Tractors on Rabbit Trails.

The inside cover of the B.F. Avery & Sons catalog/calendar showing the company's humble origins in Clarksville, Virginia.

When I found a little booklet titled “Presented with the Compliments of B.F. Avery & Sons…” in a box of oversized Smyth County Chancery Court papers, my first thought was how to, if possible, reunite it with the court case of which it was originally part. The booklet was part notebook, calendar, and company catalog, a common advertising tool. When I opened the front cover, I saw on its reverse side a picture of a log building with the caption, “B.F. Avery’s First Plow Factory, at Clarksville, Mecklenburgh (sic) Co., Va.” Then I wondered how I missed the connection between B.F. Avery and Clarksville. Was Clarksville really the starting point for one of America’s most famous farm implement companies? The temptation to chase down stories that may be unrelated to the work at hand, or go down a rabbit trail,  is a great danger in the archivist’s line of work.

After a little digging – on my own time – I found that the answer is yes and no. When Benjamin Franklin Avery (born 1801) set sail from New York City in 1825 on a boat headed for Virginia, he left behind his legal career and prominent family in upstate New York, according to Luther D. Thomas’s 2003 book B.F. Avery and Sons: Pioneer Plow Makers. His plan was to start a manufacturing operation to make plows. He met Caleb H. Richmond on the journey, a man with practical experience working with metal. The two became partners and set up shop on rented land in Clarksville, a town on the Roanoke River (also called the Staunton River) that already boasted a number of manufacturing enterprises and a booming trade in tobacco.

The company soon began to show promise but the landlord took advantage of the fledgling firm’s success by not renewing the lease and setting up his own foundry on the property. Avery and Richmond relocated twice more, the final time to neighboring Halifax County, before dissolving their partnership. When his father died in 1842, B.F. Avery sold his foundry in Virginia to his brother and returned to New York.

Hood ornament of the popular Model V tractor.

In 1847 Avery and a nephew started a new plow-making business in Louisville, Kentucky, which became B.F. Avery & Sons. The company became one of the largest farm equipment makers in the country, first manufacturing horse-drawn farming implements, then motor-powered tractors, and continued in operation until Minneapolis Moline bought the company in 1951.

Today B.F. Avery tractors are a footnote in America’s agricultural history, one of many farm manufacturing companies that did not survive to the present day. Many of the company’s bright-red tractors, a mainstay of many small farmers, are today restored and cared for by enthusiasts and collectors.

Clarksville would be unrecognizable to B.F. Avery today. The town is unique in that it is the only incorporated town in the state that borders a lake. The John H. Kerr Dam, authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1944 and completed in 1953, created a 50,000-acre lake that left 15 percent of Mecklenburg County underwater, including low-lying parts of Clarksville. Buggs Island Lake as it is called in Virginia, or, as it is known in North Carolina, Kerr Lake – its official name – makes Clarksville a destination for fishermen, boaters, and retirees.

-Dale Dulaney, Archival Assistant

Posted by in Chancery Court Blog Posts.

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5 Comments

  1. Dale said:
    4 May 2011 at 8:27 am

    We often depend on the kindness of strangers here at the blog. I am grateful to the B.F. Avery Collectors & Associates National Tractor Club for use of photos from their website. You can find them at http://www.bfavery.com/ These are the folks who keep this part of our history alive.

    I would also like to thank Justin Eubank, a professional photographer from Southside, Virginia, for use of a photograph he took of Clarksville. You can find his work here http://www.justineubank.com/

    I am also grateful to Luther D. Thomas for researching and writing “B.F. Avery and Sons: Pioneer Plow Makers.” As far as I could discover it was the definitive source on the B.F. Avery Company. He spent many years combing archives and visiting sites across the country to piece together the B.F. Avery story. See his book for much more information about the Avery family, the company, and the history of farm equipment manufacture in the United States.

    -Dale

  2. Rondina Muncy said:
    5 May 2011 at 1:37 pm

    Dale, As I looked at the pictures that accompanied this post I wondered how they were shot. The pictures are beautiful (along with the web design). Is there any information that you could pass along about the lighting and what is being used for the background. This would be helpful in photographing heirlooms that others have.

    • Dale said:
      5 May 2011 at 1:42 pm

      Thanks so much! The credit for those photographs belong to Jessica Tyree who in addition to being our Senior Accessioning Archivist is also a talented (in my opinion at least) amateur photographer. I’ll ask her if she can provide you with details about how she photographed the booklet.

    • Jessica said:
      5 May 2011 at 3:30 pm

      Thank you, I really appreciate the compliment! I am definitely an amateur, so a lot of what I do is pure trial and error. First of all it helps to be using an SLR, so you can control focus, aperture, etc. As for lighting, I am a big fan of using a large window as a softbox, to give you a nice, diffused light. I set the booklet in a variety of positions on the table in a very bla conference room (nothing but greyish-white walls and table), and used no light but the light coming from the window. Then I used a small object (I think a whiteboard eraser) to prop the booklet and shot it from a number of angles, including directly overhead (it’s fun to stand on the table in the office conference room — try it sometime!).

      I hope this helps! Thanks again for the kind words!

  3. Brandon said:
    28 September 2012 at 4:13 pm

    I just found a book identical to that one. But it dates season-1884-1885. It was found in a trunk that belonged to my great grandparents.

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