That sneaky ride on an Earthworm tractor

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Anybody ever seen an Earthworm tractor? Well, neither have I, except in a movie. The Earthworm Tractor Co., located in Earthworm City, Illinois, made crawler tractors and had a head salesman by a man named Alexander Botts.

Now Botts knew very little about tractors when he first wangled a job with the Earthworm Co., but his ego, brashness and supreme self-confidence — he described himself as a master mechanic and a natural born salesman — usually carried the day and, even though Botts was totally inept, he never gave up and was strangely successful at selling tractors.

A series of stories by William Hazlett Upson (I wrote about Upson about a year ago) that were published in Saturday Evening Post magazine during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s told of Botts’ many unlikely adventures.

The stories, each one of which is a stand-alone piece, are told through a series of telegrams (remember them?) between Botts and his boss, Gilbert Henderson, the president of the Earthworm Tractor Co.

Stories revisited

As a kid during those years, I loved the Alexander Botts stories in the Post and usually read them first when the magazine came. For example, one titled, Tractor Man’s Holiday appeared in the August 12, 1939 issue of the Post.

It seems that Botts, while on vacation in Florida, had stopped at the local Earthworm Dealer, Frank Stanley, to introduce himself. Stanley revealed that he was waiting to see Mr. Brookins, a circus owner who wanted to buy a tractor but that he, Stanley, refused to do business with Brookins and planned to throw him out.

Just then Brookins showed up and before Botts’ horrified eyes Stanley ran Brookins out of the place with a pistol! Unable to convince Stanley to reconsider, never one to give up on a prospective sale, and aware that the Behemoth tractor dealer was due to demonstrate his tractor to Brookins, Bott sprang into action.

Sneaky adventure

Unable to convince Stanley to allow him to use his only demonstrator machine, Botts discovered where it was kept (an unlocked shed) and that night he sneaked in and stole the tractor, hid it for the night and next morning drove it onto the circus grounds, where the Behemoth salesman had already started a demonstration of his machine.

Each feat of the Behemoth tractor was more than topped by Botts and the Earthworm in a spectacular way, usually leaving a trail of destruction behind. The Behemoth had climbed over half a dozen railroad ties; Botts ran at full speed into a large pile of a hundred ties, scattering them everywhere.

The Behemoth ran through some six inches of water at the shallow end of a hippopotamus pool; Botts, at full speed in high gear, ran off the bank of the deep end, flew through the air, and came down in three feet of water with a gigantic and satisfying splash, before driving out the other side.

Full speed

The by-now desperate Behemoth man then ran fast into a sturdy board fence, knocking it down, but breaking a track. Not to be outdone, Botts ran full speed into a large barnlike building and just as he crashed through the side he saw a sign, “Lion House — Keep Out.”

As Botts stopped inside the building, he noticed that the hood and grill of the Earthworm were badly battered, but the engine was still humming and nothing vital was damaged. He also noticed to his horror that he had knocked open a cage and there was a loose lion crouching down and glaring at him.

As Botts said in his telegram to the boss, “He showed his teeth. He snarled. Slowly he crouched — the typical killer, getting ready to spring upon his prey.”

Just then, Frank Stanley, waving his pistol and followed by half a dozen cops, ran into the wrecked building. However, as soon as Stanley saw the lion, he went over to it and started scratching the beast behind the ears, muttering, “Why, it’s Old Charley!”

The story was that Stanley had once been the star lion tamer for Brookins’ Circus, but had quit in a dispute over his favorite, Old Charley, after which Stanley believed Brookins had shot the animal.

This was the reason for Stanley’s refusal to do business with Brookins.

According to his own account, Botts then convinced the two men they had nothing to be angry about and Brookins offered Stanley his job back, which he accepted and signed a cancellation of his Earthworm contract, which Botts planned to turn over to the Tampa dealer.

Botts wired his boss from Nassau, “I arranged to credit Mr. Brookins with two hundred dollars for the damage to his building. And Mr. Brookins, after expressing his admiration for my sensational Earthworm demonstration, signed an order — enclosed herewith — for twenty machines, including the slightly damaged demonstrator.”

Reward earned

He concluded the wire, “Having thus brought matters to a happy conclusion, I felt I rated a reward. I therefore treated myself, at the expense of the Earthworm Tractor Co., to a delightful trip down here to Nassau, where we had an unusually ineffective dealer — and where I am now continuing my recuperation by forcibly dragging this dealer all over the island, showing him how to sell tractors.”

There was a movie made in 1936 movie, titled Earthworm Tractors, in which Botts, the intrepid salesman, is played by Joe E. Brown. In the movie Botts tries to sell tractors to a crusty old lumberman who doesn’t like the mechanical monsters.

The Earthworm tractor in the film looks suspiciously like a Caterpillar RD-8, except for “Earthworm” in the locations where “Caterpillar” usually appears. The Alexander Botts stories are fun reads that I’ve enjoyed since I was a kid.

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

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