Ray Christian/Easterlund Implement in LeSueur, Minnesota

            Ray Christian/Easterlund Implement of LeSueur, Minnesota,

                       and the Wagner/Wacker 1947 John Deere A

by

Brian Wayne Wells

As published in the September/October 2000 issue of

Belt Pulley Magazine

 

LeSueur, Minnesota (1920 pop. 1,795) is a small town located in the colorful Minnesota River valley, where canning of corn and peas has long been a part of the economy.  LeSueur is famous for having been the location of the corporate headquarters of the Green Giant Corporation.  Readers familiar with advertising of LeSueur brand peas and Green Giant peas and sweet corn will remember the musical jingo, “+*…in the Valley of the Jolly (ho ho ho) Green Giant *+.”  The Minnesota River valley around LeSueur is known as the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant.

           Green Giant Corporation began in the James Cosgrove Harness Shop at 106 South Main Street in LeSueur.  On April 2, 1903, James Cosgrove and his brothers C.N. and John R.S. Cosgrove and C.N.’s son Robert H. Cosgrove gathered with others to form the Minnesota Valley Canning Company.  From this very inauspicious start, the company grew into a large concern known as the Green Giant Company.  (Margaret Block et al., LeSueur:Town on the River [Walsworth Publishing Co.: Marceline, Miss., 1977] p. 148.)  In 1903, the company used the crops from a mere 200 acres of the surrounding community; twenty-five years later, in 1928, the company was contracting with area farmers for the crops from 20,000 acres.  Ibid.  The effect the Minnesota Valley Canning Company (later the Green Giant Corporation) would have on the progress of farming in this area was pivotal.  Many farmers in the northwest corner of LeSueur County and eastern Sibley County grew large quantities of sweet corn and English peas for Green Giant.  Contracts between Green Giant and area farmers for growing sweet corn and peas supplied a financial floor, of sorts, on which LeSueur area farmers could bank as they risked the expense of new farm machinery.

C. N. Cosgrove came to LeSueur in 1872 at the age of 18 years, and that same year he opened a hardware store at 112 North Main Street.  C.N. had always been interested in modern farming methods.  Consequently, from a very early date, his hardware store had sold farm implements.  (A 1910 picture clearly shows that the Cosgrove Hardware Store was the local dealer for Kentucky grain drills.)  C.N. did well enough at selling horse-drawn machinery that in 1890 he built the first of the “Cosgrove” houses in LeSueur.  (This historic house, located at 228 South 2nd Street, is currently owned by Wayne and Marilyn Wells and is operated as a bed and breakfast.)  C.N.’s interest in progressive agriculture led to his appointment to the Minnesota State Fair Board where he served for many years.  (Visitors to the Minnesota State Fair will note that the street on the east side of the fairgrounds, in front of the Administration Building, the 4H Building, the Educations Building, the Creative Activities Building, and the Fine Arts Building, is named Cosgrove Street in honor of C.N. Cosgrove.)  In 1918, C.N. took on additional community responsibilities with his election to the Minnesota State Senate.  C.N. continued to serve on the board of the Green Giant Corporation and would eventually become president of the corporation in 1925.  In order to devote adequate time to his other responsibilities, C.N. Cosgrove sold his hardware store/implement dealership to R.T. Bryan in 1919.  In 1924, after just five years of ownership, R.T. Bryan sold the hardware store/implement dealership to a young man by the name of Ray Christian.

Under the ownership of Ray Christian, the business became an implement dealership and, more exclusively, a John Deere dealership franchise.  Just as Beske Implement of Minnesota Lake, Minnesota, found sales of the new John Deere Model D tractor to be the mainstay of support for its business in the 1920s, so too did Ray Christian find the Model D to be very popular in his sales district–the northwestern corner of LeSueur County and the eastern part of Sibley county, directly across the Minnesota River from the town of LeSueur.  (See the March/April 2000 issue of Belt Pulley for a history of the Beske Implement dealership of Minnesota Lake, Minnesota.)

Naturally, the Great Depression of 1929-1933 had a deleterious effect on the Ray Christian Dealership.  However, coincident with the beginning of the recovery of the United States farm economy was the introduction and widespread acceptance of the tricycle-style, row-crop tractor as the main power source on diversified farms of the midwest.  Tricycle-style tractors allowed farmers to mechanize the planting and cultivation of row crops.  Farmers found that row-crop tractors could complete the cultivation of their crops much faster than horses.  This was particularly significant in the LeSueur area where farmers tended to have additional acreage on their farms planted in sweet corn.  Ray Christian found this increase in demand for row-crop tractors to translate into increased sales of the new tricycle-style Model A and Model B tractors almost as soon as they were introduced in 1934.  Ray Christian would use all advantages he had at hand to sell the new Model A and Model B tractors, and the John Deere Company offered many new, effective means to advertise them.  One way was through advertising movies made by John Deere.  Copies of these movies were made available to dealerships through regional blockhouses–like the Deere and Weber distributorship in Minneapolis which served as the blockhouse for the Ray Christian Implement dealership.  The John Deere Company would encourage its franchise holders to plan open house celebrations (later to become known as “John Deere Days”) to be held at the local dealerships each February, where the John Deere movies were shown as part of the open house.  In the 1936 John Deere Day movie called “Sheppard and Son,” cultivation of row crops was the featured aspect of tractor advertisement.  In the movie, it was boasted that 35 acres of corn could be cultivated in a single ten-hour day with a two-row cultivator on a row-crop tractor, something that would take four days to accomplish with horses and a single-row cultivator.  This method of advertising had a huge effect, and the new row-crop tractors proved to be a popular item with farmers.  (All John Deere Day movies are now available on VHS video tape from the Two Cylinder Club, P.O. Box 10, Grundy Center, Iowa  50638-0010, Tel. 1-888-782-2582 or [319] 345-6060.)

The Ray Christian Dealership sold many Model A tractors along with other John Deere farm equipment in the period of time prior to the Second World War, as the dealership was able to ride the rising tide of tractor and machinery sales which had started in the late 1930s.  One such row-crop Model A tractor–a 1936 Model–was sold to Carl Preuhs of rural LeSueur.  Carl and Anna (Horrisberger) Preuhs had purchased a 120-acre farm in 1881.  This farm is still in operation by the Preuhs family–Dave and Carol (Madlo) Preuhs, grandson of Carl and Anna Preuhs.  The 1936 John Deere A was the first tractor used on the Preuhs farm.

The Ray Christian Implement dealership also offered a full-time, full-service repair shop, where LeSueur native, Ralph Nash, was employed.  Not only did Ralph Nash provide the necessary overhaul of tractors for the dealership, but he was also talented as a welder.  (Regular readers will remember that Ralph Nash built the shop-made wagon gear which was placed under the restored Anthony wagon box which is currently in use by the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association at their annual August threshing show.  See the July/August 1995 issue of Belt Pulley magazine, pp. 21 and 22.)

When the United States became involved in World War II, farm prices rose because of the demand for food to feed the armies in Europe and the Pacific.  The high demand for farm products in turn stimulated the demand for farm machinery.  However, because of the restrictions placed by the United States on the allocation of iron and rubber and other basic resources on the manufacturing economy, the Ray Christian Dealership was unable to meet this sudden rise in demand.  As all efforts were bent toward winning the war, these restrictions created shortages of new farm machinery throughout the war.  When the war-time restrictions were removed in 1945 and the large pent-up demand for new farm machinery was released, a flood of farmers descended on the dealerships to purchase the new improved John Deere tractors that were being produced after the war.  The post-war market for farm machinery was, however, entirely different than the pre-war market–farmers were now demanding larger, more powerful tractors.  Standing as witness of this change was the fact that in every single year since 1935, the Model B had outsold the Model A.  Now, in 1947, there was a change–the Model A surpassed the Model B as the top seller of the John Deere line.  The Model A would continue was the top selling tractor until the introduction of the number series tractors in 1952.

One of the John Deere Model A tractors sold in 1947 which helped it take the sales lead over the Model B tractor for the first time was Serial No. 585586.  No. 585586 was sold by the Ray Christian Implement dealership to George M. Wagner of rural LeSueur, Minnesota.  George (born on June 5, 1914) and his older sister, Cecilia Catherine (born October 29, 1908), grew up on their parents’ (Joseph M and Theresa (Kolbinger) Wagner) farm located in eastern Sibley County, just south of the crossroads settlement of Rush River, Minnesota.  After Joseph passed away in 1932, Theresa continued to live on the farm and George took over the farming operations in the shoes of his deceased father.  During the Second World War, he moved to his own farm, also located in eastern Sibley County.

During this time, George began going steady with Patricia Simmonette.  His sister, Cecilia, also met Bruno Wacker during this period of time.  Bruno had moved into eastern Sibley County from the Pierz and Buckman area of Morrison County, further north in Minnesota.  Both couples had fun together and became fast friends.  Love had struck Bruno and Cecilia rather late in their lives–Bruno was 36 and Cecilia was 38.  The two couples set their weddings for November 19, 1947, and they celebrated a double wedding at St. Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church in Mankato, Minnesota.  Bruno and Cecilia established themselves on a farm about five miles from George and Patricia and set about building a life for themselves.

The Wacker farm was a small 160-acre diversified farm with a herd of twelve cows to be milked every morning and evening, laying chickens from which eggs were gathered in the morning, and pigs which needed to be fed.  Like most young farm couples, Bruno and Cecilia set about the tasks on the farm with enthusiasm.  They would gather the eggs from the hen house, clean the eggs, and then package them up in the egg crates they obtained from the egg dealer in Arlington, Minnesota.  Two or three times a week the egg truck would pass through the neighborhood, stopping at the farms along the route and picking up the boxed egg cartons filled with eggs.  Occasionally, Bruno and Cecilia would find cracked or oversized or undersized eggs which would be put aside for use by the family itself.

Brother-in-law George took an active part in trying to help Bruno and his older sister Cecilia in their efforts to get their farming operation going, and he and Patricia took every opportunity to gather with them.  Because they were just down the road, George and Petricia would often get together with Cecilia and Bruno to celebrate Christmas and other holidays.  During these get-togethers, George, who had a clear vision that mechanization of farming was the wave of the future, would talk to Bruno about modernizing his farming operations.  George knew that to be successful in farming in the post-World War II era, farmers would have to change from slow horse-power to modern tractor power.  Bruno listened.  In 1947 alone, George had purchased from the Ray Christian Implement dealership a four-row Model 490 corn planter, a four-row Model ABG-400 cultivator, a Model H manure spreader, and a Model 55 ABH three-bottom hydraulic plow with 14″ bottoms, along with the new John Deere Model A tractor (No. 585586).  Now, in late 1947, George offered to sell the tractor and all this equipment to Bruno.  Bruno, realizing that the equipment had scarcely been used, accepted the offer.  The Wacker family could now head into the 1948 growing season with an entire line of almost brand new mechanized farm equipment.  Thus, almost from the start of their marriage, Bruno and Cecilia would be able to farm without the need of horses.  With the four-row planter and cultivator, Bruno would be able to move immediately into the large capacity row-crop farming that was still unusual in 1947.  He would be able to cover twice the ground of his neighbors with two-row planters and cultivators.  Instead of 35 acres in a ten-hour day, he could cultivate 70 acres in the same amount of time.  This meant a great deal in the days of wire-checked corn and cross-cultivation.

Like his neighbors all across the country, Bruno wire-checked his corn so that he could not only cultivate the field lengthwise, but could also cultivate across the field to get all the weeds between the young shoots of growing corn.  Once having cross-cultivated all the corn on his farm, Bruno would want to cultivate lengthwise again if for no other reason than to re-contour the ground around the plants with lengthwise ridges.  This meant that in the fall the cornpicker would not have to roll over the washboard of cross ridges created by cross-cultivation.  The four-row cultivator saved a great deal of time in this extensive cultivation method.

In his first crop season with the new farm equipment, Bruno was nearly done with his corn harvest when, on November 15, 1948, he and his wife were blessed with the birth of a daughter–Theresa Mary Wacker.  Later, the couple would also have another daughter Margaret Ann, or Meg, born on February 4, 1950; and also a son John, born on December 30, 1951.  Meanwhile, George and Patricia were blessed with the birth of a daughter, Kathleen, on January 3, 1950; another daughter, Jeanie Marie, on July 10, 1951; and a third daughter, Margaret Mary, on February 4, 1951.  The cousins would all become great friends and would bicycle back and forth from each other’s farms to play together.

As with most farm families, the oldest Wacker child, Theresa, often accompanied her dad as he performed his chores around the farm, allowing mother Cecilia to tend exclusively to the needs of young Meg and later young John.  Whether it was planting corn with the John Deere 490 corn planter, cultivating the corn in the summertime with the ABG-400 cultivator, or driving a full load of manure in the Model H manure spreader from the barn to the fields in the winter, Theresa was always enthusiastic about riding on the tractor with her father.  When she was about seven years old, her father taught her how to engage the hand clutch and steer the tractor.  This made her a real help when Bruno had to get off the tractor to open and close the gate from the cowyard to the fields.   Theresa would steer the tractor and the manure spreader through the gate while her father kept the cows from getting out until he could close the gate behind the tractor.  It was a real joy for father and daughter to work together.

Sometimes Bruno would start up the Ford F-5 12-ton truck and head into LeSueur with a load of grain to sell or to pick up some feed at the Farmer’s Cooperative Elevator.  As they would drive up the hill on Bridge Street into LeSueur and turn onto North Main Street, Theresa and her father would pass the Ray Christian dealership.  Perhaps Bruno would remember a particular repair part that he needed, and so he and little Thersea would stop off at the Ray Christian dealership on his way back from the elevator.

Post-war sales of the John Deere Model A remained brisk and added value to all John Deere dealerships themselves.  Ray Christian recognized that his dealership had appreciated a great deal in the short time since the end of the war and he felt that it might be a good time to sell the business. Therefore, he began looking for a buyer and eventually sold the dealership in 1948 to Mr. Shlrick.  Mr. Shlrick ran the business for only a short time before he advertised his desire to sell the dealership.  One of the interested parties that heard of his intent to sell was the young family of Allen and Gladys Easterlund.

Allen Easterlund grew up in Iowa and married Gladys Leif on November 16, 1940.  In 1949, he was working at the Bower Implement–the John Deere dealership in Wilmar, Minnesota–when he became aware of Mr. Shlrick’s intent to sell the John Deere dealership in LeSueur.  Al and Gladys saw this as a great opportunity to get into business for themselves and to make a future in the rising market for mechanized farm machinery.  However, it would be not be an easy decision to leave the security of a paycheck to head off into the unknown area of buying a sole proprietorship business.  Furthermore, as a young couple with a growing family (Darlene, born on Oct. 24, 1941; Nancy, born on December 4, 1943; Douglas, born on February 20, 1946; Bonnie, born on April 23, 1947; and Dean born on February 1, 1949), Gladys and Allen had not been able to put aside the resources necessary to purchase the new franchise outright.  However, after some investigation, they found a former Kandiyohi County, Minnesota, farmer–and now LeSueur resident Martin Behm–who agreed to become a partner in the business.  Marvin Behm owned a stake in a number of businesses around LeSueur in the immediate post-World War II period.  Now, Marvin Behm would provide financing for the purchase of the dealership by Al and Gladys Easterlund, but he would serve as a “silent” partner and would not be involved in the day-to-day business decisions.

With this new arrangement agreed to by all the parties, the sale of the John Deere franchise to Al and Gladys Easterlund and Marvin Behm became effective January 1, 1950.  As might be expected, the new dealership did well in the post-war farm equipment market as they tried to meet the demand for new farm machinery.  John Deere Model A tractors continued to sell well in the LeSueur area.

By 1953, Al Easterlund had become established in the business securely enough that he bought out Martin Behm’s share of the partnership.  At this point, the dealership became reorganized as a sole proprietorship–the Easterlund Implement dealership.  Also in 1953, Easterlund’s took advantage of the encouragement offered by the John Deere Company and moved from its small cramped building at 112 No. Main Street to newer, larger facilities at 817 No. Main.  The new building erected on that site was large enough to have an ample service department, a parts department, and a showroom to display some of the new tractors and farm machinery inside the building, out of inclement weather.  Large windows in the front of the building allowed passers-by to see new tractors and farm machines on the showroom floor.  Large bay doors in the back allowed for easy access to the service department by almost all tractors and machines.  Furthermore, the site itself was large enough for a used tractor and machinery lot adjacent to the building.

            Easterlund’s kept up the tradition of conducting the “John Deere Day” open house each February.  Preparations for the annual “John Deere Day” occupied the Easterlund house well before the actual date of the open house.  Al would have a meeting with the blockhouse representative from Deere and Webber in Minneapolis to discuss the inventory needed for the John Deere Day and for the coming crop season.  Meanwhile, on the home front, Gladys and the wives of the other Easterlund employees would start making dozens of cheese and baloney sandwiches and preparing the pork and beans that would be served during the open house.  Apple sauce cupcakes for desert would be ordered from Nelson’s Bakery located at 115 South Main Street.

As noted previously, John Deere Day open houses became an institution in rural America.  As the Easterlund children found, it also meant a steady diet of baloney and cheese sandwiches in their school lunches long after the open houses were over.

Over the years, Easterlund’s employed several local residents.  Glendon Braun was one such area farmer.  (Regular readers of Belt Pulley will remember that Glendon Braun was mentioned in the article “Ballad of a Binder” in the January/February 1997 issue of Belt Pulley as the most recent owner of the Irving King McCormick-Deering corn binder.  Additionally, he is pictured sitting on the binder on page 17 of that issue.)  In the mid-1970s, a young Wayne Schwartz was employed at Easterlund’s.  Today, Wayne farms in the rural LeSueur area and supplements his farm income by working on farm tractors.  He especially enjoys working on the older model farm tractors.  This is fortunate because the LeSueur area currently abounds with older model farm tractors which are no longer used in actual farming operations but are exhibited each year at the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Show.  The location of Wayne’s farm–only about three miles from the Pioneer Power showgrounds–means that the owner of a newly overhauled tractor will have a pleasurable ride back to the grounds with the “like-new” tractor when Wayne is done with it.  (One such pleasurable ride was enjoyed in August of 2000 by the author, driving a 1940 John Deere [Serial No. 83894.]–the same tractor that was the subject of the article “The Grams and Krautkremer Hardware: John Deere Dealer in Jordan, Minnesota” in the July/August 2000 issue of Belt Pulley.  With a top speed of 6-3/4 miles per hour, the trip to the showgrounds took a full 20-30 minutes, but the author savored every minute of the ride.)   Logan Denzer was another local citizen who worked at Easterlund’s.  Later, Logan Denzer became the owner of the John Deere dealership in Belle Plaine, which is still active as a John Deere dealership, but is now known as Siemon Implement.

As time passed, Al and Gladys Easterlund began to think about retirement.  Three of their four sons were already heavily involved in the dealership and it looked like a good time to pass the torch to the younger generation.  Accordingly, in 1979, the financial arrangements were accomplished, and Douglas, Don and Daniel Easterlund became the new owners of Easterlund Implement.  During the 1970s, farming, and thus farm machinery sales, was a “go-go” business.  However, rough times would set in during the 1980s.  Just as with the Beske dealership in Minnesota Lake and so many other farm-related businesses in the early 1980s, the softening of the economy proved ruinous.  Consequently, on April 2 and 3, 1984, an auction was held to dispense with all of the huge inventory of new and used farm machines, tractors, and parts stock which Easterlund’s had on hand.

Gladys and Al Easterlund now spend their winters in Arizona in well-deserved retirement.  Douglas Easterlund works at Rudolph’s John Deere Dealership in St. Cloud, Minnesota; Don works for the United States Post Office; and Daniel works as a district manager for Schwann’s Ice Cream Company.

George and Patricia Wagner still live on their farm near LeSueur.  Bruno and Cecilia Wacker retired from their farm and moved to the town of LeSueur.  The John Deere Model A (Serial No. 585586) which George sold to his brother-in-law, Bruno Wacker, is kept at the farm of Bruno and Cecilia’s second daughter and her husband–Ken and Meg Paulson of rural LeSueur.  Old Model A No. 585586 was restored, repainted, and decaled in 1976 in time for Father’s Day, at which time it was shown to Bruno Wacker as a surprise.  Bruno Wacker died on October 23, 1980.  Cecilia lived on alone until November 7, 1989, when she deceased.  No. 585586 is still stored indoors on the Ken and Meg Paulson farm, where it stands as a remembrance to all the people who built, sold, repaired, and operated the tractor.

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