MAIL ORDER FARM MACHINERY:
THE DAVID BRADLEY COMPANY
Brian Wayne Wells
As published in the September/October 1999 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine
The story of John Deere crossing the Allegheny Mountains in 1836 from Rutland, Vermont, to settle in Grand Detour, Illinois, to develop the first steel-bottom plow is well-known. (C.H. Wendel, Encyclopedia of American Tractors [1979 Crestline Publishing: Sarasota, Fla.] p. 82.) Likewise, the story of James Oliver developing the chilled steel process for plow bottom manufacturing in 1855 is also well-known. (C.H. Wendel Oliver/Hart-Parr [1993 Motorbooks International Publishing: Osceola, Wis.] p. 107.) The stories of these two men have been widely disseminated as part of the folklore of farm equipment companies which would later bear their names. Somewhat less well known, however, is the story of David Bradley and his plow.
Long before James Oliver developed the first chilled steel plow in 1855–and even before John Deere invented the steel-bottomed plow in 1836–a young pioneer and foundryman in Chicago by the name of David Bradley invented the first cast iron plow which would scour the soils of the Midwest. It was David Bradley who first answered the need for a plow which would turn its own furrow and scour the sticky, heavy, virgin prairie of the Middle West with the invention of his chilled cast iron plow in 1832. David Bradley was the first man ever to bring pig iron west of the Allegheny Mountains for use in making his famous chilled cast iron plow.
David Bradley was born on November 8, 1811, in Groton, New York. He worked for a while at a plow business in Syracuse, New York. In 1832, he left the east to traveled over the Allegheny Mountains, eventually settling in Chicago in 1835. Operating out of a foundry and machine shop, he perfected the chilled cast iron plow called the “Garden City Clipper.” In the late 1830s, together with Conrad Furst, he incorporated the business as Furst and Bradley Manufacturing Company. The company produced plows and other agricultural implements. Over the years, David Bradley’s son, J. Harley Bradley, gradually took over operations of the company from his father. Under the leadership of J. Harley, the company began a period of expansion. During this period, the Bradley family also bought out the stock owned by Conrad Furst and the company became the David Bradley Manufacturing Company, hereinafter known as the David Bradley Company. From its plant facilities at Des Plaines and Fulton Streets in Chicago, the company answered the growing need for agricultural equipment in the Midwest and enjoyed success from the very beginning, producing plows, horse-drawn corn planters, cultivators and other farm implements. This success in the 1890s was spurred by two factors: location and favorable publicity.
Being located in the Chicago area, the David Bradley Company could take full advantage of the boom in railroad transportation that was occurring there. The 1848 arrival of the railroads in Chicago touched off a tremendous population growth in the city. In 1850, Chicago was a sleepy little backwater town with a population of 29,963. (World Almanac and Book of Facts [Newspaper Enterprise Association: New York, NY 1982], p. 202.) By 1860, Chicago had become a booming metropolis of 112,172. (Robert P. Howard, Illinois: A History of the State [William Eermans Publishing: Grand Rapids, MI 1972], p. 255.) By 1890, Chicago had grown to 1,099,850–the nation’s second largest city. In 1893, the David Bradley Company was given another boost by the favorable publicity obtained at the Columbian Exposition held that year in Chicago (better known as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893). The David Bradley Company by this time was manufacturing a number of farm implements, and the company exhibited its entire line, including the Garden City Clipper plow, at the Exposition. Several David Bradley implements won blue ribbons at the Exposition. The advertising value of these awards and the Exposition itself were immediately used by the David Bradley Company to increase sales of its implements and to grow the company. However, as the City of Chicago grew, the company found itself increasingly choked off from all possibility for expansion of its plant facilities. Thus, the company began to look around for another site.
In North Kankakee, Illinois, 55 miles to the south of Chicago, there was an active and eager civic population that became aware of David Bradley’s desire to relocate. They became intent on having the company settle in their town. North Kankakee was a very new town, having only been organized and settled in 1892. However, on March 14, 1893, the sudden bankruptcy of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad set off shock waves that would cause a collapse in the New York Stock Exchange in what became known as the Panic of 1893. The shock waves created by the crash of the stock market soon swamped many good, but overextended companies, and they began to fall in succession like a row of dominos. On May 5, the National Cordage Company failed, followed by the Erie Railroad in July, the Northern Pacific Railroad in August, the Union Pacific Railroad in October, and the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in December. (Harold U. Faulkner, Politics, Reform and Expansion [Harper Bros.: New York, 1959], p.68.) The Panic of 1893 developed into the worst economic depression that the United States had suffered up to that time. The devastation caused by the crash threw many people out of work and reduced farm prices drastically. Even privately-held companies, whose stocks were not publicly traded, were affected by the sudden contraction of the national economy, and many of these companies also failed. The furniture factory in North Kankakee, which had provided the major source of employment to its people, was one such casualty.
The lost of its premier employer caused the citizens of North Kankakee a great deal of anxiety. Unless help was found soon, the town would surely die. Consequently, when J. Herman Hardebeck, the town’s founder and leading citizen, heard that the David Bradley Company was looking for a new site for its manufacturing facilities, he did not waste any time in buying a railroad ticket north to Chicago to see J. Harley Bradley, in person, to encourage the David Bradley Company to relocate in North Kankakee. It took many trips to Chicago and $100,000.00 raised on the part of the City of North Kankakee to pay the moving expenses of the company, but Herman Hardebeck finally persuaded the David Bradley Company to settle in North Kankakee, Illinois. When the telegram arrived in North Kankakee from Herman Hardebeck in Chicago relating the news of the consummation of the deal, the relieved citizens went wild in celebration, and started a large bonfire on the Court Street viaduct with wooden barrels and boxes piled twenty feet high to celebrate the good news that their town had been saved. As the Illinois Central train approached North Kankakee from the north, the engineer became concerned about the enormous orange glow and smoke he saw coming from the town. He suspected that there must be a terrible fire in the middle of town. When he arrived at the station, he was assured that the fire was harmless. The next morning a huge crowd of the town’s grateful citizens turned out at the train station to welcome the 10:30 a.m. train carrying Herman Hardebeck and J. Harley Bradley to town. On July 13, 1895, North Kankakee officially changed its name to Bradley City, Illinois. In 1896, the name of the town was shortened to Bradley, which is what it has remained ever since. (Vic Johnson “When and Why ‘North Kankakee’ Became ‘Bradley,'” The Sunday Kankakee Journal, July 30, 1995.)
Accordingly, in 1895, the David Bradley Company moved its facilities to the abandoned furniture factory in North Kankakee, Illinois, where they had plenty of room for future expansion. The fact that North Kankakee was only 55 miles south of Chicago and was served by the Illinois Central Railroad meant that the David Bradley Company could still derive full advantage of the benefits of its close proximity to the transportation hub of Chicago. Furthermore, a junction of the north-south tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad with the east-west tracks of the New York Central Railroad was located just three miles south in the town of Kankakee. (Kankakee was an older town and separate from the city of North Kankakee.) This provided the David Bradley Company with an east-west connection which would by-pass Chicago altogether.
Over the years as the business expanded, the David Bradley Company built many buildings on the site, including two three-story buildings and a five-story building. One of the three-story buildings still stands. Robert P. Simpson, a collector of and expert on David Bradley products, advertising and memorabilia, currently lives within view of this building. Robert Simpson is working together with George Bingley, of Kankakee, Illinois, to initiate a David Bradley museum to be located in Bradley, Illinois.
Parallel to the development of the David Bradley Company, a series of events were occurring which would have a very significant impact on the company. In 1887, a 22-year-old young man by the name of Richard W. Sears moved from North Redwood, Minnesota, to Chicago to seek his fortune. Richard Sears had been the breadwinner in his family since he was fifteen years old and had shown an early inclination toward the sale of merchandise. He had a hobby of answering all advertising for mail order goods and then selling these goods to other boys in his childhood home of Spring Valley, Minnesota. (Weil, Gordon L., Sears, Roebuck, U.S.A.: The Great American Catalog Store and How It Grew, [Stein and Day Publishers: New York, NY, 1977], p. 5.)
In 1886, while living in North Redwood, Richard Sears was employed as a freight agent for the St. Paul Railroad. He also sold watches, while traveling on the railroads, to the passengers and railroad employees. It was these railroads which attracted Richard Sears to Chicago in 1887. Upon arriving in Chicago, he established a watch shop on Dearborn Street. Right from the start, the watch shop was a poor prospect for success because Richard Sears had a rather limited knowledge of the internal workings of a watch. Fortunately for Richard Sears, he stumbled across a watch repairman who really did know about watches and was willing to come to work for the new watch shop. The watch repairman was Alvah C. Roebuck, who started working at the watch shop in 1888. In 1893, Sears made Roebuck a full partner and formed the Sears, Roebuck and Company.
By then, the company was selling other products to the public besides watches. To advertise the company’s products, Richard Sears produced the first Sears catalogue in 1888. Soon the company was involved in a mail order business designed to bring the latest of consumer products to the public.
The mail order business, as a whole, received a tremendous boost in 1896 when the United States Post Office began the free delivery of mail to rural consumers. (H. Faulkner, Politics, Reform and Expansion, p. 141.) Suddenly, the most isolated of rural consumers would not only receive the Sears and Roebuck catalogue, but they could order the products and later have those products delivered straight to their farm through the parcel post. Farm families could shop and keep abreast with the latest in consumer products without ever leaving the farm. Not only did Sears and Roebuck experience tremendous growth, but so too Sears’ main competitor–Montgomery Ward. Great numbers of customers in rural areas across the nation began to eagerly anticipate the February delivery of the Spring/Summer Sears catalogue as a rite of spring, signalling an end to the winter season; likewise, the August/September delivery of the Fall/Winter catalogue which would start families thinking of Christmas.
Sears soon realized the possibility of offering farm machinery for sale through the catalogue and began looking around for a means to do just that. In 1910, the Sears, Roebuck and Company purchased the David Bradley Company in an attempt to take advantage of the growing market for modern farm machinery and they changed the name of the David Bradley Manufacturing Company to the David Bradley Manufacturing Works. David Bradley became the name of the farm equipment product line offered by Sears. Included in that line were the improved successors to the famous “Clipper” plow, the horse-drawn “Conquest” riding cultivator, a hay press, and a horse-drawn manure spreader.
David Bradley horse-drawn plows were advertised in the Sears catalogue each year. Later, tractor plows were added to the line of implements. The Spring 1936 Sears catalogue shows a No. 36 2-bottom plow with 12″ bottoms which could be purchased for $69.95 ($71.85 for the 14″ bottom version). Additionally, a 3-bottom plow with 14″ bottoms could be purchased for $105.00. The advertisement also shows that Sears offered the same attractive terms for financing the purchase of these plows as they did on all their products. Only $6.00 Down! Although the customers were instructed to send their order to the Sears headquarters at 925 South Holman Avenue in Chicago, they were informed that the plow would be shipped straight from the plow factory at Bradley, Illinois. Delivery of the merchandise could be taken though the mail (up to the weight restrictions of the Post Office) or by rail freight. The customer could pick up a rail freight delivery at the local railroad station or pay the local freight agent to have the product delivered to the family farm. Later, Sears developed their own chain of retail outlets. In rural areas, these outlets could usually be found in the county seat of nearly every county.
With the coming of the Second World War, production of all farm machinery was tightly controlled by the United States government, and Sears, like most other companies, was required to convert the David Bradley facilities in Bradley, Illinois, to the production of war materials. Thus, all farm machinery production at the Bradley facility was suspended, and the plant was commissioned by the government to make artillery shells for the war effort.
However, once the wartime restrictions were lifted, Sears re-tooled the Bradley factory to produce modern farm equipment for the post-war farm market. Once again, farm machinery rolled out of the Bradley Works bearing the distinctive David Bradley colors of red frames and bodies and light green wheels. C.H. Wendel, in his collection of paint numbers published in a booklet called Wendel’s Notebook (available for $8.50 from C.H. Wendel in Atkins, IA, Tel:  446-7156), identifies the David Bradley green as Martin Senour 90R-3724 or PPG – 41780. This green paint is cross-referenced as Martin-Senour 21944 or DuPont 43073. David Bradley red is identified as Martin Senour or 90R-3725 or PPG – 72155. However, some collectors have found that these paints can be hard to find. To solve this problem, an exact match to the David Bradley green can be made by a mixture of 50% John Deere green and 50% John Deere yellow. As to David Bradley red, opinions vary. Some collectors report that International Harvester red (Martin-Senour 99L-4115) is indistinguishable from the color of paint found on the protected areas of some tractors. Other collectors, however, have found that Massey-Ferguson red (Martin-Senour 99N 10743, DuPont numbers M1017, or 018, or 6491 or 24118; or Ditzler 70837) is an exact match with paint found on their tractors. Actually, both of these findings may be accurate. The reason for the discrepancy in the color is that David Bradley, like many companies, did not buy paint from the same company, They bought paint from the lowest bidder over the years which resulted in variations in the shade of red on the David Bradley equipment.
By the early 1950s, the David Bradley line of farm machinery had become quite large, and included wagons, wagon boxes, grain elevators, hammermills, hay mowers, side delivery hay rakes, and even loaders for farm tractors. In 1951, the Sears Fall catalogue even advertised a David Bradley 1-row semi-mounted corn picker. As noted previously, David Bradley did not make all of these implements; rather, Sears bought the implements from other manufacturers and put the David Bradley name on them.
In 1962, David Bradley was spun off by Sears into a relatively independent operation. In 1964, David Bradley was merged into the Roper Corporation, and Sears was reduced to a minority owner in David Bradley equipment. Still, Sears remained the largest single customer of the Bradley Division of the George D. Roper Corporation. Currently, information can be obtained about David Bradley equipment from American Yard Products at P.O. Box 1687, Orangeburg, SC 29116-1687, Tel. (803) 533-4851. The author found Barbara Kuck and John Coffman, both employed in the Customer Relations Department of American Yard Products, to be extremely helpful in obtaining information on David Bradley implements. Parts books for the David Bradley garden tractor are available from this source and from Surplus Tractor Parts, 3215 W. Main Avenue, P.O. Box 2125, Fargo, ND 58107-2125, Tel. 1-800-859-2045. Parts numbers in this parts book are still carried in the Sears and Roebuck parts database. Parts availability, however, is another question. The parts can still be ordered from Sears and Roebuck based on current stock in the Sears inventory. As with most antique machines, no new parts are currently being made for the David Bradley garden tractor.
The growing enthusiasm for collecting David Bradley tractors and equipment led to the establishment of the David Bradley Newsletter by William G. Humphrey of Vine Grove, Kentucky, in 1992. William Humphrey is a collector of David Bradley walk-behind tractors and has several of these tractors. He also has a large supply of research materials on the David Bradley Company. Subscriptions to the newsletter are $3.00. Their address is:
David Bradley Newsletter
William G. Humphrey, Editor
936 Clarkson Rd.
Vine Grove, KY 40175-6015
Telephone: (502) 828-8328
The David Bradley name became a common fixture on many farms because of its link with the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. For many decades, a large section of the main Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter catalogues remained devoted to farm equipment. However, as a sign of the times, after 1955, the farm equipment section of the main Sears catalogue began to emphasize lawn and garden equipment rather than farm equipment. In this way, the Sears catalogue reflected the transition of the United States from a farm economy to an overwhelmingly urban-based economy.
The world surely has changed since the days of David Bradley, and even since the Sears catalogue first made “David Bradley” a household name. However, seeing restored David Bradley equipment with its characteristic red and green colors still brings back memories for a great number of people who used the wagons, plows, garden tractors and other farm equipment which proudly bore the name “David Bradley.”