Badger could have been the badge on earliest automobiles

Echoes of our past
William & JoyWangemann • forThe Beacon

Wisconsin has been long thought of as the Dairy State. The home of some of the world’s finest cheese and of course the Green Bay Packers. How about adding “the auto state,” yes that’s right, the auto state!

Wisconsin can make a legitimate claim as one of the early leaders in the development of the auto industry. As far back as 1872 an operating steam car was built for highway use in Racine by a local Methodist minister.

The Wisconsin legislature was so impressed that in 1875 they appropriated $10,000 to be awarded to anyone who could build a cheap and practical self-propelled automobile.

Two contestants stepped forward, the minister from Racine and another contestant from Green Bay. To decide the winner the first auto race in United States history was set up between the two vehicles.

The course ran from Green Bay to Madison, a total distance of 201 miles. Only the entry from Racine finished, after 33 torturous hours at the breathtaking average speed of 6 miles per hour.

The interior of the Falls Motor Company during its “Hay Day.” — County Historic Research Center 
Photo courtesy Sheboygan The interior of the Falls Motor Company during its “Hay Day.” — County Historic Research Center Photo courtesy Sheboygan The entry from Green Bay had suffered a major engine failure. But the law makers decided that the winner was to be given only $5,000, as he had not proven that his vehicle was cheap to manufacture.

Most auto historians give Frank Duryea of Springfield Massachusetts the credit for building the world’s first practical gasoline powered car in 1893. However barrel maker Frank Toepfer of Milwaukee built a successful gas powered car in 1889, some three years earlier!

The Toepfer car still exists and can be seen in the Milwaukee public Museum.

Wisconsin can even claim the first sale of a manufactured automobile in the world when in 1900 an Oshkosh doctor bought a car manufactured by a local bicycle mechanic. One of the world’s first women drivers was… you guessed it, a Wisconsin women.

At about this time the Falls Motor Company in Sheboygan Falls, WI began to produce small gas engines for farm use and in small boats. The company had its start as the county’s first foundry, which began production of castings in 1846.

The foundry started by George and Horace Trowbridge was located at the Northwest end of the Monroe Street Bridge. Over the years the firm changed hands many times until in 1901 it was reorganized as the Falls Machine Co. by Gus Huette of Sheboygan.

The new company began the manufacture of machinery used in the woodworking industry and was an immediate success. The growing little company soon outgrew their present plant and in 1906/07 built a new and much larger facility on a 10 acre plot near the easterly Chicago and Northwestern Rail Line.

With its new and much enlarged quarters the machine company began to expand its line of products. Two of the new products were a device to prevent steam engine flywheel runaways on steam power plants and a small one-cylinder gas engine used on various small machines such as washing machines, water pumps and cream separators.

The manufacture of small gas engines led to the design and production of the Falls Model B, four-cylinder, 40-horsepower engine suitable for use in car, trucks and boats.

In the spring of 1916 the company incorporated and changed its name to the Falls Motor Company. It was about this time that the company sold their line of woodworking machinery and concentrated solely on the building of auto and truck engines.

The manufacture of the woodworking machinery was then continued by a company known as the Jenkins Machine Company and was located at S.8th and Virginia for many years.

When World War I erupted in Europe the company stopped the building of engines and obtained a huge contract for the manufacture of artillery shells for the government.

As soon as the war came to an end the Falls Motor Company immediately resumed the building of auto engines. The company designed and built a very popular 6-cylinder engine which they put into production and also designed and built an 8-cylinder engine which never got beyond the design stage.

In 1920 Falls Motors began to experiment with a powerful straight-8 engine, which was placed in a race car which was far ahead in design of most other cars of the day and was known as the Falls 8.

In 1921 Falls Motor Company came out with a sleek vehicle known as the Falls boat tail speedster. The vehicle was driven and tested by the company’s top test driver and early auto enthusiast Fred W. Kummer.

Kummer established a small auto dynasty of his own; today his son and grandson Jim and Steven own an auto dealership in Sheboygan, another son Bill owns a motorcycle dealership, also in Sheboygan, while a third grandson is in the auto industry in Madison.

None of the cars produced by Falls Motors ever went into production.

The year is 1921, it’s the start of a new work week, and hundreds of men and women file into a well-equipped manufacturing facility.

Long lines of machines, lathes boring machines and metal working equipment of every description occupy the shop floor. Everywhere are neat stacks of engine blocks, pallets of finely machined pistons and crankshafts Seven A.M., the whistle sounds and the machinery begins to hum, the assembly line moves forward.

Soon completed automobile engines begin to come off the end of the assembly line. Before the day is over some two hundred well-built, highly-regarded 6-cylinder auto engines will be produced; the product of over 700 skilled workers.

The engines were used in such now forgotten makes of automobiles as the Grant, Elgin and Apperson.

The auto plant I have just described sounds as though it might have been located in Detroit; actually it was in Sheboygan Falls, and known as the Falls Motor Co.

In its day the Company was so successful and busy that the transit company laid special street car tracks to the front of the factory to accommodate the daily flood of workers that thronged to work in the engine plant.

By 1924 the boom in the auto industry began to falter, automobile sales dropped to almost nothing. Soon almost all the small auto companies that Falls Motors sold engines to went out of business.

Some such as the Elgin Motor Car Company tried to pay their debts to Falls Motors with new cars. By the end of 1924 the Falls Motor Co. was forced into bankruptcy. All their assets were sold off and the company ceased to exist.

Even Henry Ford thought Wisconsin a good place to do business. The Ford Motor Company built an assembly plant in Milwaukee which turned out over 600,000 cars before it closed in 1932, and then there was Nash Motor Company, later American Motors, which produced cars by the thousands.

Falls motors also had its share of automotive inventions. One of the most significant was the invention of the hollow crankshaft and a new method of oiling rocker arms by forcing oil at high pressure through hollow push rods. And the window crank, or window regulator as they were known in the auto industry, was invented by an employee of the Falls Motor Company.

Wisconsin was also a fertile ground for such inventions as the speedometer, the electric brake; and Oscar Zerk of Kenosha invented a tiny grease fitting that today is still known as the widely used “Zerk fitting”.

Today’s Tidbit: What may have been the world first snowmobile was a strange looking device that resembled an open car body with wooden skis on the front, propelled by a large screw device at the rear, and powered by a four cylinder Falls engine. Built for use in Alaska it was known as the 1913 Burch Auto sleigh.

Authors note: Much of the information for this column was taken from an article written by Jan Hildebrand. If you have any questions or comments on this column feel free to contact me a 920-458-2974 or e-mail me at

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