LOOKING BACK: Franklin Equipment Company

Published 5:34 pm Friday, June 28, 2024

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In June 1964, the annual Franklin Chamber of Commerce business meeting was held at Franklin Baptist Church. Forty-three members were in attendance in the church fellowship hall, and two special awards were presented.

A. Woodrow Livesay, Chamber president, was given an award of appreciation.  A plaque -inscribed with “for aggressive leadership and faithful service as president of the Chamber of Commerce” – was presented to him.

Roger W. Drake, President of Franklin Equipment Company, received a special business merit award in recognition of his company’s outstanding contribution to the economic growth of the City of Franklin.

Drake was the first to receive that award, which was presented by R. Ashby Rawls, a Franklin real estate and insurance executive.

Franklin Equipment Company (FECO), founded in 1962 and headed by Drake, manufactured the “Franklin Logger,” designed to harvest and transport logs out of woodlands.  The Company’s official establishment was preceded by four years of research and development.  Through an arrangement with Union Bag-Camp Paper Corporation, experienced logging experts tried and evaluated prototypes in the woods.  Ben Babb of Courtland played an essential role as a consultant and partner with Drake in the company’s formative years. 

The popular new machine met with immediate success. The “Franklin Logger” was developed using new concepts in logging tractor design. First, it used oversized rubber tires, which produced better mobility and a certain level of flotation in swampy areas. There was far less downtime for repair and maintenance. Traditional “track-driven” logging equipment tended to cause breakdowns and miring in some types of terrain. 

Another feature of the Franklin Logger was that the tractor steered from an articulated center section.  Combined with oversized rubber tires, the Franklin Logger was much more maneuverable in the woods than rigid track-driven tractors.   It proved to be a much more efficient machine.

FECO’s market area expanded very rapidly. From an area within just a few miles of Franklin to a more regional area that included Virginia and North Carolina, well into the southeastern United States, the young company’s growth and industry acceptance were remarkable.  

That was accomplished largely through affiliation with Tidewater Equipment Company, a heavy equipment distributor based in Brunswick, Georgia. Tidewater Equipment Company became an authorized dealer for the “Franklin Logger.” This gave FECO, through Tidewater Equipment Company, dealer locations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. 

In 1964, operating out of its manufacturing facility on East Second Avenue in downtown Franklin, the Company was described by many people as growing “by leaps and bounds”—employing approximately fifty people and contributing greatly to the city’s economic growth.  

Soon, the company needed to find more space for its manufacturing and allied operations. More and more people were being employed and given employment opportunities. Projections at that time indicated that the employment figure would exceed one hundred people in the very near future and, eventually, over the next few years, reach past two hundred.   

In 1966, to accommodate the increased demand for the Franklin Logger, the company moved its operations to a thirty-four-acre site in Camptown. A 180,000-square-foot manufacturing facility was built. Soon, employment reached 250 people.

From 1966 through 1968, further distribution of the Franklin Logger was established through additional dealership arrangements in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas.  

In 1968, FECO. purchased the Jeddeloh Brothers Sweed Mills (a foundry) in Independence, Oregon.  FECO used that facility to produce axle and transmission housings – and, for some time, manufactured logging tractors for the West coast market.   

Over the next few years, several other FECO expansions/acquisitions occurred:  In 1969, to better serve the Canadian market, a tractor manufacturing plant was established in Elmira, Ontario, Canada; In 1970, the sheet metal fabrication machinery from R. L. Tillett, Inc. of Franklin was purchased; in 1974, the gear & Axle Division of Dana Corp. of Detroit was acquired and its machinery and vice president were relocated to Franklin; and, in 1990, the Tree Farmer Equipment Co. of Talladega, Alabama (a FECO competitor) was purchased from its parent company in Canada.  

In 1991, the Tree Farmer plant in Talladega closed, and production capacity was moved to Franklin. The “Tree Farmer” tractor was added to the existing “Franklin Logger” assembly lines. Effectively, a new industry was brought to the area.  

Eventually, the total number of FECO dealership locations reached approximately 150—in twenty-five states and eight foreign countries. FECO sales/service outlets were located in Louisburg, Wallace, and Washington—in North Carolina—and in Franklin, Virginia. At one point, the FECO employment level exceeded 450 people company-wide. 

In 2009, due to economic factors, FECO went into bankruptcy and was closed.

CLYDE PARKER is a retired human resources manager for the former Franklin Equipment Co. and a member of the Southampton County Historical Society. His email address is magnolia101@charter.net.