Alexander Botts: The Natural-Born Salesman of Earthworm Crawler Tractors

Writer William Hazlett Upson's characters back in print

| July 2001

  • FC_V3_I12_Jul_2001_10-1.jpg
    Alexander Botts, showing off an Earthworm Tractor.
    courtesy Caterpillar Inc. Corporate Archives
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    Perhaps the only movie ever to premiere in Peria, Ill., Earthworm Tractors premiered there July 14,1936, at the Madison Theater. Filmmakers used the town and the Caterpillar factory theere as the basis for the fictional town of Earthworm, Ill.
    courtesy Caterpillar Inc. Corporate Archives
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    Actor Joe E. Brown played Botts in the movie "Earthworm Tractors." He's shown in this publicity photo from the film with June Travis, who played Mabel Johnson in the movie.
    courtesy Caterpillar Inc. Corporate Archives

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Tractor salesman extraordinaire Alexander Botts was created by writer William Hazlett Upson for a story entitled I’m a Natural-Born Salesman that first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on April 16, 1927.

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.”


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