Have you ever heard of Earthworm Tractors? Neither had I. At least not until one of the Museum’s intrepid volunteers, Gail Erwin, came across the name on a paper in one of our collections. The document dated from the 1930s, and the imagery it evokes was obviously intended to remind readers of Caterpillar Tractors, whose origins can be traced largely to Stockton inventor and industrialist Benjamin Holt. (See Blog entry for March 23, 2011.)
So was Earthworm Tractors an actual company? Sort of. Earthworm Tractors was the brainchild of William Hazlett Upson (1891-1975), a one-time Caterpillar mechanic and a popular author early in the twentieth century. In 1927, Upson started a series of articles in the Saturday Evening Post that featured the adventures of Earthworm Tractor salesman Alexander Botts. The series depicts Botts moving from one scrape to another, selling tractor after tractor in spite himself rather than because of his professional skills.
Botts quickly became an American folk hero. True to form, Hollywood released its own version of the series in 1936 under the title Earthworm Tractors, which can best be described as romantic slapstick comedy. This was the subject of the document Gail discovered. I won’t give away the plot, but the film features popular comedian Joe E. Brown as Botts, and Guy Kibee as businessman Sam Johnson, the target of Botts’s sales efforts. June Travis plays the part of Mabel Johnson, the businessman’s attractive young daughter. Believe me, filling in the blanks doesn’t involve rocket science.
In one humorous scene, Botts demonstrates the power of Earthworm Tractors by towing the Johnson house to a new location at night. Meanwhile, the unsuspecting father and daughter bounce around inside imagining themselves victims of an earthquake.
You can still read Upson’s series, either in historic copies of the Saturday Evening Post or in various book-length versions. Or you can view the movie over the Internet—just click the image above. Whichever you chose, remember that Caterpillar… uh, Earthworm Tractors played an indispensable part in the rise of a popular folk hero and that you learned about Botts and his company here first.