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History of K.O. Lee (Part One)

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“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history”

–Aldous Huxley

Knute Oscar “K.O.” Lee was born February 22, 1862 on a small farm near Blue Mounds, Wisconsin. Like many men of his day, he trekked west in search of opportunity and landed in Edmunds County, South Dakota, where he claimed a quarter of land south of Ipswich.  In 1887, Lee moved to Aberdeen and married. He also founded his own farm machinery sales business.

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View of Main Street in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Courtesy of CardCow.com

 

Lee was nomadic but fruitful in the early days of his fledging venture. He moved many times, but always increased the size of each building he inhabited as his business grew. In 1915 K.O. Lee joined forces with his son Clifford Carl “C.C.” Lee who became a partner in the business.

In 1916, the business adjusted to the technological realities of the times and discontinued the sale of steam engines. Lee and his son focused on gasoline tractors, threshing machines and plows.

In 1922, a German immigrant machinist-engineer named Theodore Purnis joined the team and became a vital source of innovation. Purnis initially trained the machinists who repaired the engines of tractors and automobiles that the company was selling. During the twenties, Purnis invented several small grinding machines and tools to assist in engine rebuilding. In 1926, Purnis was named co-inventor of a valve seat insert ring that was used in the repair of automobile and tractor engines.

This invention was critical in the transformation of the early K.O. Lee venture from a repair facility into a bona fide manufacturing firm. The manufacturing aspect of the K.O. Lee Lee & Son Company, however, was still small in comparison to its repair work and its entry into the binder twine market.

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Binder twine float at the North Dakota Penitentiary, Bismarck, North Dakota. Courtesy of State Historical Society of North Dakota.

 

This twine was used in binders that tied grain into shocks. The twine was imported from Europe where it was produced in England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. The twine was then imported to Duluth, Minnesota where it was eventually distributed to Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.

Knute Oscar Lee died in 1934 and his son C.C. took over the direction of the twine and repair business. In 1939, World War II erupted and the supply lines of the twine business were severed. K.O. Lee & Son focused its energies on the tool manufacturing business that was thriving.

In 1941, the city of Aberdeen opened a new industrial park and built a 35,000 square foot factory and office featuring an innovative saw tooth roof design that provided maximum light and ventilation and eliminated direct sunlight. The K.O. Lee & Son Company moved into its new space and began an exciting growth period by rechristening itself as the K.O. Lee Company.

If you’re interested in new LeBlond or K.O. Lee machines or require original OEM parts for your LeBlond, K.O. Lee, Standard Modern, Johnson Press, Deka Drill and W.F. & John Barnes equipment, call LeBlond Ltd. at (888) 532-5663.

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