Mervel Wood, the last surviving founder of Woods Equipment Company, died Wednesday, July 16, 2014, in Rockford, Illinois. The employees of Woods Equipment remain ever grateful for the company roots imbedded by Mervel and his brothers nearly 70 years ago. Hard work, ingenuity, and a commitment to people remain at the core of the company’s approach to business — a living tribute to Keith, Leonard and Mervel.
The Rural Lifestyle Dealer team had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with Mervel in the fall of 2011. In this video, Mervel shares some early history of the company as he took the first order for the Woods Rotary Mower.
Mervel and his brothers were problem solvers, risk takers, and entrepreneurs. The brothers used these skills to fuel their drive for inventing and manufacturing, which in 1946, led to the founding of Wood Brothers Manufacturing Co. After World War II, the Wood brothers decided to build a manufacturing company that tapped the growing post-war boom for new products. The war had scattered the brothers across the country, so their first task was to choose a place for their new home. In a 2011 video interview with Lessiter Publishing, Mervel told the story of choosing Oregon, Illinois.
We grew up in Iowa on the Iowa River. When Keith and Leonard came out of Chicago looking at different towns, they landed in Oregon. Holy cow it’s on a river! We grew up on a river! Basically that is the way we chose it. And then Keith and Leonard met Clyde Myers, our first one (investor) and other people here and it was very easily decided on… Clyde Myers said he’d trade his land… and that's where it is today.
When we started up this business, the people in Oregon were the most receptive to us. It was unbelievable… It’s just amazing how they accepted us… When we started hiring people, we tried to hire people better than us. Right off the bat, we hired a lot of good help.
The first employee hired was Carol Long, as Keith’s secretary. She was very much considered part of the management team and eventually gained responsibility for managing data processing and credit. In an interview, Carol recalled the brothers’ leadership style. She remembered:
…respect for their employees, their vision to see what's needed, and making us feel part of a team/family. Also, respecting individuals and seeking excellence wherever it was found (even women in a day and age when it just wasn't done). They were, honorable and ethical in all their dealings and willing to show appreciation.
In a 1950 article by A.F. (Chas.) Davis, editor of Lincoln Electric’s The Stabilizer, Mr. Davis wrote:
And so in three short years the Wood Brothers have a healthy, thriving business in a community where they have the confidence and respect of the people… In spite of the far advancement of their product, Leonard, Keith and Merv are always looking for ways to make a good product better… Such is the story of the Wood Brothers. A story of three rugged individualists who were not afraid to stand alone and to overcome for themselves and by themselves all obstacles. This county has been made great by rugged individualists such as the Wood Brothers.
In their first three years, the company grew to 20 employees in the shop, which Leonard supervised. At that time, Keith served as President and Sales Manager and Mervel worked in the office along with four other employees. Over the years, employment grew and waned with the market, rising to more than 100 in the mid-1960s and peaking at 1,500 in the early 1990s.
Along with job creation, the brothers contributed significantly to the development of skilled labor in Oregon and the Rock River Valley. Since founding the company, thousands of individuals have learned their trade at Woods – welders, machinists, metal fabricators, painters, engineers, and office personnel. Today, Woods Equipment is recognized for its commitment to providing employees a safe, highly productive environment that rewards ingenuity and hard work – a tradition that was established by the Wood brothers and has been nurtured throughout the years as part of their “roll up the sleeves” and “lead by example” style.
The company that bears their name is an admirable legacy, matched only by one particular invention that has significantly affected the agricultural industry: the iconic Batwing rotary cutter, or in its generic term, the flex-wing rotary cutter. As pioneers in the development of rotary cutters and mowers, the Wood brothers helped create a product category that today is extraordinarily prevalent on farms, roadsides, campuses, estates and homes throughout the world. In the past 15 years alone, more than one million rotary cutters have been manufactured in North America, as reported by Association of Equipment Manufacturers.
The Wood brothers’ ingenuity drove them to constantly generate ideas for new and different mowing equipment. They sought to adapt mowers to all types, sizes and models of tractors. Over the years, Woods mowers were designed to fit lawn and agricultural tractors with front-mount, undermount and various types of rearmount hitches, including single point, two-point, three-point, pull-type, and modern quick-hitch. Their aggressive product development established them as pioneers in the development of the “short line” industry — an industry that today includes hundreds of attachment manufacturers.
In recognition of their contribution to the agricultural equipment industry, Keith, Leonard and Mervel were inducted into the Association of Equipment Manufacturers Hall of Fame in 2012. They share this honor with leaders and founders of other prestigious companies in the equipment industry including Caterpillar, J.I. Case, and Deere & Company.
From the Wood brothers’ humble beginning on the banks of the Rock River in Oregon, Illinois, the company has flourished and is now part of a global enterprise, Blount International. More than ever, Woods is positioned to continue to build upon the hard work, ingenuity, and commitment to people instilled by Mervel and his brothers.
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