The Buffalo Pitts Company has an incredible history. Unfortunately, many people in Buffalo and Western New York are not even aware that such a world-class manufacturer of threshers, steam tractor engines, and other farm implements was located right here near the Erie Canal and the Port Area of Buffalo over 100 years ago
Twin brothers Hiram A. and John A. Pitts starting out in Winthrop Maine USA. Their father owned a blacksmith shop, so they learned how to make things early in life. They also started a threshing business, but were disappointed with the crude methods of wheat threshing that were in use. They started by building their own “Groundhog Threshers” – which are basically threshers secured to the ground in one place and not portable, thus the name.
That’s when they decided that “there has to be a better way” and invented the “continuous apron threshing machine” a.k.a. the “Pitts Thresher” in 1837 (U.S. Patent #542 of December 29, 1837). Hiram Pitts may have been more the mechanical inventor, and John the businessman. The Pitts’s licensed their patent to several manufacturers, including Case (as in Jerome I. Case – yes, THAT Case). After a while the brothers decided that because wheat was being grown on large acreages in the Western areas of US and Canada, so they started heading West.
Eventually, Hiram Pitts ended up in Illinois and started production of threshers and related equipment there. Some authors refer to his company as Chicago Pitts, but that was only a brand name the company used to differentiate themselves from John’s company. Hiram’s sons were involved in the Chicago company, too, and took over after Hiram died in about 1860. The Company was then known as “Hiram Pitts Son’s Company.”
John Pitts went to Albany NY and then to Rochester NY. In Rochester he teamed up with Daniel Carey and Joseph Hall. Carey invented a sweep horse power, and John Pitts bought the rights to it and started production of it. It was at times referred to as the “Carey Horse Power” or the “Carey-Pitts Horse Power.” These were used to power threshing machines using horses walking in a circle, and were used before steam power became readily available.
John Pitts and Joseph Hall were manufacturing together in Rochester. Hall ticked off John Pitts by obtaining a thresher-improvement patent (U.S. Patent #8864 dated April 6, 1852) without John Pitts. So, they split up. Hall stayed in Rochester and, while there, found that he had a large Canadian business (crossing lake Ontario). So, Hall also opened up a factory in Ontario to avoid Canadian tariffs.
John Pitts moved to Springfield Ohio. He was there for a while. Ads have been found of his from the late 1840’s in old issues of the “Ohio Cultivator” thanks to Google’s Digital Book website. [Sidenote: If you haven’t tried searching there you owe it to yourself to try it. But, it is addictive! Lots and lots of old books free to download as PDF’s!!!]
John Pitts then moved to Buffalo NY and started manufacturing there under the name “John A. Pitts Company.” John Pitts died in Buffalo in 1859, and the firm was taken over by his son and son-in-law. The firm went through several name changes after the founder’s death. At times the firm used the name “Buffalo Pitts” as a brand name. It’s unsure who named their threshers after their home town first: Hiram as Chicago Pitts or John as Buffalo Pitts.
The Buffalo firm was known as “Pitts Agricultural Works” from its incorporation in 1877 until 1897. Then, in 1897 it was finally incorporated a “Buffalo Pitts.” That’s the name that the firm has been best known as. The firm floundered in the 1900’s and was under receivership in 1914. The thresher business may have been sold off, as the 1915 catalog had only steam engines.
One area where Buffalo Pitts did well was with Steamrollers and other road-building machinery (e.g., stone-hauling dump wagons, etc.). The USA and Canada were going through a intense phase of road building, and road-building equipment was in high demand. The business was so good for Buffalo Pitts that they started a subsidiary named “Buffalo Steamroller Company.” But, due to money problems, this firm was merged with “Kelly-Springfield Road Roller Company” to form the famous “Buffalo-Springfield Roadroller Company” in Springfield, Ohio USA. The merger was delayed for a couple of years while a major stockholder held out for more money until about 1916.
Buffalo Pitts tried its hand with developing gasoline tractors, with the three-wheel three-cylinder “Triplex” in 1910 or 1911. But, it flopped at the famous Winnipeg Tractor Tests and never recovered from the bad name it acquired there (not that it wasn’t deserved). There was a four-wheel four-cylinder gas tractor later (possibly a Twin City model of some sort) but that came too late. By then the firm was in bad shape financially in the teens. They later tried selling a small garden tractor of sorts that they had the acquired the rights to. It garnered little success, and may have only been sold locally in Western NY (per Herman Sass in his book “Buffalo Pitts Engines”).
After ending production of steam engines and farm implements in the late teens, they ended up making truck bodies for several truck makers. This was when trucks had out-sourced bodies (Ford was one of these). Then the truck makers started making their own bodies, and that business died for Buffalo Pitts. Finally, Buffalo Pitts just rented out space in its factory complex. The complex was on a secondary line of the Erie Canal and also had a dedicated railroad line, so it was likely a good place for manufacturing. But, in 1935 the rent didn’t cover property taxes and the firm finally went under.
One little-known fact is that Buffalo Pitts and Charles Morgan Olmsted started a syndicate (a company of sorts) to develop and manufacture an advanced airplane. This was in April 1910 – when it was only the third company incorporated in the USA to make aircraft. This was when the Wrights and Glenn Curtiss started making airplanes.
The Pitts-Olmsted aeroplane (sic) was an incredibly advanced aircraft, and once developed it would have been manufactured in Buffalo Pitts’s advanced manufacturing facilities. Please remember that Buffalo Pitts was using electricity before just about any other company in the US (electricity produced by Niagara Falls – this fact is noted in many of their catalogs). The Buffalo Pitts manufacturing complex had all the necessary advanced machinery to build airplanes, and build them well. There was even a “water airport” right there on the Buffalo Waterfront near the Pitts plants, as well as other major airports nearby. They had everything they needed to bring a highly advanced airplane to the world: an advanced design, nearby airports, advanced manufacturing space, trained personnel, a well-know name. But, the one thing they did NOT have was MONEY. The money ran out and the airplane development stopped.
In the early 1950’s when the Erie Canal near the Buffalo Pitts factory was being converted into the Niagara section of the Thruway, the Buffalo Pitts buildings had to be torn down. The only prototype of the Pitts-Olmsted Pusher Plane was still in the plant. So, Charles Olmsted’s sons went to the building housing the plane and cut it up to save it (putting it into boxes). This plane wasn’t like other planes from that time with canvas covering the wings. It used advanced materials, such as: thin-gauge chrome-vanadium steel, aluminum sheet, birch, and basswood. Also, it was a “Pusher Plane” design (propellers behind the wings) much like the highly-regarded planes made by Dick Rutan.
Right now those boxes are at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. USA. This “Pitts-Olmsted Pusher Plane” is the ONLY airplane still in existence built before 1920 that has NOT been restored. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum has a satellite Museum at Reagan National Airport in Washington. There is a spot reserved for the Pitts-Olmsted Pusher Plane there, should the plane finally be restored. We can only hope.
Can you just imagine what would’ve happened had that plane’s development been finalized, and production started? Buffalo NY would’ve played a big part of aviation history (it did have a fairly large role as it was). Sadly, it never happened. The reasons Buffalo Pitts had so much financial trouble are many. But, one major reason was that selling steam traction engines to small farmers all over the country who put up their farm as collateral. When the farmers could not make their payments their farms had to be foreclosed on and sold. It was impossible to try to recoup all the money owed after the farm was foreclosed upon. After all, if one farmer had a bad crop, they all did, so there were likely many farms sold off at the same time, which guarantees that the prices received for the equipment and land was likely quite low.
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