Gravely Motor Plow and Cultivator Company

    The Gravely Motor Plow and

Cultivator Company


Dunbar, West Virginia


Brian Wayne Wells

           with the assistance of

James O. (“Boone County Jim”) White of Bim, West Virginia

As published in the July/August issue of

Belt Pulley Magazine

            Some individuals are so bathed in inventiveness that they can apply their creativity to whatever field they which they happen to inhabit. Move such an individual from one field of endeavor to another and they will still shine with success and ingeniousness in that field. One such person was Benjamin Franklin Gravely. Born on November 29, 1876, the son of an owners of a chewing tobacco business in Dyer’ Store in Henry County near Martinsville, Virginia; Benjamin attended a school for boys at Mount Airy, North Carolina. After his schooling, Benjamin was employed as a salesman for the Eastman Kodak Company of Rochester, New York.

After a short while of employment at Kodak, Benjamin obtained another job which brought him to Huntington, West Virginia in 1900. There, Benjamin met a young photographer named Charles R. Thomas. They decided to become partners in a photographic business. Thus, was established the Gravely-Thomas Studio located at 948 Third Avenue in Huntington, West Virginia. Benjamin put his inventive mind to work on a problem that arose in the photographic business and soon had invented a photographic enlarger. This machine was called the “Gravely auto-focus Camera Projector.” Over the course of his life, Benjamin would possess 65 patents. However, most of these patents were for products not connected with photography. Most of the patents owned by Benjamin would be related to product which was to become much more closely associated with his name than anything in his photography business.

During this time in Huntington, the tall and handsome, Benjamin Gravely became acquainted with Elizabeth Susan Downie from Pomeroy, Ohio. They fell in love and were married in the fall of 1902 in Pomeroy. Together they would eventually have five children including a son Charles and daughters, Virginia and Louise. Seeking to improve the prospects of his photography business, Benjamin and Elizabeth moved to a house located on east Washington Street in Charleston–the state capitol of West Virginia. Benjamin’s photography business was first located in the Burlew building in Charleston, which housed the Burlew Opera House. Later, Benjamin formed a partnership with his cousin-in-law Marguerite Moore. The new partnership moved to the Sterrett Building located at 124 Capital Street in Charleston. This new location would remain the place of business for Gravely and Moore Photographers for more than 60 years under the guidance of Marguerite, then Benjamin’s son Charles and then his daughter, Louise. The business closed its doors only in 1963.

In May of 1911, Benjamin and Elizabeth moved to a new home in South Charleston. At this new home, Benjamin undertook gardening as a hobby. This gardening was quite a substantial operation as Benjamin not only undertook to raise vegetables to feed his growing family, but undertook to raise fruit trees in addition. The necessity of having to operate the photography business meant that there was very little time left for working in his garden. Thus, Benjamin took advantage of every labor-saving device that he could find for work in his garden. His creative mind led him to design and build his own small “walk behind” tractor for use in his garden. From parts of an old Indian motorcycle, donated to him by a Mr. Doney of South

Charleston, Benjamin began to experiment with many configurations for the tractor that he was now calling his “motor plow.” Benjamin spent five years designing and redesigning the motor plow. Finally, in 1915 he found a successful design that worked in his garden satisfactorily. The tractor was a single-wheeled tractor powered by a small 2 ½ horsepower single-cylinder internal combustion engine which Benjamin built himself. The crankshaft of the engine passed directly through the hub of the wheel. Thus, the weight of the engine served as ballast to provide traction for the tractor. To maintain some semblance of balance on the one-wheeled tractor the engine and flywheel were located on one side of the wheel and the gearing of the transmission was located on the other side of the wheel. The wheel however, was powered by a belt on pulleys on the transmission side of the wheel. Once the neighbors saw the garden tractor working in the yard around his house, they began expressing a real interest in the tractor, which he was now calling a “motor plow.” Based on this interest, Benjamin began to think that he could make a living manufacturing and marketing the motor plow. On December 15, 1916, Benjamin obtained a patent for his little motor-plow. Despite, the fact that the market for the tractor was still viewed as being limited to Benjamin’s friends and neighbors, and despite the fact that production of the tractor was still largely in the hands of Benjamin Gravely himself, Ben filed papers of incorporation for a Gravely Company to be formed.

In 1916, it looked as though the war in Europe would soon involve the United States. In preparation, the United States government made plans for the purchase of a large tract of land in South Charleston. The government intended to build a Naval Ordinance Plant on the tract of land. (This is now the South Charleston Stamping and Manufacturing Plant.) The Gravely home was located within this tract of land. The Gravely family and the other families within the tract were required to sell their property and move elsewhere. Accordingly, in 1916 the Gravely family move to Vandalia Street in South Charleston. This house was directly across the street from streetcar Stop No. 3 of the rail street car service that served the Charleston and Kanawha River Valley community. The lot on which the new home was located on the Kanawha River near the head of the Blaine Island—a large island in the middle of the river. This land also included the future site of Union Carbide Technical Center. At that time, the19-acre Blaine Island, located in the middle of the Kanahwa River straight out from Benjamin’s home, was being used by various individuals for raising crops–particularly watermelons. Children of the neighborhood around Blaine Island would swim the Kanahwa River out to Blaine Island just to eat some of the watermelons.

Benjamin Gravely began making additional copies of his motor plow at a little machine shop which a neighbor let him use. Benjamin tested his little tractor in his own garden at his home and on the large truck farm located in Kanawha City owned by Charles Sterrett. Benjamin was very talented as a designer. It was a talent that was his by birth. Despite his lack of official training he was able to make a skillful drawing of an object that he had pictured in his head. George Randolph of Point Pleasant, West Virginia remembers that Benjamin Gravely would some times use a piece of chalk or the point of a nail to draw a picture of the particular machine part that he was thinking about on the cement floor of his shop.   However he could not read a blueprint. Thus, when he needed a casting Benjamin would take his ideas to Mohler B. Martin, who would make a blueprint of the object and make a wooden model of the part. The wooden part would then be inspected for fit and then with the blue prints would be taken to the West Virginia Maleable Iron Company where the casting would be made. Machine parts which Benjamin Gravely needed were generally made by Dean Harper at the Harper Machine and Manufacturing Company of Dunbar. Benjamin Gravely was aware that his various ideas for improvement of the walk behind tractor which bore his name needed protection. Consequently, he applied for and received a number of patents from the United States Patent Office. One such patent was Patent Number 1,207,539 which was issued to Benjamin Gravely on December 5, 1916. Some of the patents requested by Benjamin Gravely were for ideas of his that were well in advance of their time. For example, as early as the 1920’s Benjamin Gravely designed a rotary-blade lawnmower.

Demand for the Gravely tractors continued to grow and soon outstripped the productive capability of the machine shop in which Benjamin worked. By 1920, Benjamin had begun to think about ways to mass produce the motor-plow. In May of 1920, Benjamin Gravely sold a half interest in his 1916 patent, described above as bearing the Patent No. 1,207,539, to “Charles F. Sterrett, W.R.L. Sterrett, James B. Sterrett and I.C. Jordan, all of Charleston, West Virginia. Benjamin had been continually refining the design of his motor plow as he was making them. The improvements to the motor plow were relatively simple to make. However, Benjamin’s incessant desire to improve and refine his tractor constantly interfered with full scale production of the tractor. Mohler B. Martin noted, “It was a wonder that he (Benjamin Gravely) made the number of tractors that he did. Ben kept changing the design and made it hard to get the tractors on the market. Every time he came up with a new design improvement—which was frequent—it would slow down production.” Mohler Martin went on to ascribe this characteristic as typical for a person with “an inventive mind.”

Once in mass production, to maintain clarity, model names had to be associated with each and every new design of the motor plow which incorporated a substantial number of these improvements or changes in design. Thus, the first model of the tractor/motor plow that went into mass production was designated the Model D tractor/motor-plow. (One of these very early single-wheel Model D Gravely tractors bearing the serial number 41, has been beautifully restored and is owned by Fred [Snuffy] Byrnside, owner of Byrnside Hardware in Danville, West Virginia. The role of Byrnside Hardware as the current dealership franchise for Gravely tractors and parts for the Boone County area in West Virginia, is discussed in further detail below.) The Model D weighed only 190 pounds had a 2 ½ horsepower engine that ran on either kerosene or gasoline. The tractor had two tanks contained on the frame between the handlebars. The rear tank closest to the operator was the gas tank. The other tank, held the oil that was dripped into the engine and transmission for lubrication. The little tractor was popular from the start and became even more popular as time rolled on.

By 1922, demand for Gravely tractor had grown to the point that Benjamin Gravely needed additional capital to increase his manufacturing capacity just to keep up with the demand. He sought this additional capital from local investors in Charleston. These investors pledged $200,000 for the manufacture of the motor plow. These investors included Charles F. Sterrett, mentioned above, and included Garnett Surface, Eustice Rose, Staunton Isaac, C.R. (Major) Morgan, George Landcaster, H.E. Bek, Solon Fletcher and George Chounis. Some of the investors came to take an active part in the new company. Staunton Isaac became a vice president within the new company. More significantly, Eustice Rose left his position in the Naval Ordinance Plant in South Charleston and come to work at Gravely as the chief engineer and plant superintendent. Later Eustice Rose would be associated with the development of the first automatic transmission for an automobile in 1938 while working for the Chrysler Corporation. In addition to the mechanical abilities of Eustice Rose, the Gravely Company was fortunate in obtaining the services of another especially talented employee by the name of D. Ray Hall. D. Ray Hall was hired as the bookkeeper for the company.

With this new capital Benjamin re-incorporated the company as the Gravely Motor Plow and Cultivator Company and obtained the old Grayson Tool and Manufacturing Company factory building located across the Kanawha River from South Charleston about seven (7) miles downstream from Charleston. Just the year before, in 1921, the area had been incorporated, by an act of the legislature, as the town of Dunbar, West Virginia. After Grayson Tool, the building had been used by the Auto-Moto Manufacturing for the making of “gasoline powered engines for use in the timbering industry.” Later still, the factory had been used in the manufacture of tires. This factory building had excellent transportation facilities being located adjacent to the K. & M. Railroad (later New York Central ) railroad tracks which ran through the center of Dunbar. The road leading past the new plant was called “Gravely Lane.” However, as the town of Dunbar developed and a grid of streets for this undeveloped part of town was unfolded, the eventual address of the new Gravely factory became 1303 Charles Avenue. In this plant mass production of the Model D single wheeled tractor/motor plow began. All the components for the assembly of the Model D were made in the Dunbar plant except the magneto. The magnetos were purchased from the Edison-Splitdorf Corporation of West Orange, New Jersey.   Later the Gravely Company also purchased magnetos from the Fairbanks Morris Company of Chicago, Illinois and the Witherbee Igniter (WICO) Company of Springfield, Massachusetts.

As the President of the new company, Benjamin Gravely still sought to make mechanical improvements to the motor-plow. However, with the Model D now in mass production, he found that these changes in design could not simply be incorporated into the next tractor being produced. Mass production of the tractor/motor plow required uniformity of parts. Indeed any changes in the design of the tractor were now largely in the hands of Eustice L. Rose, the Chief Engineer and Plant Superintendent. Consequently, Benjamin’s role in the company changed. He began to work on the marketing of the Model D tractor. Indeed, Benjamin, himself, headed the sales team in the field. Benjamin would load up his Studebaker with five or six Model D tractors and head south selling the motor-plows along the way. As time went by, Florida became a major market for the Gravely Model D tractor. Thus, Benjamin would start off with his load of motor plow/tractors with the intent of reaching Florida. However, many times he would sell all tractors before he even got out the state of West Virginia. C. E. Bryant was another salesman for the Gravely Company, who toured the southern part of West Virginia with his Ford Model T pickup loaded with Model D Gravely tractors in pursuit of buyers. While Benjamin and C.E. Bryant traveled around southern West Virginia selling Gravely tractors, another man was also on the road selling Gravely tractors in Ohio. This man was Wallace Bear. Wallace would leave his home in Wellington, Ohio (located west of Cleveland) and journey the miles to Gravely factory in Dunbar. There he would load up his pickup truck with about six Model D tractors and their cultivator attachments. He would stay overnight in Dunbar and head north for Wellington again early in the morning, selling the tractors along the way. Eventually Wallace’s territory included all of the states of Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. Wallace became so confident of the continuing popularity of the Gravely tractor that in 1932, together with his wife, Mabel (Wright) Bear, and his oldest son, Robert, he opened a Gravely dealership in his hometown of Wellington, Ohio. This dealership which continues to this day remains the oldest Gravely dealership in the world.

Eventually, dealerships were established all across the United States and around the world. Not only did Florida become a major market for the Gravely tractor, but so too, did distant California. Gravely tractors began selling abroad to the countries of France, Switzerland, Germany, Palestine, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Kenya, Hungary, Turkey, El Salvador, Iceland, and Guatemala and to the overseas Territory of Puerto Rico. Indeed, permanent sales outlets were established in France, Switzerland and Germany to sell Gravely tractors. In 1944, the Belos Company would be formed in Switzerland by Olof Bennick. From 1950 until 1988, the Belos Company made the Type 1971 model tractor which was almost identical to the Gravely Model L tractor. These Belos-Gravely tractors were sold in great numbers in Sweden. (See the Steve Chalmers website which has a link to the website of a Gravely-Belos tractor collector in Sweden. From that website there are links to a number of other websites including the Belos Company website.)

Despite the sales around the world, the Appalachian Mountain range of West Virginia and neighboring states remained a very strong market for the West Virginia-made walk behind tractor. From the very first, Benjamin Gravely and the entire sales staff of the Gravely Company advertised the Gravely Model D tractor as the total replacement for the horse in small farming operations. Additionally, the pulley drive on the Model D made the tractor useful for minor tasks that the horse could not perform, such as powering butter churns, cream separators, washing machines, corn shellers and small grind stones. A 1922 article in the Charleston Gazette announcing the formation of the new company, noted that the single-wheeled Model D was fitted for “use on steep hillsides” without “side slipping.” The article went on to point out that the Model D increased the amount of tillable soil by 33 1/3 percent on the average farm because rows of crops could be planted closer together. The single-wheeled Model D could cultivate rows planted only 10 inches apart—much narrower rows than could be cultivated with a horse. Clearly, the Gravely company recognized that the primary market for the Model D was the West Virginia farmer. The part-time West Virginia farmer had power demands that the Gravely Model D tractor was ideally suited to fill.

Because of the mountainous terrain of the area, Appalachia was not -known for agriculture. West Virginia is thought of, primarily, as a source of coal and not as a source of food for the public. However, this preconception is somewhat deceptive. Agriculture has been practiced extensively, although on a small scale, in West Virginia throughout the state’s history. Prior to 1880 this agricultural production was subsistence in nature. The family would grow only what it could consume itself. Since that time, despite the rough terrain of the state, a “market economy” in farming has developed in the state.

There are two important exceptions to the small-scale, part-time nature of farming in West Virginia. Despite the rough terrain of the state, one-half of the total land area of the state of West Virginia is classified as “farmland.” (Collier’s Encyclopedia Volume 19 [P.F. Collier and Son: New York, 1959] p. 443.) However, rather than being arable land, most of the farm land in West Virginia is pasture land. During the 1870’s Hereford beef cattle were introduced into Summers County. (Otis K. Rice and Stephen W. Bowen, West Virginia: A History p. 175 )   In the years since that time, beef cattle raising, especially Hereford cattle raising, has become wide-spread through out the state. Purebred beef cattle raising in West Virginia will be discussed in greater depth in another article in a future issue of Belt Pulley magazine.

Another exception to the small-scale, part-time farming in West Virginia over the history of the state has been orchard farming. (Otis K. Rice, West Virginia: A History p. 175.) Over the course of years, West Virginia has had a sizeable orchard farming industry based on apples and some peaches. (Apple farming in orchards located in Cabell County was previously discussed in the article called “West Virginia Cletrac Model HG” carried in the Winter 1996 issue of the Hart-Parr Collector Newsletter on p. 38.)

However, because of the topography of the state and a lack of transportation out of the state, very little land in West Virginia was cultivated for raising crops to be sold at market. Additionally, prior to 1880, there was no large population in the state that would provide a “home market economy” for locally grown agricultural goods. Despite the fact that the average “farm” in West Virginia in 1880 was about 187 acres in size, very little of this farmland was tilled for crops each year. (David Alan Corbin, Life, Work and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners 1880-1922 [University of Illinois Press: Urbana, 1981] p. 7.) Indeed the farming that was conducted in West Virginia tended to be subsistence farming with tillable land no bigger than the size of a family garden. There was very little attempt to grow more than the family needed in order to sell the surplus. Then in the 1880s, extensive large-scale coal mining began in southern West Virginia and all that changed.

There was a large influx of new people into West Virginia from other states and, indeed, from other nations around the world. This new population moved into rental houses built by the individual coal companies in the company-established towns located on company land near the coal mines. These rental houses were located on small lots which did not permit large scale crop raising at a level sufficient to feed the entire family year round. Thus, the new population was dependent on store-bought goods and food stuffs. Indeed the miners were usually paid in company script rather than legal tender. This company script was redeemable only at the “company store” located in the company town. Thus, the gardening that was pursued in the company towns was only a supplement to the family diet. For these families a major portion of the food the family consumed was purchased. The stores in the coal fields needed to purchase fresh produce to sell to this new population of workers and their families. The stores tended to purchase this fresh produce locally from area farmers.

To be sure these landowning native West Virginians also worked in the coal mines with the new population that moved into the new company towns. However, the native West Virginia landowner continued to live on his own land. Furthermore, the huge influx of new people into southern West Virginia to mine the coal, created a robust “home market economy” which created opportunity for the landowning residents of southern West Virginia. They began to produce more food on their land to meet the needs of this burgeoning home market. The landowners of southern West Virginia expanded their gardens, their flocks of chicken and increased the number of hogs they raised beyond their own individual family needs. The surplus was intended to be sold. Despite the fact that the size of farms owned by the typical West Virginia farmer decreased from the 187 acre average size, cited above, to an average size of between 47 to 76 acres, the agriculture practiced on those smaller farms intensified. (Ibid.) Actually what was occurring was that the family garden was being expanded beyond what a person might refer to as a “garden.” The family “garden” was s becoming a “field” and a series of small fields became a “farm.”

Power on West Virginia farms was typically supplied by a single “jenny,” (a mule). Even as other areas of North America were switching from slow animal power to steam, kerosene and gasoline sources of power. The jenny remained characteristic of southern West Virginia agriculture. As pointed out by historians, it was the “rugged terrain and the smallness of mountain farms (that) prevented the use of machinery on a scale comparable with that of the Midwestern states.” (Otis K Rice and Stephen W. Bowen, West Virginia: A History p. 175. ) This type of arable farming and small crop raising was customarily conducted on a part-time basis. The landowning, West Virginians pursued farming during the time that they were not employed in the coal mines. Coincidentally, the payment system employed by the coal companies operating in West Virginia aided these part-time farmers.

From the beginning nearly all coal companies paid their workers on a “per ton” basis rather than paying according to an hourly wage rate. Thus, it made no difference as to the amount of time that it took the miner to “load” the coal, the miner was still only paid for the amount of coal that he loaded and brought to the surface of the coal mine. Working efficiently, however, a miner could work for a given number of days to build up the money that he needed and then could take time off away from the coal mines for a series of days before having to return to the mines to earn some more money. Generally, it was during these times away from the mines that the miner/farmer would perform all the working of land, seed bed preparation, planting, cultivation and harvesting of his crops. Payment by the ton or “piece work” was more exploitive of the workers than was the hourly wage method of payment. Accordingly, piece work payment was opposed by collective bargaining organizations in almost all industries. Piece work payment in mining was completely unpredictable because it was tied to the price of coal. The price of coal would change daily and, thus, so too would the price/wages received by the miners change on a daily basis. Accordingly, the coal miner could not make any future plans, even for the next day, based on “income” that he would receive. Thus, when the United Mine Workers of America (U.M.W.A.) was formed in 1890, they sought to be the exclusive bargaining agent for all miners based on the demands for changes at the worksite including an hourly wage system of pay with an 8-hour day and a 40-hour work week. (Maier B. Fox, United We Stand: The United Mine Workers of America 1890-1990 [U.M.W.A. Press: Washington D.C., 1990], pp. 39-40.)   However, some sincere resistance to the proposed change to a wage and hours system of payment did arise among the coal miners—particularly those miners in the southern West Virginia coal fields. Historians have pondered as to the reason why, miners would resist a new pay system that that would be more economically beneficial to the miners. The explanation generally accepted for this resistance was that the individual miners liked the “freedom” offered by the piece work payment system. Supposedly, the miners resisted the demand for an 8-hour day and favored the piece work system of pay because it allowed the individual miner the freedom to work only the amount of time that he pleased in the underground coal mines and allowed him “geographic mobility” to move from one mining operation to another mining operation with impunity. (David Alan Corbin, Life, Work and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners 1880-1922 [University of Illinois Press: Urbana, Ill., 1981] p. 31.) This explanation is based largely on a single letter written by a single McDowell County coal mine operator written in 1906. (Ibid. p. 54.) This letter maintains in part that the coal miner under the piece work payment system “begins and quits (work) when he pleases, and the operator does not say a word, and dares not, for the reason that if he did and the miner should not like it” the miner would pack his bags and “ move to another town.” (From a letter from L.C. Anderson written to the editor of Outlook quoted in Life, Work and Rebellion in the Coal Fields pp. 30-31.) This explanation is faulty on a number of different levels. First, the piece work payment system did not allow the worker absolute freedom to mine as much or as little coal as the miner wanted while underground. In actual fact an “unofficial quota” would be established as a minimum amount of work that the miner was expected to complete in a given day. Additionally, some mining was conducted in “seams” of coal that were only 30” tall. Thus, the work space would sometimes be only 30” tall. Work in this thin seams of coal obviously took more time than work in thicker seams. Furthermore, the allegation that the miner desired the freedom to move to another town stands in the face of the personality characteristic of most West Virginia natives. This personality characteristic is the West Virginian’s extreme hesitancy to move from the particular “hollow” where he or she was born and raised and where their family had lived for generations. Indeed West Virginia natives have been criticized for this resistance to move from their hollow even when it was to their economic benefit to do so. Thus, the true explanation for this resistance to a more economically beneficial pay system, at least with regard to the landowning miner/farmers, was that they needed the flexible schedule that allowed him to leave the coal mines for a series of days in a row in order at certain times during the summer growing season in order to perform the planting, cultivation and harvesting of their crops.

Following the end of the First World War, there was a significant decline in the demand for coal and, thus, a decline in the price of coal per ton. As noted above, the price of coal was directly proportional to the “wages” received by the coal miner. Thus, the slump in the price during the post-World War I era, set off a precipitous drop in the income that could be derived from coal mining. It was at this time that the demand for an eight-hour wage system of pay became more popular. Still there was a certain resistance by miners who needed to split their time between the mines and their farms.

To save as much time and money as possible these part-time farmers were open to any and all suggestions. It was to these part- time farmers in southern West Virginia, that Benjamin Gravely, C.E. Bryant and the other Gravely Company salesmen made their pitch regarding the laborsaving and economical features of the Gravely Model D tractor. Just like a horse or a mule, the single-wheeled Model D could easily negotiate a narrow footpath through a hilly, wooded piece of land to reach the relatively flat cleared field which was to be tilled for crops. In short the Model D was an excellent replacement for the mules on the southern West Virginia farms. Mechanized power would, of course, speed the work that had to be done on the farm. Thus, the southern West Virginia farmer could more effectively use his time away from the coal mines to plant, cultivate and harvest his crops than he would with the jenny. For an initial cost of about $150 for the Model D, these part-time farmers could get their work done faster and more efficiently than with a mule or a horse. Indeed with the advent of the automobile and more developed roads, the part-time farmer stood a chance of getting rid of the horse and/or mule altogether. This would result in a great savings in hay, and oats. The horse or mule had to be fed even when they were not working. The Gravely tractor used only about one (1) gallon of gasoline for a full eight hours of work. Furthermore, unlike the horse or mule, when not in use the Gravely tractor would merely sit quietly in the shed not costing an additional cent while the part-time farmer returned to work in the coal mines. A great number of the sales prospects were persuaded. They purchased the tractor in great numbers through out the early 1920s. Soon the Dunbar factory was employing 100 workers and was turning out 75 completed tractors per day. Soon power attachments also became available for the Model D tractor as well as the fixed cultivator. Among the first power attachments was a 42-inch sickle bar mower and a 30 inch reel-type mower.

The effects of the Great Depression did not wait until 1929 to have its effect on the economy of the State of West Virginia. Coal mining reached a high point in the state in 1926 with 119,937 workers employed in the coal mines. However, the next year saw the beginnings of a decline in the number of workers employed in the coal mines. This decline would result in only 86,378 employees left in the coal mines by 1932. (Otis K. Rice, West Virginia: A History p. 266.) Because West Virginia was the largest and most important market for the Gravely Company, the Company suffered almost immediately from the effects of this downturn in the West Virginia economy. The shareholders of the Gravely Company began receiving less and less in the way of dividends from their holdings in the company. Eventually, as the stock market crashed in 1929 and the great Depression settled over the entire country, the shareholders were receiving hardly anything at all by way of dividends. Many of these shareholders became more than anxious to sell their stock in the Gravely Company. This created a decrease in the value of the shares of the Gravely Company. The situation looked very bleak. There was one person, however, that saw an opportunity to turn things around at the company. This person was D. Ray Hall. Mortgaging nearly everything that he had, D. Ray Hall bought out the interests of the other shareholders that wished to leave the company. By 1936, D. Ray Hall had obtained a controlling interest in the Gravely Company. He became president of the company in place of Benjamin Gravely and set about restructuring the Company. New employees were brought into the Company and a new strict regimen of fundamental business principles was introduced into the Company. D. Ray Hall was an extremely frugal person. Probably as a result of his experiences of having mortgaged all he had, to purchase controlling interest in the Company, D. Ray Hall became very cautious about spending. This frugality extended to his own personal habits. He hardly ever went out to eat and insisted on bringing his breakfast bowl of cereal and milk to the plant to eat at work.

However within a very short while the company was making a profit again. Although, the company was going through a period of economic retrenchment, the Company did make, at least, one major innovation that was to become very significant for the history of the Gravely Company.

Work on a new two-wheeled tractor had actually begun in 1934. However, changes in design had delayed the new model tractor finally designated as the “Model L” in 1936. Finally in 1937 the Gravely Company went into production with its new two-wheeled Model L tractor. At 5 horsepower (hp), the Model L was clearly more powerful than the single-wheeled 2 ½ hp. Model D. Once again the Gravely Company sought to make as many of the various components of the Model L tractor as they could under their own roof at the Dunbar plant. Just like its predecessor, the Model D, the engine for the new Model L was entirely Gravely-made except for the magneto which was, once again, outsourced to the Edison-Spitdorf Company. However, rather than making its own carburetor for the Model L, the Gravely Company contracted with the Schebler-Strom Company of Indianapolis, Indiana, to supply all the carburetors for the Model L. The Model D, continued to be fitted with a Gravely-made carburetor. Production of the Model D was continued because green house gardeners and truck farmers enjoyed the versatility of the single-wheel arrangement of the Model D which allowed them to use the tractor in the close confines and narrow rows within the greenhouse

The new Model L was fitted with the Gravely “Swiftamatic” transmission. The Swiftamatic transmission and the Gravely-made engine shared the same housing. Thus, the transmission and the engine had the same oiling system. The Swiftamatic transmission offered two working speeds for the Model L—3mph in the low range and 4 mph in the high range. Shifting the Swiftamatic transmission from one range to another was accomplished by a lever located on the inside of the right handlebar. Both forward speeds were also available as reverse speeds. Another lever attached to the outside of the right handlebar was the rear shift lever. Moving this lever backward made the Model L go forward. Moving this lever forward made the tractor backup. The counter-intuitive nature of this arrangement as well as the fact that the lever could be “locked out” in reverse caused some safety concerns at a later date. The lockout for the lever while going forward was a necessity for the operator to keep his hands on the handlebars or steering. In the locked out position the tractor would keep moving forward until the lever was moved to the neutral position by the operator. The same was true of the reverse lock out position. However, when backing up the tractor threatened to run over the operator or pin the operator against a wall or object behind when locked in reverse. As noted in another article in this issue of Belt Pulley written by James O. White, the Gravely Company eventually removed this lock out feature for the reverse lever on the Model. L because of safety concerns.

Because both the Swiftamatic transmission and the engine of the Model L had the same oil supply, the Gravely Company recommended either SAE 80, SAE 90 or SAE 100 oil for use in both the Model D and the Model L tractors. Just like the Model D, the Model L had an oil drip lubricating system with one tank for holding the lubricating oil and another tank for the gasoline. On the Model L these tanks were arranged side by side between the handlebars with the gasoline tank on the left side. The Model L was easier to operate than the Model D. (Indeed, it used to be said that operating the Model D was easier than driving a horse or mule, but it noted that the Model D was “only slightly” easier to handle than a horse or a mule!)

With his parents, Wallace and Mable now operating the Gravely dealership in Wellington, Ohio, Robert Bear obtained a job with the Gravely Company in 1936. After graduating from high school and a year at college, Robert followed in the shoes of his father and became a traveling salesman for the Company. Provided with a Studebaker pickup, Robert traveled across West Virginia, Virginia and New York selling Model D and Model L tractors. This occupation was sometimes dangerous as demonstrated by the incident in which Bob’s pickup went off the road and into a ravine in southern West Virginia. Although the Studebaker truck rolled over four times before reaching the bottom of the ravine and threw Model D and Model L tractors everywhere, Bob miraculously emerged from the accident unharmed.

A much more pleasant experience for Bob, which occurred during his tenure as a salesman, was the opportunity to meet Ken Thomas. Ken and Robert hit it off right from their first meeting. Together they rented an apartment in Dunbar where Robert would stay on his trips to Dunbar to pickup more tractors to sell. In February of 1937, Ken Thomas also started a career at the Gravely Company. Eventually, Ken Thomas became president of the Gravely Company, serving as president from 1963 until 1976. Ken married Mary Louise Proctor of Beckley, West Virginia and Robert met Gladys Miller and on July 17, 1939, they, too, were married. The two families became life long friends. However, by 1942, the United States was at war and Bob Bear enlisted in the United States Army, successfully completed officer candidacy school and became an officer, seeing action in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Austria. During his military service, his son Dick was born. Bob did not get to see his son until Dick was two year old.

The Model L proved to be as popular a tractor during the late 1930s as the Model D had been during the 1920s. Sales of the Model L lifted the Company into real profitability. Under the stewardship of President D. Ray Hall, however, profits continued to grow and the company never again had an unprofitable year.

There were a great number of attachments for the Model L tractor that were also offered to the buying public, including a 36-inch scraper blade, a standard 42-inch power sickle bar mower (with optional sickle bar widths from 24 inches up to 60 inches), a post hole digger, rear mounted cultivator, a power rotary brush for cleaning sidewalks, a tree sprayer for orchard use and a duster fogger for insect control.   Also a trailing sulky was made available for the Model L tractor. The popularity of the Model L and the various power attachments that were made for the Model L, helped many dealerships survive the economic hard times of the 1930s.

The real crisis for the Gravely Company occurred during the Second World War. Raw materials were so restricted by the United States government that production of the Model D and Model L were nearly curtailed altogether. Indeed, the rationing list for Gravely tractors was so long that at least one customer of the Wallace Bear dealership had to wait three full years for the delivery of his Model L.

During the war, nearly all aluminum supplies, for the entire United States were diverted to the war effort, primarily for making aircraft parts. Until the outbreak of the Second World War, the bottom half of the engine and Swiftamatic transmission housing had been made of aluminum. This allowed for quick and efficient heat dissipation. Now, with no aluminum available, Gravely was forced to design and manufacture a replacement cast iron version of this housing. Once the war was over and restrictions on aluminum were ended, the Company quickly returned to Swiftamatic housing bottoms made from aluminum. Thus, today, Gravely tractor restorers can identify wartime versions of the Model L by means of the cast iron housing bottom.The Gravely Company sold many new dealership franchises which expanded their sales network in the post-World War era to meet the increased demand for the small walk behind tractors. One of these new Gravely franchises was purchased by Bob Roush of Price Hill, West Virginia in 1948. Bob and Vivian (Canterbury) Roush operated the dealership from their farm located on Price Hill, south of Madison, West Virginia. Later the dealership also acquired a franchise to sell International Harvester farm equipment and trucks. The Roush dealership sold a great deal of IHC trucks throughout the Boone County area. However the Gravely tractor franchise remained the mainstay of the Roush dealership. Bob and Vivian sold a great number of Model L tractors to many of the part-time farmers in the Madison/Danville area. Most often the Roush dealership would make a package sale of a 30 inch brush mower, a rotary plow and the front mounted power rotary cultivator when selling a Model L tractor. The cost of this package was around $600.00. Typically, an average sales package to a particular buyer would include just these three attachments with the Model L tractor. However, there was a variety of power attachments offered to the public which mounted on the Model L tractor and the Roush dealership could sell any of the attachments that a prospective buyer may want with the Model L tractor.

The Gravely Company supported these new dealerships with signs, literature and other promotional items. With the introduction of the Model L in 1937, the Gravely Company adopted an advertising slogan—“Power vs. Drudgery.” This slogan was to become the main characteristic symbol of Gravely advertising for years to come. (Examples of complete advertising booklets from 1941, 1944 and 1956, and the front covers of the sales brochures from 1960 and 1964 bearing this slogan can be seen on the Steve Chalmers website.)

When it opened up for business in 1948, the Roush dealership was provided a red and white Gravely sign which was hung up on State Road #85 at the end of the driveway that led up the hill to the Roush farm. (This sign still advertises the current Gravely franchise in the Danville/Madison area. The actual sign hangs on a pole outside Byrneside Hardware located on 4th Street in downtown Danville, West Virginia.)

In the post-war era, changes occurred at an ever-increasing rate of speed. Production of the Model D was ended, in the late 1940s. In 1950, a number of changes were made. Two new versions of the Model L were introduced. These were the Model LI (Intermediate) which offered a different gear ratio in the Swiftamatic transmission such that the speeds of the Model LI were reduced to 3 mph. in high range and 2 mph. in low range as opposed to the regular Model L. Also introduced was the Model LS (Slow) which offered the speeds reduced still further to 2 mph. in high range and 1 mph. in low range.

With the Gravely factory back at full production again, the Company entered into a unique advertising campaign that featured the Swiftamatic transmission. Gravely dealerships were provided with “cutaway versions” of the Swiftamatic transmission for display and demonstration purposes. Great portions of the transmission and engine housing were “cutaway” to allow potential customers at the dealerships to see the workings inside the engine and transmission. A hand crank was provided at the rear of the cutaway, where the pulley for the starting pull rope was located. By turning the crank a person could see the entire operation of the engine and transmission. The right side handlebar controls were present on the cutaway Swiftamatic demonstrator. Thus, the tractor was operated in either high or low range and in either forward and reverse by engaging and/or disengaging these controls. Many of these cutaways were customized with chromium bolts and other special attractions before being distributed to the dealerships. (The cutaway that was provided to Belkin’s Tractor Service of Georgetown, Massachusetts, was fitted with a electric motor and a belt which operated the cutaway rather than the usual hand crank. This particular cutaway was purchased from Arnold Belkin in 1997 by Craig Seabrook of Novelty, Ohio. Craig Seabrook is one of the original founders of the Gravely Tractor Club of America [formerly the Model D and L Gravely Network]. Another cutaway was provided to the Roush dealership of Madison, West Virginia. This particular cutaway is also in possession of Byrnside Hardware, the current Gravely dealer for the Madison, West Virginia area.)

Besides use of the cutaway, the Gravely Company would demonstrate the new Model L to potential buyers in the form of face-off demonstrations with competing garden tractors and/or lawn mowers. Following one particular such demonstration, Bob Bear returned home to Wellington, Ohio, disappointed that he had lost a sale after the demonstration. It was a large contract. The buyer had been seeking a number of lawn mowers. The buyer signed with the Locke Steel Chain Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, to fill the contract for the lawn mowers. Bob felt that Gravely had not been selected because the trailing sulky that was offered by Gravely was shown during the demonstration to be ackward to handle over uneven ground. (This difficulty is alluded to in the article by James O. White which is contained in this present issue of Belt Pulley magazine.) The sulky behind the Locke mower had proved to be much less problematic because it was not a “trailing mower.” Indeed the sulky behind the Locke mower did not articulate at all from side to side, but actually steered the entire tractor. Bob Bear felt that he could develop something similar for the Model L. Indeed he set about working on this proposed sulky the very night that he returned home from the demonstration. He developed a non-trailing sulky which was steerable by means of foot controls on the sulky. Bob patented this invention and then sold the patent to the Gravely Company. Bob and his family received a dollar for every steerable sulky sold by the Gravely Company as a royalty from this patent. A further improvement for the Gravely Model L tractor was in 1960. The venturi of the carburetor on the 5 hp. engine was enlarged to give the engine a new horsepower rating of 5.5 hp.

Since returning from military service at end of the Second World War, Bob Bear had been working at the Wellington dealership owned by his father. In 1954, Bob and Gladys struck out on their own and started a second Gravely dealership in Parma, Ohio. Gladys became a full partner in the dealership and kept all the books for the dealership. Later in 1960, Bob and Gladys would open another dealership in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Thus, at one point in time three different Gravely dealerships were in operation by the Bear family in northern Ohio. There were several large contracts for Gravely tractors that were filled by the Bear dealerships. For example there were 200 Gravely tractors owned by the Cleveland School system which were used seasonally to either mow lawns or to blow snow off of sidewalks, parking lots and playgrounds.

The Bob Roush dealership in Price Hill, West Virginia, was also becoming a family enterprise of sorts. Bob and Vivian had a daughter, Alga and a son, Robert C., Jr. For a short while Robert Jr. worked with his father in the dealership. However, Robert Jr. left Price Hill to go to college and become a school teacher. Alga grew up and married Woodrow Dolin. Alga and Woodrow had a son, Woodrow Junior (Woody) Dolin. Woodrow, Alga and young Woody Dolin lived up on the hill near Bob and Vivian. Alga would help her father at the dealership by making and delivering sandwiches to the dealership for lunch. In later years, young Woody would also help out at his grandfather’s dealership by driving a Cub Cadet garden tractor towing down the driveway to State Road #85 to meet the Pony Express semi truck which would be delivering parts for the dealership. Bob Roush retired from active management of the dealership in about 1967. He died in February of 1982 just a few months before his 80th birthday. Bob’s grandson, Woody took over the operations of the Roush dealership. However, the Roush dealership became soley a repair and parts supply shop for Gravely and other makes of small engine equipment. (Even as late as 1990, James O. White was able to obtain a wrist pin for the old 1963 Model LI Gravely tractor [#73157] that had been owned by his Uncle Lowell White, from Woody Dolin at the old Roush dealership.) Meanwhile the Gravely franchise was sold to Doug Pratt who owned the hardware business in Danville which went by the name of Tillinghast and Reed.

The Tillinghast and Reed partnership had begun as the brainchild of Jack Tillinghast to serve as an equipment supply company for the lumber industry. The partnership kept the name of Tillinghast and Reed (T. and R.) even after all the Reed interest was sold to Boone Neeley. Over the years as the lumbering industry became less important in the Boone County area, Tillinghast and Reed slowly broadened into a general hardware store. In about 1965, Doug Pratt purchased the entire partnership, but continued to operate the hardware business out of the T. and R. building in downtown Danville. Along with the purchase of the Gravely franchise from Bob Roush, Doug Pratt obtained the old Gravely sign that had hung at the foot of the driveway on the Roush farm and also obtained the cutaway demonstrator model of the Swiftamatic transmission that had been used at the Roush dealership. In addition to the Gravely franchise, the T. and R. hardware business under the ownership of Doug Pratt, obtained a franchise to sell Homelite chainsaws. Doug Pratt, however, sold the business to Von Toler in 1976. After only a short while in business, Von Toler began expressing an interest in selling the entire business to Fred (Snuffy) Byrnside who owned a Tru Value hardware store just across Fourth Street from the T. and R. building in downtown Danville. However, these negotiations fell through and the T. and R. business was eventually sold to James Keffer in about 1978. In 1979, the T. and R. Business also obtained the franchise to sell Stihl chainsaws. By 1980, James Keffer sold the business including all operations and franchises to Fred Byrnside. Today, Byrnside Hardware is the current owner of the Gravely franchise in the Boone County area. The old red Gravely sign that originally advertised the Bob Roush dealership now hangs outside Byrnside Hardware. Although, no longer used as a demonstrator of the Swiftamatic transmission the old cutaway transmission is stored safely in the attic of Byrnside Hardware where it is displayed by the hardware store staff including Randall Potter to inquiring persons—like the current author.

Meanwhile, the three Bear dealerships in northeastern Ohio were doing a large amount of business. Gravely tractors and equipment was delivered to the Bear dealerships by a endless stream of semi-trucks. One of the best features of the Gravely tractors was their durability. The Gravely tractor never seemed to wear out. Best evidence of this durability was the survey Dick Bear conducted of current Gravely owners. This survey, conducted in the 1970s, found that the average Gravely tractor still being worked on a regular basis was actually 32 years of age. This was the average age! A good many of the tractors still in use were much older than that. As the years went by, Bob and Gladys Bear began to look forward toward retirement, however, they sought to centralize their business concerns and to turn the family business over to their son, Dick. Dick had grown up, graduated from high school and college and had married Sherry McDougal. Accordingly in 1970, the family consolidated the dealerships in Wellington, Ohio; Parma, Ohio; and Chagrin Falls, Ohio; into a single dealership in the town of Strongsville, Ohio. This dealership is still functioning under the guidance of Dick Bear and the dealership still sells Gravely parts. The Bear dealership is now the oldest Gravely dealership in the world under the continuous ownership of a single family.

Just as changes were occurring within the Bear family and their Gravely dealerships, so too were changes occurring within the Gravely Company itself. Benjamin Gravely, himself died in 1953 at the age of 76 years. However, the biggest change within the Company occurred in 1960 when D. Ray Hall decided to sell the Gravely Company in its entirety to the Studebaker Corporation of South Bend, Indiana. Although the terms of the deal were kept private, it was rumored that Studebaker paid D. Ray $12.5 million dollars for the Gravely Company. However, as part of the agreement D. Ray was to continue to preside over the Gravely concerns which now became a division of the Studebaker Corporation. D. Ray stayed on for another three years before he retired in 1963 and was replaced by Kenneth L. Thomas, as mentioned above.

Expansion of the Gravely division’s productive capacity was required. The inadequacy of the Dunbar plant facilities was becoming apparent. Another small plant was obtained in Albany, Georgia, in which 125 people were employed making component parts for the tractors that were assembled in Dunbar. When still more increased production was needed, the Albany plant was enlisted to perform some assembly of tractors in addition to their main task of manufacturing component parts. This, of course, meant that some parts had to be taken back to Albany from Dunbar to allow this assembly to be accomplished.   As a result, Gravely had trucks on the road every day making their way to Albany and Dunbar in both directions. Furthermore, there was, in the 1960, more public awareness of the safe operation of machinery.

As noted above there had been safety concerns about the locking reverse lever on the Model L and the counter intuitive method of it’s operation. Even in the late 1950s, the Gravely Company was offering an after market add-on control lever to replace the old control lever which attempted to alleviate some of the safety issues. However in 1963, the new Model L-8 was introduced which incorporated a number of design changes and attempted to remedy these safety concerns. The biggest change introduced in the Model L-8 was the two-speed axle. This had the effect of making the Model L a four speed tractor. All forward speeds were also available in reverse on every Model L-8. Thus, the Model L-8 actually had eight speeds. With speeds of 4 mph. and 3 mph. in the high range and 2mph. and 1mph. in the low range, the Model L-8 incorporated the Models L, LI, and LS into one tractor. In 1963, the safety control reverse lever was made standard equipment on all Model L tractors. Additionally, the safety concern about the PTO control was addressed and improved for more save operation of the new Model L-8. In 1964 the first four-wheeled Gravely tractor was introduced. In 1965, the Gravely Company contracted to have 100 of the Model L-8 tractors outfitted with 8 hp. Kohler engines. Later in 1967, the engine size of the Model L-8 was increased once again—this time to 7.6 hp. An optional electric starter and a 12 volt battery was made available for installation on any of the Gravely tractors at the request of any buyer.

However, by the mid 1960s the Dunbar facilities were woefully inadequate. Being surrounded as it was by suburban housing, the Dunbar plant had no room for physical expansion itself. Furthermore, the small factory in Albany did not provide a permanent solution of the problem. The constant transporting of parts and un-assembled tractors between Albany, Georgia and Dunbar was becoming a logistic nightmare and very costly besides. Thus, the company began to contemplate consolidation of the plants into one operation. Consequently in 1967, a piece of land was obtained in Clemmons, North Carolina and the factories in Dunbar and Albany, Georgia were closed and the Gravely Division moved into new facilities at Clemmons North Carolina.

At the same time that the Gravely Division was strengthening its position by consolidating its various operations, the parent company, Studebaker Corporation was experiencing serious difficulties. In 1964, the main Studebaker factory in South Bend Indiana was closed. All automotive production was then consolidated in Studebaker’s Canadian facilities in Hamilton, Ontario. In March of 1966, all automotive production at this factory was also ceased. Although no longer in the automotive business, the Studebaker Corporation continued to manufacture electronic parts. In early 1967, the Studebaker Corporation purchased the Wagner Electric Corporation. Later that same year the Corporation merged with the Worthington Corporation to become the Studebaker-Worthington Corporation. In 1979 the entire Studebaker-Worthington Corporation would be purchased by the McGraw-Edison Company of St Louis, Missouri. (James H. Maloney, Studebaker Cars [Motor Books Intl Pub.: Oseola, Wisc., 1994] p. 388.) In 1982, McGraw-Edison Company decided to reorganize and concentrate on the division that sold goods to other businesses only. The company sold off all divisions making goods for direct sale to consumers and/or end users. Accordingly, the Gravely division was sold to the Arien’s Company of Brillion, Wisconsin. Today, Gravely tractors and power attachments are still made under the Ariens Company corporate parentship at the Gravely plant in Clemmons, North Carolina.

As with most makes of farm tractors, an antique collector’s club has sprung up in support of the restoration and preservation of all models of Gravely walk-behind tractors. The “Model D and Model L Network” was begun by Craig Seabrook and others in 1995. (Craig Seabrook can be reached at 14444 Watt Road, Novelty, Ohio 44072-9634 Tel.: [440] 338-3396.) This network evolved into the Gravely Tractor Club of America. The current President of the club is Rev. Phil K. Smith of Route 1 Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania 19567-9801 (Tel. [610] 589-4485.) The club has a website at Mark E. Bricker, contact person, may be reached at 2201 Route 302, Lisbon, New Hampshire 03585-7120 (Tel.: [603] 838-5589] E-Mail: pbrick@net1plus). Every year in August, the Gravely Tractor Club has their annual “mow-in.” T*he mow-in is the annual summer convention and gathering of the Gravely tractor club members and other Gravely enthusiasts. In 1997 the mow-in was held at the Shawnee Park in Dunbar, West Virginia. Gravely tractors were shown and demonstrated at the largest official gathering of Gravely tractors in the hometown of the original home of the Gravely Company, since the company left Dunbar for Clemmons, North Carolina, in 1968. The 2005 mow-in of the Gravely Tractor Club is to be held in conjunction with the Rough and Tumble Engineers Historical Association’s 57th Annual Thresherman’ Reunion held on August 17-20, 2005. The Gravely tractor Club contact for this mow-in is John Languille, 302 Pennsylvania Avenue, Avondale, PA 19311-1135 (Tel: [610] 268-8154).

With the support of members and enthusiasts, the Gravely Tractor Club will maintain a place in the public consciousness for the little walk-behind tractor that was first conceived in the inventive mind of Benjamin Gravely and did so much to save time and labor in part-time farming operations all around the world.

3 thoughts on “Gravely Motor Plow and Cultivator Company”

  1. My father, W.P. H. Stevens, bought a Gravely tractor in about 1950/52. We lived in Clemmons, NC and I wonder if anybody else in Clemmons owned a Gravely, or even heard of it. We had to move to N.J. in 1954. This was 10 or 12 years before Gravelys were manufactured in Clemmons. I think my father may have owned the first Gravely in Clemmons. Anybody know more?
    Thanks. Bill

  2. Indeed, Gravely condensed their manufacturing facilities (Dunbar, WV and Albany, GA) into a new facility built in Clemmons, NC in 1968. Gravely tractors (such as the single-wheel Model D) were marketed since the early 1920’s, and the Model L, which was introduced in 1935; so while it is unlikely your father’s Gravely was the very first one in Clemmons, who knows?

  3. Brian Wayne Wells, Please get in touch with me regarding your excellent Gravely article! I am working on a series of articles on Ben and the Gravely company for the Gravely Tractor Club of America, and want to cite your article.

    John Damtoft
    Editor, The Gravely Gazette

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