Beach Hill Road, New Ashford, Massachusetts 01237
Pictured is a company advertising poster, an early example of dual advertising for both the hotel and farm machines. Note the lumber being air dried.
The A. W. Gray and Sons, Inc., of Middletown Springs, Vermont, although small by today's standards, was one of the early reputable farm machinery manufacturing companies. It was a family owned and operated company founded in 1844 by Alfred W. Gray, an inventive native Vermonter who built a small shop to manufacture corn shelters and treadmill type horse powers. He already held patents on the two machines (1836 and 1844) for he was one of the many inventors who were working on farm machinery at that time. The basic patents on the mowing machine, the reaper, the threshing machine, even improvements on the plow relate to this period between the War of 1812 and the Civil War for agriculture was advancing from planting and cultivating by hand on stump studded land to larger and larger fields on larger and larger farms. The western settlers were moving always further west while the eastern cities were growing leading to a demand for agriculture products and in turn to a demand for new and better farm machinery. Accordingly, the Gray corn shelters, although operated by hand crank, were a big improvement over shelling by twisting between the hands or rubbing over the edge of a board or plank. Also the horse powers made in one, two or three sizes were ideal as power for drag saws, the new circular cordwood saws and the recently patented threshing machine, also as belt power for equipment in small shops. Gray powered his first shop with one of his own horse powers. The first two products were soon followed by a threshing machine. It did not have a separator. The straw had to be removed by hand forking, and the chaff and dirt by winnowing the age-old way on a windy day, or putting it through a fanning mill invented in 1790 often mistakenly called a windmill.
The first small shop was soon replaced by a larger shop or factory operated by water power probably with a horse power as stand-by power and the oldest son soon followed by another son were taken into the company and the name changed to A. W. Gray and Sons. It was decided about 1857 to go in heavy for threshing machines complete with separator and all up-to-date improvements. While the demand for horsepower continued strong, all the New England states had forest covered land. Lumber and cordwood and fire or stove wood were marketable products. For many years the seaboard cities had coal brought in by coastal schooners; however, inland towns and cities depended on wood for heating. They did not have coal until after 1870, so every wood lot owner bought a horsepower to power drag or cordwood saws. Also many small water powered mills bought horsepowers as emergency or standby power. With the exception of a few large commercial water power developments on the larger rivers, the average water power was too small. It was always a case of too much or not enough. About midwinter they froze up, then the spring run-offs were too much, then summer drought had its effect. At the same time the sales of threshing machines was increasing and spreading throughout the west leading to the sale of more horsepowers and to further expansion. The new larger factory was now operated by steam and employed up to 100 men. Additional items were added to the so-called company line or as they named it the 'Gray Line' now included farm equipment from plows to cotton gins. All the equipment was well built out of well seasoned select grade lumber and the best of metal castings. Although these were made by the Ruggles Foundry in Poultney, Vermont, they were personally supervised by a Gray, first father and later a son, and as time went on the foundry was acquired by the Grays. Poultney is about 8 miles from Middletown Springs, also the railhead or shipping point for all the finished machines. This required a large number of horse teams hauling equipment to be out loaded and bring castings back. Actually parts of most machines passed over this same route twice. The ever increasing demand for threshing machines and other implement lead to agencies as far west as Arizona and New Mexico. Machines were sold in all the European countries and Russia with a few to South America.
Paralleling this expansion period, the Grays became involved in a Spa-type resort hotel business (note the hotel in background of advertisement). In 1870 a spring flood uncovered a mineral spring on the Gray property whose waters had medicinal qualities. It seems the Indians knew and used this spring until a previous flood covered it over, then the later flood re-opened it. At the time when springs or spas of this type were fashionable, a company was formed for bottling the water and a hotel built for the vacation at a mineral spring or spa-type trade. This was a boon to Middletown Springs, in the number employed by the hotel and the demand for fresh meats, vegetables and fruits for this high class trade; however, the fad ran its course and the hotel was dismantled in 1900.
About this time the Grays acquired the previously mentioned Ruggles Foundry. Along with this acquisition came all the patterns and rights to the Ruggles gas engine and the company now added the then so-called 'new fangled gas engine' to its line. This explains why the two engines are identical except for name.
A silo filling crew, about 1910, a Gray 2 HP Ohio ensilage cutter it looks like they are waiting for someone to bring the belt and a load of corn. Advertisement on barn is for Story-Clark organs.
The last of the 19th and the early years of the 20th centuries produced many changes in the farm machinery manufacturing industry. Perhaps the Gray Company did not heed the words of Horace Greeley who served a printing apprenticeship in Poultney, Vermont. The western manufacturers were expanding, J. I. Case, who set out and did become the threshing machine King, Cyrus McCormack and his International Company and John Deere who came from Rutland, Vermont, twenty miles from Middletown Springs, had become so big, the small eastern farm machinery manufacturers could not compete. They either went out of business or were bought in by the larger manufacturers. So in 1917, A. W. Gray and Sons closed up shop. It appears it was not a financial failure. It was a family made decision that closed down this family-owned and operated business.
Why research this old company? A couple of years ago I acquired a Gray threshing machine. It was used by one owner and always kept under cover. After a thorough cleaning and a coat of linseed oil, the original red color, (more on color later), and striping reappeared. At our annual show in 1977 and '78 we put both rye and wheat through with good results. Also to my surprise, while visiting the Jensen Historical Farm and Museum operated by the Utah State University at Logan, Utah, (a visit is highly recommended). I saw a perfectly restored, as called in the west, separator made by A. W. Gray & Sons, Middletown, Vermont, on exhibit in the museum. As this town is about 70 miles from home, I decided then and there to dig into the background of the company.
Unless one has access to original records this is difficult. One has to rely on old catalogs, local historical records or hearsay. The Poultney Historical Society had on hand catalogs and related information for both the Ruggles Foundry and the Gray Company, a patent model of the horsepower along with an old original Gray horsepower. Everyone there was most helpful.
Then I was most fortunate in that I located and interviewed two young senior citizens. I say young as a compliment, meaning amazingly active and very keen-minded. Mr. James Matthews, 84, actually worked for the Grays starting as a young teenager and up to the time the plant closed. He hauled many loads of implements winter and summer up to the railroad and brought castings back. In the winter hauling with sleighs was easier on the horses. At peak shipping periods it was a continued round of teams coming and going. Part of a town road was relocated to eliminate a hill thus making it easier on the horses and one thing neither one of the Gray Brothers would tolerate was the mis-use or abuse of a horse.
The Grays worked on the floor right along with the men and would help the families during periods of sickness, injuries, etc. They also helped in providing recreation for the entire town. Everyone, worker and townspeople alike, respected the Grays, elected them to local office and elected one to the state legislature.
In reference to color, Mr. Matthews stated between 1898 and 1900 the company dark blue for all the machines changed to dark red. This is one way of dating the implements. He also recalled that for several years a man with one arm striped and decorated all machines and could complete a machine in an amazingly short time.
The pay scale was 15 to 25 cents per hour for a 10 hour, 6 day week; many workers bought or built homes in town and raised families on these wages.
Mrs. Katherine Kelly, another active senior citizen, did not work at the factory, but had relatives and friends who did. Again she stated employee and townspeople respected the Grays and that labor problems if any were minor. She has a collection of old photos and graciously loaned me the pictures for this article. It was a pleasure to visit with Mrs. Kelly and Mr. Matthews and the several trips to the area proved most interesting and rewarding.