There are tons of interesting stories from the old days of farm equipment manufacturing. One, from the 1930s, involves the Oliver Farm Equipment Company and the Russian Communist government and is told by Elmer Baker, Jr. in his Reflections column in the Oct. 21, 1963 issue of Implement & Tractor magazine. Baker (1889 to 1964) had been associated with farm equipment all his life and was for many years editor of Implement & Tractor. I’ve edited the column somewhat since Baker did have a tendency to get wordy at times.
“Right after World War I, the Kerensky regime in Russia was succeeded by the Communists. For survival they had to restore a war-devastated agriculture, so without objection from the U.S., the Russians set up (in 1924) a buying organization in New York City known as the Amtorg Trading Corporation.
“The Reflector had a number of visits from one of their planning men. He talked to you up close like a soul-burning prophet. Unfortunately he had the second most unendurable case of halitosis the Reflector has ever had to endure.
“Well, this Russian insisted that everything they had to plan and build must always be bigger than anything before attempted. At this stage the Russian government embarked on a program of greatly increased wheat production. They had to have more bread. So Amtorg was instructed to buy in the U.S. the largest number of combines ever purchased, before or since, in a single transaction, plus a fleet of big tractors to pull the combines.
“Again my Russian contact showed up and wanted quickly a preview of the American combine and tractor field, what were the biggest units produced, and by whom. Fortunately the Tractor & Field Book showed that information set down in specifications.
“Oliver Farm Equipment Co. in its Nichols & Shepard division at Battle Creek, Mich., was then producing the largest prairie-type combine in North America. It was the Model F, with a 28-inch wide spike cylinder and a 48-inch separator rear (available as a 16 or 20 foot cut).
“Marvelously, with instinctive foresight, Oliver tractor engineers, in designing a line of vertical cylinder tractors to succeed the incomparable horizontal Hart-Parrs, had one big baby in the line-the 28-44 (introduced in 1930)-with an Oliver designed and Waukesha built four cylinder 4 3/4 x 6 1/2 vertical engine developing just under 50 hp at its Nebraska test. This was Oliver’s answer to the International 15-30 and the Allis-Chalmers Model E, developing slightly under 45 hp.
“So by unplanned eventuality, Oliver was all set to land the big Russian order for fleets of Model F combines and 28-44 tractors. No other producer had anything so big.”
We now cut from Elmer Baker to George Bird who was in charge of tractor engine manufacture at Charles City, Iowa, and whose personal reminiscences were published in The Tractor Builders by John D. Culbertson.
He wrote that the tractor plant had one week notice (during August, 1930) to get the as yet unbuilt 28-44 ready for viewing by a Russian delegation. Even though they had not yet received all the jigs and fixtures needed, they managed, by dint of working day and night, to get a prototype engine on the dynamometer by the Saturday night before the Monday showing. During the night the engine was installed in the tractor chassis which had been hurriedly built the week before under the same rush conditions.
But while testing the tractor on Sunday morning, the engine bearings burned out! Luckily a spare crankcase was nearly ready and by 6 p.m. was assembled, run in on the dyno, and ready to put into the chassis. Before dawn Monday, the crew was testing the tractor and preparing to shine it up for the Russians.
Bird said that the then President of Oliver, Cal Sivright, who was escorting the Russians to the demonstration area, knew his men were in trouble and managed to delay the delegation with a roundabout trip and a leisurely breakfast, and by the time they arrived the 28-44 was ready for its debut.
Bird writes, “The demonstration went off without a hitch; and before the day was over, the Russians signed an order for 5,000 Oliver tractors along with a big order for Oliver plows, cultivators, and combines.”
To return to Baker’s narrative, he points out that to buy so huge an amount of machinery, the Russians needed “big credit,” but the bankers took a chance.
“There was an initial payment to whet the Oliver parched throat, and then as the machines produced the wheat, barley and rye to finance their purchase, bigger payments annually thereafter.”
Baker goes on, “The Reflector ambled over to the Oliver office a few days before the first big annual payment was due from Amtorg. Every executive there acted like a nervous cat on a hot tin roof. They were waiting with their fingers crossed, hopes high, but no great confidence.”
A reliable source reported the afternoon before the due date that the Russians would make the payment next day as promised, which, according to Baker “permitted a number of Big Shots to sleep that night, but there was still apprehension.
“Next day came the check, with the bank’s acceptance on it. Oliver was saved, if any salvation was needed. The Communists continued to meet every jot and tittle of future obligations, and their credit was established.”
Of course, this all happened in the early 1930s, long before Joe McCarthy and the “Red Scare,” or the “Cold War,’ and almost every manufacturer in Depression-ravaged America would have given their eye-teeth for a big order from Soviet Russia.
I guess it could be said that Russia and Oliver saved each other-Oliver, with their 5,000 28-44 tractors and other machines, allowed the Russian government to feed its people, thus saving Communism for another 60 years, while Russia’s big order for tractors and machinery from Oliver, which was nearly closed down and in debt $17,000,000 in 1930, prospered for just a couple of years longer than the Soviets, being shut down in July of 1993 by its then owner White Corporation.
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