One of the biggest financial turnarounds in American industry during the 1930s and ‘40s occurred under the leadership of a man from Inkster, N.D.

During the five years prior to Ken Hyslop being named president of the U.S. division of Massey-Harris (MH) in 1938, MH sustained an annual deficit of $4 million dollars. In 1939, Hyslop’s first full year as president, MH again became a profitable company with sales of $21 million, and annual sales climbed to over $100 million by 1945.

During the 1930s, the Midwest, the agricultural heartland of the U.S., was hit very hard by the Great Depression and the “Dirty Thirties,” when seasonal droughts and grasshoppers forced many farmers to abandon their farms. Because of this, many businesses and companies either went bankrupt or suffered severe losses, especially banks and agricultural-related enterprises. Farm implement dealerships and companies were severely impacted, and MH was no exception.

It was believed by executives that Hyslop, who had a reputation for making wise financial decisions, would be able to help put the company back on a profitable path. In 1938, Hyslop was promoted to president of the U.S. division of MH and relocated from Europe to Racine, Wis., the company’s U.S. headquarters. The executives at MH were correct about Hyslop’s moneymaking ability, even though three years after he had been handed the U.S. presidency at MH, he was faced with guiding his company through World War II.

During the war, a number of MH plants that were located behind enemy-held territory no longer produced machinery for MH. Also, all American companies were rationed on gasoline, heating oil, metals, rubber, paper and plastics, and MH felt compelled to greatly reduce its output of farm machinery and instead focus on producing war materials.

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MH had once been a leader in the manufacturing of tractors, but by 1938 it lost much of its business to John Deere, International Harvester, Allis-Chalmers, Ford and Ferguson. In the hope of reclaiming its market share of tractors, MH in 1938 introduced the Massey-Harris Model 101 Super, which utilized “Chrysler’s rugged (six-cylinder) industrial inline engine.”

The 101 had a four-speed transmission and was capable of traveling 20 mph on roads. Most importantly, “it was one of the most powerful tractors on the market that year.” The base price for the 101 was about $1,100, which was nearly $200 more than the John Deere A. To address this, MH unveiled the smaller “Model 101 Junior” in 1939. Every year that Hyslop was president, except for the wartime years of 1943-1946, MH came out with newer and better models.

By far, the company's biggest innovation in 1938 was the introduction of the MH-20, the first self-propelled combine, described as “probably the most significant development in harvesting history.” Prior to the introduction of the MH-20, harvesting small grains took two separate operations. First, the stalks of the ripened grain were mowed by a reaper/swather into windrows and allowed to dry before being combined. With the MH-20, the grain crops were cut and combined in one operation, saving man-hours, gasoline and oil.

The windrows were subject to high winds that scattered the grain stalks, and drenching rains delayed combining and often lowered the quality of the grain. Another disadvantage of tractor-pulled reapers was that the large and heavy tractor wheels “crushed (the) grain-heavy stalks when opening up the fields.”

The MH-20 was a heavy machine and was too expensive for the average family farmer, so MH began working on a new model that was “smaller, lighter, and more affordable.” That was achieved in 1941 with the introduction of the MH-21. Just as MH was beginning to mass produce their MH-21 combines, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, resulting in the U.S. entry into World War II.

Ken Hyslop as seen in the 1906 University of North Dakota yearbook. Special to The Forum
Ken Hyslop as seen in the 1906 University of North Dakota yearbook. Special to The Forum

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With the U.S. at war, the Army Ordnance Department came to Racine to talk to Hyslop about his willingness to take on a prime contract of tank production, and he said he was interested. Then, in January 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt established the War Production Board (WPB), an agency that directed the conversion of American industries from peacetime work to war needs. It rationed such commodities as gasoline, heating oil, metals, rubber, paper and plastics, and large industrial companies were directed to produce weapons and other items that were necessary for the war effort.

On Jan. 11, MH executives signed a contract to manufacture over 1,000 M5 tanks at a price of $70,000 per tank. On Feb. 9, MH purchased an automobile manufacturing plant from the Nash Automobile Co. in Racine and then began the process of converting it into a plant that could make tanks. MH, under the direction of Hyslop, began producing M5s — 257 in 1942, 753 in 1943 and 324 in 1944.

An American M5A1 light tank passes through the wrecked streets of Coutances, France, in 1944. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum
An American M5A1 light tank passes through the wrecked streets of Coutances, France, in 1944. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum

As the war was coming to an end, much of the world was starving. The U.S. War Food Administration swung into action to increase grain production in the U.S., and set a goal of 1 billion bushels of wheat in 1944. It appeared that this was an impossible goal because most of the existing harvesting machines were in a sad state of disrepair, and the WPB was still rationing steel so that very few new machines could be produced.

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MH executives convinced the WPB to allocate enough steel to build 500 more MH-21 combines and, with these extra machines, they would “plan the harvest like a military operation.” It was called the “Harvest Brigade,” and would begin in Texas and California and operate like a “light-armored blitz” as it moved north. “By July, they’d marched through Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska and by August, they reached the Dakotas, and by September, the Canadian wheat fields.”

The Harvest Brigade was a complete success, covering 1,500 miles, combining 1,019,500 acres for a total yield of more than 25 million bushels of grain. It was estimated that the MH-21s saved 333,000 man-hours and 500,000 gallons of gasoline. It also ushered in a new industry — custom combining.

MH “continued to have prosperous years from 1946 to 1951,” and Hyslop retired in 1950, having been handsomely rewarded by MH for the prosperity he had brought to the company. He remained in Racine and focused on “his hobbies including traveling, hunting, fishing and golf — and buying Red River Valley land as an investment,” especially land around the towns of Argyle and Mapleton in North Dakota and Euclid in Minnesota.

Hyslop never married, so he began donating his considerable assets to various charities and institutions, most notably the University of North Dakota. “His first major gift was for $50,000 ($440,000 today) in 1960 to build an addition onto his Sigma Chi chapter house.” Prior to 1980, Hyslop deeded to UND “over $150,000 in corporate stock, as well as 2,000 acres of land in the U.S. and Canada,” and “in January of 1980, he gifted UND over 4,100 acres of farm land in the Red River Valley, appraised at $16.3 million today.” After he died in 1981, UND “was the beneficiary of an additional $2 million.”

In 1959, Hyslop received the Distinguished Service Citation (now the Sioux Award) from the UND Alumni Association. Some of the money he donated in 1980 went toward construction of the Hyslop Alumni Lounge. On March 4, 1981, the North Dakota Legislature approved a resolution honoring Hyslop for his philanthropy. It stated that his giving “represented the largest gift ever made to UND,” and “may have been among the two largest gifts to any university in the U.S. during 1980.”

William Kenneth Hyslop died May 30, 1981. Less than two months later, the name of the UND Fieldhouse was changed to the Hyslop Sports Center.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.