Writer William Hazlett Upson's characters back in print
Botts sold the fictitious Earthworm crawler tractors, made by the Farmers’ Friend Tractor Co. of Earthworm City, Ill. The Earthworm was based on Caterpillar’s crawlers, but Botts was a true original.
Botts sprung from Upson’s own experience working in the Holt Caterpillar Service Department from 1919 to 1924. “I spent a lot of time traveling around the country shooting trouble, repairing tractors, and instructing the operators,” Upson wrote about his time with Holt. “My main job was to follow up the salesmen and try to make the tractors do what the salesmen had said they would. In this way I came to know more about salesmen than they knew about themselves.”
In the 1950s, Upson offered the following biography of his hero: “Alexander Botts was born in Smedleytown, Iowa, on March 15, 1892, the son of a prosperous farmer. He finished high school there; then embarked on a series of jobs – none of them quite worthy of his mettle. In these early days the largest piece of machinery he sold was the Excelsior Peerless Self-Adjusting Safety Razor Blade Sharpener. He became interested in heavy machinery in 1918 while serving in France as a cook with the motorized field artillery. In March 1920, he was hired as a salesman by the Farmers’ Friend Tractor Company, which later became the Earthworm Tractor Company.
“On April 12, 1926, he met Miss Mildred Deane, the attractive daughter of an Earthworm dealer in Mercedillo, Calif. Seven days later they were married. Mildred, later nicknamed Gadget, had attended the language schools at Middlebury College (Vermont) and acted as interpreter for her husband when he was sent to Europe in 1928 to open new tractor outlets there.
“Mr. and Mrs. Botts returned from Europe in early 1929 to await the birth of Alexander Botts Jr., who arrived in February along with a twin sister, Little Gadget.”
Upson’s stories about Botts became so popular that he continued the series for decades, eventually penning 112 Botts tales for the Saturday Evening Post between 1927 and 1975. Battling mishaps and misadventures, a wary boss named Gilbert Henderson, and a slew of competing salesmen from the Steel Elephant, Behemoth, Goliath, Rough Rider, and Mammoth tractor companies, Alexander Botts and his Earthworms plowed through any obstacle with irrepressible ambition and perseverance.
Although much of Botts’ success as a salesman seems to stem from a healthy dose of luck, and many of his sales strategies were questionable, Upson was quick to list several virtues held by Botts that make him a good salesman: “He is an extrovert. He likes people. He sincerely wants to help the customer. He never puts across a sale unless the customer will benefit. He has courage, resourcefulness. He never holds a grudge. He is, in short, a good egg.”
The popularity of Upson’s “good egg” spread from the Saturday Evening Post to other forms of media as well. Botts appeared in a comic strip called “Alexander the Great”; radio adaptations of his adventures were broadcast; several anthologies of his stories were published; and in 1936, Hollywood immortalized the much-loved salesman in the movie Earthworm Tractors, starring comedian actor Joe E. Brown as Botts, June Travis as his love interest, and Guy Kibbee as the stubborn sales prospect.
Joe E. Brown reportedly threw himself into the role of the determined salesman, using mud for his stage makeup, insisting on doing his own stunts (even though the antics of Alexander Botts were often dangerous), and learning how to operate the mighty crawlers on the movie set himself. Brown coined a new phrase, telling one reporter, “A guy that rides a mule is known as a muleskinner. ... I guess as long as I wrangle Caterpillars I must be a ‘Catskinner.’” The movie crew took over the Caterpillar plant in Peoria, Ill., for several weeks to make the film, and, fittingly, when the movie made its debut, it was first shown in the Peoria theater.
A new collection of Upson’s best Botts adventures is the first in print since the 1970s. It begins with Botts’ first day on the job in I’m a Natural-Born Salesman, has classics like The Big Sales Talk and Tractors on Parade, includes Botts and the Daredevil Driver, which does not appear in any other anthology, and features two never-before-published stories about Botts and his Earthworms: Wrong Again, Henderson and Botts and the Fire Bug. The fabulous saga of America’s favorite salesman will entertain fans both old and new. FC
This article is taken from the introduction of a new collection of Botts stories released this month by Voyageur Press, entitled The Fabulous Saga of Alexander Botts and the Earthworm Tractor.
Photos provided courtesy of Caterpillar Inc. Corporate Archives. The editor wishes to thank Nicole Thaxton, the archivist at Caterpillar, for her efforts.