It’s likely no accident that Jim Droege’s family owned and used a 1936 Keck Gonnerman steam engine to thresh wheat during what was still the heyday of threshing rings. Droege grew up in southern Posey County near Mount Vernon, Ind., and the Keck Gonnerman Co. was a fixture in Mount Vernon for some 75 years, more or less — depending upon which source you believe.
What sounds like more than an accident was that Droege was able to locate and bring back home the Keck Gonnerman steam engine originally purchased jointly by his maternal and paternal grandparents. It’s a 1935 single-cylinder, 22-horsepower steam engine, with the serial number 1865 stamped in plain sight.
“We’re very fortunate to have it,” Droege says. “It would need some work to get it in working order, but we’re proud of it anyway.”
Droege is active in the Keck Gonnerman Antique Machinery Association, based in Posey County. In years when COVID-19 doesn’t interfere, the association holds events that include working steam engines, powering threshing machines and sawmills.
According to farmcollector.com, the company started in 1873 in Mount Vernon. John Keck came along a couple of years later, and eventually purchased a share in the company. According to other internet sources, the Gonnerman family arrived from Germany and were skilled mechanics. When one of them bought into the business, the name was eventually changed to Keck Gonnerman.
The company built a reputation for making mobile engines and threshing equipment, and gained a foothold with sales across the U.S. and also in several Canadian provinces. At the height of operations, it was the largest employer in Mount Vernon, with 200 employees, primarily skilled laborers.
Although steam engines and mobile threshers were its bread and butter, the company also made a two-cylinder kerosene-powered tractor in 1918 and offered a tractor-size separator in 1921.
The company used the trademark Kay-Gee for a long time and built a four-cylinder Kay-Gee tractor in 1928.
Steam engine and threshing machine sales continued to be strong, especially in Canada, until finally taking a nosedive in the early 1950s. The company was sold in 1953, and an era in southwest Indiana soon came to an end.
Dreoge is just one of those proud to keep the memory alive.
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