Robert Avery: Imprisoned Visionary

Confined in a military prison, Robert Avery kept his wits by designing farm equipment during the Civil War.
Bill Vossler
January 2003
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Union soldier Robert Avery of Galesburg, Ill., survived confinement in the infamous Confederate military prison at Andersonville, Ga., where 13,000 of his fellow prisoners died. One of the ways he kept his wits about him was by sketching a corn planter of his own design.

The detailed sketch of this planter eventually became the basis of the Avery Co. of Peoria, Ill, and half a century later, the firm was calling itself 'The Largest Tractor Company in the World,' employing 2,600 men and producing eight different tractors, as well as motor cultivators, trucks, combines and other farm machinery.

Robert Avery was released from Andersonville at the end of the Civil War, and he and his brother, Cyrus M. Avery, soon organized the R.H. and CM. Avery Co., in Galesburg. By 1874, they had perfected Robert's corn planter and were fully involved in the business of manufacturing that machine, and by 1878, according to a booklet in the Peoria, Ill., public library titled The Avery Farm Machinery Company, 'Their product had gained a high reputation among the farmers and was an acknowledged success.'

An Avery Six-Cylinder Model 'C' Tractor and 'Yellow-Baby' Thresher Makes an Ideal Small Threshing Outfit.

Avery Tractor Sizes

The Avery Co. manufactured a dozen different sizes of tractors in only 15 years' time. Here's the rundown:

5-10 18-36
8-16 20-35
12-20 25-50
12-25 40-65
14-28 45-65
15-30 40-80

Also: Model C Motor cultivator Nursery tractor Track Runner 15-25 Ro-Trak

By 1882, the Averys had moved their growing business to Peoria to take advantage of better shipping opportunities. They built a three-story plant and produced corn planters, check rowers, stalk cutters, cultivators and hand tools.

In 1891, they added steam traction engines and grain threshers to their product line, a combination that would make up the bulk of their business for the next three decades. As Jack Norbeck writes in his Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines, 'The Avery was a single cylinder, straight flue steam traction engine. Avery boilers were reinforced for carrying high pressures.'

Among others, Avery made 18-, 30-, 40-, 50- and 65-hp steam engines, under various company names. They also manufactured Corn King and Corn Queen cultivators, wagons, horse stalk cutters, separators and the Avery steel-mounted water tank.

Branch offices were established in Omaha, Neb.; Des Moines, Iowa; Kansas City, Mo.; Indianapolis; Minneapolis, and St. Louis, and Avery products were sold all over the world.

In 1892, the Averys promoted J.B. Bartholomew to vice president. He had started working for the Averys at age 15, knew every aspect of the business and was brilliant. He invented or improved nearly every product made by the firm; among company records are three large volumes of letters on patents for farm machinery that were issued to him. One of Bartholomew's best inventions before 1910 was the Avery Undermounted Steam Engine, which became a huge financial success and which markedly strengthened Avery's position in the marketplace.

In 1900, the company incorporated as 'Avery Manufacturing Co.'; in 1902, Avery purchased the Hannah Wagon Co., and in 1907, it changed its name again, to 'The Avery Company.'

In 1909, the company began manufacturing gasoline tractors and quickly gained a reputation for producing huge tractors - earned only partly by the monstrous 40-hp Avery steam traction engines, which weighed 25 tons each. Avery's first tractor, a 60-hp model with a 12- by 18-inch bore and stroke, also was huge, especially up against its competition of the day. This included the 15-30 Model O Quincy tractor, made in 1911; the Fairbanks-Morse 15-25 of the same year and the 20-hp IHC Mogul of 1909.

This first big Avery tractor didn't work well, though, and it was withdrawn from manufacture in the midst of competition at the 1910 Winnipeg Tractor Demonstration.

The Winnipeg setback didn't stop the Averys, though. A year later, they produced a smaller tractor that had a square radiator in the front, much like the Rumely OilPulls. It was called a 20-35 and had a two-cylinder engine with a 7 3/4- by 8-inch bore and stroke.

In 1912, Farm Implements magazine reported the company 'announced the completion of the designing and testing out of the New Avery gasoline traction engine, and are now ready to place this engine on the market. It is new in the sense that it is now offered for sale to the general public for the first time, but not new in the sense that it has only recently been designed. Four of the engines have been built. One has been used during the past season by one of the state agricultural colleges, and another has plowed over 600 acres this season. The tests have been very thorough and this engine is not offered as an experiment, but as an already proven success.'

From that point on, Avery committed itself to gas tractor manufacturing, and the next model had the tubular radiators that came to typify early Avery tractors. But the company did not manufacture a really small tractor until 1916 - when Henry Ford announced he would introduce a small tractor, the Fordson, and other tractor makers, including Avery, jumped to compete.

Avery's answer to the Fordson was the Avery 5-10. Initially priced at $295, but soon raised to $365, this tractor had a seat positioned between the front and rear wheels much like the autoplows of the day. Other small Averys of this era included the 8-16, which weighed less than 5,000 pounds; the 12-20, which weighed 5,500 pounds, and the 14-28, which weighed 7,540 pounds.

According to The Avery Co. booklet, employees were able to maintain a 'high degree of efficiency' because in 1912, the firm had established a dispensary staffed by two doctors for five hours each day. About the same time, Avery also started its own insurance company.

In 1917, the firm bought the land on which the Kingman Plow Co. had been located, as well as the Davis Manufacturing Co., which built gasoline engines. By 1920, Avery employed 2,600 men and produced eight different models of tractors. Unfortunately, the varied offering proved to be too large when the agricultural depression of the early 1920s struck. Avery's product line required the maintenance of large, expensive inventories, and that caused cash-flow problems when farmers who purchased Avery machinery through the company's liberal credit policy could not pay their bills.

In response to the cash-flow situation, the company cut its Peoria work force by 90 percent - to 250 workers - in August 1920. And in 1922, it updated the look of its tractor with the model 15-30; the hallmark tubular radiator was replaced with a cellular style, which had greater cooling capacity, and the tractor had more of a Fordson look. But it was too little, too late. Four years later, with business still insufficient to pay the bills, the company was forced into bankruptcy.

Reorganized in 1925 as the Avery Power Machine Co., it concentrated on making threshers and combines, but went out of business again in 1932, during the height of the Great Depression.

At the end of 1936, the company was restarted as the Avery Farm Machinery Co., manufacturing mainly combines, separators and guaranteed cylinder teeth, and in 1938, it produced the last Avery tractor - and the first in a dozen years. It was called the Avery Ro-Trak tractor, but World War II interrupted production again, and the company closed its doors forever. FC

- Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369; (320) 253-5414; e-mail: bvossler@juno.com

Avery tractor-trucks lasted only a decade

In 1910, the Avery Co. began building agricultural trucks. Their first was called the tractor-truck, 'for city, town, and country hauling,' according to the advertisements, which suggested the farmer use it to haul grain, hay, livestock and other loads, as well as pull plows, harrows, discs, binders, road graders and other farm machinery, or loaded wagons.

This was a 1-ton model with a four-cylinder engine, open cab and chain drive. It had a 9 1/2-inch-thick shell on a brass radiator, another 3 inches of radiator under the hood, four individual cylinder blocks, dual rear chain drive, and exterior brake and gearshift levers.

The lamps were made entirely of brass on this tractor-truck, which had right-hand drive and bucket seats, like those on a fire engine. The product's most unique feature, though, was its wheels, which had wooden spokes and felloes, and steel tires 1 1/2 inches thick by 5 inches wide.

They were purchased for a wide variety of purposes, including hauling pineapples in Hawaii, according to a 1980 story in Antique Automobile magazine. According to that story, a 1912 Avery truck was used on the Hawaiian island of Lanai to haul pineapples and supplies until about 1917, when it had an unfortunate change of status: 'In about that year, the vehicle was on its way to meet an incoming supply barge, when the mighty four-cylinder engine abruptly stopped. The truck was pushed to the side of the road and a mechanic was summoned. The trouble was diagnosed as being in the magneto. This was removed and shipped to California for repair. It was never returned. Then, with newer trucks coming into use, the Avery remained abandoned on the road and virtually forgotten.

'In time the road itself was bypassed when a new blacktop road was cut through about 300 yards to the side. The Avery truck could still be seen from the paved road. ... It remained intact until World War II, when brass strippers removed the huge radiator to sell for scrap. In time, someone also removed the engine; next one of the front wheels disappeared, and then the other.' The truck, according to the story, finally was rescued and restored in 1976.

In 1912, Avery built 2- and 3-ton trucks with solid rubber tires. C-cabs were made a year later, and in 1917, the cab-over-engine design with enclosed chain drive predominated. By 1921, Avery trucks were conventional in style, but the new six-cylinder introduced that year didn't last long because by 1926, the company was in bankruptcy.

Company ahead of its time

The Avery Co., almost from the beginning, invented machines that were ahead of their time. In 1894, for starters, they introduced their mechanical corn picker, which agricultural historian Jack Norbeck says 'was so different and unusual that at the time farmers wouldn't buy it because it would put too many people out of work.'

In 1909, Avery introduced the Farm and City Tractor, perhaps the earliest 'combination' machine on the market. It looked like a truck and was designed to work in the fields and around the farm, pulling plows, carrying loads and to carry people into town. For traction, the F&CT had round wooden plugs in the wheels, replaced as necessary as they wore down. Later, the company added solid rubber tires; the trucks came in 2-, 3-, and 5-ton capacities.

As Farm Implements magazine wrote that year, 'This new and very interesting machine is the result of over two years and a half of study and experiment. One of the tractors has been completed and is undergoing tests and trials of various sorts ... It will be as all previous products of the Avery Company have been, thoroughly test-ed-out and tried and known to be in every way up to the high standard of Avery machinery.'

One man said the truck ought to be called 'the hired man's friend,' but the designer was more inclined to suggest 'the horse's friend.'

The chassis would take either a truck or a tight box, a rack or any form of bed for hauling loads on the tractor itself, and would pull three or four 14-inch plows. The four-cylinder engine had a 4 3/4- by 5-inch bore and stroke, created 36 hp and was manufactured for five years, until 1914.

Another early Avery invention was removable sleeves for the pistons on the gas tractors. The company made history by being the first tractor manufacturer to use these, starting in 1916, and although other tractor manufacturers disapproved of the practice at the time, most eventually followed suit. Another interesting claim made in the firm's advertising was that Avery tractors didn't cause problems - because the company had eliminated all the parts that caused problems on other tractors.

In another marketing twist, the company offered a Bulldog watch fob to any person who would list the names and addresses of all the threshermen and plow-outfit owners thinking of buying an engine, separator or plow in their area.

The company was unusual in at least one other way: it offered the first farm toy ever manufactured as a favor: Miniature Avery tractors, 3 inches high and of cast iron, made by Hubley.


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