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Before it was Cereal City

an introduction to 19th century industry in Battle Creek


From the end of the Civil War until the beginning of the 20th century, Battle Creek was an industrial boom town whose products were known around the world.  According to an 1884 newspaper article, “There is probably no city in the United States of equal size which can lay claim to the fact that the products of its industrial establishments find so universal a demand in so wide a scope of country as those produced in this thriving manufacturing center.”


These products shipped around the world did not come in boxes with premiums.  Cereal had not yet made Battle Creek a household name and the reputation of the Battle Creek Sanitarium was just being built.  In these years Battle Creek was best known for its factories which made agricultural machinery, steam pumps and newspaper printing presses.  In addition to these heavy industrial products, Battle Creek was recognized as a center of cigar making, bicycle manufacture, the production of picture albums and school desks, and even for the folding canvas boats made by Osgood the jeweler.


This article offers an introduction three of the major industries which brought wealth and fame to Battle Creek before it was “cereal city.” 


Threshing Machines

According to the Battle Creek Moon in the “Art Souvenir Edition” of 1900, “Battle Creek is known throughout the world as the home of the greatest threshing machine plants in existence.  The name of the Nichols and Shepard Company and the Advance Thresher Company are household words in all the important wheat growing sections of this continent.”


Nichols and Shepard Company

The threshing machine industry began in Battle Creek in a modest way in 1848 when John Nichols and David Shepard opened a foundry and machine shop on North State Street in the center of the growing village.  Nichols and Shepard manufactured plows, harrows and other agricultural implements.  In 1854 they produced their first steam powered threshing machine and in the next year they manufactured eleven machines costing $2,000 each.


This “Vibrator” threshing machine, which used  an entirely new method of straw, chaff and grain separation, was patented in 1862.  The new machine was immediately popular with farmers and business at the foundry boomed.  Incorporated in 1867 as the Nichols, Shepard and Company, the factory was moved two years later to a sprawling new 40-acre complex along the railroad lines on the east side of town, just south of the Battle Creek river.


By 1874 the factory employed 150 men and produced five threshers a day in season.  The machines were marketed in every state in the country, winning prizes at industrial shows and exhibitions.


Many of the laborers at the Nichols and Shepard factory lived on the north bank of the river, just opposite the plant.  Union Street was opened as the only river crossing east of North Division Street, allowing the workers to reach their jobs without going all the way into town and back out to the factory.  This sparked a building boom in the later 1870s.  The Michigan Tribune annual building summaries show numerous homes on Cherry, Merritt and Hart (East Van Buren) streets show homes costing from $600 to $1,000 built for “mechanics or laboring men who are endeavoring to secure homes of their own.” 


With pardonable local pride, the January 1879 Michigan Tribune stated that in the past year “forty entirely new residences have been erected. … Nearly all of the new dwelling homes built are owned by mechanics, which fact we point out with pride, as it is positive evidence of the frugality of the laboring men of this community.  We think in no other city of its size in Michigan can be found a more intelligent, industrious class of mechanics and laboring men than in Battle Creek.”


The Nichols and Shepard company continued to grow.  By 1880 the annual production was 947 Vibrator threshers, 488 horse-powered machines and 216 portable engines, worth more than $780,000.  When founder John Nichols died in 1891, 50 local businesses closed for the funeral and his 350 employees marched in the procession.  Edwin Nichols carried on the family business and presided over continued expansion. 


The “Red River Special’ thresher was introduced in 1902 and the first gasoline-powered tractor was produced a decade later.  The company merged with the Oliver Corporation in 1929 and was sold to the White Motor Company in 1946.


Advance Thresher Company

Inspired by the success of Nichols and Shepard, other threshing machine companies appeared in Battle Creek.  Constantius G. Case, a former N & S employee, designed and patented a new threshing machine, later named the Advance.  Persuading a group of local investors in the merits of his machine, Case started the Case & Willard Threshing Machine Company in 1881.  By 1883 a new factory complex was under construction on the western side of the city between the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk Railway tracks. 


In 1886 the name of the company was changed to the Advance Thresher Company.  The stock of the company was purchased by the M. Rumley Company of LaPorte, Indiana and the name was again changed to Advance-Rumley Company.


In his 1912 History of Calhoun County,  Washington Gardener wrote that together the two threshing machine giants produced “practically ten per cent of the threshing machine and traction engines built it the entire United States. … Their prosperity has been of incalculable benefit to the community, and they are at the present time furnishing employment to no less than one thousand  men.”


The steam pump industry

The Battle Creek Machinery Company, established in 1873 to manufacture woodworking machines, was the unlikely progenitor of the city’s major steam  pump industry.  For its first seven years of existence the woodworking company made carving, molding and dovetailing machines, with little hint of the future direction the organization would take.  But the founders were progressive businessmen, always quick to take advantage of opportunities.  Seeing the need for industrial pumps,  they began manufacturing force-feed pumps in 1880. 


Elon Marsh was employed in 1886 to develop a boiler feed pump for traction engines.  Although his first efforts were abortive, by 1889 he had patented the double-acting piston which formed the basis for the future development of the pump industry in Battle Creek.


Other employees of the Battle Creek Machinery Company, including Foster Metcalf and Frank Burnham, developed other patents and improvements.  By 1891 Battle Creek’s entry into the steam pump industry was well underway.


In recognition of its new direction, the company was renamed the Battle Creek Steam Pump Company in 1894 and then changed to the American Steam Pump Company five years later.  The plant ran between Capital Avenue NE and North Division Street along the Michigan Central Railroad tracks at the Battle Creek river.  By 1900  the installation included offices, machine shops, a core room, foundry, storehouse, warehouse, engine room, testing rooms and a power house on Monroe Street. 


The company was manufacturing “steam pumps designed for every manner of service to which pumps can be put,” according to the 1901 Calhoun County Souvenir. “They have established agencies in all the prominent cities of the United States and in nearly all of the foreign countries.  As to their exportations, their business is extensive, as 50 per cent of their orders are beyond the borders of this country.”


The company continued to thrive and expand and by 1904 it was the city’s third largest employer, ranking only behind Advance Thresher and the Postum Company.  In the next decades American Steam Pump Company became the world’s largest producer of fire engine and fire fighting pumps, as well as manufacturing submersible, centrifugal, rotating and reciprocating pumps.  In 1937 the company named was changed to American Marsh Pump Company, in belated recognition of the importance of Elon Marsh’s inventions. 


American Marsh continued in existence through 1959.  The next year the buildings were purchased by St. Thomas Episcopal Church and St. Philip Catholic Church, which adjoined the plant.  All the factory buildings were demolished to make space for church facilities and parking.  The lone survivor is the brick, cube-shaped pattern building at Monroe and East Van Buren streets, which is currently used by St. Philip’s High School as the Tiger Room social hall.


The second steam pump manufacturer in town was also started by a former employee of Battle Creek Machinery Company.  In 1885 Almon Preston became president of the newly-formed Union Manufacturing Company, which was also founded to manufacture woodworking machinery.  By 1893 the new company had moved to a plant on Capital Avenue SW, purchasing the site of the McCamly-Preston nail factory. 


The Union Steam Pump Company, as it was known after 1894, grew steadily over the years.  The factory complex expanded and new buildings were built in 1904 and 1910.  A business block with six store fronts was added in 1927. 


Like the Post Company and Advance Thresher previously, Union Steam Pump Company ventured into the real estate business.  In 1923 the company announced it would offer lots in a new subdivision, to be sold on “an east payment plan making it possible for those of moderate means to secure land.”  While this did not represent paternalism on the scale of C. W. Post’s efforts, it was an attempt to make life better for the working class.


The third of Battle Creek’s major steam pump manufacturers, the Advance Pump and Compressor Company, was founded in 1902.  The factory was located as Flint and Division streets, near Michigan Central Railroad tracks and the American Steam Pump factory.  This new company also expanded and found a ready market for its products.  Many of its pumps were sold to municipalities around the country for use in water works plants.  A large shipment of Advance pumps was made for use on the Panama Canal. 


In 1923 Advance Steam Pump Company was bought out by the American Steam Pump Company, adding 45,000 square feet of floor space, along with the stock and patents to the original steam pump company’s manufacturing capabilities.


Duplex Printing Press Company

In addition to threshing machines and steam pumps, Battle Creek was represented across the country by a third major heavy industry – newspaper printing presses.  Writing in his 1912 History of Calhoun County, Washington Gardener said:


One of the industries for which the past quarter of a century has done much to spread the name of Battle Creek through the sending of products to all portions of the world, and yet of which little is known locally, is the Duplex Printing Press Company.  Because of the nature of its product there is little occasion for the average person of Battle Creek or its vicinity to visit the works or to know much of what is done there.  The fact is that the company’s plant is one of the largest in the world in the printing press line, and the machines built there are in use throughout all the civilized world, wherever newspapers of any considerable daily circulation exist.  Not only is it one of the largest plants, but it is also, if not the best-equipped, at least one of the best-equipped in the world.


The Duplex Printing Press Company started in 1884 with a patent held by Joseph Cox, later editor and publisher of the Battle Creek Enquirer newspaper.  He invented the flat bed newspaper printing press capable of operating twice as fast as any other press at the time, by printing and folding the paper in one process.  For the next six years experiments were conducted to develop a press capable of printing from a continuous running paper at the speed of 4,000 to 6,000 complete and folded newspapers an hour.  The resulting flat-bed perfecting press, called the Duplex, met with immediate success when it was introduced in 1890.  As Gardener observed”  “It was one of those instances, notable in the history of mechanical arts, in which an urgent and universal need, constantly becoming more and more pressing, was met by the invention of the means of supplying it – long sought in vain.”


The Duplex press was designed to meet the needs of the medium-sized newspaper for which the hand-fed presses were too slow and the rotary presses were too expensive.  The Duplex was no more expensive than the old fashioned flat-bed press, but was much faster and more efficient. Immediately successful, the company soon expanded its production and manufacturing facilities until by 1900 it was one of the largest factories in the city.  The sprawling Duplex works occupied several city blocks, from McCamly to South Washington streets along Houston Street and the Grand Trunk Railroad tracks.


By 1904 the company was the city’s fifth largest employer.  Work began on developing a press to meet the needs of the larger newspapers who needed to print more copies than the original Duplex perfecting press could produce.  Noted for its “marvelous simplicity,” the new improved model was soon ready for the market and met with industry approval.  The first new press was sold and shipped in 1906 and the company once again expanded the factory to produce the new model.


One problem with the rotary press design remained, which no manufacturer had been able to solve – to design a press which required only one plate per page.  Within three years of their entry into the rotary press market Henry Bechman and the other engineers at Duplex had successfully solved the problem.  The new machine used cylindrical, or tubular, plates instead of the  traditional semi-circular plates.  Using this new concept, the Duplex rotary press could double the output of the old rotary presses. 


Once again the factory was expanded.  The new buildings doubled the size of the plant twice in two years during the 1920s.  By this time the main factory was over a quarter of a mile long and was the headquarters for the largest concern in the world devoted exclusively to the development and construction of newspaper printing presses.


When Duplex was acquired by Goss Printing Press Company in 1948 it marked the first time in its 68-year history that it was not associated with the family of the founder, Irving L. Stone.  The Oliver Corporation purchased the company in 1951 and most of the factory buildings were demolished in the 1960s.  One remaining portion of the complex stood near Hamblin Street on South Washington Street until the mid-1990s, a decaying reminder of the firm that was the world leader in its field for over 60 years.