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Avery Straight Flue Traction, discontinued 1917. Courtesy of Vic Wintermantel.
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The Avery Thresher
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Avery Return Flue Traction. Discontinued 1915. Courtesy of Vic Wintermantel
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Avery Cultivating Tractor

Caterpillar Tractor Company

REPRINT This paper was presented at a meeting of the Central Illinois Section of the Society of Automotive Engineers on December 17, 1951. Subject to revision. Permission to publish this paper, in full or in part, after its presentation and with credit to the author and the society, may be obtained upon request. The Society is not responsible for statements or opinions advanced in papers or discussions at its meetings.

(Mr. R. D. Yoder, of Yoder, Kansas, has gotten the permission for us to use this material and we give full credit to all concerned. Ed.)

We engineers are primarily concerned with current and future problems; however, an occasional look at history helps us to do a better job of evaluating the present and planning for the future. I think the Avery story will be interesting to you because the Avery Co. was Peoria’s largest manufacturing industry in the early ’20s and its demise presents a case for engineering, research and training programs.

The idea responsible for the founding of the Avery enterprise had its inception in the Andersonville Confederate Prison when a captive Union soldier named R. H. Avery spent his prison time sketching a design for a corn planter in the sand. At the close of the war Mr. Avery returned to his farm home in Kansas and by 1874 he had a full size working model of his corn planter built. The original planter is now in the Edison Institute Museum at Ford’s Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.

In 1877 R. H. Avery and his brother C. M. Avery established a company bearing their names, in Galesburg, Illinois. R. H. had the inventive ability and C. M. excelled in the business end of the enterprise. They engaged in the manufacture of corn planters, stalk cutters and cultivators. Success was immediately theirs as their products met with wide acceptance among the farmers in the area.

Because of better shipping facilities in Peoria, Illinois, the company purchased ten acres of land east of the intersection of North Adams and North Jefferson Streets. In 1882 they erected the three story square building which still stands, currently being used by R. G. LeTourneau, Inc. for offices. In 1883 the company name was changed to the Avery Planter Co.

By 1891 they began the manufacture of steam traction engines and grain threshers. The first steam engines had top mounted engines and were used for both drawbar and belt work. The yellow wood threshers were known to the trade as the Yellow Fellow and were a big part of the company’s business for over thirty years. Numerous Avery inventions were incorporated in their machines.

R. H. Avery died in 1892 and his brother C. M. Avery ascended to the presidency. J. B. Bartholomew, a relative, was made vice-president. He was an outstanding figure in the company with inventive ability as well as business acumen. He was destined to lead the company to become Peoria’s largest manufacturing industry. At the age of fourteen he invented a grain weigher for threshing machines. A major invention was the J. B. wind stacker for threshers, and, during his career, three large volumes of letters patents on farm implements were issued to him.

At the turn of the century a company reorganization was effected with capitalization at $1,000,000 and the name was changed to the Avery Manufacturing Co. In 1902 a cemetery just north of the plant was purchased for future expansion. The Hannah Wagon Co. plant just back of their plant was purchased the same year and a number of branch houses were established in the principal mid-western cities. Expansion was under way, business was good and the products were accepted in the field.

David McCullough, in his ‘history of Peoria’ published in 1902, commented upon the Avery Manufacturing Co. in a chapter on Peoria industries. ‘The Avery Manufacturing Co. is a rapidly increasing business managed by young and progressive men. If the history of the manufacturing industries of Peoria shall be written fifty years hence, it is safe to say that the volume of business at present conducted by this concern, vast as it now is, will appear small in comparison with what it is destined to become as the result of growth and development of another fifty years.’

It might be interesting at this point to mention a few contemporary highlights of the period. In the year 1903 the Wright Brothers made their first successful flight and the Ford Motor Co. was formed. In 1904 the Society of Automotive Engineers was organized, the first Vanderbilt Cup Race was held, the first Maxwell, Reo, Stoddard-Dayton and Studebaker automobiles were built, the Colean Manufacturing Co. was manufacturing farm implements and steam traction engines in East Peoria, and the first track-type tractor was built by the Holt Manufacturing Co. of Stockton, California.

C. M. Avery died in 1905 and J. B. Bartholomew became president. Sons of the Avery’s held minor executive positions, but from then on the business was under the absolute control of J. B. as he was known to everyone, even in printed advertising literature. The capital stock was increased to $2,500,000 in 1907 and the name was changed to the Avery Co. By then their products were being distributed worldwide.

Another point of parallel history of interest to Peoria occurred in 1909 when the Holt Manufacturing Co. purchased the bankrupt Colean Manufacturing Co. plant and established their eastern manufacturing branch in East Peoria.

The three story Avery office building was built on the west side of the Adams and Jefferson intersection in 1910 and the following year, after moving the cemetery, the large buildings now occupied by R. G. LeTourneau, Inc. were erected.

Further product development brought the 1912 locomotive style double under mounted steam traction engine on the market. One of these is also in the Edison Institute Museum. The internal combustion engine was now challenging steam power for tractors, so the first of a line of gasoline powered tractors appeared in 1912 along with a line of two, three, and five ton trucks. Later some of the trucks were of the cab-over-engine design. The gasoline tractor engines were of the opposed cylinder design in both two and four cylinder models. The crankshaft was set transversely on the chassis permitting a straight spur gear type of transmission to the drive wheels.

The old Kingman Plow Co. plant a mile up the track was acquired for use as a foundry in 1916 and became Avery Co. plant No. 2.

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