Sears Suburban Backyard Tractor Club

Est. 2008

Dennis Marek: Remembering when manufacturing was big

Sept. 07, 2013, 9:30 am


As I grew up, my father, Jim, supported our family by working as a photographer for The Daily Journal and being a commercial photographer at his business, The Colonial Studio. Over the years, prior to his retirement in 1975, he collected his favorite commercial shots in a single case. I inherited that box when he passed away. On occasion, I open that set of photographs and my heart sinks. It is like a morgue. A.O. Smith, George D. Roper, David Bradley, General Mills, General Foods, and the list goes on. All those wonderful factories that employed our citizens and supported so many families — and now all gone.

While I grew up here, I was gone from 1960 to 1970 with schooling and the military. My real knowledge of the Kankakee industry began with what I found on my return to practice law here. Consequently, I had to learn some local industrial history. It turned out that I knew little of the organization of a Roper, Sears and David Bradley. I needed the help of former David Bradley employee, Dick Condon. The story is most interesting, but it will be lost as time passes.

As I grew up, two thriving industries in our area, Geo. D. Roper in Kankakee and David Bradley in Bradley, put us on the manufacturing map. While they are now history to our community, some have not forgotten the good side of their stay in our county. Three of those persons are Richard Condon, Bob Berns and Mike Puffer. They are members of a long-time organization called the David Bradley Keymen’s Club that has been around since the early 1940s. The original purpose of the club was to increase morale and to encourage discussions of politics and objectives of the factory of David Bradley. Still in existence today, that membership, though dwindling, has a mission. They would like to preserve the history of David Bradley by way of a museum. While they have numerous exhibits, machines and devices created by the Bradley factory, they are without funds and without a place to house these Kankakee County treasures. I have been asked to make their plight known, in hopes that someone might have a place without rent where such a museum could be located.

For those of you, like me, who have little history of our industrial founders, David Bradley, was born in 1811 and lived until 1899. He started in the plow business in New York and came to Chicago in 1835, establishing a foundry. He soon started manufacturing plows right next to the Chicago Courthouse, but ran out of space. In 1895, Bradley chose a site one half mile north of the city of Kankakee, called North Kankakee. Part of the deal with the city fathers at the time was to rename this area Bradley in his honor. His factory was built at the corner of Schuyler and Broadway on about 10 acres. David Bradley was soon turning out more plows than John Deere.

In 1893, Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck, became partners and chose to sell items through catalogues much like Montgomery Ward, which had been thriving with its catalogue business. Sears was an agent who got a case of watches by mistake and then discovered he could things at a profit. Roebuck was the watchmaker Sears hired after the first case was gone. Later Sears-Roebuck leadership was taken over by a financier, Julius Rosenwald. Sears continued to expand and purchased David Bradley in 1910. Sears became one of the most dominant merchandisers in the country. In 1962, however, Sears was forced to divest its manufacturing by the Federal Government in an anti-trust decision. It sold David Bradley to the Newark, Ohio, Company that year. Development of new products erupted. Chain saws, new style garden tractors, roto tillers, and lawn rollers, discs, harrows and other farm and garden products were rolling off the line.

Then a change took place. In 1966, production was being moved to their Newark, Ohio, plant and away from here. That is when Geo. D. Roper Corporation stepped in, bought David Bradley from Newark, and retained those valuable jobs locally. Models were updated. A new self-sharpening chainsaw was introduced with cutting speeds that were 15 percent faster than the competition. Hydro-static transmissions were added to the tractors, along with new attachments such as vacuum collectors and lawn cleaners. Soon snow throwers, bulldozer blades and all-weather cabs were added to the production lines in Bradley.

Unfortunately, stiff competition resulted in further erosion of the local production. Roper Bradley, as it had become known, continued with design changes, but the manufacturing end bled away. The Bradley plant soon closed. Employees promised jobs in other locations were not asked to move. The term “rust belt” impacted Roper and its many facets. By 1982, all manufacturing had ceased in Illinois. Only the village name remained.

Our community needs to retain its history and only devoted people seem to make the effort. While many will still be bitter with Roper’s decision to leave, Roper and David Bradley raised and fed a lot of local families for a lot of years. So if any of my readers have an idea for The Keymen’s Museum, in order to preserve some of the Roper Bradley heritage, contact Dick Condon at 815-469-2537, email him at [email protected], or contact me and I will forward that information to him.

Dennis Marek may be reached at [email protected]"

Author: Dennis Marek
Source:  The Daily Journal
Gratefully posted with permission

Sears Suburban History

1910: Sears / David Bradley:
To provide a firm source and to control the quality of its farm implements, Sears, Roebuck and Company purchased the David Bradley Manufacturing Company in 1910. Under the Sears management, the name of David Bradley became a symbol of quality, as well as one of the best known trade names throughout the world.

When the demand for Incubators and Brooders fell off, Sears and Bradley inaugurated a program for Garden Tractors. The Bradley Walking Tractor, along with all its various attachments, became world famous for its versatility and dependability. Hundreds of thousands of these fine machines were produced, and many are still in use today, Coal Stokers were added to the line in 1937, and again the Bradley Plant "hit the jackpot' as with another finely engineered, fast selling item, The trend to gas, oil, and electric heat after the War brought about the demise of this production.

1944: World War II:
During World War II, Bradley plunged into war production with the same vigor and skill that marked its civilian production. On December 29, 1944, with more than 300 of their employees serving in the Armed Forces, the David Bradley Manufacturing Company was awarded the Army-Navy "E" Award. Through the war, with hundreds more of our fellow employees in Service, this enviable production record continued.

After the War, the Engineering Department that had originated in the mid-30's and had been handicapped by wartime restrictions, really came into its own. Farm implements were designed to accept rubber tire mountings of standard automobile sizes, the Walking Tractor was redesigned and became not only the most powerful one on the market at that time, but also the first one to be "streamlined". The farm implement business boomed, and such items as Side Delivery Hay Rakes, Drag Harrows, Hay Loaders, Disc Harrows, Power Mowers (the sickle bar type), Manure Spreaders (they made them but it was the only product of theirs that they wouldn't stand behind) and plows were mass produced. The plant produced plow shares for many other firms as well as its own use. Of course, that is only typical of the famous built in quality of David Bradley products. A progressive building program was originated at the conclusion of the War, and between 1946 and 1947, 218,000 square feet of buildings were added to the facilities, bringing the total under-roof area to more than seven hundred thousand square feet. A line of Dinette Furniture was added to the product list in 1952, and has had grown to the proportions that the plant is was one of the largest manufacturers of Dinette Sets in the country. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent for capital equipment to enable this great growth in furniture. During the Korean War, Bradley again turned to War Production and, again, made great contributions to the effort with their Shell Line.

1955 Chain Saws:
A new potential loomed in 1955 when Chain Saws appeared to become a major sales item. Bradley developed the finest saws on the market, and Bradley and Sears were justifiably proud of their complete line of super-light weight, high performance saws. The men and women at David Bradley won a National Safety Council award when during a span of from February 1, 1957 to April 8, 1959, a total of 887,173 man hours, they did not have a lost time incident. This is an Industrial Safety at its finest. The famous Walking Tractor met its successor in 1958 when the Riding Garden Tractor became a reality. Thru the vision and foresight of Bradley and Sears, this product has been developed to the present leader in its field. A full line of attachments were soon manufactured. The Bradley Plant was the largest manufacturer of Garden Tractors in the world. Around 1960 the trend toward "out—of—doors" living and eating was developing. Bradley tooled up and sent into production of Barbecue Grills for Sears, and produced these units in various styles in huge quantities. This line was dropped to be able to utilize men and equipment for other products.

1959: Government steps in:
Government felt that Sears had a monopoly on outdoor gardening equipment. In the 1960's the federal government was looking at Sears and David Bradley in light of the anti-trust/monopoly laws and in 1962, Sears merged the David Bradley Manufacturing Company and the Newark, Ohio company into a single unit, still maintaining ownership.

1962: Newark, Ohio Company:
In 1962, Sears merged the David Bradley Manufacturing Company and the Newark, Ohio company into a single unit, still maintaining ownership. The Bradley Plant then became known is the Newark Ohio Co., Kankakee Division.

1964 Roper:
In 1964, the Newark Ohio Company was merged with the Geo. D. Roper Corporation, which was the only nationally known firm to headquarter in Kankakee. Sears owned Roper and had them buy out Newark (which owned David Bradley at this point ) Although the Roper Corporation is not owned by Sears, that merchandizing giant was still the major customer of the firm. With the merger, the Bradley Division of Geo. D. Roper became more active than ever.

1966 Gas Rotisseries and Pocket Billiard Tables:
In 1966, Gas Rotisseries were added to the line, and later in the year, the production of Pocket Billiard Tables was undertaken. In the Fall of '66, a new Warehouse was built, adding some 72,000 more square feet of space to the plant. The new warehouse alone represented an expenditure of nearly half a million dollars. Another 15,000 square feet was enclosed in 1967, and progress continues. Many employees of the Bradley Plant have always enjoyed fine benefits. Under the aggressive management of Roper, the employment had risen from 550 in 1964 to more than 1500 in early 1967.

1968: New Name:
Sears not only was Geo. D. Roper Corp.'s largest customer but also owned nearly half of the Illinois-based appliance manufacturer. This relationship between Sears and Geo D. Roper Corp. was strengthened when Geo D. Roper Corp. merged with a wholly owned Sears subsidiary, Newark Ohio Co., in 1964. Newark Ohio, which manufactured electric ranges, lawn mowers, and other products for Sears, sold nearly all of its products to its parent company prior to the merger, while Geo D. Roper Corp. derived 55 percent of its annual revenue from sales to Sears before the merger. Once combined, the merged entity relied on its relationship with Sears to generate more than three-quarters of total sales, ranking as Sears' largest supplier of gas and electric ranges, rotary mowers, and a major supplier of drapery hardware.

When Geo. D. Roper and Newark Ohio merged, the Geo. D. Roper Corporation corporate title was retained for several years until Roper Corporation was adopted as the company's new name in April 1968, by which time the gas stove manufacturing business originally founded by George Roper was rapidly approaching the $200-million-a-year sales mark. Over the ensuing two decades, Roper Corporation broadened its product line and grew as Sears grew, developing into a more than $500 million company by the mid-1980s, when Roper Corp. implemented a major restructuring program. Nonessential businesses, such as the company's involvement in luggage and window blind production, were spun off; manufacturing facilities were relocated from the Midwest to Georgia and South Carolina; and 60 percent of its shares were bought back from Sears, making Roper Corporation a more cost-efficient maker of electric kitchen ranges than other major producers. The changes effected during the mid-1980s also made Roper Corporation a much more attractive acquisition target, and in 1988 a bidding war between Whirlpool Corporation and the General Electric Company was touched off, as the two giant appliance makers battled for the rights to acquire one of the few U.S. electric appliance manufacturers still in existence. In the end, General Electric emerged the victor, and acquired Roper Corporation's manufacturing capacity for stoves and lawn equipment, the core of its more than $700 million business at the time.

1988: GE Purchases Roper:
The General Electric Company and the Whirlpool Corporation agreed that G.E. could proceed unopposed with its tender offer for the Roper Corporation. The deal between the two giant appliance makers ends a bitter takeover battle for Roper, a manufacturer of stoves and other appliances. Under the agreement, G.E. acquired Roper's manufacturing capacity for stoves and lawn equipment, while Whirlpool will get the Roper name for major appliances. G.E. will supply Whirlpool with electric and gas ranges for the Roper brand for at least two years.
G.E. has offered $54 a share, or $507 million, for Roper. Whirlpool will withdraw its bid of $50 a share, or $470 million. Lawsuits Withdrawn.

1988: American Yard Products (Husqvarna Group's)
(AYP, later bought by Frigidare which was later bought by Electrolux.) Acquisition of gardening operations in Roper Corp in the US, one of the largest producers of lawn mowers, garden tractors and rotary tillers in the American market, with annual sales of about SEK 2,500m. The company's name is changed to American Yard Products. The US becomes the Husqvarna Group's largest market for garden equipment. Husqvarna had already purchased Poulan/Weed Eater in 1986. Electrolux had acquired Husqvarna in 1978.

2006: Husqvarna:
Husqvarna is spun off from Electrolux and the shares are listed on NASDAQ.

More about Roper:
As Roper Corporation slowly disappeared from the business press spotlight, existing in relative anonymity deep within the sundry organizational layers comprising behemoth General Electric, the other half of the former Geo. D. Roper Corporation--the pump manufacturing facilities that were relocated to Georgia in the late 1950s--was beginning to etch a new identity for the Roper name as Roper Industries Inc. During Roper Corporation's rise as a major supplier to Sears, the Georgia-based pump works--Roper Pump Company--operated as a public company until 1981, when a leveraged buyout transferred ownership of the company to private hands. The following year, the person chiefly responsible for Roper Industries' growing stature during the 1980s and 1990s arrived, marking the beginning of a new era in the company's history that would punctuate its decades of quiet existence with resolute, international growth. The pump manufacturing facilities are still in existence today.

Did you know?

Shredder Bagger
December 1970, The Bradley Division of Roper Outdoor Products announced a new product to be built for the Sears Roebuck and Company Starting May 1, 1971. This new item is called a shredder bagger and is designed to reduce volume of the waste materials such as leaves, branches, trimmings and garbage for more economical disposal or for conversion to compost for use in gardens and flower beds. At the time, restrictions were going into effect for burning leaves and yard waste in urban communities. During this time, shredder bagger units were becoming the fastest growing item in the garden market. A 3.5 and a 6 HP unit was planned at this time. Since it would be primarily a fall unit, most of the units were to be made when tractor production is at a slower pace to help stabilize production output. Estimates were that 20,000 units would be shipped from Bradley in 1971.
In June 1971, production began. Sears requested 40,00 units to be completed by fall along with material for an additional 10,000 units should they be needed. Bradley also planned on making 10,00 leaf ramps as optional equipment for the Shredder Bagger.
Bradley started in the tractor business in 1959
Suburban 10,000 tractor
The 10,000th tractor was completed in February of 1965
Suburban 250,000 tractor
Reflecting a tremendous upsurge in production, the 250,000 the tractor came off the line in April of 1969.
Suburban 500,000 tractor
Just 5 years later, production had reached a half million mark. On Monday, September 16, 1974 at 11:30 AM the brilliant colored white, gold and chrome unit was unveiled. Roper Outdoor Products celebrated the special day with ceremonies at the plant with free coffee and soft drink machines in the plant. It was a 24 hour event.
February 1973 Line Review
In February 1973, a line review was held for the 1974 and 1975 proposed line of tractors to be built for Sears. At this time, Sears had given authority to go through 1975 on Bradley/Roper’s tooling program.
The line for 1974 will consist of the following models:
1. 8HP recoil lawn tractor
2. All electric start 8 HP lawn tractor
3. New and replacing the 10 HP Custom will be a 10 HP lawn tractor with electric start
4. 12 HP Suburban type garden tractor the same as currently built
5. 16 HP overhead valve in the Suburban frame as we presently know it.
6. 16 HP twin Onan SS16 as we presently know it.
The line for 1975 will be as follows:
1. A recoil start lawn tractor 8 HP
2. An electric start 8 HP lawn tractor
3. 10 HP electric start lawn tractor
4. New full featured frame tractor which will probably come in 12, 14 and 16 HP sizes
5. The top of the line would be a twin cylinder hydrostatic drive tractor also in the same full featured frame.
6. The all electric tractor will continue the line.
In 1975, Bradley was also looking at the possibility of coming up with a hydrostatic drive tractor in the smaller horsepowers, perhaps 10 to 12 HP
Did you know?
Bradley had a test base near Ft Lauderdale Florida in the early 70s. Buildings and moving areas were located on the Flamingo Orange Groves and Tropical Botanic Gardens Broward County, near Ft Lauderdale. On this site all products manufactured by the Bradley Division were tested with specific emphasis on tractors and attachments.
There were approx. 450 acres with some 12 to 13,000 orange trees to mow around, most of which is heavy mowing. About 24 acres were mowed per day. In addition there were nearby sod farms that more than equal the size of the orange grove. At the test base was an office and maintenance shop for approx. 12 tractors. The shop, office and conference room had about 2,000 square feet.
In 1970, Roper experimented and built an ATV pro-type with plans to mass produce the ATV for Sears. The buyer for Sears even went out to the plant and examined and drove the “Bird” saying “I must admit that you have on your hands the finest vehicle of it’s kind that I’ve ever seen.”. Any information about this ATV that could shed light on this veicle project would be appreciated.
In 1976, Sears had 3 total roto-spader manufactures making roto-spaders besides Bradley.

Other items produced for Sears by David Bradley/Roper:
The Famous Sears Suburban Tractor – imitated by many, envied by all, and equaled by none. This and
Sears Custom Tractors make Bradley the World's largest.
Deluxe Pocket Billiard - One model was the Salem
Dinette Sets produced at Bradley for Sears. Bradley was the prime source of Dinettes for Sears,
Lightweight Chain Saws. Gear Drive, Direct Drive, or Electric.
Barbecue Grills