Robert Avery and Avery Co.

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Robert Avery in his mid-40s.
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An 1880s trade card from the Avery Planter Co.
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The Avery “Bulldog Line” logo.
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The 1870 patent drawing for Robert Avery’s cultivator.
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The Avery corn planter of 1878.
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 Sam Moore

There have been two farm implement companies named Avery. One, the B.F. Avery Co., was located in Louisville, Ky., and was absorbed by Minneapolis-Moline in 1951. The other firm, the Avery Co. of Peoria, Ill., is the subject of this column.

Robert Hanneman Avery was born on Jan. 17, 1840, on his father’s recently cleared farm near Galesburg, Ill. The boy helped with farm work while attending “common school” and then the Knox Academy in Galesburg. There were several small factories and a foundry in town, and Avery’s great-uncle was a tinkerer and inventor, so the youth was probably exposed to things mechanical from an early age.

Avery taught school for a year or two and then, on Aug. 15, 1862, enlisted in the Union Army. Two years later, Sgt. Robert Avery was captured at Cedar Point, Ala., during the battle of Mobile Bay. He was held as a prisoner of war for more than eight months, with most of that time spent at Andersonville, a hellish prison camp in Georgia. Some 13,000 Union prisoners died at Andersonville from starvation, disease and exposure. Determined to survive, Robert Avery took every precaution he could to stay healthy. Fighting to keep his mind active and his hopes alive, he spent most of his time thinking about farm tools and implements. According to legend, Avery designed a 1-row cultivator in his mind. He scratched out plans for the implement in the bare earth of the prison enclosure and constructed a model of the machine from scraps of wood.

Finally released from Andersonville prison and discharged from the Army, Avery (described then as a “poor gaunt skeleton”) went home to recuperate. After a bout of typhoid fever almost finished the job begun at Andersonville, Avery finally recovered enough to begin helping his brother on his farm. Later he rented his own farm and married in January 1867.

It appears that Avery farmed and worked at a machine shop in Galesburg, while spending his spare time perfecting the cultivator he’d dreamed up while imprisoned. In 1868 or early 1869, Avery sold a piece of property and borrowed money to raise capital, while forming a partnership with his younger brother, Cyrus, to manufacture the machine, which was patented in 1870. Unfortunately, nobody cared. As hiss daughter Sadie wrote later: “At last the machine was ready, but the market did not respond.” Broke and in debt, Robert Avery moved to Kansas, where he farmed and tinkered with a new stalk cutter. By 1872, he was back in Galesburg and he and Cyrus began to manufacture a spiral knife stalk cutter.

A year later he faced another economic crisis. The financial panic of 1873 was the worst in U.S. history up to that time. The Averys survived by giving the successful Brown Corn Planter Works in Galesburg the rights to make the stalk cutter. In turn, Avery was paid a royalty on each machine sold. An account written for the U.S. centennial celebration in 1876 noted that Brown built 1,442 Avery spiral stalk cutters during the preceding year.

By 1876, Avery had repaid his debts and begun work on a corn planter, which he patented in January 1878. He and Cyrus bought into the Frost Mfg. Co., an established Galesburg foundry where the Avery corn planter, cultivator and stalk cutter were built. Demand for the machines was strong, but the Frost works was located some distance from the railroad. Everything shipped in or out of the factory had to be hauled by wagon between the railroad and the factory.

Apparently no suitable location on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (which ran through Galesburg) could be located. So, in 1882, the Averys bought 15 acres in Peoria and built a $100,000 factory made of brick. Operations began there on New Year’s Day in 1883 with 250 employees and an output of 200 machines per day. The factory was a modern one, with “(a) fine 35 hp (steam) engine,” and electric lights.

By 1892, the Avery works was making many farm implements, including threshers and steam traction engines, and the Avery brothers were wealthy. An article in the Los Angeles Express reporting Robert Avery’s death said he’d earned $45,000 (approximately $1 million in today’s dollars) the previous year.

Around his 52nd birthday in 1892, Robert Avery fell ill. On his recovery, he took his family on a long-anticipated tour of the western United States. A private Pullman railroad car was chartered to accommodate the 20 family members scheduled to go on the journey. Leaving Galesburg on Aug. 25, 1892, the Avery party visited Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak and Great Salt Lake. At Salt Lake City, Avery again fell ill but insisted on continuing to Los Angeles, where he suffered a heart attack and died on Sept. 14.

Cyrus Avery then assumed the presidency of the newly renamed Avery Mfg. Co., which he ran quite successfully. The Threshermen’s Review reported that Avery did $1.25 million in business in 1900, while building one Avery Yellow Fellow or Yellow Kid thresher every two hours, and one steam traction engine every five hours. Cyrus Avery died in 1905 and leadership of the company passed to John B. Bartholomew, Avery’s brother-in-law. J.B., as he was known, had started working for the firm at age 15 and had been vice president since 1893.

Bartholomew took the Avery company into the 20th century and its greatest period of expansion. More on that next month: A History of Avery Tractor Development. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net

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