RANTOUL, Ill. — Oat threshing demonstrations will be one of the highlights of the Keck-Gonnerman display during the Half Century of Progress show.
“We’re inviting collectors from all over the country to bring steam engines, tractors and equipment,” said Alan Barbre, organizer of the Keck-Gonnerman Reunion. “We will have several tractors coming and a steam engine or two.”
In addition, oat threshing demonstrations are planned during the four-day event.
“We have five to six loads of oats that we’re going to thresh,” Barbre said. “And with this year being a harvesting show, this will fit in nicely.”
The display at the 2019 show is an extension of the reunion that was held two years ago.
“We’re going to try to make the Half Century of Progress show something we do every two years,” Barbre said.
The Keck-Gonnerman Co. was started in 1877 in Evansville, Indiana, with the foundry making silverware and cooking utensils.
“By 1884, they employed about 300 people and were making steam engines, threshers, mining equipment and sawmills,” Barbre said. “The Keck-Gonnerman is a rare line since few tractors and steam engines were made compared to some of the other manufacturers.”
The company, Kay-Gee for short, made a 19- and 20-horsepower steam engine.
“About 1917, they produced their first tractor, a two-cylinder kerosene tractor,” Barbre said.
“In 1929, they started making the 18-35, 25-50 and 30-60 tractors,” he said.
“Most of their tractors were for belt work — designed to pull separators and operate saw mills.”
During the ‘50s, the Kay-Gee sold stationary threshers and sawmills to Canadians.
“They sold very few tractors and steam engines into Canada,” Barbre said.
Power From The Past
Some people may be unfamiliar with the farm tractors since the company manufactured a limited number of machines.
“We think they made about 82 of the 25-50 tractors, about 55 of the 30-60 tractors and the last serial number we know for the 18-35 tractors is 43,” Barbre said.
In November 1955, the company declared bankruptcy.
“The company made a bean harvester and a self-propelled rice harvester on tracks, and they were trying to develop a self-propelled combine,” Barbre said. “They were trying to use separators instead of developing a new combine and that put them out of business.”
The Barbre family history is connected to Kay-Gee equipment.
“My grandfather ran a steam engine and separator during World War I,” Barbre said. “So, when we started fooling around with antique tractors, dad and I decided to go with Keck-Gonnerman.”
In addition, the farmer said, he grew up about 15 to 20 miles from the Keck-Gonnerman plant after it was moved to Mount Vernon, Indiana.
“I had some tractors, a separator and a bean harvester and last year I sold that collection,” he said. “We kept our family stuff that I grew up on — the John Deere 70s, 720s, 3020s and 4020s.”
Maintaining and restoring the older machines is quite an endeavor.
“We restored a 30-60 tractor that we sold,” Barbre said. “It was a really solid tractor, but everything you had to do to it had to be done in a foundry because the parts are not available so they have to be made.”
And the collector said there are only a few people who know how to make the parts for tractors like Kay-Gee.
“I can’t do it, so I have to turn to other people to manufacture the parts,” he said. “So, restoring a tractor takes a lot of time and effort.”