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The Early Cushman Years


The Beginning

Everett Cushman was born in 1878 in Urbana, Illinois. His parents came to Nebraska seeking better farmland and ended up in Lincoln. In 1899, he enrolled at the University of Nebraska as an engineering major. His grandson, Robert Cushman, remembered hearing that Everett "went through the University of Nebraska in the front door and out the back... He went there long enough to pick up some math subjects and that was all he was interested in higher education."
 Everett Cushman
Everett Cushman, ca. 1901.
 Clinton Cushman
Clinton Cushman, 1902

Everett's cousin Clinton was born in 1869 in Wisconsin to a farm family that also ended up in Lincoln. He graduated from the University of Nebraska with a degree in electrical engineering in 1902, the same year the cousins' first patent was issued.

With limited financial resources, the young men worked out of the basement of a building on the northwest corner of 24th and O streets. They focused on improving light-weight, two-cycle engines, the greatest drawback of which was significant power loss. The cousins perfected a new type of seal to prevent the compression leaks that caused power loss in the small engines. They were awarded a patent in 1902 and filed articles of incorporation as the Cushman Motor Company with the Nebraska Secretary of State on Sept. 18, 1902.

Engines for Farming and Fishing

The Cushmans focused their first engines on farm applications, struggling to make a living. The two cousins were fond of boating and competed for a prize for the fastest boat powered by a single-cylinder motor. The Cushmans modified their two-cycle engine into a high output boat engine and won the competition. They received orders from manufacturers of fishing and pleasure boats who heard about the engine. Business increased signinficantly after The Rudder, a publication about powerboats, published an article about the race and the Cushman engine-powered boat that won it. Cushman marine engines became known for their reliability, but the overall demand was not large enough to make Cushman a major manufacturer. They continued to expand into the farm market for stationary engines.

Boat Engine
The Cushman 2 h.p. Boat Engine

The Black

By 1906, they were in deep financial trouble. Financial success came after they reorganized the corporation and brought in Everett Brown Sawyer as general operations manager in September 1909. Combining a salesman's enthusiasm with an engineering background, he quickly turned the Cushman Motor Company into a profitable business. He recognized that the growing mechanization of American farms was creating a new market, one that would vastly outnumber the people seeking boat engines, and he pushed to position Cushman to take advantage of it. Under Sawyer's leadership, the company developed a new four-cycle, high-speed, water-cooled engine. Cushman sold nearly a thousand of the new engines in 1910, giving the company its first real profit of $12,000.
 Everett B. Sawyer
Everett B. Sawyer, 1898.
 Nebraska Farmer ad
Ad for Cushman products in the
Nebraska Farmer. January 4, 1919.

I think that had Mr. Sawyer not arrived in 1909, I believe the company would have probably gone bankrupt about 1910 or 1911. --Ron Anderson

Business boomed. Farmers used the Cushman engines to power corn pickers, grain binders, potato diggers, and farm sprayers, and the company expanded its line to include 8-, 10-, 12-, and 20-horsepower models. The company was renamed Cushman Motor Works, Inc. In 1913 and by 1914, to keep pace with demand, it built its own foundry and a new factory on 21st Street.
 4 h.p. binder engine
4 h.p. binder engine
 new plant
Cushman Motor Works, Inc.
new plant. 1919.

World War I

World War I opened military and foreign markets for Cushman engines, in addition to the continued booming farm market. The era was marked by a dramatic increase in demand for electricity. Modifications in the binder engine created what were then known as electric light plants, which the company sold to small electric companies and the government, as well as to individual farmers. By 1918, sales rose to $1.5 million. The company expanded its operation by opening a Canadian branch in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The end of the war nearly marked the end of Cushman. Demand for military engines dried up. A farm depression in the early 1920s affected U.S. and Canadian farmers, halting sales of engines for agricultural applications

Innovation

As early as 1922, the firm developed a two-cycle, air-cooled engine for washing machines, small pumps, and lawn mowers. It proved impractical and eventually was replaced by a similar four-cycle air-cooled engine, the Cushman "Husky." First used on the Bob-A-Lawn lawnmowers, the engine became a company standby.

Even at that point, [Sawyer] was continuing to introduce a new engine every year or so. And in 1926 he rolled out a lawnmower called the Bob-A-Lawn. Again, the genius in that was that Mr. Sawyer was recognizing that the company was an engine manufacturer and an engine builder. And things such as the Bob-A-Lawn lawnmower were merely platforms on which to sell engines. --Ron Anderson

 Bob-A-Lawn lawnmower
The Bob-A-Lawn lawnmower.
 Bob-A-Lawn lawnmower
An undated ad for the Bob-A-Lawn lawnmower.
 letterhead
Cushman Motor Works, Inc., letterhead, 1919.

 washing machine
Cushman engine mounted on a washing machine.
 saw
15 h.p. Cushman engine mounted on a saw, 1920.
 power sprayer
Cushman engine mounted on a power sprayer, 1910s.

The End of an Era

But Sawyer's salesmanship wasn't enough to get the company back on its feet. Everett Cushman left in 1919. He and his son, Clifford Eugene Cushman eventually started the Cushman Engineering Company in Riverside, California. Everett Sawyer, whose name was never linked to the products of the company he rescued from financial disaster, was forced out by creditors in 1927. He moved to California, raised sheep, grew oranges, and worked as a marine electrician in shipyards during World War II. After Sawyer left, a management firm controlled by outside creditors took control of the once booming Cushman Motor Company. Clinton Cushman's fate is unknown.

Everett Cushman
Everett Cushman ca. 1950.

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Last updated 16 June 2004  

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