History of the Gilson Brand
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The Gilson story as I understand it is an interesting one. It's one that I have found full of surprises. Every time I thought it would be a straight shot to the 1980's it took another turn. The story as outlined here is based on a number of sources that have contacted me and shared what they knew. The sources include members of the family, employees, local residents and a historian who took an interest in the family. It also cross checks with a number of related online sources.

The story seems to begin in 1855 when Theodore Gilson came to Milwaukee and soon settled in Port Washington Wisconsin. He founded Gilson Manufacturing. There was no mass fabrication of parts as we know it today. The only real machining that could be found was at the gunsmiths shop. If you needed any kind of shape to the metal part you needed, it was made from cast iron, such as cast iron pots and pans. The products that Gilson was known to have made from 1855 until 1900 included heating stoves/furnaces, farm plows, other various and non-descript farm implements, cooking utensils, and closer to 1900 "chair irons". The swivel and movable backrest on your office chair was originally patented by Gilson! Theodore was succeeded in this business by his son John and grandson John E. During this period around 1898 Harry Bolens joined the company. This marked the period during which the Gilson Gasoline engines were developed. By 1911 there was a Gilson Manufacturing facility in Guelph, Ontario (Gilson Mfg Ltd) producing engines.

A Gilson gasoline engine add.

A Gilson gasoline engine manual cover.

In 1914 the Gilson family owned companies with locations in Port Washington and Guelph were sold.

The Port Washington, Wisconsin operation was sold to Harry Bolens and initially continued operations as Gilson Manufacturing, then as Gilson-Bolens Manufacturing. By about 1940 it was Bolens Manufacturing.

An early Bolens add from Gilson Manufacturing.

Gilson Mfg Ltd in Guelph, Ontario went on to produce major Kitchen appliance such as ovens stoves and refrigerators and other metal items such as chairs.

washing machine
A Gilson Snowbird washing machine add from Gilson Manufacturing Company Limited of Guelph Ontario Canada.

Now at this point John & John E. Gilson mentioned above established the JE Gilson Foundry and produced hand tools along with grey and ductile iron castings for industry. This business continued into the early 1960s. The foundry was consumed by fire one night and never rebuilt.

What looks like an ashtray form the JE Gilson Foundry.

JE Gilson garden tool catalog.

By now you may have seen the path to the snowblowers, tractors, tillers and other implements this site is about but the trail once again has gone cold.
Meanwhile somewhere around 1909 two Gilson brothers arrived from Luxembourg Germany they were Philip and John (yes this is the third John). They started out in this country working at Gilson Manufacturing for a few years. In 1911 the brothers moved down the road to Fredonia, Wisconsin and founded Gilson Brothers Manufacturing. They were also in the foundry business but did manufacture some products such as cement mixers, which are still being produced today, but more on that latter. The early years of the company also saw them producing silo fillers and other farm machinery.

Cover of a Gilson Brothers implement catalog.
Page of a Gilson Brothers implement catalog. This may not be from the catalog of the cover shown above.

We're not sure what went on with the company until we pick up the story around 1955. A son-in-law of John (from Luxembourg I assume) Gilson was controlling the company and it was under his direction that they moved toward the consumer outdoor power equipment market. It's still unclear to me what the earliest products were. I have seen a number of surviving machines such as tractors, snowblowers and tillers from the mid 60s and my achives point to the roto-tillers. It was in the mid 1960s that a large factory was built in Plymouth, Wisconsin, this led to the closing of the Fredonia location. Eventually the Gilson family was out of the picture but the brand name was retained.

An early Gilson Brother tiller brochure cover, believed to date back to the 1950s.

In my opinion by the 1970's Gilson Brothers Company was producing outdoor power equipment with the best of them. The machines frequently featured robust cast iron components no doubt a hallmark extending back through the generations. The company seemed to be innovative with products such as the UniTrol snowblower transmission and the 1972 "Super-8" lawn tractor. The Super-8 is a machine that stands out in my mind to this day for it's progressive styling.

The Gilson Super-8 lawn tractor, circa 1973

Like many companies Gilson did what it could to diversify by building items that helped utilize their talents and facilities. The mini-bikes barbecue grills and snowmobile shown below were made and sold. To this day they surface occasionaly on Ebay. Snowmobile buffs can see many examples here.

Gilson Brothers mini-bike.

These grills were no doubt another way to keep the foundry busy.

Gilson Brothers snowmobile.

In 1988 LawnBoy acquired Gilson to compliment their walk behind mowers. The following year in 1989 Toro acquired LawnBoy. The LawnBoy division of The Toro Company continues to make Gilson repair parts available through the LawnBoy dealer network.

But the story doesn't end entirely at this point. One long time Gilson Brothers product line was cement and mortar mixers. While LawnBoy wanted all the lawn and garden equipment the mixer line was sold to Cleform of Missouri and later transferred to Marshalltown. These continue to be made and sold under the Gilson name.

Gilson Brothers cement mixer

Gilson Brothers mortar mixer

Gilson/Cleform mixer.

So that's the story as we understand it. If you happen to hold any other pieces of the puzzle I'd be pleased to hear from you.

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Created October 2003 **** September 20, 2021