“If you can succeed in introducing your plow, you will have fortune enough, but I don’t believe you can!”
That’s what B.F. Avery was once told about his plow-manufacturing venture. He would come to disprove the statement.
Understanding how this one plow company came into being can help a collector know and appreciate the state of the nation during the Agricultural Revolution, and how it has changed. In their day, plows were a means to more efficient production in an environment where farming was key to the nation’s economic infrastructure.
Entrepreneurs of yesteryear carved a niche for themselves in the development and production of farm equipment. Such equipment created prosperous enterprises that capitalized on the newfound enthusiasm for tillage of the land. One such entrepreneur was B.F. Avery, the founder of one of the largest plow factories in the world.
The sixth of 15 children in his family, Benjamin Franklin Avery had access to both a formal education and full exposure to farm-work on land owned by his father, a member of Congress and large landholder in Aurora, N.Y.
Such labor, however, was distasteful to Benjamin, who begged permission to go to college. His petition was granted, on condition that his expenses be deducted from the $1,000 which would be given him on his coming of age, as was his father’s custom. He accepted the condition and enrolled at Hamilton College, but at the end of his first year, transferred to Union College, where he earned a degree in 1822. At his father’s suggestion, he studied law, and was admitted to the bar in New York City.
Avery’s mechanical inclinations and a curiosity about technology, however, soon pushed legal pursuits aside. His early farm experience convinced him that there was room for improvement in form and general construction of the plows then in use. Equipped with patterns, a small, portable foundry and a stake of $400, he started his first business venture in Clarksville, Mecklenburg County, Va. Joined by partner Caleb H. Richmond, a practical molder, Avery opened his first foundry in an 18’x20′ pine-log building, covered with slabs split from pine logs.
The fledgling business started with one ton of metal. Averse to debt and credit, the partners were industrious and enthusiastic, lived frugally, and soon began to see success. When their land lease was not renewed, they moved their operation to Milton, N.C. After cancellation of yet another lease, they moved to Meadville, Va., where they bought land. Avery was the business manager, dabbling in some of the hands-on work; Richmond operated the foundry.
In 1842, on the death of his father, Avery sold his Virginia property and business to a younger brother, and returned to Aurora to settle his father’s estate.
While there, he became acquainted with a nephew, Daniel Humphrey Avery. Impressed by the young man’s interest and aptitude, he returned to plow manufacturing. In 1846, B.F. Avery sent his nephew off with plow patterns and an open commission to select the best location in the south or southwest for plow manufacturing.
Showing good judgment, the young man selected Louisville, Ky., as the site for the new venture. The next spring, the business opened at Jabez Baldwin’s foundry on Main Street in Louisville. Daniel Avery established the business while his uncle remained in the North.
Soon, however, he realized the need for his uncle’s experience, and urged Avery to make an extended visit. The elder Avery arrived in Louisville on Dec. 25, 1847, intending to stay only a few weeks. But as he immersed himself in the young company’s business, Benjamin Avery stayed on, at first just for the winters, but ultimately, permanently.
B.F. Avery was sure he could produce plows that were better made and less expensive than those in general use. But there was a resistance to cast iron plows, and sales were slow. For months, orders came so slowly that the sale of even a single plow was a major event. Friends offered little encouragement. “My friend,” wrote Jas. Hewitt of Rock Hill near Louisville, “if you can succeed in introducing your plow, you will have fortune enough, but I don’t believe you can!”
The Civil War presented further challenges to the struggling company. Long before the war, Avery had built a large factory in the heart of Louisville. Though his sympathies were with the Union, Avery’s plant was caught in the crosshairs of battle and destroyed. A more personal loss was the death of his nephew during the war years.
In 1863, Avery formed a new firm with his son and son-in-law as partners under the banner of B.F. Avery and Sons. The business grew and expanded until it became a leader in the west, with a large workforce and diversified lines of cast iron and steel plows. In addition, the firm published a highly regarded semimonthly newspaper, Home and Farm. The Avery Plow Works became the largest in the world, and Avery plows were sold in nearly every state in the country.
In 1951, the Avery company merged with Minneapolis-Moline. At that time, the two businesses complemented each other: While Avery was a leader in plow manufacture, Moline produced hay balers, cotton harvesters and mowers for forage harvesters. At one time, B.F. Avery had a workforce of 1,200 at the sprawling Louisville plant.
Production at the Louisville plant halted in 1955, and the property was sold. Though the company is no longer in existence, farm collectors will see Avery plows on auction blocks, in overgrown barnyards, and in the collections of many enthusiasts. They remain a symbol of the prosperity that agriculture once offered to both farmers, and the industrialists who produced farm equipment. FC
Jim Romeo is a freelance writer in Chesapeake, Va., not far from where the Avery company got its start. He may be contacted at 1008 Weeping Willow Drive, Chesapeake, VA 23322.