The History of Browning Manufacturing -- 1886 to 1986

2013-04-19T18:00:00Z 2013-04-22T13:35:04Z The History of Browning Manufacturing -- 1886 to 1986MARLA TONCRAY Ledger Independent
April 19, 2013 6:00 pm  • 

After more than 120 years, Browning Manufacturing, now Emerson Industrial Automation, is slowly but surely winding down its manufacturing operation in Maysville, although office operations will remain.

In a series of stories published over the next several days, we will examine the history of the company and the potential impact on the city, the neighborhood and families of the loss of what was once the area's largest employer.


In 1986, the Browning Manufacturing Division, Emerson Electric celebrated its 100th anniversary.

Twenty-seven years later, the future of the power-house manufacturer is in doubt.

In June 2012, Emerson Industrial Automation officials announced both manufacturing locations in Maysville -- Second Street and Progressive Way -- will cease production by the end of 2013.  The announcement forestalled the closure of the manufacturing division at the Second Street plant, which also houses administrative offices.  That location was to have ceased manufacturing operations in December 2012, according to previous announcements by Emerson Electric officials.

Since 2010, jobs have been scaled back at the Second Street location.  Emerson officials have confirmed the work is being relocated to a facility in Mexico and other locations in the U.S.

Taken from a special Centennial Edition published by The Ledger Independent Aug. 18, 1986, here is a look at the history of Browning Manufacturing.


"Limestone Wood Split Pulley ... Guarantee ... We absolutely guarantee every Limestone Pulley to give satisfaction in every respect and to be in every way as represented.  Should one of them fail in this it may be returned at our expense and money will be refunded or a new pulley given instead.  Don't be misled by discounts ... quality talks."

"Hardly if ever did a new enterprise, a newly incorporated company, come so close to being "dead aborning" as did The Ohio Valley Pulley Works."

Those words begin the fourth chapter of an unfinished book written by John N. Browning.  Much of the work is personal and deals with only family matters, but the book also contains some important information about the history of Browning Manufacturing and its predecessor, The Ohio Valley Pulley Works.

John Browning joined the company in 1920 and would later join with his brother, Laurance L. Browning as the management team that would lead the company for more than three decades.

In 1986, Laura VanMeter, a daughter of John Browning, made parts of the book available to The Ledger Independent.

Two important events stand out in the very early years of the company.  First, a decision by its original owners to move the firm, which manufactured split-wood pulleys, from Wheeling, W.Va., to Maysville.  That move came in 1896, 10 years after the company was first established.  The second event was a devastating fire that roared through the factory on a Saturday night in July 1899.  The fire destroyed all physical assets of the fledgling company and threatened to throw the firm into bankruptcy.

Many of the earliest records of the company were lost in the 1937 flood. 

John Browning knew a man named Sprinkle came to the United States from Germany with the knowledge of how to manufacture wood split pulleys. He apparently gained his knowledge in the Black Forest area. Sprinkle moved to western Pennsylvania where he interested individuals with capital in building a plant to make wood pulleys.  The plant was located on the Ohio River in the Wheeling, Marietta, Moundsville area in 1886.

The business struggled and after about nine years, the owners decided to move west and Sprinkle was loaded on a flatboat with whatever machinery the plant possessed.

The flatboat tied up in Maysville 1895, and the owner of the enterprise, J.T. Long, with M.K. Sprinkle along to provide the technical skill, decided to locate in Maysville.

Long purchased the site of Maysville's first pulley factory on Feb. 5, 1895.  The tract included about 70 lots in Chester Subdivision on both sides of Clark Street.  The payment was $5,000.

Long and his wife, Gertrude, sold the business to the Ohio Valley Pulley Works on Feb. 3, 1896.  A corporation was formed with a capital stock of $50,000 divided into 500 shares of $100 each.  Long retained 120 shares, and he was joined by T.A. Keith, E.P. Browning and J.W. Fitzgerald, each controlling 120 shares and M.K. Sprinkle who was in control of 20 shares.

The stockholders constituted the board of directors and Thomas A. Keith was elected president. E.P. Browning served as secretary and treasurer, and Sprinkle was named superintendent.

John and Laurance Browning's father, Samuel Pearce Browning, returned to Maysville in 1894; he worked in the family's dry goods store, Browning and Company, and settled down to study law.

He changed careers when E.P. Browning, known as Uncle Ned, began asking for his help in completing payrolls and other assignments. He made his first trip as a pulley salesman in the spring of 1897, when he was 20.  Sales for that year were reported at $15,626.

The fire in 1899 could have spelled the end of the young company, but the stockholders agreed to borrow money to replace the plant and its equipment.  Most of the money was borrowed locally.  The new plant was relocated, built and equipped in just over 90 days, and in spite of the fire, sales for 1899 reached $45,861.

In the early 1900s the Browning family began to consolidate stock. The Brownings purchased stock from W.W. Ball and T. A. Keith and J.W. Fitzgerald began selling his ownership in the business. By 1905, the three owners were Uncle Ned, S.P. Browning and Joe Peed.  The Peeds sold their interest in 1913, and the uncle-nephew team remained sole owner of the company until 1923.

Sales in 1900 shot up to more than $80,000 and the company began a profitable relationship with Murray Company, a cotton gin manufacturer.

Records show that by 1907, the company was doing almost $170,000 per year in sales with the wood split pulley as its only product.  A move to process steel split pulleys was inevitable.  The wooden pulleys were less expensive, but steel pulleys had advantages and their availability was hurting the company.  Sales, which had reached $169,740 in 1907, declined to $127,155 in 1910.

The company worked out an exclusive sales contract with Oneida Steel Pulley Company and in 1911, began selling Oneida products south of the Ohio River and west of the Mississippi. In 1918, Oneida declined to renew the contract and Ohio Valley sued for damages.  The local firm lost and was left without a steel pulley supplier and no method of manufacturing such products.

In the meantime, however, the company had developed a new wood pulley called the "Limestone" which was superior to the Sprinkle pulley. Although some customers, notably the large and successful Fairbanks Company, continued to purchase the Sprinkle pulley as late as 1921, the Limestone pulley would be the cornerstone of the Ohio Valley Pulley Works through the end of World War II.

The need for all types of pulleys during World War I kept the company busy during the decade between 1910 and 1920.


The following excerpts are taken from an interview with the late Laurance L. Browning Jr. in 1986.  Laurance Browning Jr. served as president of Browning Manufacturing from 1969 until 1974 when he accepted a management position with Emerson Electric at its St. Louis headquarters.  Browning retired in 1985 as a vice chairman of Emerson Electric. In 1986, he continued to serve as a director of the company.

The late 1930s was a busy and crucial time for Browning Manufacturing. It was at this time the company, formerly known as The Ohio Valley Pulley Works took on the Browning family name.

In the late 1920s, the Ohio Valley Pulley Works merged with a long-time rival, Rockwood Pulley, of Indianapolis ... the merged company was known as General Fibre Products ... Rockwood continued to make paper pulleys and the Maysville operation was set to work in the production of sheaves ... the Indianapolis stockholders were committed to the production of paper pulleys, while Browning family members and their advisors saw a future in the V-drive systems.

In 1936, the Brownings bought the Maysville operation back in what Larry Browning described as an early form of "leveraged buyout." The Brownings, part owners of General Fibre, bought a portion of the company and used the assets of the company as collateral to borrow money.

On July 1, 1936, Browning Manufacturing was created.

In January 1937, the disastrous '37 Flood hit Maysville and forced the temporary abandonment of the East Second Street factory.  Motors of each machine were taken off and stored at the Planters Warehouse (owned by the company) and the offices were moved to John Browning's home on Edgemont.

"I first started with the company in 1943. In the V-belt drive business, companies were generally involved in making rubber or metal parts for the V-belt systems. A company with a history of manufacturing metal components would team up with a rubber company and offer the complete system," Laurance L. Browning, Jr. said.

"When we began to develop and manufacture the roller chain sprocket in 1945, we teamed with a small company called Atlas Chain in the same sort of arrangement."

"We produced the first large steel sprockets and in 1954, we entered the mounted bearing field," said Browning.

"The next product diversification came in 1963 when we began to design gears. We thought that business would be very lucrative," he said. "And, although we were never really successful in the gear business, it gave us both the technological knowledge and the production capacity to produce reducers beginning in 1968, and also specialty gears."

"Shaft mount reducers were added to the line in 1972. Our strength has always been in the replacement business. We were never very successful in bidding on large numbers of a product for other industries. What we did well, was organize a distribution network that was and continues to be, our most valuable asset," said Browning.

Areas cited by Browning as success stories were in air-moving furnaces, machinery for the oil drilling industry, materials handling such as conveyors and the agriculture industry.

Asked about the company's long history of good working relations with its employees, Browning noted the firm had one of the earliest employee medical benefit programs.

"It was called the Mutual Benefit Society and it provided medical insurance and a death benefit for our workers," he said.

In talking about the sale of the company to Emerson in 1968, Browning said, "I didn't think we had any choice."

Browning said he and his family "worked very hard to sell it (the sale of the company to Emerson) to our people."

Louis Browning said in a letter to the editor published in April 2011, "I am flat out convinced that people were able to work longer at Main and Chester after the Pulley Works became part of Emerson ..."

Copyright 2015 Ledger Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(2) Comments

  1. IBM Dick
    Report Abuse
    IBM Dick - April 16, 2014 2:03 am
    I was just reminiscing with some retired IBMers earlier this evening, and the topic of early computers came up. Immediately, I thought of my early IBM experience with Browning Manufacturing, in Maysville, KY. Both of us started in 1957-58 learning all about computers and programming and systems design... I worked with two wonderful people at Browning,,, first was Dale Horner, the Manager and next was Bob Stevens, the bright college grad. Without those two great people, it wasn't possible.
  2. cdemas
    Report Abuse
    cdemas - November 26, 2013 1:03 pm
    In the late 40's and early 50's, John Browning was a regular visitor to my family's business, Frank Tracy, Inc. at 202-204 Centre Street in New York City. I was a little kid, and I remember how really nice he always was to me. I though he had magnificent eyebrows, too!
    Wonderful memories of those years. My grandfather and father were Henry and Herbert Stuhrmann,, respectively.

    Carole Stuhrmann Demas
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