Farm Collector

Farm Equipment Mastermind

“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

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
s 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

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
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.

  • Published on Sep 1, 2005
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