Adventures with Botts

post by
Lee Klancher
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This article was originally published as a feature in the Ageless Iron section of Successful Farming magazine, where Lee Klancher is a regular contributor.

When the world is not upside down, my chosen profession requires traveling around the country, doing research about various topics almost exclusively related to machinery of one kind or another, and making photographs along the way. I suppose you could say I’m a professional gearhead travel bum.

Given my machine-head tendencies, the stories of Alexander Botts and his adventures selling Earthworm Tractors strike several chords.

A core appeal of the stories by William Hazlett Upson is the Earthworm tractor itself. Set in the first half of the 20th Century, the crawlers are constantly performing tasks that are wondrous for the times. Impassable snow-covered roads are opened for traffic, vast housing tracts are cleared in a week, forty acres of farmland are plowed in a single day, and the bottomless Great Gumbo Swamp that could not be crossed with horses and wagons is conquered with tracks and internal combustion.

Introduced to the world in 1927, these humorous essays published in the Saturday Evening Post drew in millions of readers and inspired a comic strip, books, and a popular Hollywood movie.

The machines in the stories are believable, probably in part because Upson knows them well. Upson worked on the motor assembly line of the Caterpillar Tractor Company and moved on to help the sales force put on crawler field demonstrations.

Upson’s work with Caterpillar gave him a deep respect and understanding for both the machines and their people. “The tractors themselves are truly fascinating pieces of machinery. The people who own them and work with them are, almost without exception, splendid fellows. And the business is so full of adventures that it was a delight to be associated with it.”

This rings true yet today. I got into my odd little business because of interests. An unexpected bonus is the good people I’ve had the privilege to meet out on the tractor road.

Upson’s experiences gave him a well of authenticity to his machine stories, but there is more to them than just heavy equipment saving the day. Upson’s entertaining prose paints Botts as a bit of a self-aggrandizing buffoon willing to pull off stunts to garner a sale. Underneath the satire and salesmanship of Upson’s character lies the solid ground of core American values. While Botts is willing to stretch the rules to make a sale, the victim always benefits from the wonders of the new tracked machines.

And as we get to know Botts, his bedrock values extend well beyond the entertaining shell of an inexperienced salesman unwilling to own up to his considerable mistakes. As the stories progress and Upson shapes his central character, Botts emerges as a bit of an American working-class hero, or at the least a figure whose often misguided actions lead to end results that benefit the honest and the underprivileged.

Upson’s craft improves during the course of the stories as well. Not only does his prose get more colorful, Upson also concocts increasingly outrageous and cleverly structured situations for Botts and the Earthworm tractors to confront. 

One of the other joys of Botts is following his travels. He is moving around the country constantly to sell machines and is on the road during an era when communication to the head office was akin to radio communication with the moon. His notes are sent via mail and telegram, and Botts has no choice but to work independently.

I also greatly prefer to make my own decisions, as much as is humanly possible in this world. This is what led me to form my own publishing company—I can make the books as I envision them, without the need to answer to the multiple masters of a large publishing company.

Botts is constantly tangling with his superiors, and as a reader, you often as not side with or at least pity the supervisors. Botts regularly gets fired or quits. Somehow, despite the drama, the ever upbeat Botts makes the sale and keeps his job.

Somewhat shockingly in hindsight, I was able to hold several publishing jobs over a 15-year span. While I certainly had my conflicts—mainly over making the books the way I believed they should be made and fighting for author rights—I was never fired. After more than 12 years of independence, however, I doubt I could work for a traditional boss again.

Lastly, part of the joy of the book that rings like a bell today is traveling back to the more remote parts of our world from more than 100 years ago.

This strikes a particularly deep note with me, as I love making books perhaps as much as I enjoy being on the road to do the work. And the more remote the location, the better.

On the road far from the cities of then and the bothersome connectivity of today, Botts roams free in a world where snow closes roads for weeks on end, visitors are put up as guests without question, microphones are magical devices, and the most vexing problem of the day can be solved with a sixty-horsepower crawler.

If you’d like to read more about the adventures of Alexander Botts, check out the “related books” linked below