CEDAR RAPIDS — Agricultural implement maker Stoddard Manufacturing of Dayton, Ohio, wanted to build a distribution facility on the west side of town in 1895. The Cedar Rapids City Council approved the request and granted the company a property tax exemption for five years.
At about the same time, a Thor, Iowa, man, John J. Tokheim, was learning mechanics.
Tokheim was born in Odda, Norway, and came to Thor when he was 16. He decided to take a six-month job at a Chicago factory as a tinner.
When he came home, Tokheim brought his new wife, the former Senva Eide, and a plan for his own combined tin shop, machine shop and hardware store. He devised an underground system for distributing gasoline with a self-priming pump and built his business around his invention. He and Senva also expanded their family to include daughter Agnes, born in Thor in 1896.
By 1900, Stoddard’s business interests had moved elsewhere and its building in Cedar Rapids sat empty. The city council decided that Stoddard hadn’t fulfilled its contract and demanded back payment of taxes. That decision was reversed a year later, but the property was still ordered back on the tax rolls.
Tokheim, meanwhile, was looking for a place to manufacture his pumps, as well as investors to get his business off the ground. Cedar Rapids, specifically Stoddard’s unused plant at 815 North First Street West, became his focus.
Tokheim Measuring Oil Pump Co. officially took up residence in the former Stoddard building in June 1901, but Tokheim was bumped to plant manager. Two of his investors, E.O. Mansfield and C.G. Wright, took over the positions of president and secretary/treasurer of the firm.
Tokheim regained the top job at his company the following year. The company incorporated in 1904 with William Dutton as secretary/treasurer. Dutton was the brother of Mahala Dutton Douglas, the wife of Walter D. Douglas, who died when the Titanic sank in 1912.
In 1911, Dutton became president of the company. Tokheim was forced out, losing some of his patents and the name of his company.
Tokheim immediately began a new firm in 1911, the Vac Liquid Equipment Co., at 1123 C Ave NW. Learning from experience, Tokheim allowed only family members to be stockholders and owners of Vac Liquid. Both companies exhibited in the Grocers Convention in Cedar Rapids that year.
Using new patents and the few he had left, Tokheim built the company to provide vacuum pumps and air compressors for garages, and equipment for gasoline filling stations and dry cleaners.
A new machine for private garage owners, different from anything else that had been manufactured, was presented by Vac Liquid Equipment Co. at the 1913 Automobile Show. The pump invented by Tokheim allowed no gasoline to be taken from a tank without a record being made. Tokheim’s Vac Extractor, which removed water and sediment from the bottom of gas and oil storage tanks, is still in use.
On Dec. 10, 1915, the original Tokheim Manufacturing Company of Iowa was dissolved by unanimous vote of its stockholders. The company was sold to a group of capitalists in Fort Wayne, Ind., in June 1918. The Cedar Rapids plant continued to operate until a new plant opened in Fort Wayne, where Dutton became a director and stockholder.
With the original company dissolved, Tokheim regained the right to use his own name and renamed the Vac Liquid Equipment Co. to the Tokheim Co. He continued inventing and patenting his inventions until his death in 1941.
While Senva remained on the board until her death in 1960, Agnes took over as president of the company, leading it until her death in April 1994. She willed the 90-year-old Tokheim building and property on C Avenue NW to the city to be developed into Tokheim Park. The city was in the process of tearing the factory down when a worker’s cutting torch set the structure on fire. No one was injured.
The Tokheim business was sold to Barnes Manufacturing of Marion. Owner Tom Barnes operates Tokheim as a division of his company.
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The Fort Wayne Tokheim Corp. closed in 2006 when it filed for bankruptcy and was sold to competitor Dresser Wayne.
A gift from Agnes in 1992 to Ushers Ferry Historic Village made possible a $50,000 24-by-40-foot building to house Tokheim memorabilia. The village’s only new building opened in 1993. It included family photos, original plans for Tokheim’s pumps, equipment from the factory as well as some of the antique pumps.
The Flood of 2008 inundated 34 of the 36 buildings in the village at Ushers Ferry. By 2014, only 20 buildings were salvaged. The Tokheim building, along with many of the artifacts it contained, was not one of them.