|By TIM ALEXANDER
PEORIA, Ill. — Tucked away on the second floor of a Peoria museum partially dedicated to the city’s industrial and agricultural history is a small display honoring a big part of its past.
Wheels O’ Time Museum, 11923 N. Knoxville Ave., is known for its eclectic collection of products made in the 19th and early 20th centuries such as ABC hand-cranked washing machines, Glide automobiles, and other locally-produced goods from yesteryear.
In terms of a company’s economic and social importance to the Peoria area, however, a strong case could be made that the Avery Co., manufacturers of farming implements along Peoria’s riverfront for more than a half-century, was the city’s most vital pre-Caterpillar, Inc. industry.
At Wheels O’ Time, several miniature Avery Co. items are on display such as a scale-model salesman’s edition of a circa-1900 horse-drawn cultivator and a mini-steam powered model of a 1918 “under-mounted” 18-horsepower tractor.
A large kiosk explains the history and local significance of the company and offers biographies on the company’s leaders. Other Avery Co. items such as sales catalogues and advertisements are available to study by asking the museum’s staff.
In J.P. Carroll’s 1955 History of the Avery Company, the author describes the company as Peoria’s largest manufacturing industry as recently as the 1920s, and states that the company employed 4,000 workers at four large plants sprawled along the current site of Komatsu near the confluence of Adams and Jefferson streets. Bill Adams, local historian and author, called the Avery Co. “the Caterpillar of its time” and has authored a book on the company’s history.
Aside from Adams, perhaps no one can tell the story of the Avery Co. better than John Parks, a self-described “Avery nut” that served as president of Wheels O’ Time for 22 years.
He described company founder Robert H. Avery as a religious, hardworking farmer who was well respected for his honesty and integrity.
“He was born in 1840 in a log cabin in Galesburg, and he was a farm boy,” Parks said of R.H. Avery. “In 1854 he attended the Academy of Knox College and watched with enormous interest the development of the railroads. He enlisted in the Army in 1862 and was mustered out in 1865, when he was captured.
He was imprisoned at Andersonville (a Georgia Civil War prison camp) and during that time he came up with the idea for a cultivator.”
Carroll’s narrative confirms this, stating that Avery etched early blueprints for the cultivator in the sand inside the prison. At the close of the war, Avery was paroled and went to Kansas, where he constructed a full-size working model of his vision.
“About 1869, he got married and went to work in a machine shop,” Parks continued. “He also invented a stalk cutter at that time so he had two inventions. In 1872 he started a business with his brother, Cyrus Avery and established it in Galesburg in 1877.”
The Avery’s Galesburg business soon grew too large and was moved to Peoria, not only for better access to river and rail transportation, but also because of “reams of patent litigation,” according to Parks.
“Everybody was inventing something and borrowing ideas back and forth. There was a mish-mash of farming patents, but the Averys came out pretty good. R.H was a very ambitious person who worried about his patents, as any good inventor did,” said Parks.
In 1882 the brothers established their factory in Peoria in an area still known as “Averyville” due to the importance of the company to the city.
By 1891 they had begun the production of steam traction engines and grain threshers.
According to Carroll’s history of the company, Avery’s first steam engines were top-mounted and used for both “drawbar and belt” work.
The yellow threshers were known as “Yellow Fellows” and would provide a large source of revenue for the company for more than 30 years. Several Avery patents were incorporated into their products.
When R.H Avery died in 1892, his brother took the reins as the company’s president and Mr. J.B. Bartholomew, a relative, was promoted to vice-president.
At the turn-of-the-century the company reorganized and began an expansion that would eventually encompass four manufacturing sites.
Cyrus Avery died in 1905 and Bartholomew ascended to the post of company president. Under Bartholo-mew’s guidance, the company’s value increased and by 1907 Avery products were being distributed worldwide.
“A remarkable man, J.B. was,” Parks said. “He was active in city management and held patents on farm machinery, automobiles, and peanut roasters. He was born in 1863 in Elmwood and at age 18 went to work for the Avery Co. where he built plows, steam tractors, grain threshers and other kinds of farm equipment. He was very inventive and eventually held over 100 patents. Under his leadership the company expanded their product line to include tractors and eventually employed some 4,000 workers.”
Parks added that Bartholomew also founded the Bartholomew Co. and the Glide Automobile Co. in Peoria Heights while serving as Avery Co.’s president.
In 1925 Bartholomew died and the Holt Manufacturing Co. merged with the C.L. Best Co. to form Caterpillar, Inc. in East Peoria to produce track-type tractors for farming, but the 1921 agricultural depression in the United States was credited for beginning the company’s downward spiral. Carroll wrote his opinion on the company’s eventual demise:
“Although popular opinion blamed over-expansion for the failure of Peoria’s largest manufacturing industry, I believe that it was a case for engineering, research and training programs. I believe this because concentration upon any one of J.B.’s latter day ideas would have assured success. Another company began mass production of the row crop type of tractor, very similar to J.B.’s motor cultivator, the same year the Avery Co. went bankrupt. Other companies were destined to develop and produce the one-unit type of motor grader.”
A group of former workers and other investors organized a successor company in 1925 known as the Avery Power Machine Co. and the company was scaled back in size, operating again from only one plant. The Great Depression sent wheat prices plunging and steel prices soaring. That company was disbanded, and in 1938 two local businessmen purchased the company and renamed it the Avery Farm Machinery Co. In 1941 the plant was sold to R.G. LeTourneau and by 1949 the corporation was dissolved. A single owner, however, kept manufacturing Avery Co. replacement parts for several years afterwards.
Today, the Avery Co.’s legacy lives on only through Peoria’s Averyville neighborhood and a single refurbished office building marked as the “Avery Building,” but for many generations of past Peorians the company was as essential to the area’s economy and well-being as Caterpillar is perceived to be today.
For details on the Wheels O’ Time Museum, call 309-243-9020, or see its website at www.wheelsotime.org
This farm news was published in the April 26, 2006 issue of Farm World.