Most fans of International Harvester Co. have heard of Alexander Legge. If they haven’t, they should have. Legge (pronounced leg) was one of the giants of the farm implement business, serving as president of International Harvester during the tumultuous years (1922-’29) of the “tractor wars” with Henry Ford. Legge performed outstanding service to his country as well, initially during World War I, as vice chairman of the War Industries Board, and later as chairman of the ill-fated Federal Farm Board during Herbert Hoover’s administration.
Alexander Legge was born on a farm south of Madison, Wisconsin, on January 13, 1866. His parents, Christina and Alexander, married in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1857, moving to Wisconsin to be near one of Mrs. Legge’s sisters. The elder Legge was a skilled cattle trader and veterinarian, and became moderately prosperous in his new home.
In early 1876, however, a victim of forgery and his own strong sense of honor, he lost everything. M.E. Fuller, of the Fuller & Johnson farm machinery company, came to his rescue. Fuller was a wealthy man who owned 2,000 acres of undeveloped prairie in eastern Nebraska. Well aware of Legge’s skill in raising cattle, business acumen and personal integrity, Fuller offered him a full partnership in the ranch, if he would move to Nebraska and take over the proposed enterprise. Lacking any better prospects, the senior Legge accepted the offer and moved his family to a new home.
Solid farm background
Young Alexander grew up tall and strong with a quick mind, although he had little formal education. Nicknamed “Sandy,” he was especially good at mathematics and read as many books as he could. He also was fascinated by machinery. Even as a boy, he was called upon to make repairs to ranch implements. He was given heavy responsibilities for a boy in his early teens. When leaving on a business trip, his father would tell the men, “If onything oot o’ the ordinair’ turns up, ask Sandy. He’ll ken (know).”
The boy also bought ranch supplies, and bought and sold cattle and horses while his father was away. When Legge was about 16, his father sent him to southwestern Nebraska to pick up a herd of previously selected feeder cows. While the cattle were being loaded on railroad cars for the trip home, a couple of Iowa cattlemen asked Legge what he would take for the lot. The youth quoted a price, adding $1,500 to the amount his father had agreed to pay for the herd, and the Iowans quickly accepted. He then bought another group of feeders and returned home with a fast $1,500 profit, making his Scottish father very proud.
In 1887, Legge and his best friend, Charlie Wertz, traveled to Douglas, Wyoming, to work as hands on the huge V-R Ranch for $35 per month and their keep. The V-R ran about 12,000 head of cattle and more than 1,500 horses for the U.S. Cavalry. In the late 1880s, Wyoming was full of outlaws. Each month, the V-R payroll (sometimes as much as $5,000 cash) had to be brought to the ranch from Douglas, some 90 miles away over rough terrain. Legge often acted as courier on these trips, and always succeeded in outwitting the bad guys. After a year or two of punching cattle and horses, and contending with rustlers and thieves, Legge received word that his mother was gravely ill. He quit the V-R and returned home, once again helping his father.
Looking for a job with a future
Although threshing machines powered by horses on large sweep powers were common in the area, young Alexander Legge was the first in Colfax County, Nebraska, to introduce a steam-powered threshing rig. His father, though, was not happy with the machine, especially after a man was injured while hooking up the rig. Calling it a “murderous contrivance,” he forbade his son to bring it on the farm. Legge, however, persuaded his father to witness a demonstration of the machine, which quickly convinced the thrifty old Scot of its speed and efficiency.
The young Legge suffered from a lung condition contracted after nearly freezing to death in a February 1883 blizzard. (“I guess the devil wasn’t quite ready for me then,” he recalled years later, “or he would have kept me that time. The freezing wasn’t so bad, but the thawing out certainly was hell!”) The heat and dust of farming and ranching aggravated the condition, causing his mother to insist he find another occupation. A local farm machinery dealer needed someone to assemble new implements, a job for which he was well suited, and one he enjoyed. However, the job was temporary and hadn’t much future, so Legge looked for something else.
The oldest Legge son, George, was an attorney in Omaha, where he handled many cases in which the Omaha branch of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. tried to collect bad debts from farmers and dealers. George suggested Legge might be able to get a job with McCormick as a collector, so in the spring of 1891, he presented himself to P.M. Price, Omaha branch collection manager. “Do you think you can collect tough accounts?” Price asked Legge. “Yes,” the young man responded, “if they have anything to collect.” That confident reply got him the job on a trial basis at $50 per month, plus a small amount for expenses. FC
In the next issue of Farm Collector, Sam Moore relates anecdotes about Sandy Legge’s years at McCormick and International Harvester that have become legendary.
Sam Moore is a longtime Farm Collector columnist. This column originally appeared in the December 2006 issue.