Last issue, we learned a little about the early life of Alexander “Sandy” Legge up to 1891, when he began a 40-year career with the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. In 1902, McCormick became part of International Harvester Co. Legge later led International Harvester in the long and bitter but eventually successful battle with Henry Ford for supremacy in the farm tractor market.
Growing up on a Nebraska ranch, Legge worked as a farmer, cowboy, thresherman and farm machinery assembler before hiring on with McCormick as a bill collector. Because of his experience as a Wyoming cowpuncher, Legge was often referred to in company correspondence as “that young cowboy,” and he quickly gained a reputation as a fearless, resourceful and successful bill collector.
One of his first jobs concerned a tenant farmer who had bought a binder and refused to pay for it. Legge hired a team, buggy and driver from a livery stable and drove into the farmer’s yard. The binder stood under an open shed. Legge went straight to it and quickly removed the knife from the cutter bar.
Just then, the farmer ran out of the barn and rushed at Legge with a pitchfork, while his wife came running from the house brandishing a butcher knife. While making a dash for the buggy, Legge whirled the binder knife around him in a circle. As soon as Legge jumped into the seat, the driver whipped the horses and they beat a hasty retreat. Legge then went to see the owner of the farm, a local banker, and got him to give McCormick his personal note for the price of the binder.
‘Cover my expenses in running out here to see you’
Another time, Legge and his driver arrived at the farm of a man who hadn’t made a payment in several years. The farmer asked why they were there. Legge got out of the buggy and started toward the man, meanwhile explaining that he represented the McCormick company. Instantly, Legge was looking into the muzzle of a shotgun, while the farmer spit out: “Git into that buggy and pull out!”
As Legge tried to respond, the man asked ominously, “Say, young feller, ain’t you got enough sense to know I mean business? Now git goin’ while the goin’s good!” As they sped away, Legge ruefully said to his driver, “I’m mighty hungry, and I thought we’d eat dinner with that farmer, but I guess we’d better pass him up!”
Shortly after hiring Legge, Mr. Price, the Omaha branch collections manager, handed the young man a thick wad of long delinquent accounts along with an equally thick wad of expense money. Price evidently decided to give the new collector a real initiation but didn’t expect any great results. It was mostly to be a learning experience for Legge, as well as a test to see if he really wanted to be a collector.
A week passed, and Price got a telegram from Legge asking for more expense money. Price sent the money but told Legge to return when it was gone. About 10 days later, Legge showed up at the branch office where he reported to the astonished manager that he had not only settled every claim for collection, but had sold 20 mowers to a McCormick agent as well. That performance got Legge a raise to $75 per month plus full expenses.
Under Nebraska law in those days, any note upon which no payment had been made for five years became void. When Legge got one of these long overdue notes, he would visit the debtor and ask him for just a trifling payment “to show good faith.” Sometimes that worked, but if it didn’t, Legge would say, “Well, the least you can do is give me $2 to cover my expenses in running out here to see you.” Any small amount thus obtained was immediately endorsed as a payment on the note, making it active and collectable again.
Finding a ready buyer
Another time, Legge went with a McCormick agent to the farm of a man who had bought a new mower but refused to pay for it. After looking around the unkempt farm yard, Legge decided they had better repossess the mower rather than try to collect a payment, so he told the agent to introduce him as a machinery expert from the home office rather than a bill collector.
Legge asked the man if there was anything wrong with the mower, unleashing a string of complaints. The so-called expert then carefully examined the machine, after which he ruefully told the farmer, “Guess you’re right. Tell you what I’ll do. You take the note you owe and I’ll take back the machine and we’ll call it square.”
The man agreed, and the mower was hitched behind the buggy and towed back to town. Legge immediately went to work on the mower. He washed, cleaned and adjusted it until it looked and ran like new. He and the dealer then sold the refurbished mower to another farmer the next day.
Dealing with a line of bull
The most famous collecting story about Legge is “the bull story.” A farmer bought a McCormick harvester and pledged a valuable bull as collateral. He didn’t make the payments and ignored all letters from the company. When Legge showed up, the farmer shrugged, declared he had no money and wouldn’t be able to pay off the note.
Legge asked where the bull was that had been offered as collateral. The man replied, “Out there in that little pasture,” and pointed to a field containing nothing but a few chickens. “I don’t see any bull there,” Legge said. “Of course you don’t,” said the farmer. “He’s under the ground, dead as a mackerel!”
Without hesitation, Legge ordered the farmer to get a couple of shovels. “His bones will bring a little something at the rendering plant!” Neatly caught in his lie, the farmer (who had long since sold the bull) said: “Hell, if you’re that kind of a collector, I might as well pay up.” “That young cowboy” had settled another delinquent account.
I’m out of space again. More on Alexander Legge another time. FC
Sam Moore is a longtime Farm Collector columnist. This column originally appeared in the January 2007 issue.