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Thomas Bennett: The Man Behind the Winchester Brand

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 31, 2023 3:01 am

Thomas Bennett: The Man Behind the Winchester Brand

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 31, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Thomas Bennett was a master salesman and businessman who helped, along with John Moses Browning, to create the iconic American firearms brand.

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Exclusions apply. And we continue with Our American Stories. And here to tell another great American story is our own Ashley Lebinski, a frequent contributor here at Our American Stories. She is the former co-host of Discovery Channel's Master of Arms, the former curator in charge of the Cody Firearms Museum, and she's the co-founder of the University of Wyoming College of Law's Firearms Research Center.

Here's Ashley. A lot of people know the name Winchester. They know the name Winchester as the quote-unquote gun that won the West.

They know the name from any Western movie that's ever been made since Buffalo Bill filmed some of his work. So the Winchester name is so prominent that sometimes you forget that there are other people behind the company name. And one of the people who was attributed with making Winchester really what it was was a guy named Thomas Bennett. Now that's a name you probably don't recognize, but he basically built the company into what it was. He went to Yale, very smart.

He was a college wrestler, so Thomas Bennett was a very kind of big, stocky individual, and he was an avid sportsman and loved fishing, hunting, all of that stuff. So, you know, perfect fit for Winchester, right? And this is a really interesting part of his backstory is that he's actually a first lieutenant in an African-American regiment during the Civil War. And so he ends up starting for Winchester in 1870, and he's an apprentice engineer, so he starts kind of bottom of the totem pole.

Oliver Winchester came from a clothing background, so he's not a gun guy. He's the businessman. He really liked Bennett. He was priming him for leadership positions within the company, because Bennett also proved to be a very good businessman. What nobody anticipated, though, was the fact that Oliver Winchester's sons would pass away.

But Thomas Bennett does marry his daughter, Jenny, in 1872, and some say that they met at a company picnic. So Bennett becomes Winchester's foreign affairs guy initially. So he becomes the guy that is all over the world, and he brings Winchester kind of into the global market. It's part of the reason why everybody knows what Winchester is, because what a lot of people don't realize is early on in Winchester history, they almost go bankrupt like a lot.

And so you see successful, successful, but it's actually a company that really needs some help early on. And so he helps with that and takes the name Winchester, and he goes around the world, and he promotes the brand, he promotes the company. The one thing that happens during this time period is that he misses his family. I mean, how cute is that, right? And so he writes love letters to his wife for 50 years, and he calls her my dear girl in the letters. But what's funny is he recognizes that he's kind of rough on the whole love letter thing early on. So in his first love letter, he literally writes, this is the first love letter that I have ever wrote, so you must not despair because there is not much love in it. So he improves upon his abilities over the years, but all of this travel really takes a toll on him, and he misses his daughter's first steps.

And he also keeps it a little spicy. You know, you can't sext during that period, but he found a way to communicate overseas with his wife. And so in one instance, he was in France, I believe, and he bought her this beautiful dress, and he sent it to her, and he wrote a letter that very lovingly says, you got better writing, right?

Very lovingly says, wouldn't I like to see you in it or indeed out of it, my dear girl? I feel like when you think about historical figures, that is not how you see historical figures, but there were people too, right? So Thomas Bennett is a wonderful businessman, and he makes Winchester what it is. But he also is credited with finding one of the greatest gun designers of all time, and that is John Moses Browning. And he hears about them, and he ultimately is the person that pays for Browning's first design and quickly another design, and Browning becomes almost synonymous with Winchester nowadays.

Most people didn't necessarily know his name back then. But so many Winchester guns for 20 years almost are initial designs by Browning that come in-house that he basically sells the patent rights to, and then Winchester has the ability to decide if they're going to make it or not, and then they have their in-house designers do that, and then they push the product out on the commercial market. He's also such a strong-headed individual that he's the reason that Browning and him end their relationship. So I think around the turn of the 20th century, 1902, 1903, Browning has already developed this really advanced piece of technology, and he brings it to Bennett, and he says, I want a royalty, because he knows this is going to be huge, right? And so Bennett says, no, thank you, we're good.

And so that was it. I mean, the Browning relationship was totally over, and it didn't rekindle until World War I, right before Browning passes away, but it's this 20-year relationship that ends because of a change in contract, and Bennett does not mince his words with how he feels about Browning after the fact. He writes a letter to the salespeople that we call, in my field, the sour grapes letter, and it basically says that John Moses Browning is not that big of a deal, that Winchester had to modify their guns so much in-house to make them available for the commercial market. He calls John Moses's brother Matthew a difficult proposition, that's a direct quote, and then basically at the end of the letter says that they're going to be much better off without Browning, and he can't say the same for Browning without Winchester, but if you do know that history, you know that is not how that goes.

But I digress. It's a great anecdote, though, to see that Bennett was this powerhouse within the company, and he's trying to retire by 1910, and he wants to keep it in the family like Oliver Winchester did, and so one of the people that is now starting to take on the reins is his son Winchester Bennett, like the little sneaky way of involving that family name. But Winchester Bennett is not as qualified as his father. His father has very high expectations for him, and Winchester Bennett is politely phrased, he's sickly, and he's also prone to anxiety, severe nervous disorders, and so he kind of goes in and out of the hospital, makes some bad decisions for Winchester, and so as a result, while Thomas Bennett is trying to build this house and spend his golden years with his wife, whom he loves so much, he's kind of having to step in and out of his role with Winchester, and so Bennett ends up staying involved. He actually stays with Winchester on and off and has his 50-year anniversary at the company, and they call it Bennett Day. So you can see that even though things aren't always as good, the people still have a very strong respect for him, but what ends up happening is after the war, World War I, they think they need to diversify in order to keep the company afloat, and so one of the decisions that is made is that they will go into the retail market, so they sell figure skates, they sell aftershave, they sell all kinds of things to try to keep the money afloat, but the bankers are already getting involved, things are going south, and I think to me, one of the saddest things that happens is right before Thomas Bennett's wife dies, she ends up signing over the rest of her shares to the bank.

You know, the man who built the company basically has to come back to see the company fall, and he passes away at 86 on August 30th, which is six months before the company goes into receivership in January of 1931. And the story behind Winchester after that is they get bought out by a guy named Olin, and Olin still owns the company today, so when you see the company, Winchester Ammunition, that is Olin, which is the most closely connected to the original Winchester company. When you see Winchester names associated with anything else, like the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, that is by Browning, which is also affiliated with a Belgian-based company called FN, and they license the name Winchester from Olin.

So once Olin gets a hold of it, they don't let go, and they still have it today, and when you see Winchester Ammunition, you're looking at the closest company to the original one. And a terrific job on the editing, production, and storytelling by our own Greg Hengler. And a special thanks to Ashley Lebinski for bringing her passion, her enthusiasm for firearms, and my goodness, what stories she tells us. And we learn about the man behind the man, or the woman behind the man as sometimes is the case, as well the man behind the man that powered Winchester, and that is Thomas Bennett, a Yalley, a college wrestler, loved fishing and hunting, and he was the first lieutenant in an African-American regiment in the Civil War. A fascinating guy, and he hustled and traveled around the country to keep Winchester in business. We've also done a story about Browning, another force behind the Winchester brand as well. The story of a great American brand, and the person whose name you didn't know who powered it.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-05-31 04:37:19 / 2023-05-31 04:42:25 / 5

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