The Keck-Gonnerman Automobile and Airship

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By Harold Morgan

The Evansville Press interviewed William Gonnerman and his daughter, Lena Gonnerman, in January 1938 about the Keck-Gonnerman Plant in Mount Vernon. The following article is paraphrased from that report:

The Keck-Gonnerman Automobile

Around 1893, Mr. Gonnerman came to the ideal of developing a steam powered automobile around the same time that the Stanley “Steamer” was beginning developed for sale. Lena Gonnerman called her father’s auto the “old Mount Vernon Steamer.” It ran like the wind she said, with a boiler under the seat that kept the driver nice and warm in the winter.

The Steamer body was of the phaeton type with four wheels, fenders and a canvas top. The entire auto was built in Mount Vernon “from the exhaust pipe to the radiator ornament.”

Mr. Gonnerman said that they drove it all around the Tri-State and to local fairs.  On the way to Shawneetown, they met some Dayton, Ohio travelers in their cars going to the fair.

“We just pulled back the throttle on our steamer and left them sitting in the dust,” Gonnerman told the Press.

The Gonnerman car won the silver cup in the Shawneetown Fair for appearance and performance.  

Gonnerman wanted to manufacture the steam automobile, but Keck vetoed the idea. Keck-Gonnerman continued making coal mining and threshing machines instead.

The Keck-Gonnerman Airship

Between the years when Arcidas Farmer of Evansville flew his pedaled dirigible balloon in 1899 and the Wright Brothers powered flight in 1909, the Keck-Gonnerman farm implement plant in Mount Vernon flew their airship. Their flight remained hidden from view by their factory buildings on West Fourth Street.

A client of the Keck-Gonnerman Company, Charles Thompson of Indianapolis, who built flour mill fans, asked Keck-Gonnerman to build his design of an airship. Detailed plans, drawings and pictures of the flying machine had not been drafted. Even descriptions of the airship were “somewhat garbled.”  

An employee of the factory said later that the airplane looked like a plate upside down, while Gonnerman recalled that it looked like a small ferry boat.

Everybody agreed that it did not have any wings. The upward thrust was created by two paddle-type wheels, somewhat like steam boat wheels, that were intended to lift the airship straight up into the air and allow it to hover over the earth.

Gonnerman said the airship ran fine on the ground, but when it came to flying, it was a different matter.

Testing of the airship was held in great secrecy on the commons area behind the main plant building. Keck-Gonnerman hired an unnamed test pilot for the aircraft’s debut flight.

With a great swishing of its paddlewheels and racing of its heavy-duty engine, the airship managed to lift itself about four feet above the ground. There, the airship became unmanageable and tipped over on its side. The pilot, seeing that he could not continue the flight, jumped out. It was the beginning and end of the airship and its testing.

Keck- Gonnerman Plant time-line
1873 - Woody foundry was opened
1877 - John Keck entered the foundry
1884 - Production of steam-engines, threshers, sawmills, later rice and soybean combines, balers, straw spreaders, bailers and combines
1918 - Kerosene tractor
1926 - Steel separator
1928 - Kay-Gee tractor
1930 - Last Kay-Gee tractor produced
1953 - Keck-Gonnerman sold to Harrison and Spencer
2016 – The last Keck-Gonnerman building was demolished on West Main Street in Mount Vernon.

Local historian Harold Morgan provides articles about local history, both in Posey county and surrounding areas. To read more by Morgan, check out his latest book, “Hometown History: Planes, Trains, Automobiles and Weather disasters,” now available at Barnes and Noble.