Friday 8 June 2012

William Hazlett Upson - creator of Alexander Botts

[This isn’t, strictly speaking, an article about a pulp author, or even an adventure author. But I enjoyed his tales of Alexander Botts. He was one of the leading humor writers for the Saturday Evening Post and there isn’t even a Wikipedia article on him; this post is my attempt to keep his stories from being forgotten.]

William Hazlett Upson
William Hazlett Upson (1962)

William Hazlett Upson (1891-1975) was born at Glen Ridge, New Jersey on September 6, 1891. He graduated from the Glen Ridge High School in 1909. Before joining Cornell in 1910, he worked on a cattle ranch in California for a year. He was a graduate of Cornell's agricultural course in 1914 (where he also took a course in short story writing), and worked as a “scientific farmer” on farms in New York State and Virginia until 1916. Later on, he claimed that he became a farmer because he wanted to be his own boss (“If you’re your own boss then you don’t have to give yourself work to do.”)

He enlisted in the Army in 1916 in the D Battery of the 13th Field Artillery, 4th Division. He took part in the Marne-Aisne, St. Mihiel, and Argonne offensives and entered Germany as part of the Army of Occupation. When he came back from the war, he joined a tractor company. In his own words:

I thought back to the month of August, 1919, when I first arrived at the factory. I was just out of the Army, after two years in France and Germany. I was looking for a job. The company was then called the Cleveland Tractor Company. It was only two or three years old, and it made only one model, a cute little tractor called a Cletrac, weighing a ton and a half, and developing ten horsepower on the drawbar. For its day it was a high-grade machine - designed by the great Rollin H. White of the same family who gave us the White Sewing Machine, the White Steamer, and the White Truck.

When I arrived in 1919, I did not know anybody at the Cleveland Tractor Company, I did not know anything about the Cletrac, and I did not know anything about the tractor business. But I was young. And I was confident. After all, I had enlisted in the Army knowing nothing of military affairs, and in the course of only two years I had worked my way up through sheer merit from the rank of private to the rank of private first-class. Having done so well in the Army, I felt I could do even better in the tractor business.

I barged into the office of the president of the company, Mr. Rollin H. White himself. I told him how good I was. I asked for a job. He referred me to Mr. George Pontius, manager of the service department. I told Mr. Pontius how good I was. He hired me as a service mechanic. I then told him - with a degree of caution unusual for me in those days - that although I was one of the finest mechanics in the country I was not completely familiar with the particular machinery they were making. Mr. Pontius thereupon assigned me to a tractor school conducted in a small shop just south of the main factory building.

For several weeks I toiled and sweated. I took apart several Cletracs. I put them together. I took them apart again. I put them together again. I scraped bearings. I ground valves. I adjusted carburetors. I cleaned magnetos. I played with pistons and piston rings, rocker arms, push rods, tappets, gears, shafts, and hundreds of other parts. And I fell in love with the tractor business. Every night I studied books about machinery and internal combustion engines.

After two weeks I was sent out as a trouble shooter. The West Penn Power Company was having difficulties with a fleet of six of our tractors that they were using in the construction of a power line through the mountains of Pennsylvania. When I arrived on the job I was pleased to find that I was received as a very important person. The chief mechanic conducted me to a tractor parked in a field, and respectfully asked if I would show him how to adjust the carburetor. I assumed a very impressive bedside manner which I had been practicing.

But right way I ran into a problem. The tractors I had worked on at the factory had had no hoods over the engines. But this tractor had a hood. It was held in place by four fancy catches. And these catches were of such a new and elaborate design that I had no idea how to operate them.

So there I was - the big expert from the factory, the final authority who was supposed to understand everything - and I did not even know how to open the hood to look at the engine.

I did some fast thinking. I would have to get rid of this chief mechanic for a few minutes. I said, "How would you like to run over to the shop and get me a few tools?"

"What sort of tools?"

"Just tools," I said nonchalantly - "a screw driver - a wrench - a pair of pliers."

He opened the tool box on the tractor and produced everything I had asked for.

I tried again.

"I’m sorry," I said, "but I will need a shorter screw driver, a longer monkey wrench, and a heavier pair of pliers."

The chief mechanic looked puzzled, but was sufficiently awed by my prestige as an expert to follow up my instructions even when they did not seem to make sense. He disappeared into the shop. While he was gone I had plenty of time to work on those fancy catches and get them open. When he came back I had no difficulty adjusting the carburetor. I had learned all about that in the tractor school at the factory.

The next problem was really tough. The tractor was the crawler type - it ran on two endless steel tracks like a war-time tank. Each of these tracks ran around a thing called a roller frame which had three small truck wheels at the bottom. The truck wheels turned on bearings, and it was these bearings that were causing untold grief and unhappiness.

Most tractors in those days used what were called plain bearings - a plain solid round shaft, surrounded by a plain solid sleeve or bushing, usually made of bronze or babbitt metal.

The Cleveland Company, however, had recently introduced something which all their salesmen were claiming as a sensational improvement: expensive high-grade special heat-treated alloy-steel roller bearings. This type of bearing undoubtedly added a sonorous and impressive note to the salemen’s line of talk. Unfortunately, it had not added to the happiness of the mechanics of the West Penn Power Company.

These bearings are wonderful if you keep them clean and adequately supplied with the high-grade Shell lubricants which my friend Ken Brown describes in such glowing terms. They have many very important uses in modern industry. But in one of the lower assemblies of a tractor driven though swamps and sand and dust, it was almost impossible to keep the bearing clean. The empty spaces filled up with sand, gravel, mud, and water. The rollers then cracked up. They get jammed crosswise. And the wheel no longer turned.

The chief mechanic told me in great detail and with great bitterness how, for the past few months, the truck-wheel bearings on all six of their tractors had been busting up, going to pieces, disintegrating and falling apart. He ended his remarks by stating that the tractor was no good, it never had been good, the company was not standing behind it, and it had better do something - or else.

I gathered that the "or else" included lawsuits against the tractor company and physical violence against the company's employees - including myself.

Again I had to think fast, I said, "Sir, I agree with you entirely. You have been cheated. You have been treated unfairly. You have been bamboozled. You have been done dirt. I apologize on behalf of the company. I regret that this was not brought to my attention sooner. And I thank you for stating your difficulties so frankly. Now that I am here, I can promise you that your troubles are over."

The man was still suspicious.

"What are you going to do?" he demanded.

BY THIS time I had come to several conclusions. First, having had no experience with this problem, any solution I might dream up would be mere guesswork. Second, mere guesswork would be better than nothing. Third, the trouble was apparently caused by dirt filling up the empty spaces around the rollers in the bearings. Fourth, if there were no open spaces there would be no place for the dirt to lodge. Fifth, I would have to get rid of these open spaces.

So I put on a very wise look. I spoke in meaningless by impressive terms of such erudite matters as friction coefficients and the viscosity of lubricants. Then I became confidential. I said, "In our company we have some of the finest engineers in the world. On theoretical matters they cannot be beat. But they are not practical men like you and me. They know that these roller bearings work perfectly when conditions are right. But you and I know that conditions here are not right. So we are going to substitute plain bearings. We are going to redesign the tractor so it will conform more closely to our ideas than to the ignorant prejudices of mere theoreticians."

Just as I expected, the chief mechanic was much pleased to learn that he was better than all the engineers at the factory, and that he and I were going to redesign the tractor - for that is exactly what we did.

We took out all the little rollers. We melted up some babbitt metal and we poured solid babbitt bearings in all of those truck wheels. Then we started the tractors and hauled supplies for the power line through the worst swamps and gravel beds we could find. After two days, our babbitt bearings were still going strong. They had lasted longer than any of the roller bearings. And they looked as if they would last indefinitely.

The chief mechanic and I congratulated each other on our superior wisdom and engineering skill. And I came back to the factory full of pride and joy.

I turned in a very impressive written report explaining how all of our engineers, including the president of the company, had been completely mistaken as to the value of roller bearings in tractor truck wheels. I related how I had come to expose this fallacy, how I had corrected the difficulty, and how I had explained matters to our customer’s chief mechanic in such a way that he had been completely satisfied.

Unfortunately, Mr. George Pontius was not favorably impressed. He said that is was not my job to redesign the tractor. I was not supposed to make unauthorized experiments by pouring hot babbitt into truck wheels which were designed for roller bearings. I was not expected to tell the customers that the tractor was built wrong and that I knew more than anybody else in the factory.

I answered these comments by modestly pointing out that I had fixed up the tractors so they ran perfectly - at least until I got out of town. And I had left the customer completely satisfied - for the time being anyway.

Mr. Pontius came back with the suggestion that I was perhaps a little too good to work for anybody as conventional and matter-of-fact as he was. With my superior abilities he felt sure that I could do better elsewhere. In other words, I was fired.

Mr. Pontius was very polite about it, and I felt sorry for him and for the company. If they were the kind of people who would get rid of anybody as valuable as I was, it was obvious that they could not hope to stay in business very long. It seemed too bad. However, as I was still in love with tractors, I scurried around and managed to get a job elsewhere in the tractor business.

He then took a job with the Holt Manufacturing Company (later known as the Caterpillar Tractor Company) of Dallas, Texas, as a service mechanic. In 1922, he had an operation, and was convalescing in the hospital. Time lay heavily on his hands, and he wrote a short story that he sold to Collier’s magazine in 1923. The same year, he married Marjory Alexander Wright, the daughter of Professor and Mrs. Charles Baker Wright. They lived in Peoria, Illinois and Connecticut before settling in his wife’s hometown of Middlebury, Vermont in 1928.

In 1924 he left his job with the Caterpillar Tractor Company in Peoria, Illinois, and began his career as a full time author. He created his famous character, Alexander Botts, in 1927. Alexander Botts was a tractor repairman who became a salesman (like the author), and relied on his wits, determination, luck to get him out of the messes (usually self-made) he got himself and his company into. His stories were told through the letters and telegrams exchanged between his office and himself. In his letters to the office, there are echoes of Ernest Bramah’s ironic way of saying something while meaning precisely the opposite.

Botts was usually at war with his boss about his goals, his methods and his expense reports, and managed to get himself fired and hired many times.  He was described as “an indomitable (though sometimes deluded) fellow American well acquainted with the sweet uses of adversity and adept at the fine art of plucking victory from the jaws of defeat.” The Botts stories are stories of the American dream; of hard work, of salesmanship, good old fashioned Yankee ingenuity (In one story he gets across a flooded river with heavy equipment by digging a new channel for the river behind the equipment and closing the old channel, thus getting across the river without having moved the equipment) and making good starting from nothing.

Alexander Botts was a very popular character, and appeared in a comic strip (“Alexander the Great”, 1936-38), in a movie (“Earthworm tractors”) and on several radio shows from Army Radio, Colombia Broadcasting and others. The movie is available freely online, and is worth watching for the action sequences with the tractor.

From 1927 to 1975, Upson wrote 112 stories of Alexander Botts. These were collected in “Botts in War, Botts in peace”, “Keep ‘em crawling: Earthworms at war”, “Alexander Botts, Earthworm tractors”, “Earthworms in Europe”, “Earthworms through the ages”, “No rest for Botts”, “Original letters of Alexander Botts” and “The Best of Botts”.

In addition to these stories, Upson wrote many other articles for Colliers, Esquire, the American Legion magazine, The Woman’s Home Companion and other magazines. He was also a playwright. Pocket Books, Doubleday, Farrar and Rinehart, and other companies published Upson’s “self-help” book, “How to Be Right Like Me”. He traveled around the country, giving lectures (“The art of being lazy”, “You too can be a lecturer”, “The adventures of Alexander Botts” etc.) and gathering background material.

William Hazlett Upson - the ergophobe (1946)
William Hazlett Upson - the ergophobe (1946)
Ergophobe - One who fears work

He had advice for would be writers:

A person must have a certain aptitude for writing to be successful. His method of constructing a story is to first build his plot in his head, examine it from all angles and then set about putting it on paper. The actual writing he considers routine work. In using this method most of the work is done in building up the idea for the story.

“Don’t give up your job to write. Until you become known, consider it an avocation.”

“Short story writing is easy, much easier than plumbing and requires little intelligence. All you do is choose a hero, put him in a tough spot, and get him out of it after the proper amount of agony and suspense.”

Apart from being a busy author and lecturer, he was active in civic affairs. He was the founder and president of the Middlebury Maternal Health Council (1932-1936), the first community clearing house for birth control information in the state. He was the superintendent of education in Bread Loaf, Vermont. He attended many of the Bread Loaf Summer Writer’s Conferences and occasionally taught creative writing at Middlebury College. He was a friend of Robert Frost, the poet, who also lived in Vermont.

William Upson passed away on February 5, 1975 in Middlebury. His collections of short stories are sadly out of print, but recently two collections of Botts stories have been published, containing 26 stories in all.

The fabulous saga of Alexander Botts and the Earthworm tractor
Alexander Botts rides again: More mayhem on the Earthworm tractor

Full stories of Alexander Botts that I found online. Not sure what the copyright on them is. Hope you enjoy them, and then go and buy the books above.

Alexander Botts, firebug
We’re going to ruin the lower classes
Botts and the jet-propelled tractor
Botts runs for his life
Botts in the islands


  1. My favorite series in the SATURDAY EVENING POST was the Glencannon stories by Guy Gilpatric. He was a crazy officer on a ship always getting into hilarious predicaments. There were around 100 short stories during 1930-1950, all of which have been reprinted in various collections.

    There would have been more but Gilpatric shot his terminally ill wife in 1950 and then committed suicide. A sad end to a career of writing great comedy stories.

    1. Walker, I have read the Glencannon stories too; I am lucky enough to have all three volumes of his collected stories. They are a great series of humorous stories, and i hope to have an article on Guy Gilpatric in the future.

  2. These stories will leave you laughing out loud more times than not. It takes pure brilliance to write short stories of this quality. If anyone is patient you can pick up all of his books at reasonable prices. I got most of mine through Abe Books. Some people think they should be valued like gold, others price them very reasonable.

    If you ever pass by Middlebury College and know where to look, you can see Upsons house which is owned by the College and called "Earthworm Manor".

    I could go on for days about Upson and Botts, they have been a passion of mine for years.

    Thank You SaivS for helping to keep him alive!

    1. I enjoyed the stories in both the collections I've read. Why don't you share your favorite stories or collections of Botts?

  3. Octane Press is releasing the entire short story collection with original illustrations!

    1. That is wonderful news. Upson's stories are ripe for rediscovery.

      And I needed a jolt of good news after all the stories I've been hearing from friends on the west coast. May God be with them and theirs.

  4. Hello! Can you tell me where this excerpt was originally published? Thank you!