The Mercury Marine Museum has opened in Fond du Lac, Wis., a kick-off to the company’s celebration of the 75th anniversary of the founding of Kiekhaefer Mercury. Located in a wing of the Fond du Lac Children’s Museum in downtown “Fondy,” the 5,000-square-foot space, which opened on April 3, offers a great display of professionally presented artifacts from the well-stocked Mercury Marine archives. The first item on display is a 1939 Thor 6-horsepower triple-cylinder outboard, serial number 18, one of Carl Kiekhaefer’s first products.
The Accidental Outboard
Carl Kiekhaefer got into the outboard motor business almost by accident. When he heard in 1938 that the Cedarburg Manufacturing Company plant in his home town of Cedarburg, Wis., was about to close, it seemed like a good opportunity to Kiekhaefer. Raised on a local farm and now a young electrical engineer, Kiekhaefer planned to buy the building and start his own business manufacturing magnetic separators for the dairy industry. He later discovered about 300 Thor outboard motors had been left behind in their crates.
Introduced in 1935 by Cedarburg Manufacturing, the Thor motors were a low-cost design and the outboards left in the plant had the Sea King brand, built under a contract with Montgomery Ward. The motors ran poorly, however, and Ward cancelled the contract. Kiekhaefer planned to sell the motors for scrap, but one day revised the carburetor on a single Sea King and discovered that thus modified, the motor ran well. Ward was persuaded to take the modified inventory, and Kiekhaefer was happy to pocket some cash for his business start-up. But soon the mail-order retailer was on the phone, requesting more outboards. The first batch had sold out quickly. The old Thor tooling was still in the plant, and Kiekhaefer and his crew fired up the assembly line. Kiekhaefer made a few updates to the design, and printed a brochure offering thre Thor. Meanwhile Kiekhaefer and his engineers were busy designing an all-new outboard, and the first Mercury motors – two three-hp singles and a six-hp twin – that debuted at the 1940 New York Boat Show. Kiekhaefer left with 16,000 orders.
The rest is, of course, history and it’s all on display in the Mercury Museum. In addition to marine engines, the Mercury Museum displays include water pumps, chain saws and aerial drones manufactured by Kiekhaefer Mercury during World War II, a prototype Kiekhaefer lawn mower, a Mercury Sno-Twister snowmobile, a race boat, and even the moped founder Carl Kiekhaefer used to prowl around the company facilities. There are many other artifacts on hand, plus video displays with historic footage. Here’s a video from inside the museum:
The Mercury Marine Museum is located in the Fond du Lac Children’s Museum, 75 W. Scott St., Fond du Lac, Wis. Admission is $1.00, and all proceeds go to charity. The museum is open Wednesday and Thursday 9-5; Friday 9-7; and Saturday and Sunday 10-4.
To see lots of cool Mercury history, visit the Mercury Marine 75th anniversary site.