Collectors Envision David Bradley Museum

1933 Handiman Garden Tractor

Content Tools

Reprinted with permission, this article originally appeared in the March 10, 1996 Kankakee [Illinois] Journal. It was sent to us by Robert Simpson, 442 N. Michigan Ave., Bradley, IL 60915.

Relics of the age of manufacturing of iron-wheeled agricultural implements at David Bradley Manufacturing Company were returned to the area this week, where collectors hope to create a museum dedicated to the firm that gave its name to the town known as North Kankakee.

George Bingley, formerly vice president of engineering for the Roper Outdoor Products Division that succeeded David Bradley, arranged the return of several pieces of equipment made in Bradley:

A vintage 1933 Handiman Garden Tractor (pictured at right),

Two horse-drawn 14-inch steel beam walk-behind plows from 1930,

Two suburban riding garden tractors and mowers produced at the Bradley plant in the 1960s by the Roper Corp., and

A 1965 Roper-built garden tractor.

The equipment was sent home from Orangeburg, South Carolina, from the American Lawn Products Company, which purchased Roper Outdoor Products after its move to South Carolina in 1982.

The agreement to loan whatever Bradley-built relics remained to a David Bradley Museum here came from Dan Neilson, the general manager of American Lawn, whom Bingley had hired as a fresh-from-college engineer years ago at the Bradley plant. Assisting was Dick Franklin, another American Lawn engineer, who once worked for Bingley here.

George Bingley, left, and Bob Simpson pose with the 1933 Handiman Garden Tractor manufactured at the David Bradley plant in the town that changed its name from North Kankakee to Bradley to match its major employer. Both self-admittedly obsessed with restoration of old farm equipment and the history of the Bradley manufacturing firm, they hope to help create a David Bradley Museum.

Neilson asked Franklin to search for any equipment from the old Bradley factory showroom and they agreed to loan whatever remained to help start a David Bradley Museum.

The museum possibility has been discussed for some time by members of Thee Olde Time Farm Show organization, which conducts annual antique farm equipment expositions and demonstrations at the Perry Farm at Bradley every summer.

The group hopes the museum can be located on the Perry Farm grounds, say Bingley, secretary of the group, and Bob Simpson of Bradley, a board member who is working with him toward the museum goal.

Both are admittedly obsessed by restoring old David Bradley equipment and collecting memorabilia of the firm that located at Bradley in 1895 and operated under the name David Bradley there until 1964.

So closely tied was the firm to the town that the village was renamed for it. The town's early leaders changed the name from North Kankakee to Bradley City, then just Bradley, to demonstrate their serious interest in the firm to its owner, David Bradley. The firm's move there saved the town from financial ruin. About 87 years later, its successor Roper Corporation would later help create an economic and employment crisis here by moving its Bradley and Kankakee factories south. Roper stock tripled in value in the year after those early '80s plant closing moves, but hundreds of employees were jettisoned here.

Thousands of men and women worked in the Bradley factory in its near century of operation here, manufacturing hundreds of different kinds of farm machines and later lawn and garden tractors, chain saws, tables and chairs, and other products in the years the company built products almost exclusively for Sears. The 1940s brought production of armaments to fight World War II, which the museum promoters also hope to emphasize.

Few of the oldest machines remain though Bradley produced abundant types and numbers. A catalogue from the 1890s runs to 212 pages of plows, harrows, cultivators, hay rakes and balers, manure spreaders and much more.

Bingley, who now operates an engineering consulting firm from his rural Kankakee home, says the old showroom at Bradley contained much more than has been located by his old friends at American Lawn Products. 'Who knows what happened to it between about 1980 and now,' he said. 'I know there was a lot more that was either discarded or put into someone's family room fine old beams and historic photos.'

Likewise, most of the archives of the factory are gone. Those that were saved from the incinerator or the landfill were rescued by Bob Simpson, who now operates a David Bradley Collector's clearinghouse when he's not working on a D-B restoration project.

Simpson, formerly a quality control employee of another firm that fled south A. O. Smith said he heard that the archives were being thrown out, but only in time to save only one file cabinet full of material. Bingley said there were at least 20 cabinets full of old records when the firm moved, plus 'all the old drawings that were still in my vault.'

Still, Simpson saved a treasure trove of old documents, dating to the late 1800s and including old instruction sheets, catalogs, an almanac given away in the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, and much more. 'It was going to be burned,' he said. 'I heard about it and just went over there and picked it up.'

Simpson says it's probably as complete a collection as exists for an historic age implement producer.

'When I retired, I started cataloging it and it has become an obsession,' he said.

There's plenty of interest in it, as well. 'I get two or three calls a week,' he said, 'and as many letters.'

The collectors hope that interest will help when it comes time to create the museum.

Those who would like to help or to loan or donate material or equipment may call Simpson at 932-7531 or Bingley at 937-4257.