1901 Hercules logo. (source: Coachbuilt)
William Harvey McCurdy (1853-1930) was born on May 28th, 1853 in Center Township, Pennsylvania to Joseph and Sidney McCurdy, a couple who owned a small farm in Greene County, PA. The family moved to St. Louis, Michigan in 1866 and as his father was an accomplished carpenter, William was apprenticed to a millwright in Jackson, Michigan and after the requisite four years, became a journeyman. He remained employed in the trade until 1875 when a thirst for adventure led him on a cross-country journey as a traveling salesman. Sometime in 1879 he arrived in Independence, Missouri on the eve of the great Kansas City real estate boom and decided to try his hand as an estate agent and insurance salesman, establishing an office at 15 W 9th St. in downtown Kansas City. He married the former Helen Eliza Hess on June 25, 1880 in Cincinnati, Ohio by 1888, the pair had produced four children.
McCurdy and his growing family (a fifth child, Lynn - his first son - was born in 1893) relocated to Cincinnati in 1889 where he became secretary of the Favorite Buggy Company, a well-known Ohio builder. While at Favorite, McCurdy became acquainted with Julius Rosenwald, the head of Rosenwald and Weil, the principal supplier of men's clothing to Chicago’s Sears, Roebuck & Co.
In 1894 Rosenwald financed McCurdy in the creation of the Brighton Buggy Co., and brokered a deal between McCurdy and Sears-Roebuck & Co. A year later, Rosenwald and his brother-in-law, Aaron Nussbaum, bought out Roebuck’s half of Sears, Roebuck for $75,000. Not surprisingly, business improved for the Brighton Buggy Co, which was now one of the Chicago firm’s main supplier of farm wagons and buggies.
By 1900, Brighton’s Cincinnati facility had become too small to handle the Sears account so McCurdy looked for another site for his growing buggy business. The well-situated town of Evansville, Indiana was chosen for his new factory which was built on a parcel of land bordering Morton St and the Southern Railroad which had a direct line North to Chicago.
The plant was located less than a mile from Ohio River, providing the new 3-story 32,000 sq ft Hercules plant with a steady supply of timber and direct access to barges bound for cities along the Mississippi River. The building was soon completed and McCurdy moved the entire operation to Evansville in 1902, naming it the Hercules Buggy Co. Over 40 skilled journeymen and wheelwrights followed McCurdy to Evansville as did Harry Wessling, Brighton Buggy’s plant manager.
Rosenwald foresaw the popularity of the horseless carriage and in 1905 convinced McCurdy to create a separate firm, the Hercules Body Co. to build bodies for them.
In the first part of the 20th Century a postcard was issued which gave a good view of the expanding Mason St. complex which now included the Hercules Wheel Co., built just east of the complex’s power plant which can be identified by its huge smokestack. To the north of the original Hercules Buggy building (3 stories 90’x 670’) was the Hercules Surrey and Wagon Co, where the firm’s larger farm wagons and coaches were manufactured. Next to the Surrey & Wagon Co building was the Hercules Warehouse Co, where parts were stored and completed vehicles shipped to customers. Furthest east was the Hercules Body Co. (3 story 125’x710’) building where most of the firm’s legendary truck bodies and woodie wagons were manufactured. The long one-story structure attached alongside it was the Hercules Paint Co. Located nearby was the firm’s busy lumber yard where the firms huge kilns and drying buildings were located.
Many of Hercules original buildings remain, making up the current Morton Ave. Warehouse, which is located between North Morton Ave. (formerly Morton St.) and N. Kentucky Ave. on the south side of E Franklin St and north of E. Division St.
Due to declining health Richard Sears retired as Sears, Roebuck’s president in 1908 and Rosenwald took over control of the firm. The Chicago retailer was anxious to cash in on the automobile craze and approached an Ohio inventor, Alvaro S. Krotz, to design and produce a car Krotz had manufactured an electric vehicle under his own name in 1904-1905. Early Sears Motor Buggies were built inside the Hercules Buggy plant, but production moved to Chicago in late 1909 when the new Sears Motor Car Works factory at the corner of Harrison and Loomis was finally completed. From that point on until the demise of the vehicle in 1912, only the bodies of the Sears car were built in Evansville.
In 1908 McCurdy formed an interurban railway called the Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway Co. whose first passenger cars where built by Hercules. McCurdy placed great emphasis on local transportation and helped establish Evansville’s first street car system as well as serving as president of the Evansville & Eastern Railway/ Evansville Railway Co. His freight and interurban systems eventually provided service to Boonville, Fort Branch and Mt Vernon, Indiana as well as Owensboro and Henderson Kentucky.
In 1912, McCurdy was approached by William Triplett, Sears, Roebuck & Co’s gas engine and buggy buyer with a business proposal. A Sears-controlled firm, the Holm Machine and Mfg Co. of Sparta, Michigan, currently supplied the retail giant with most of their stationary gas engines, but demand far outstripped the small factory’s capacity. Triplett proposed that McCurdy build an engine factory in Evansville to help supply Sears, Roebuck with the engines they needed, and offered to help finance the enterprise.
Consequently, the Hercules Gas Engine Co. was formed on November 8, 1912. Construction began on the modern glass-walled factory built adjacent to the existing Hercules complex and the first engines rolled out of the facility in early 1914. Hercules produced engines for a number of retailers under the Ajax, Arco, Atlas, Champion, Economy, Erren, Hercules, Jaeger, Keystone, Reeco, Rohaco, Thermoil and Williams brand names. Business increased to the point where a new cupola was built in 1918 that had the capacity to process 150 tons of molten metal per day. From 1914 until the factory’s closing in 1934, over 400,000 Hercules-built gasoline engines were produced in Evansville.
A second Hercules – The Hercules Motors Corp. of Canton, Ohio is better-known than the subject of this article. Hercules Motors was founded in Canton in 1915 in response to demand for a high-speed, lightweight, heavy-duty gasoline engine for trucks, eventually expanding its product lines to serve as an engine source for more than 500 manufacturing concerns in the U.S. and many foreign countries. It was the last surviving of the three known Hercules-named engine builders and closed its doors in 1999.
A third Hercules – the Hercules Gas Engine Co., of San Francisco, California firm was organized in the early 1890s and is also unrelated. The Californian concern marketed it engines under the Hercules, Improved Hercules & New Hercules trademarks and also manufactured Palmer & Ray stationary engines. The firm was purchased by the Peerless Motor Co. in 1907.
Hercules developed a 3-wheeled farm tractor in 1915 that differed from the competitions’ in that it was propelled by a single rear wheel steered by two small wheels at the front. The operator sat alongside the engine which was covered by a shroud that flowed into a large fender over the driven rear wheel.
The prototype attracted the attention of Ray Graham, the youngest of the famous Graham Brothers who at that time ran a successful bottle-making factory in Evansville. This was a few years before they began selling kits to turn stock Model T’s into trucks. Graham appeared with the prototype at various regional fairs and helped bring in some of the 2000 orders received for the tractor, however the project was soon abandoned and no production Hercules tractors were built despite the glowing accounts of the tractor's future that appeared in the local newspapers.
During 1915 Hercules engine production exceeded 100 units per day. The Hercules Body division was producing about 200 bodies per day and the Hercules Buggy continued to be popular with daily shipment of over 300 units.
Within 5 years of its introduction, Hercules’ foundry could no longer keep up with the demand for their 1½, 3, 6 and 8 hp gas engines and a new one was constructed in 1918, allowing the firm to keep up with orders from Sears and other retail distributors.
Although some very early Ford trucks were sold with commercial bodies, Ford discontinued the program in 1913; leaving the field wide open for enterprising commercial body builders through 1924 when the first factory-built Ford Model T pick-ups were introduced.
Hercules Body Co developed a Model T slip-on body that first appeared in the early teens. When it was advertised in the 1915 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog the retail giant supplied so many orders that an additional building was built to help Hercules fulfill the orders.
As Ford had yet to introduce the Model T pickup, the popular Hercules accessory allowed a roadster or turtleback runabout owner to convert their vehicle into a pickup truck in less than an hour. Through the end of the decade Hercules completed large orders of ambulance bodies for the US Army as well as regulation delivery van bodies for the US Post Office. A 1921 Hercules advertisement boasted that they were “the largest builder of truck bodies in the world”, with a staff of 7500 producing over 40,000 truck cabs and bodies per year.
On November 23rd, 1920, the half-dozen branches of Hercules - Hercules Buggy Co., Hercules Body Co., Hercules Engine Co., Hercules Paint Co., Hercules Surrey & Wagon Co., Hercules Warehouse Co. and Hercules Wheel Co. - were merged into a single concern, The Hercules Corporation.
During 1920, the 7500 employees of the various Hercules enterprises produced 84,000 buggies, surreys and wagons, 62,000 gasoline engines and 40,000 auto & truck bodies and cabs. An early 20s Hercules brochure included a list of the firm’s principal products; buggies, spring wagons, delivery wagons, business bodies for Fords, sawing outfits, farm generators, cream separators and gasoline, kerosene and oil engines.
Starting in the mid-teens Hercules Body Co. published an annual catalog advertising their “Business Bodies for Fords”. By the early twenties the catalog’s 80 pages included detailed pictures and specifications of the multitude of cabs and truck bodies built by the firm. Although the looked similar to other manufacturer’s products, Hercules closed cabs are distinguishable by their vertically split windscreen.
Hercules built a small quantity of production automobile bodies for Chevrolet during the twenties as evidenced by reference to them in the Jun 15, 1924 issue of the Indianapolis Star which stated, ”The Hercules Corporation has created a special division at its factory at Evansville, Ind., for the manufacture of Chevrolet bodies.” It’s likely that production bodies were built for other manufacturers as well, but little else is known about the program.
At the 1920 Indianapolis Automobile Show, Lynn McCurdy was impressed by the Gale Four, a prototype exhibited by its designer Garde Gale. Unable to secure financing through normal channels, Gale approached McCurdy to see if he was interested in producing the vehicle and within the year the Evansville paper announced that Hercules would start producing the McCurdy Six starting in 1922.
It was to be an assembled chassis of 127” with power supplied by a Continental six. Hercules would supply the bodywork and the cars marketing would be handled by the cars designer who was now on the Hercules payroll. A reported 7 chassis were assembled for testing but it was soon decided that Hercules was not ready for the automobile manufacturing business. Two chassis had been fitted with coachwork so to help the firm out, two Hercules executives - Harry Wessling and V.E. McCullen – bought the completed vehicles for $2500 apiece and the whole affair was quickly forgotten.
Due to dwindling sales, Hercules halted all buggy production in 1923 and the buggy factory was outfitted to produce insulated sheet metal housings for Hercules latest product.
Since the mid teens, Hercules Body Co. had been building wood-framed stake bodies, jitneys, express bodies, delivery vans and depot hacks for Ford Model T and TT chassis. The wooden bodies were easily adapted to other chassis and Hercules soon offered separate catalogs for Chevrolet, Dodge, Fargo and Ford light truck chassis. During the 1920s, Hercules Products expanded into the manufacture of all-metal dump bodies and trailers, and introduced a line of insulated route delivery bodies.
Although Hercules bodies could be ordered direct from the factory, most were sold through authorized distributors who stocked the firm’s most popular bodies, crated and ready for assembly on the customer’s chassis. Hercules even leased a factory showroom and warehouse in the heart of Manhattan’s Automobile Row at 617-621 W. 57th St, New York NY during the 1920s.
1937-1939 Packard woodies were built by Cantrell, but during the 1940 model year, Hercules assumed the contract, consequently there are both Cantrell and Hercules-bodied 1940 Packard station wagons. A total of 358 Hercules bodies were supplied to Packard for their 1941 One-Ten (122" wheelbase) and One-Twenty (127" wheelbase) station wagons.
A handful of bodies were also produced for Packard’s 1940-1941 Model One-Sixty chassis but they were identical to the bodies produced for the Model One-Twenty.
Starting in 1939, Hercules started building production station wagon bodies for General Motors’ Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac Divisions. As all three utilized the same 8-passenger bodywork, GM split the contract between Cantrell, Hercules and Ionia.
Hercules’ distinctive ash-framed mahogany paneling set them apart from the plainer birch-paneled Cantrell and Ionia products.
Buick became part of General Motors wagon program in 1940 and both Ionia and Hercules supplied them with wooden coachwork for their new Model 59 wagons that was identical to that found on Oldsmobile’s new Series 70 wagon.
Hercules wagons remained popular through early 1942 when all production was halted in order to convert the Hercules factory over to war work.
Following the end of hostilities Ionia became General Motors main supplier of wooden station wagon bodies although Hercules supplied Oldsmobile and Buick with a few bodies in 1946-47.
Hercules survived the next decade by producing dry freight truck and trailers as well as insulated route delivery bodies which gained the firm a well-deserved reputation in the dairy business.
In 1957 the Indiana firm was purchased by George Caddick, who moved it to Henderson, Ky. Caddick reorganized it as the Hercules Manufacturing Co. and added refrigerated trailers to the firm popular line of milk trucks and dry freight bodies. Hercules continues to supply the transportation industry with Insulated Van Trailers, Insulated Van Bodies, Cold Plate Refrigeration Bodies, Insulated Slip-In Bodies, Dry Freight Van Bodies, FRP Van Bodies, Attic Bodies and other Specialized Bodies. The business, located at Outer 8th St & Hercules Dr in Henderson remains family owned and operated.
(source: Coachbuilt) ©2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com, Inc. All rights reserved.
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