Navistar History 1882-1933 — Alexander Legge - Legendary IH President
Tom Clark, Navistar's Corporate Historian
August 9, 2016
Written by Tom Clark, Navistar’s Corporate Historian, this story was originally published in Cornbinder Connection Magazine. The image is used with the permission of The Wisconsin Historical Society. Background reference materials include Alexander Legge 1866-1933 by Forrest Crissey, and stories by Sam Moore.
The Smart Cowboy
Unlike founder Cyrus McCormick’s sons, Legge did not have an Ivy League education. In fact, he was almost completely self-taught, reading every book he could get his hands on. Sandy, as he was known as a child, was a wizard at math and, from an early age, had the ability to fix almost anything mechanical.
Raised on his parents’s cattle ranch in Nebraska, he was given serious responsibilities in his early teens. Once, when he was 16, his father sent him on a business trip to purchase a herd of cattle for an agreed upon price. While the cattle were being loaded onto rail cars, two Iowa cattlemen asked him what he wanted for the herd. Without hesitating, Legge added $1,500 to the price his father paid and presented it to the cattlemen. To his surprise, they agreed. Sandy returned home with another herd and a profit of $1,500 – a nice sum of money for 1882.
For two years in his early 20s Legge worked on a sprawling ranch in Wyoming. The V-R Ranch ran about 12,000 head of cattle and 1,500 horses for the U.S. Cavalry. Legge, who was paid $35 per month, often acted as a courier delivering the $5,000 payroll 90 miles from Douglas, Wyoming over the rough back country. The Wyoming territory was, at the time, a frontier rife with cattle rustlers and thieves. To the disbelief of many, Legge managed to outwit the bad guys every time and make his delivery.
The Daring Bill Collector
Legge returned to his family’s Nebraska ranch in 1889 and worked assembling farm implements for a local dealer. Legge’s older brother George introduced him to P.M. Price, The McCormick Harvesting Machine Company’s Omaha branch collections manager. In 1891 Price hired Legge to collect from farmers behind in their payments. Price handed Alex a tall stack of past due bills and sent him out to collect, fully expecting some degree of failure. He was paid $50 per month plus expenses. At the end of the two weeks Legge returned to Omaha having collected on every delinquent account. The already astonished Price was even more amazed when Legge explained he’d also sold 20 mowers to an agent. From then on he was regarded as fearless for having survived dozens of threats by farmers ranging from shot guns to pitch forks to butcher knives. Legge was developing a reputation and was often referred to as “that young cowboy.”
The Legendary Executive
While in Omaha, Legge got to know Cyrus McCormick’s son Harold, who was managing the Omaha region. When Harold returned to Chicago in 1899 he asked Legge to join him, and made him the head of the company’s worldwide collections department. After the IH merger in 1902 Legge was promoted to assistant sales manager and then to general manager of the entire company.
When Harold resigned the presidency in 1922 to become Chairman of the Board, Legge became the president of IHC – the first non-McCormick to hold the office. As president, his strategies helped the company survive the Great Depression. He also supported the development of the Farmall tractor and battled Henry Ford and his Fordson. Most importantly, he successfully defended the company’s position in a huge anti-trust law suit.
The Good Citizen
President Woodrow Wilson often relied on his friend Cyrus McCormick Jr. as his unofficial representative of industry. When Wilson was looking for someone to run the War Industries Board during WW I, McCormick suggested Legge. Shortly thereafter Legge was named vice chairman of this critically important agency. At the end of the war Legge was also selected to write the portion of the Treaty of Versailles dedicated to industry – a document that left an indelible mark on world history.
From 1929 to 1931 (during his hiatus from IH) Legge served as Chairman of the Federal Farm Board, helping farmers get through the Great Depression. In 1933, Legge founded the Farm Foundation, a non-partisan organization helping farmers to this day.
Alexander Legge (pronounced Leg)
President, International Harvester Company 1922-1929 and 1931-1933
This official portrait was used by the illustrator who created the portrait of Legge that appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1930.