In 1911, Benjamin Franklin Gravely of South Charleston began tinkering with the design for a power-driven plow. Using a motorcycle engine and a push plow rigged to a single tractor wheel, Gravely constructed his first motor-driven plow. With the 2.5 horsepower engine and flywheel on one side and the gears on the other, the prototype was a crude version of the machine that would revolutionize garden cultivation. Gravely continued to refine the initial design, first in his kitchen and basement and later in a friend’s machine shop.
On December 5, 1916, a patent was issued for the Gravely Motor Plow, and by 1922 Gravely had started his own business, the Gravely Motor Plow and Cultivator Company, located in Dunbar. The machine became so popular that often a year’s worth of motor plows sold in just 90 days. The first Gravelys retailed for $150 to $175. Sales outlets were established in Florida and California, and there were European representatives in France, Switzerland, and Germany.
The early D-model Gravely had one wheel, was the size and height of a push plow, weighed 150 pounds, and was painted red. The Model L, introduced in 1937, had two wheels and increased power—from 2.5 to five horsepower. Mr. Gravely’s passion for improvement resulted in frequent design changes within model lines, often delaying production. Gradually, the Gravely evolved into a powerful walk-behind garden tractor, capable of plowing, mowing, and a variety of other tasks. Eventually an optional sulky allowed the operator to ride rather than walk.
In 1937, Mr. Gravely retired from the day-to-day management of the company, and his business partner, D. Ray Hall, acquired control. Hall sold the company to Studebaker in 1960 for a reported $12.5 million. The last Gravely tractor rolled off the Dunbar assembly line in 1968, and production subsequently moved to Clemmons, North Carolina.
Written by Jane Siers Wright
Marra, John L. Ben Gravely's Garden Tractor. Goldenseal, (Summer 1997).