Originally Posted by Brian Wayne Wells
The Gravely Motor Plow and Cultivator Company of Dunbar, West Virginia
by 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.”