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.
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