Martin Lewis was born in Iowa on May 26, 1885. Early in life, Martin began a career as a mechanical engineer. He moved to Southern California in the early twentieth century and acquired a job working for Dale Gentry of Gentry Ford in San Bernardino, California. It was here that Martin and Dale Gentry invented the first V-8 engine. The engine was named the Gentry-Lewis Engine and was placed into a vehicle manufactured by Ford.
By the early 1930’s Martin had moved from San Bernardino to Wilmington, California where he began working for Harpur’s Marine Engines. It was during this period that he met his wife Irene. In 1938 Martin began a small business selling miniature live-steam engines. The company, which Martin named “Little Engines”, started as a catalog/mail-order business. By 1946, Martin and Irene needed more space to operate their growing business. They relocated to Lomita, California where they had enough room to build and run their live-steam engines. Little Engines had become a big success, but sadly in 1949 Martin passed away, leaving Irene to keep Little Engines in operation.
Irene Lewis was originally born under the name Edith Irene Ott in 1899. She was the oldest of eleven daughters of Frank and Grace Ott. After growing up and spending much of her youth in Oregon, Irene moved to Santa Barbara, California. After settling in Santa Barbara in 1929, Irene started working as a waitress. The owner of the restaurant where Irene had been working noticed her potential and paid for her to go to business school. As mentioned earlier, Irene and Martin Lewis married and moved to Lomita in 1946. Following Martin’s death in 1949, Irene continued operating Little Engines as her husband would have wished for.
As the years passed, Little Engines, now under the watchful eye of Irene, began to prosper. The Southern California Live Steamers, a miniature live-steam engine club, was established on the same premises as Little Engines. The club would hold meetings, socialize, and operate their own live-steam engines. The club would also occasionally give rides to friends and family members. The Southern California Live Steamers still operate and offer public rides; however, the club relocated to Wilson Park in nearby Torrance.
Under the management of Irene, Little Engines began to receive national recognition. Walt Disney’s interest in railroading and live-steam engines prompted him to befriend Irene.
The most famous local buyer from Little Engines was Walt Disney. A widely known train fan, Walt was a friend of both Martin and Irene. Irene was said to have been given a ticket to the grand opening of Disneyland.
A few of Irene’s steam engines went on to be featured in television programs and Hollywood films, such as, The King and I (1956). After settling down and accumulating enough profits from the sales of her miniature steam engines, Irene built a museum in honor of Martin Lewis and to celebrate the golden age of steam power.