An enterprising family
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a monthly series on the history of Webster City and Hamilton County, written by local historian, Nancy Kayser.
George and Malinda Smisor were the parents of five mechanically gifted sons. Those boys, William, Albert, Jasper, Dumont and Charles, made history in Webster City as the Smisor Brothers.
The four oldest were born between 1858 and 1866 in Rush County, Indiana. Charles, the youngest, was born in Iowa in 1872.
The farm family settled briefly in Phillips County, Kansas before returning to Jasper County, Iowa by 1884. They lived and worked in the Newton and Altoona areas in the late 1880s and early 1890s.
A small advertisement in the December 12, 1893 issue of the Weekly Graphic Herald announced the arrival of the Smisor Brothers to Webster City.
Jasper and Charles Smisor rented space in the “old rink building” in the 500 block of Second Street to open the Webster City Novelty Works. They advertised “they had long experience in repairing and making bicycles, typewriters and working with light machinery and electrical appliances.”
Throughout 1894, their Webster City Novelty Works ads expanded to include skills as gunsmiths and locksmiths, repairing of piano, organ and type writers. They also offered to make patent models for the U. S. Patent Office and do other “Novelty line” work.
By 1895, the entire Smisor clan parents, five sons and one daughter-in-law were residents of Webster City. Newspaper articles reported the Smisor Brothers had invented a new visible writing typewriter and were applying for patent rights. Louis Frank displayed the Smisor typewriter and the original 1866 model of the Abner Peeler typewriter in his front show window.
Expanding their business to include bicycle manufacturing, they moved to a larger building on Seneca Street in October of 1895. About this same time, Jasper Smisor and his wife Emma moved to Grant County, Indiana where he lived the remainder of his life working as a machinist and receiving several patents for his inventions.
Fueled by the bicycle craze which was sweeping the country, the “Boys” purchased a lot on the East side of the 700 block of Des Moines Street. Here, in early 1896, they erected a two-story 22 X 50-foot veneered building to manufacture bicycles and their newly patented visible writing typewriter.
The Brothers were early adopters of new technology such as steam power, steam heat and acetylene gaslights which they converted, used and provided to other businesses. They were the local dealer for the new “Passtime” lawn mower and were one of the first to rent out a tandem bicycle by-the-hour.
They dabbled in early radio, photography and were one of the first businesses to own a gramophone. Charles Smisor took the gramophone on the road, sharing the music with groups all about the county.
As if that wasn’t enough to the keep the four bachelors busy, they began tinkering with gasoline powered engines.
By the middle of 1899, the “Boys” had developed a horseless carriage run by a small gas engine. After the first official run of the new automobile around the business streets in mid-October 1899, excitement grew for the prospects of manufacturing the rig locally. Other cities expressed interest in obtaining the automobile factory, including Des Moines.
While the local papers acknowledged that the motor was troublesome at times, the auto hit 12 miles per hour on a level road. It was an historical event for Webster City the first gasoline powered automobile to be built and to travel in the city.
Smisor’s auto also claimed another Webster City historical marker when in May 1900 a runaway horse and buggy careened around the corner of First Street smashing into the auto parked in front of their Des Moines Street building. The Freeman-Tribune reported “that one wheel on the auto was broken off along with other damage. The damage to the carriage was slight”. Thus, the first automobile accident in the city was documented.
The year of 1900 began the alteration of the Smisor Brothers team. They apparently gave up manufacturing their own typewriter to become a dealer for the duplex Typewriter made in Des Moines.
While they continued to refine their automobile, they also offered it for sale in the May 30, 1900 edition of The Horseless Age magazine. The ad stated “For Sale A Light Runabout fitted with a three H.P. Hydro-Carbon water cooled motor. In good condition, having been used very little. Wood wheels fitted with two-inch pneumatic tires”
In December of 1900 the Smisor Brothers petitioned the Webster City City Council asking for a ten year franchise to provide day electric service to the city. Their offer meant that the City would not have to erect an electric plant or maintain services. The Council “laid the offer on the table”. The local newspapers were critical of the Council’s lack of action to provide day electrical service to the community.
Just one sentence in the January 25, 1901 edition of the Tribune announced the fate of the City’s first automobile, “Smisor Bros. sold their automobile to a party in Connecticut and will ship it at once”.
William, after being a foreman at the Hot Water Heating Company, was employed as an expert machinist by the Litchfield Manufacturing Company. When Waterloo enticed the Webster City plant to move to their city, William followed and was a long term employee there.
Albert remained in Webster City, working first as a foreman in the Retarder factory, then becoming a pattern maker and machinist at the Closz Sieve plant. He retired from that company in 1939.
Dumont also worked for the Closz Sieve plant until he moved to California in late 1906 to become an orange rancher.
An outbreak of matrimony affected three of the bachelor Smisor Brothers in quick succession. At age 45, William married in April of 1903. Also at age 45, Albert married in August of 1904. Then Dumont, age 41, married in November of 1904.
Charles, the youngest, remained single. He lived and worked throughout the Midwest as an editor on the Popular Science Monthly and Popular Mechanics magazines and the Radio Digest, a large circulation weekly newspaper in Chicago. He had just started his own magazine called Current Ideas when he died suddenly in New York City in 1927.
While the Smisor Brothers were only a part of the Webster City business community for a short time, they made a significant contribution to the history of the City.
The Smisor name factors into the riddle of who built the first gasoline powered automobile in the State of Iowa. Someday the answer might prove to be the Smisor Brothers of Webster City.