Alan King: King of Farm Equipment Books

Tractor manuals, advertising resources, the Gasoline Engines series and more books by Alan King helped shape the early days of the old iron hobby.

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Alan King’s Oliver-Hart-Parr booklet: one of a series of tractor data books he produced. He also published a wide variety of short monographs (booklets) on single items such as farm tractors, gasoline engines, plows, corn huskers and shellers, and some booklets covered a single tractor company, like this one for the Rock Island Plow Co. The Year of the Tractor 1919 shows more than 100 models made by at least as many companies that year.

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Alan King of Delaware, Ohio, could easily be called the "King of Farm Equipment Books." During a 27-year career in the publishing business, he's authored 49 volumes and reprinted 175 farm-related manuals and catalogs totaling nearly a half million copies.

Alan didn't grow up on a farm, but he was well-versed in agricultural equipment from a young age, as both his grandfather and uncle were farmers. "I helped on the farm during the summer, and I remember my grandfather had an old John Deere plow in back of my grandmother's rock garden for years," Alan recalls. "I used to play with that plow when I was a youngster."

If that wasn't enough ag background, Alan's father worked for three major farm equipment manufacturers. He worked for Nichols & Shepard Co., from 1922 until 1929, when Oliver Farm Equipment Co. bought the company. In 1936, he went to work at Deere & Co., where he stayed until he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1940. "He was advertising manager, so he did the introductory ads for the Oliver 70 tractor, all the introductory ads for styled John Deere tractors when they came out, and for the John Deere H when it was introduced in 1939. So you might say I had a background," Alan says with a laugh. His father was also editor of the Oliver Shield magazine for Oliver dealers.

Plowing deep

Alan's favorite piece of agricultural machinery, the walking plow, was the motivation for his publishing career. "I went to an auction one day, and an International Harvester plow was going for little or nothing, so I bought it," he says. "Plows were dirt cheap in the 1960s, so I bought a lot of them for a dollar or two." Today he has more than 30 fully restored plows. "My method is to completely dismantle, clean, paint and reassemble them, doing a really good job," he says. One of the plows in his collection is the John Deere plow that belonged to his grandfather. He also has his grandfather's five-shovel International cultivator, a burr mill and corn sheller.

As he started collecting plows, followed by gasoline engines, Alan realized little or no information was available on them. "You had to find the original manual or original catalog, and I soon found out it was that way with everything. That was when I started on my gas engine books."

One of his finds was a breadbox full of old Gas Power magazines, giving Alan access to numerous ads for gas engines. Those ads were the foundation of Gasoline Engines, Vol. 1, which he published in 1976. "I started all this almost from the beginning of the real explosion of the hobby," he says.

Soon he had produced eight titles in the Gasoline Engines series, Volumes 1-8. His father had an influence on Alan here, too, as the elder King had published three volumes of The Book of Oliver from 1935-1937. "It was revised three times before dad left the company, and it's kind of the bible of Oliver these days," Alan says.

Collection supports a business

Later, Alan moved in different directions as his interests shifted. Because he was able to use his own collection of magazines, brochures and advertisements to support his publishing venture, research was comparatively simple. "The books were mainly compilations or collections of ads and articles that had appeared in other contemporary sources," Alan says. "What I didn't have, I could get from friends. I never had to stray far afield for research materials."

While working on the walking plow book, for instance, Alan received a windfall from a friend who sold farm literature: loaned materials. When he needed additional vintage material, the hunt was never a chore. "It was like finding a gas engine or plow out there in somebody's barn," he recalls. "It was fun. The business was as much a hobby for me as it was a business."

In his business' early days, he met with a bit of skepticism from old-timers in the hobby. "They'd look at me and say I was too young to know about this stuff." Eventually, he said, attitudes turned 180 degrees, as collectors began to think he knew literally everything.

"People would often order a book and ask a question, and we'd do our best to find the information. I would write five or six letters every night answering questions about tractors, and if I couldn't help them, I was honest, and would say that I couldn't."

A thriving sideline

Though publishing was just a sideline for many years (Alan worked full-time as a teacher), the work created a hectic pace for him and his wife, Janet, who managed the business end of the enterprise. The Kings advertised in as many as 19 collector magazines at one time, and that meant tracking 19 advertising deadlines. Keeping up with the daily mail was a task in itself. "I'm proud of how we got the mail out," he says. "Nothing ever stayed on our desk longer than 72 hours."

Mail orders represented about 80 percent of King's business, with the balance sold at farm shows. Books were also sold wholesale. At one time, the Kings sold to 60 dealers in the U.S., Australia, Sweden, England and Canada. Orders came from across the U.S. as well as from Japan, Germany, France and Italy.

One of Alan's most memorable customers signed his letters "Trigger Jim." His letters were always unmistakable: He wrote each letter of Alan's name in a different color of ink. "He always wrote two pages of what he had been doing," Alan recalls. "He was born in 1910 and worked on a threshing crew when he was a kid. I saved those letters because they were very sincere. We had a lot of guys like him who wrote us almost every year."

Often the letters came in response to the 9,000 catalogs the Kings sent out each September. One woman wrote that she didn't know what she would do without the catalogs. "I just lay it on the table with a pencil, and my husband goes through it and marks what he wants for Christmas," she wrote.

Reading the market

King's most popular books were the tractor data books, like the Oliver and International Harvester data books, as well as Massey-Harris. "Our best sellers were International, Allis-Chalmers and Ford books. People are surprised by that, but Ford was my best seller for years and years. And all the International books were very good."

Press runs were generally held to 1,000 copies. "That's where the price break came," he explains, "and since we were financing the books ourselves, that meant each book could be sold at a profit. It was hard to judge how many you might sell, and since it was my own money we were investing, we had to be careful."

The end of a chapter

Upon retiring in 1994 from teaching history, government and economics, King went into the book business full-time. "After that we doubled our business," Alan says, "but after my heart attack in 2000, we decided to slow things down."

By 2003, Alan had sold the tractor manuals portion to Pat Roberts of Paper'n Parts, the gas engine material to Bill Starkey of Starbolt Engine Supplies, and odds and ends to others. Only his magazines and original literature remained. Some of the literature collection went to corporate archives; the rest went to Jerry Erickson, "who bought literally cartons from me." Alan's collection of 15,000 magazines was spread all over, but he kept his favorites.

King's final book was Horse Drawn Plows: Walking Plows, Sulky Plows & Gang Plows. "We limited it to 1,000 copies, numbered and signed, so there was a pretty good demand for that," Alan says, "and we sold those at a little higher price because they were a limited edition. We counted off the first 100 and kept them, and sold the rest."

Preserving the past

Today, Alan enjoys the way the antique farm equipment hobby emulates traditional farm life, with people working together like they did in the old days. "When I first started collecting gas engines, anybody who needed help would get it," he says. "Everybody pitched in until the engine ran. If they had a spare part, it was yours, and everybody worked together. We would go to gas engine shows and stay around until the bitter end on Sunday, sitting around and swapping stories, and have breakfast together at a local café. It was truly like a reunion. Everybody knew everybody else in the hobby in the early days."

Those who collect antique farm equipment do a service to American history by preserving relics, he notes. "A lot of that stuff in other areas has disappeared all together, just vanished, so I think it's a very valuable thing to do for society in general," Alan says. "We need to make sure things are around for another generation, so young people - like my grandsons, who farm with combines that have 32-foot heads and huge tractors that guide themselves over the field - can see that in those old days in the past, somebody had to walk behind the plow. I think it's valuable." FC 

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; e-mail: bvossler@juno.com