The Motor Works - Part 5     (added August 2014)

Horning’s death brings city to virtual halt


Waukesha Motor Co. ramps up production for WWII

After the annual meeting in October 1935, Horning entered a hospital in Battle Creek, Mich., suffering from complications of ailments. He did not recover and passed away on Sunday, Jan. 4, 1936. He was 55 years old. He had literally built an enormously strong business from scratch – a true American success story.


Photo from the John Schoenknecht collection at the Waukesha County Museum
Harry Horning died in January 1936 at age 55 after building the multimillion-dollar company from scratch.

When workers returned to the plant on Monday they were told the news. Members of the workforce resolved to continue working diligently so they would not let Harry Horning down.


Gib Koenig wrote of Horning’s funeral: “Virtually the entire city ceased work on Monday, Jan. 6, in response to a proclamation by Mayor George Coutts, who ordered city offices closed. ‘Mr. Horning has done much,’ Coutts said, ‘as an officer of the Motor Company to promote the upbuilding of this city. His influence has been broad and his death comes as a distinct loss.’”


The burial service was preached by Carroll College President William A. Ganfield, a family friend. “Ganfield said Horning would be remembered by his friends as ‘just Harry,’ rather than as the man who built a tremendous industry,” wrote Koenig.


There were only two next of kin – Horning’s wife, Elsie, and sister, Mittie Horning.


In a show of respect, hundreds of people visited the Horning home at 217 Wisconsin Ave. Many could not get in but simply lined the street.






The new president

James DeLong was named the new president of the company. He had worked his way up from oil field supervisor to plant manager. In a 1941 Milwaukee Journal article, DeLong was described:


“Round, amiable Jim DeLong doesn’t make good newspaper copy. He’s not sparkling. He’s busy. Been busy almost ever since he was born on a farm in Zionsville, Ind. ... in 1889. When he was 10 his father died; he, his slightly older brother and his mother ran the farm.”

Photo from the Waukesha County Museum
James DeLong, president of the company after Harry Horning.


DeLong also worked at numerous jobs. He ran a steam engine, clerked in a store and tended the village switchboard. He saved enough money to attend Purdue, where he ran a boarding house and did laundry to pay his way. After two years of college he went to work for the Rutenber Motor Co., working 10-hour days at 17.5¢ per hour. He served in World War I and upon his return worked as general production manager for the Indiana Truck Co., where he was recruited by Harry Horning to join the Waukesha Motor team.


As DeLong took over, the economy had recovered enough so that the company was shipping 1,000 motors per month, and as Horning had recommended before his death, the number of models was reduced to 72.


Waukesha motors continued to be used worldwide. From the Persian Gulf, to Turkey, to Japan – Waukesha motors were found in all sorts of places and countless uses.


In another first for the company, photographer Warren O’Brien filmed a color movie in 1936. It was made for an Ingersoll-Rand campaign to show how Hesselman motors were produced for use in Africa. It was the first industrial movie filmed in color and was debuted at the high school gym in December 1936.


In mid-October of 1938, a fire swept over the roof of the office portion of the company. It caused $12,000 to $15,000 damage to the roof. The fire originated in the experimental department when sparks from the exhaust tunnel ignited the cooling tower and the roof. Employees evacuated the building as soon as the alarm sounded. Many carried valuable plans and records with them to safety.


Hundreds of people watched as four fire department trucks arrived at the scene. The firemen battled the blaze for about 20 minutes.


H.E. Butterbrodt, a representative of the Wisconsin Dairyman’s News, a trade publication, was waiting in the reception room to see Dick Harrison of the PR department. An hour after the blaze was extinguished, Harrison found Butterbrodt with his pants rolled up, his jacket off and his face and hands grimy with soot. It seemed that Butterbrodt was a volunteer fireman for his community and scrambled to the roof to assist the Waukesha firemen.

Photo from the Waukesha County Museum
On Nov. 2, 1937,Warren O’ Brien noted, “This international group of men worked out (over several years) at Waukesha Motor Co. the Fuel Research Engine that measures anti-knock and octane rating.” James DeLong is fifth from the left in the bottom row. Sixth is Jim Fischer.


Union forms, strike follows

The late 1930s saw interesting developments on the labor front. A machinists union was formed and many members joined. The union helped negotiate a 42-hour work week, with overtime pay and other benefits. Workers were paid on a “piece rate,” meaning that some were paid more than others, depending on their skill and timing. This led to disputes among the workers as well as the supervisors. But all in all, the workers were industrious, honest men.


One issue that remained in dispute was that of a “closed shop.” Workers in the union wanted all the men to join the union, while management believed it was the right of the worker to determine his union membership. This all came to a head on Nov. 13, 1939, when the workers went on strike.


Little progress was made in the first few weeks of negotiations, but the plant remained closed. Finally the strike ended on Dec. 12. Both sides won a little and both sides lost a little. The workers gained a 40-hour work week, and their Local 1377 was the sole bargaining unit. But a worker did not have to join the union.


Rocky Schaefer, a member of the Waukesha Engine Historical Society, posted this little incident from the company’s 1938 newsletter on the club’s website:


“There is nothing like the desert heat to make one appreciate the advantages of the Waukesha Railway Ice Engine. And since his recent trip to the West Coast, Mr. Melcher is certain of it. (Editor’s note: Mr. Melcher was the manager of the Waukesha Motor Co. Railway Division that began operations in 1935. The division manufactured enginepowered refrigeration and air conditioning units that were mounted beneath railroad cars to provide it refrigeration, or in the case of passenger cars, air conditioning. They were known as Waukesha Railway Ice Engines). It seems that on a jaunt from Los Angeles to Houston, Mr. Melcher was informed that one of the train’s stewards was a Waukesha booster and not to be surprised if the steward stopped by to talk sometime during the trip. And, sure enough, a little later he looked up from his book to see a train steward alongside him.”


“Are you the Waukesha man?” was the query.


“Yes, what can I do for you?” answered Mr. Melcher.


“Well I just wanted to talk with somebody from God’s town, that’s all.”


“What do you mean, God’s town?”


“Well, sir, that’s what I call Waukesha. I’ve been crossing this desert for about twenty eight years now, and it’s been powerful hot sometimes. But now we’ve got the Waukesha Railway Ice Engine, and with the White Rock spring water, we are cool and comfortable all the time. And I figure that any town that can make two such nice things, must be God’s town!”


In 1939 an “Oldtimers” club was organized. This club recognized men who had been employed by the company for 20 years or more. At the 1939 banquet, Frank Leberman and John Gephardt were the longestserving men. They joined the company in 1907 and were still working.


The 1940s: Waukesha Motors and World War II

When war broke out in Europe, it stimulated the economy in the U.S., and Waukesha Motor benefited. Sales and revenue jumped. Workers were rehired and soon the facility was running at capacity, with an expansion in the works. The company was supplying motors for all of the areas the government required as it began a pre-war buildup.

Photo from the Waukesha County Museum

In 1944, Lt. Gen.William Knudsen paid a visit to both plants of the Waukesha Motor Co. (St. Paul Avenue and Elizabeth Street). Here, James DeLong explains part of the operation to him. The plant was put in tip-top shape for his visit. The entourage of 10 Army men stayed at the Avalon during their visit. Knudsen was president of General Motors Corp. before Pearl Harbor. He was in charge of the nation’s giant war plant production program. Known throughout the automotive world as the miracle man of production problems, Knudsen was the early organizer of the nation’s industries for all-out war needs. He was the country’s No. 1 troubleshooter on war production problems. The Army men saw a display of the large and small motors the company made for the Army and Navy. It was explained to the general and his party that the capacity was from 5,500 to 6,000 engines monthly, depending on availability of material. There were 35 models of engines produced in 17 different series, with an average monthly cost of $2,500,000. There was a backlog of orders at the plant stretching for many months.The huge, 14-acre plant was unable to keep up with demands, officials asserted. Some 300 manufacturers and distributors were served by the company.The principal users of Waukesha motors were Allis- Chalmers, and the Four-Wheel Drive Co. of Clintonville. Waukesha engines powered the giant 18-ton and 38-ton tractors produced by the Chalmers company, which carried heavy artillery.


Photo from the John Schoenknecht collection at the Waukesha County Museum

Wartime production demand led Waukesha Motor to expand in the mid-1940s, and the company added 170,000 square feet of space to meet the nation’s needs.At its wartime peak, the company had about 2,000 employees.


Photo from the Waukesha County Museum

This bulldozer, outfitted with a modified FC Waukesha motor, fit into the hold of a C-47 cargo plane, making it easy to transport. Some were parachuted onto Pacific islands to help construct airfields.The bulldozer was built for the Army Air Force by the Clark Equipment Co.



There were so many new types of engines being produced that the lettering and numbering system was revamped in the late 1930s and early 1940s.


An interesting sidelight from Michael Goc’s book is that Waukesha produced a two-cylinder, air-cooled engine for the Crosley Motor Co. The Crosley was a small car that sold for $325 through Crowley’s chain of hardware and appliance stores. Five thousand motors were built before the government stopped domestic production of automobiles for the war effort. The engine continued to be built during the war for the government as auxiliary power units.


As the nation went to war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, orders increased dramatically. The demand reached a peak in the spring of 1943, when the company had orders for 52,000 engines. It was not an easy task. Raw materials were in high demand, so they had to be located, purchased and delivered. There was a maze of War Department rules and regulations to sort through in order to determine which motors were produced first.


And there was a large workforce to assemble and train – about 2,000 at the height of production. When the draft forced many male workers into the service, the company turned to women to fill their places. At first the women held jobs as stenographers and office help. They were introduced to shipping, maintenance, parts and light assembly. But finally they were given jobs as machinists – a field previously held by men. The workplace was once again remodeled to give the women facilities and restrooms.


A large addition to the plant was constructed to accommodate the increased production. The company even acquired an empty 52,000-square-foot building on Elizabeth Street.


And, another phenomenon noted in a Milwaukee Journal article was that of the commuter worker. According to an Aug. 10, 1941, article, 524 of the 1,862 employees lived outside of the city and commuted to work. Previously, most workers walked to work, but when workers from Milwaukee were hired, the streetcar, bus and occasionally automobile were used as means to get to work.


Goc also wrote about several experimental engines that the company developed for the Army and Navy. Waukesha built an aircooled aircraft engine and an all-steel-welded diesel marine engine. But the greatest contribution the company made was in adapting the existing engines it built to wartime use.


Michael Goc listed some of them in his book:

  • Waukesha motors were used to power the crane that built the cyclotron in California. The cyclotron was used to develop the atom bomb.
  • A small motor was used to power a mini bulldozer that could fit into the cargo holds of transport planes.
  • The model ICK was a very adaptable workhorse engine. It was used to power pumps, blowers and generators on land and in the air.
  • Waukesha produced motors for trucks, tanks and other transportation vehicles.

According to Rocky Schaefer, the company built an experimental flat or “pancake” engine that was to be used in Navy drone planes in the Pacific Theater. It is interesting that the use of drones was considered even then. The engine never got beyond the testing stage, however.


In 1942, two cargo ships were sabotaged and sunk by Nazi sympathizers in the harbor at Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Waukesha engines supplied the power to raise and salvage the pair of ships.


In 1946, the new construction was completed and the plant was designed to be more efficient. Several additions added 170,000 square feet of space to the sprawling plant.



(John Schoenknecht can be reached at

This article was originally published in the Ssaturday, January 25, 2014 issue of The Freeman Waukesha County's newspaper.


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