new region by taking a French & Winkler stagecoach west to Galena near the Mississippi and back to Milwaukee. Soon afterward he entered the employ of Turton & Sercomb to gain a little practical experience; in the meantime, quietly studying his secret ambition.

During the early part of 1847, he accumulated a pile of tamarack poles from a swamp in the second ward, several rough boards from the Mabbett & Breed’s lumber yard, and commenced building at the corner of Cedar and West Water Streets. By the time his two-story structure was nearly completed, a supply of factory materials from New York was actually landed on the ground. Milwaukeeans had yet to learn what was afoot. Then came the announcement of the new concern of Decker & Seville, manufacturers of French burr millstones, and all kinds of stove, grist and saw-mill supplies… the taproot for the Allis-Chalmers to come.

But, like all ultimately going concerns, Decker & Seville had its discouragements. By 1856 the Civil War pot was commencing to simmer, business prospects started to fade, and months later the Panic of 1857 struck hard at the little millstone factory. It went bankrupt with many others keeping it company.

Meanwhile, our Mr. Allis had entered the leather business under the name Allis & Allen. In 1854 he quit this business and built a couple of tanneries near Two Rivers, Wisconsin, after which he joined up with Messrs. Nash & McGregory (brokers) ; this proved his stepping stone to Decker & Seville

In 1860 a sheriff with a handlebar moustache auctioned off the defunct millstone factory to Messrs. Allis, Nash & McGregory. The purchase included eleven unassuming acres of land at the corner of Florida and Clinton Streets which ultimately became the expansion point for the old Reliance Works of Allis-Chalmers. Mr. Allis was installed as manager of the new company called E.P. Allis & Company. In 1862 he bought out the share of Mr. McGregory and the firm took the name of Allis & Nash. In 1863 he bought out Mr. Nash, thus giving him complete charge, and the establishment was known as Edward P. Allis & Company for years thereafter.

By 1865 the former Decker & Seville plant was working day and night with a personnel of 150 men. Its business was growing rapidly and the old tamarack building was at last bulging with expansion. Allis decided to move the plant to his south-side property and building on that eleven-acre site started in 1866 (often spoken of as the old Reliance Works). the old Decker & Seville plant was split up into three parts and floated section by section on unpainted  barges down the Milwaukee River to its new location. There it was noisily assembled into a crude likeness of its former self.

From here the story is one of gradual development, consistent with the times. Yet, always back of each new machine, new department , or new expansion was a steadfast aim to build something that could be relied upon, something that would serve, a something that would permit mankind to live a little better as the world few older; this had been the underlying thought of James Seville in 1847; he lived to see the fulfillment of that dream.

AC Biographies

I am in contact with a gentleman from Milwaukee who is going to help me gather the stories of former Allis-Chalmers employees. He takes his father, a former AC employee, to a monthly gathering of these AC retirees. He said that a lot of these guys are getting up there in age, and I would like to collect as many stories as I can. I am asking any former employees of AC to fill out the form below. I also encourage family members of former workers to fill the form out as well.