Industrialization came to Swanton, Ohio with the incorporation of The A. D. Baker Company in 1901. Founded by a quiet inventor, Abner Baker, the company would remain a part of the business life of Swanton until 1953.
Abner Baker (who preferred A. D.) was born in Knox County, Ohio in 1861. His father, Samuel, moved the family to Swanton by the time A. D. was fifteen.His marriage to Ella Berkebile occurred in 1886. Their only child, Louis was born in 1891.
During his early twenties, A.D. began a series of employments with various machine and iron working companies. The experiences he gained led him to open his own machine shop in Swanton in 1895. The development of many new pieces of farming machinery during the late 1900s helped the shop to thrive. Having the opportunity to work on so many different types of equipment allowed A. D. to develop a great understanding of what did and didn’t work on these machines. And so the young inventor set out to create a steam traction engine with the design and features which seemed most desirable to him.
But, why would anyone even want to invent a steam traction engine? These massive engines provided far greater power than could be supplied by animals. More importantly, this was a power plant that could be moved from farm to farm... thus the threshing rings formed.
The largest steam traction engines had no clutch and were used for pulling. These engines were found doing road grading, pulling stumps, logging, and tilling the thick sod of the Great Plains states. The steam traction engines with clutches could be used to power many pieces of farm equipment, such as separators (threshers), balers, and corn shellers. This power was provided by a belt that ran from the fly wheel of the engine to the equipment being run.
And so Abner Baker produced his first steam traction engine in 1898. The Baker #1 was a 16 horse power engine, which sold immediately. The sale allowed A.D. to pay off his loan to a Toledo bank and finance additional engines. Believing that a steam traction engine plant could be successful, The A.D. Baker Company was incorporated in 1901. Over the years A.D. was president of the company at various times. However, throughout the life of the company he was always the Plant Superintendent.
Constantly inventing, Baker had over 270 patents issued to him in his lifetime. He would often disappear into his workshop for days at a time when deeply involved in an invention. In 1907 A.D. was granted a patent for a reverse valve gear for use on steam locomotives. The demand for this gear became so great, that its production was separated from the threshing machine business and became the Pilliod Company. The valve was eventually used on locomotives all over the world.
The Baker Company expanded its line of equipment by adding separators in 1907 and road rollers in 1910. The rollers were created by adding a front roller attachment and a cast rear roller to a 16 horsepower traction engine. The fuel economies of WW I had A. D. designing engines with improved fuel and water consumption. About this time, Abner’s son Louis began to take an active part in designing new engines and factory management. Over the years the company also produced feed mixers, corn shellers, and a hammermill to grind corn.
A.D. was always a part of the day-to-day running of the company. Raymond Fork, of Gibsonburg, Ohio helped his fataher with custom threshing in the 1920s and remembers going to the Baker plant for repair parts. They would arrive in the evening after the day’s threshing was done and knock on A.D.’s front door. Baker would go across to the factory with them, find the part, write the sales information on a slip of paper and toss the paper on a nearby desk. Fork says that he always wondered how anyone would ever find the sales slip, but eventually his father would receive a bill in the mail.
As the gasoline tractor began to gain in popularity, A. D. tried to compete with a steam tractor. Two sizes were built, a 22-40 and a 25-50. This tractor was a one-man operated unit, very economical on fuel and water. However, they never gained a wide following. Eventually Baker did produce a gasoline tractor. Most of the components for the gas tractors were purchased.
By the 1930s, the A. D. Baker Company advertised steam traction engines “as available.” The work force at the plant, once at over 120 men, was reduced to four part-time workers by the 1940s. Their job was to produce the required service parts for veteran steam traction engines still in use. Early in 1953, the A.D. Baker Company was finally dissolved.
A.D. Baker led a full life. A friend of such men as Henry Ford, who often visited in Swanton, Baker played a major role in the Swanton community... at one time owning the electricity generating plant and also the feedmill. In later life he had the opportunity to see the revival of interest in restoring historic steam engines. He helped to found the National Threshers Association and many times took the Baker #1 to threshing events around the country. A. D. Baker passed away on 11 June 1953, but his legacy lives on where ever steam threshing events are held.