J. R. Little, a resident of Quincy, developed a patent for a metal wheel for agricultural use in the early 1880s. From that start, Quincy became the nation’s second largest metal wheel manufacturing center.
Metal wheel manufacturers in Quincy were the Quincy Metal Wheel Company, J. R. Little Metal Wheel Company, Electric Wheel Company, Bush Foundry and Metal Wheel Company, and Empire Manufacturing Company. Many residents will recognize the name of Electric Wheel, which was absorbed by Firestone, and eventually became Titan International. While the other companies are more obscure, they provide an interesting part of Quincy’s manufacturing capability in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The history of the Quincy Metal Wheel Company requires mention of two other companies. The preliminary development work was accomplished at Smith Hill & Company and this first metal wheel company of the city was eventually sold to Bettendorf Metal Wheel of the Quad Cities.
Nineteenth century agricultural equipment typically had wooden wheels. The strength of the wheel depended upon the “tire”, an outer metal band that held the spokes firmly into the hub. If the spokes became loose, making the wheel weak, the tire had to be shortened, heated, and pressed into the wheel rim when hot. When the metal cooled, the tire would shrink and tighten the wheel.
But farm machinery was universally exposed to weather and an all-metal wheel would be a distinct advantage. The spokes of steel wheels would be riveted into the tire and cast or forged into the hub.
James Robert Little was born at Sparta, Illinois in 1833. He married Jaline Smith at Canton, Illinois in 1853. Little was foreman of the Weir Plow Company in Monmouth until he moved to Quincy in 1880. For a year or more he was the superintendent of the Collins Plow Company. About 1881 he began to develop a patent for manufacturing metal wheels. He became the pioneer developer of metal wheels in this area.
His original patent may have been filed as early as 1883, but the earliest patent found in a search was filed June 2, 1884.The patents included not only the metal wheel itself, but also the manufacturing process. The initial wheel production was started at the thriving Quincy industrial firm, Smith, Hill & Company.
Ceylon Hill started a small foundry in Quincy in 1866 employing about a half dozen men. In 1870 Thomas Hill became a partner and a machine shop was built. The business, known both as the Smith, Hill & Co. and the Eagle Foundry and Machine Shop, prospered making various products including steam engines, elevators, and milling machines. In 1888 this company became incorporated as Smith-Hill Foundry and Machine Company and in 1899 the company became part of Otis Elevators.
The equipment to manufacture the metal wheels was developed at Smith-Hill based upon Little’s patent. By the end of 1883 the first floor of their building was devoted to the manufacturing process for metal wheels.
The Quincy Metal Wheel Company was incorporated in August 1884. The stockholders were Ceylon Smith, Thomas Hill, James R. Little, Martin Heiderick, Pliney B. Williams, Andrew Burman, J. Oliver Glenn, and W. H. Collins. The stockholders included the two principals from Smith-Hill. Williams had also been associated with that company until he left to devote full time to this new venture.
In late 1885 the manufacturing of the “Little patent iron wheel” was still being done in the facilities of Smith-Hill. But in June 1886 the company leased with the option to buy the Eighth Hour Tobacco Company building at Front and Delaware. By September the manufacturing had moved to these facilities.
The production of the metal wheels increased over the years. By April 1886 some 10,000 wheels had been sold in the previous year. By May 1887 the company had shipped over 100,000 wheels. In February 1890 they turned out 1,000 wheels a day. By March 1891 they were turning out about 300,000 wheels a year and employing up to 60 workers.
The products of the company were generally used for sulky plows, cultivators, hay rakes, corn planters, harvesters, hay presses, and other agricultural implements. However, in May 1890 they shipped two sets of wheels 80 inches in diameter and 20 feet, 8 inches in circumference. The outside metal rims were 8 inches wide and ¾ inch thick. There were 32 three-quarters inch spokes and the wheels weighed 700 pounds each. They were the largest wheels ever produced in this country and were to be used for well boring machines.
One of the competitors of the Quincy Metal Wheel Company was the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Works. William P. Bettendorf invented a metal wheel in 1882 while at Peru Plow Company. Thinking that progress was slow at that company, Bettendorf and his brother, Joseph W. Bettendorf, began making metal wheels in conjunction with the Eagle Manufacturing Company of Davenport, Iowa eventually forming the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company.
In December 1887 the Quincy Metal Wheel Company sued the Bettendorf Metal Wheel company and sought an injunction for patent infringement. But in November 1890 Bettendorf arranged to buy Quincy Metal Wheel. The decision to sell was made because the local company could not obtain a suitable location along the railroad.
In September 1891 the Quincy firm became the property of the Eagle Manufacturing Company and the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Works. The local company was employing about 35 men at the time. Although the company was initially going to be moved to Davenport, the move was later planned for Springfield, Ohio, another of Bettendorf’s locations.
However, metal wheel manufacturing did not end in Quincy. Even as the sale of the original company was being completed, a local paper reported that J. R. Little had an invention that would result in a new metal wheel works. But that is a story for another time.
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