Beating Wartime Restrictions: Massey-Harris’ Harvest Brigade

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A Massey-Harris ad for the Harvest Brigade featuring the No. 21 one-man, self-propelled combine.
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Massey-Harris ad referring to the No. 21 one-man, self-propelled combine that the firm introduced for the Harvest Brigade.
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Trainload of Massey-Harris No. 21 self-propelled combines for the Harvest Brigade. "General" Joe Tucker's picture is inset at the top right.

In the previous column (“The War Effort: WWII Quotas Cut Farm Machinery Supplies“), I reported on restrictions placed on farm machinery manufacturers during World War II by the U.S. government’s War Production Board (WPB). Some of these manufacturers, who generally were a resourceful lot, tried to beat the system, though, and two efforts were notable. The first, by Henry Ford in 1942, failed; it will be the subject of a future column. The second, by Massey-Harris Inc. in 1944, proved successful, positioning the company as a very strong player in the postwar machinery market.

The 1942 grain crop in the United States and Canada broke all previous records.

In the United States, the harvest tallied more than 3 billion bushels of corn and close to a billion bushels of wheat; in Canada, it amounted to more than a half billion bushels of wheat. In spite of these huge harvests, millions of the world’s people faced starvation because of the war’s devastation, and rationing of most food items was imposed in both countries.

The U.S. War Food Administration set a 1944 goal of 1 billion bushels of wheat; even though thousands of farmers were serving in the Armed Forces and existing harvesting machines were worn out. Implement makers begged the War Production Board for a larger share of scarce raw materials so that badly needed new harvesting machines could be built, but the WPB couldn’t promise much help. The same situation existed in Canada.

Joe Tucker, vice president and sales manager of Massey-Harris in the United States, saw both a solution to the problem and an opportunity for his company. Tucker had served on the WPBs of both the United States and Canada, and was familiar with the workings and politics of both bodies.

Massey-Harris No. 21 self-propelled combine

On the eve of World War II, in spite of pressing war work, Massey-Harris rushed its famous No. 21 one-man, self-propelled (SP) combine into production. In early 1944, Tucker told the WPB that the No. 21 could, using the same amount of scarce raw material, harvest more grain than any other machine then being built. He also claimed that if he was permitted to build 500 extra machines, he could harvest at least 15 million bushels of grain from more than 1 million acres while releasing some 1,000 tractors for other work and saving 500,000 gallons of fuel.

Tucker also contended that the self-propelled 12-foot and 14-foot machines would save the 500,000 bushels typically lost when tractors drawing combines crushed grain-heavy stalks while opening up fields. Convinced, the board granted enough materials to Tucker to build 500 more combines than called for in Massey’s 1944 quota limit. Sales of the extra 500 self-propelled machines were restricted to custom operators who agreed to take delivery at the southern edge of the grain belt and to harvest at least 2,000 acres each.

Tucker planned the harvest like a military operation. The May 1944 issue of Farm Journal said, “Organized like an army, these men will slash their way from southern Oklahoma to Canada. ‘Scouts’ will precede them and line up the work. Technical and supply ‘sergeants’ will be along to help keep machines in repair. Combine operators will be ‘lieutenants,’ and there will be a full complement of ‘captains,’ ‘majors,’ ‘colonels’ and a ‘general.’ When the campaign is over, there will even be ‘decorations,’ in the form of War Bonds, for those who cut the most grain.”

Massey-Harris dealers and block men were the “captains” and “majors,” branch managers were the “colonels” and Tucker, creator of the plan, styled himself the “brigadier general.”

Harvest Brigade at full force

In May, the Harvest Brigade began its “elegant, light-armored blitz” by cutting flax in Texas and California’s Imperial Valley. The California detachment moved north, cutting rice and barley in that state and a large part of the wheat crop in the Pacific Northwest. Heavy rains delayed the Plains detachment’s movement into northern Texas and Oklahoma, but once they got going, the bright red No. 21 combines made steady progress. By July, they’d marched through Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska. By August, they reached the Dakotas, and by September, the Canadian wheat fields.

Being a good salesman, “General” Tucker took full advantage of the campaign’s public relations potential. He had large, white signs painted with blue letters, saying “Massey-Harris self-propelled harvest brigade,” and had the signs affixed to the grain tanks of every one of the red combines. He also cued magazines, newspapers and radio stations, so they could follow the Brigade’s northward progress. In a sour-grapes note, Farm Implement News editor Elmer J. Baker Jr. wrote, “After reading all the press dispatches … on the progress of the Massey-Harris Brigade, we are about 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.”

The campaign was so successful and so well promoted that it even spawned a 1947 movie called Wild Harvest. Alan Ladd starred as a custom operator with Massey-Harris combines. Robert Preston played his sidekick, and Dorothy Lamour, his sweetheart.

In the end, Harvest Brigade upheld promises

In September, the Harvest Brigade completed its work 1,500 miles north of where it started, and “General” Tucker had made good on his promise to the WPB: The 500 combines cut 1,019,500 acres for a total yield of more than 25 million bushels of grain while saving 333,000 man-hours and 500,000 gallons of fuel.

One account credits Wilf Phelps of Chandler, Ariz., as the top operator, cutting 3,438 acres and, presumably, winning a War Bond for his efforts. However, a Massey-Harris report on the proceedings claimed that nine combines exceeded 4,000 acres and two had upwards of 5,000 acres to their credit. The report also claimed that more than 1 million acres had been cut with 245,519 man-hours, which figured out to less than 15 minutes per acre, including travel time.

Campaign was a multi-front success for Massey-Harris

The Canadian government rewarded Massey-Harris by relieving the firm of further war work, so it was able to convert back to peacetime manufacturing many months before Japan’s surrender. This jump on the other machinery builders, plus the good publicity generated by the Harvest Brigade, allowed Massey-Harris to become a major supplier of farm equipment in both Canada and the United States after the war, a success that continues to this day in the huge Massey-Ferguson Co. FC

Sam Moore became interested in agricultural machinery while growing up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. Now, he lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items.

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