Farm Equipment Mastermind

Renowned salesman made his mark in farm equipment industry.


Left: Joe Tucker built a career in farm equipment manufacturing, and was a leader in the Massey-Harris Harvest Brigade.

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"Automobiles are a rich man's toy, not a stable base for a livelihood. But threshers and steam engines are a firm and practical business, because people will always want to eat bread and threshing machines will always be needed to harvest the wheat." Such was the advice Joe Tucker received after being laid off from Buick. Tucker took his brother-in-law's suggestion and went to work for Nichols & Shepard in Battle Creek, Mich., in November 1914.

In Tucker's case, it was solid advice. Tucker worked most of the next 50 years for tractor and implement manufacturers, and was known for his promotional expertise. But he was more than a flash in the pan. Tucker was the mastermind behind the Massey-Harris Harvest Brigade, a massive nation-wide plan designed to guarantee farmers new combines during World War II, when much equipment manufacture was suspended. New equipment was desperately needed to harvest crops critical to the war effort.

An ambitious young man

Joseph Maxwell Tucker was born in Calumet, Mich., on Dec. 6, 1891. At age 16, he went to work in the copper mines as a drill boy, delivering drills and dynamite to miners. He took night school courses in bookkeeping and shorthand, and got his first office job, working for George Bathrick, Nichols & Shepard sales manager. In 1917, Tucker was promoted to traffic manager.

By 1924, the farm economy was recovering from the Agriculture Depression that had started in mid-1920, but Nichols & Shepard was not satisfied with its revenues. A consultant recommended the company dismiss two branch managers; establish sales quotas based on the amount of grain grown in branch areas (rather than on the number of machines sold in previous years); and establish a branch office in Ohio. Tucker started 1925 as the manager of the new Columbus sales branch.

Four years later, on April 2, 1929, Nichols & Shepard merged with the Oliver Chilled Plow Works and the Hart-Parr Co., forming the Oliver Farm Equipment Co., a new full-line farm equipment company. (A month later, The American Seeding Machine Co. was added to the mix.) Joe Tucker was named assistant manager of Oliver's South Bend, Ind., branch, but soon after left Oliver, citing "confusion in the organization" resulting from the merger. Tucker settled into a new position as vice president and sales manager of Centaur Tractor Corp. of Greenwich, Ohio.

Back in the fold

In 1930, Oliver introduced three new models of tractors with vertical 4-cylinder engines, but held on to a dated concept - the old Hart-Parr-style tractor with horizontal engines. That commercial misstep, along with the arrival of the Great Depression, resulted in large amounts of unsold inventory and bank debt of almost $17 million at the end of that year. As a result, Oliver started 1931 with a new president and a corporate reorganization. One morning, a company leader called Tucker and invited him to stop by Oliver's offices the next time he was in Chicago. The dynamic and resourceful Tucker wasted no time. He persuaded a mail-plane pilot to let him sit on a sack of mail, and a few hours later, Tucker was in Chicago. By that afternoon, he again was an Oliver employee, and took over as manager of Oliver's Omaha branch in July 1931.

Tucker was promoted to assistant general sales manager for Oliver in 1933 with responsibility for sales branches in the western U.S. and Canada. A year later he was transferred to the eastern half of the U.S. He was only rarely in the office: He described his work as "mostly a traveling job, during which I went to every state in the union time after time." His replacement at the Omaha branch was his younger brother, Merle Tucker. Merle started in the drafting department at Nichols & Shepard in 1919, and became a service manager after the merger. In 1931, Merle led a staff of 16 men to Russia, where they spent a year training Russian farmers in the operation of 5,000 tractors and 2,000 combines purchased from Oliver.

"After reading all the press dispatches from the Plains run as unpurchasable 'pure reading matter' in great cities' dailies on the progress of the Massey-Harris Harvest Brigade, we are about ready to declare an open season on Joe Tucker, the instigator of said Harvest Brigade. No man has the right to pull the whiskers of publicity out by the roots and wave them derisively at honest competition the way Joe is doing."

- From a tongue-in-cheek plaque sent by Farm Implement News to Joe Tucker.

On Jan. 3, 1936, Joe Tucker became general sales manager for Oliver Farm Equipment Co., and a year later was elected vice president of the company. (Meanwhile, Merle Tucker was named assistant general sales manager.) During the 1937 state fair promotional circuit, Oliver conducted a color survey by painting six Oliver Hart-Parr 70 tractors six different color combinations. More than 100,000 people voted for their favorite color scheme, writing their names and addresses on their ballots, and in exchange, receiving an Oliver leather key case by mail. It proved an effective way to both get publicity for the company and add names to the company's mailing list.

Showmanship was part of Tucker's strategy. When the streamlined Oliver 70 tractor was introduced on Oct. 15, 1937, dealers in all (then) 48 states removed the whitewash from their display windows and uncovered canvas-draped Oliver 70s on their display floors. Oliver followed up with a national advertising campaign for the next 70 days, matching the tractor's model number.

In mid-1938, Joe Tucker launched a sales campaign to exceed annual budget projections by 10 percent as a means of paying off the remaining bank debt dating to 1930. When the goal was reached, a banquet was held at the Hotel LaSalle in Chicago. Remarks by company officials were "broadcast" over the telephone to employees at similar banquets throughout the country. Tucker was one of the speakers. Ever the showman, he crumpled a piece of cellophane in front of the telephone receiver to simulate the sound of a mortgage burning.

Deploying the Harvest Brigade

On Nov. 1, 1941, Oliver introduced Merle Tucker as the company's new vice president and general sales manager, but Joe Tucker's name was not mentioned. Within a few months, the War Production Board announced that Joe Tucker was among those helping allocate resources among various industries during World War II. The War Production Board represented both the U.S. and Canada, and Tucker became director of the Canadian Division with offices in Washington, D.C. and Ottawa, Canada. He served from December 1941 to July 1943 and then resigned to become general sales manager of the U.S. Division of Massey-Harris. Almost immediately, plans were formed for deployment of the Harvest Brigade.

A month later, Joe Tucker appeared before the War Production Board, the group responsible for allocation of industrial resources scarce during wartime. Tucker proposed that Massey-Harris be allowed to build 500 additional No. 21 self-propelled combines. The combines would be sold to custom operators required to sign an agreement to harvest a minimum of 2,000 acres with each machine. Tucker's plan compared the 14-foot No. 21 self-propelled combine with the large pull-type combines with an auxiliary engine requiring a tractor operator and a combine operator. The self-propelled combine would harvest more acres per day, he noted, eliminating the need for one operator; save all the hours of tractor operation, use less fuel and save the grain lost when a field was opened with a pull-type combine. As a result of Tucker's persuasive powers, the War Production Board approved the plan on Sept. 15, 1943.

Acceptance by the War Production Board, though, only gave permission to proceed. It was left to Massey-Harris to find sources for the steel, castings, bearings and other materials to build the 500 combines. Somehow the company obtained the necessary materials and the first shipment of combines left the Toronto factory in March 1944 with each labeled "Massey-Harris Self-Propelled Harvest Brigade" on its grain tank.

The first Harvest Brigade combines went to southern Texas to harvest flax in April and then moved north for the wheat harvest. Most of the combines were shipped to Enid or Altus, Okla., and Hutchinson, Kan. Some were shipped to California to harvest flax and wheat, and some went to the Pacific Northwest. Joe Tucker, Massey-Harris branch managers and employees were assisted by state and county agencies in organizing the fields to be harvested and moving the Harvest Brigade north as the wheat ripened. Massey-Harris dealers provided local assistance and remained open in the evenings to supply repair parts.

The Harvest Brigade became a national event and was covered extensively by many newspapers and magazines. The Brigade generated so much free publicity for Massey-Harris that Farm Implement News magazine sent Joe Tucker a tongue-in-cheek plaque which read "After reading all the press dispatches from the Plains run as unpurchasable 'pure reading matter' in great cities' dailies on the progress of the Massey-Harris Harvest Brigade, we are about ready to declare an open season on Joe Tucker, the instigator of said Harvest Brigade. No man has the right to pull the whiskers of publicity out by the roots and wave them derisively at honest competition the way Joe is doing."

An unqualified success

By the end of the 1944 harvest, the goal of harvesting 1,000,000 acres was surpassed with a total of 1,019,500 acres. Crops raised by more than 5,000 American farmers were harvested by Massey-Harris combines. The top operator was Arizona's Wilford Phelps, who cut 3,438 acres. The Harvest Brigade was so successful it was repeated in 1945 with 750 additional combines. Now Joe Tucker had 1,250 Massey-Harris self-propelled combines, plus those produced under the regular allotment, effectively demonstrating their equipment's capabilities and advantages. Meanwhile, other farm equipment companies were still in the experimental stage with their self-propelled combines. In 1946, these self-propelled combines were used to open the fields for other combines in a "Famine Fighter" program.

Joe Tucker left Massey-Harris in November 1948 to become executive vice president of the Lustron Corp. of Columbus, Ohio. Lustron manufactured porcelain-enameled steel prefabricated houses. The five-room house provided slightly more than 1,000 square feet and was advertised as "the house America has been waiting for." However, the company experienced financial problems, and Tucker resigned in September 1949.

In March 1952, Implement & Tractor magazine announced the "widely known" Joe Tucker had been named president and general manager of Thomas Hydraulic Speed Controls of Wichita, Kan. Thomas built a variable hydraulic drive used on combines. Six years later, in 1958, Tucker joined New Holland as director of product planning. His recommendations for new products, including combines, helped this short-line company grow to be larger than some full-line companies. He retired on Dec. 30, 1966, shortly after his 75th birthday, and moved to Florida. Thirteen years later he died from the effects of a stroke.

Although Joe Tucker was awarded a medal and the title of Order of British Empire by King George for his work on the War Production Board, he considered the Harvest Brigade to be the greatest achievement of his career. Not only did he provide a great service to his country during World War II when food was desperately needed in the war effort, but he also sold American and Canadian farmers on the advantages of a self-propelled combine, creating a tremendous demand for Massey-Harris self-propelled combines as soon as World War II ended.

- The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Judy Horsch of Andale, Kan., for access to her collection of information about her grandfather, Joe Tucker.

- Larry Gay is the author of three books on farm tractors and is a student of the farm equipment industry. Contact him at: 339 Valley Drive, Geneseo, IL 61254; (309) 441-5581.