The sluggard will not plow by
reason of the cold; therefore shall
he beg in harvest.
You benefit yourself only as you
James Oliver was born in Roxburyshire,
Scotland, August the Twenty-eighth, Eighteen Hundred
Twenty-three. He died March the Second, Nineteen
Hundred Eight. He was the youngest of a brood
of eight six boys and two girls.
He was “the last run of shad,”
to use the phrase of Theodore Parker, who had a similar
honor. Just why the youngest should eclipse the
rest, as occasionally happens, is explained by Doctor
Tilden on the hypothesis that a mother gives this
last little surprise party an amount of love and tenderness
not vouchsafed the rest.
Let the philosophers philosophize we
deal with facts, not theories, and no one will deny
that James Oliver was a very potent, human and stubborn
fact. He was Scotch.
His father was a shepherd on a landed
estate, where the noses of the sheep grew sharp that
they might feed between the stones. The family
was very poor, but poverty in the Old World grows
into a habit, and so the Olivers did not suffer.
They huddled close for warmth in their little cottage
and were grateful for parritch and shelter.
In Eighteen Hundred Thirty, the oldest
boy, John, filled with the spirit of unrest, tied
up all of his earthly goods in a red handkerchief
and came to America.
He found work at a dollar a day, and
wrote glowing letters home of a country where no one
picked up fagots for fires, but where forests
were actually in the way. He also said he ate
at his employer’s table, and they had meat three
times a week. Of course he had meat three times
a day, but he didn’t want to run the risk of
being placed in the Ananias Club by telling the truth.
A little later, Andrew and Jane, the
next in point of age, came too, and slipped at once
into money-making jobs, piling up wealth at the rate
of three dollars a week.
When three of a brood have gone from
the home nest, they pull hard on the heartstrings
of the mother. Women, at the last, have more courage
than men when they have.
Partnerships are very seldom equal
partnerships one takes the lead. In
this case the gray mare was the better horse, and James
Oliver got his initiative from his mother.
“We are all going to America,” the mother
And then the worthy shepherd-man would
give a hundred and fifty reasons why it was impossible.
He had become pot-bound. Fear
and inertia had him by the foot. He was too old
to try to do anything but care for sheep, he pleaded.
And persistently, as she knitted furiously,
the mother would repeat, “We are all going to
Little Jamie was eleven years old.
He was a swart and sandy little Scot, with freckles,
a full-moon face and a head of tousled hair that defied
“We are all going to America,”
echoed Jamie “we are going to America
to make our fortunes.”
John, Andrew and Jane had sent back
real money they must have earned it.
All the debts were cleaned up, and the things they
had borrowed were returned. The mother took charge
and sold all the little surplus belongings, and the
day came when they locked the door of the old stone
cottage and took the key to the landlord in his big
house and left it.
They rode away in a kind neighbor’s
cart, bound for the sea-coast. Everybody cried
but Jamie. It was glorious to go away such
wonderful things could be seen all along the route.
They took passage in a sailing-ship
crowded with emigrants. It was a stormy trip.
Everybody was sick. Several died, and there were
burials at sea, when the plank was tilted and the
body slid into the yeasty deep.
Jamie got into trouble once by asking
how the dead man could ever be found when it came
Judgment-Day. And also the captain got after him
with a rope’s end because he scrambled upon
the quarter-deck when the mate went aft. The
disposition to take charge was even then germinating;
and he asked more questions than ten men could answer.
Once when the hatches were battened
down, and the angry waves washed the deck, and the
elder Oliver prophesied that all were soon going to
Davy Jones’ locker, Jamie reported that the sailors
on deck were swearing, and all took courage.
The storm blew over, as storms usually
do, and the friendly shores of America came in sight.
There were prayer-meetings on deck,
and songs of thanksgiving were sung as the ship tacked
slowly up the Narrows.
Some of our ancestors landed at Jamestown,
some at Plymouth Rock, and some at Castle Garden.
If the last named had less to boast of in way of ancestry,
they had fewer follies to explain away than either
of the others. They may have fallen on their
knees, but they did not fall on the aborigines.
They were for the most part friendly, kind and full
of the right spirit the spirit of helpfulness.
At Castle Garden, one man gave Jamie
an orange and another man gave him a kick. He
never forgot either, and would undoubtedly have paid
both parties back, if he had met them in later life.
There was a trip to Albany on a steamboat,
the first our friends had ever seen. It burned
wood, and stopped every few miles for fuel. They
ate brown bread and oatmeal, and at New York bought
some smoked bear’s meat and venison. At
Albany an Indian sold them sassafras for tea, also
some dried blackberries it was a regular
At Albany there was a wonderful invention,
a railroad. The coaches ran up the hill without
horses or an engine, and the father explained that
it wasn’t a miracle either. A long rope
ran around a big wheel at the top of the hill, and
there was a car that ran down the hill as another
one ran up.
The railroad extended to Schenectady sixteen
miles away and the trip was made in less
than half a day if the weather was good. There
they transferred to a canal-boat. They had no
money to pay for a stateroom, and so camped on deck it
was lots of fun. Jamie then and there decided
that some day he would be the captain of a fast packet
on a raging canal. His fond hope was never realized.
After the cooped-up quarters on the
ocean the smoothness and freedom of the Erie Canal
were heavenly. They saw birds and squirrels, and
once caught a glimpse of a wolf. At Montezuma
they changed canal-boats, because the craft they were
on went through to Buffalo, and they wished to go
to Geneva, where John, Andrew and Jane were getting
Two miles out of Geneva the boat slowed
up, a plank was run out and all went ashore.
John worked for a farmer a mile away. They found
him. And in the dusty road another prayer-meeting
was held when everybody kneeled and thanked God that
the long journey was ended. Paterfamilias had
predicted they would never arrive, but he was wrong.
The next day they saw Andrew and Jane,
and tears of joy were rained down everybody’s
back. Now for the first time they had plenty to
eat meat every meal, potatoes, onions and
corn on the ear. There is no corn in Scotland,
and Jamie thought that corn on the ear was merely a
new way of cooking beans. He cleaned off the
cob and then sent the stick back to have it refilled.
America was a wonderful country, and
Brother John had not really told half the truth about
it. Jamie got a job at fifty cents a week with
board. Fifty cents was a great deal more than
half a dollar I guess so! He would
have been paid more only the farmer said he was a greenhorn
and couldn’t speak English. Jamie inwardly
resented and denied both accusations, but kept silent
for fear he might lose his job. His only sorrow
was that he could see his mother only once a week.
His chief care was as to what he should do with his
In the Fall of Eighteen Hundred Thirty-six,
there were several Scotch families going from Geneva
to the “Far West” that is to
say, Indiana. The Oliver family was induced to
go, too, because in Indiana the Government was giving
farms to any one who would live on them and hold them
They settled first in Lagrange County,
and later moved to Mishawaka, Saint Joseph County,
where Andrew Oliver had taken up his abode. Mishawaka
was a thriving little city, made so largely by the
fact that iron-ore bog-iron was
being found thereabouts. The town was on the
Saint Joseph River, right on the line of transportation,
and boats were poled down and up, clear to Lake Michigan.
It was much easier and cheaper to pole a boat than
to drive a wagon through the woods and across the
muddy prairies. Mishawaka was going to be a great
city everybody said so.
There was a good log schoolhouse at
Mishawaka, kept by a worthy man by the name of Merrifield,
who knew how to use the birch. Here James went
to school for just one Winter that was his
entire schooling, although he was a student and a
learner to the day of his death.
The elder Oliver fell sick of chills
and fever. He sort of languished for the hills
of bonny Scotland. He could not adapt himself
to pioneer life, and in the Fall of Eighteen Hundred
Thirty-seven, he died. This was the end of a
school education for James he had to go
to work earning money. He became the little father
of the family, which James J. Hill says is the luckiest
thing that can happen to a boy. He hired out
for six dollars a month, and at the end of every month
took five dollars home to his mother.
Jamie was fourteen, and could do a
man’s work at almost anything. “He
has a man’s appetite at least,” said the
farmer’s wife, for he took dinner with the man
he worked for. He soon proved he could do a man’s
work, too. This man had a pole-boat on the river,
and James was given a chance to try his seamanship.
He might have settled down for life as a poleman,
but he saw little chance for promotion, and he wanted
to work at something that would fit him for a better
job. Then the worst about life on the river was
that each poleman was paid a portion of his wages
in whisky, and the rivermen seemed intent on drinking
the stills dry. James had not only a strong desire
to be decent, but liked also to be with decent people.
Now, in Mishawaka there were some
very fine folks the family of Joseph Doty,
for instance. The Dotys lived in a two-story house
and had a picket fence. James had dug a ditch
for Mr. Doty, and split out shingles for a roof for
the Doty barn. At such times he got his dinner
at Doty’s, for it was the rule then that you
always had to feed your help, no matter who they were,
just as you feed the threshers and harvesters and
About this time, James began to put
bear’s grease on his unruly shock of yellow
hair, and tried to part it and bring it down in a nice
smooth pat on the side. That’s a sure sign!
The few who noticed the change said
it was all on account of Susan Doty. Once when
Susan passed the johnnycake to James, he emptied the
whole plate in his lap, to his eternal shame and the
joy of the whole town, which soon heard of it through
a talkative hired man who was present and laughed
uproariously as hired men are apt to do.
James once heard Susan say that she
didn’t like rivermen, and that is probably the
reason James quit the river, but he didn’t tell
her so not then at least.
He got a job in the iron-mill and
learned to smelt iron, and he became a pretty good
molder, too. Then the hard times came on, and
the iron-mill shut down. But there was a cooper’s
shop in town, and James was already very handy with
a drawshave in getting out staves. Most of the
men worked by the day, but he asked to work by the
piece. They humored him, and he made over two
dollars a day.
Joseph Doty was a subscriber to “Gleason’s
Pictorial” and “Godey’s Lady’s
Book.” They also had bound copies of “Poor
Richard’s Almanac” and “The Spectator,”
with nearly forty other books. James Oliver read
them all with Susan’s help.
Then something terrible happened!
The young folks suddenly discovered that they were
very much in love with each other. The Doty family
saw it too, and disapproved.
The Dotys were English, but as the
family had been in America for a century, that made
a big difference.
Susan was the handsomest and smartest
girl in town everybody said so. She
seemed much older than James Oliver, but the fact was
they were of the same age. The Doty family objected
to the match, but Doty the Elder one day dropped a
hint that if that young Oliver owned a house to take
his wife to, he might consider the matter.
The news reached Oliver. He knew
of a man who wanted to sell his house, as he was going
to move to a town called Fort Dearborn now
known as Chicago which had recently been
incorporated and had nearly a thousand inhabitants.
The house was a well-built cottage not very
large, but big enough for two. It was a slab
house, with a mud chimney and a nice floor of pounded
blue clay. It had two rooms, a cupboard across
the corner, a loft to store things in, and forty wooden
pegs to hang things on.
Oliver offered the man eighteen dollars
for the mansion, cash down. The offer was accepted,
the money paid and the receipt was duly shown to Joseph
And so James and Susan were married,
on May Thirtieth, Eighteen Hundred Forty-four, and
all Mishawaka gave them a “shower.”
To say that they lived happily ever afterward would
be trite, but also it would be true.
James Oliver was thirty-two years
old before he really struck his pace. He had
worked at the cooper’s trade, at molding and
His eighteen-dollar house at Mishawaka
had transformed itself into one worth a thousand,
fully paid for. The God’s half-acre had
become a quarter-section.
His wife had beauty and competence two
things which do not always go together. She was
industrious, economical, intelligent and ambitious.
She was a helpmeet in all that the word implies.
The man whose heart is at rest is the only one who
can win. Jealousy gnaws. Doubt disrupts.
But love and faith mean sanity, strength, usefulness
and length of days. The man who succeeds is the
one who is helped by a good woman.
Two children had come to them.
These were Joseph D. and Josephine. Napoleon
was always a hero to James Oliver his courage,
initiative and welling sense of power, more than his
actual deeds, were the attraction. The Empress
Josephine was a better woman than Napoleon was a man,
contended Susan. Susan was right and James acknowledged
it, so the girl baby was named Josephine. The
boy was named Joseph, in honor of his grandfather
Doty, who had passed away, but who, before his passing,
had come to see that Nature was nearer right than
he had been.
Children should exercise great care
in the selection of their parents. Very, very
few children are ever dowered with a love that makes
for strength of head, hand and heart, as were these.
In Eighteen Hundred Fifty-five, James
Oliver was over at South Bend, a town that had started
up a few miles down the river from Mishawaka, and
accidentally met a man who wanted to sell his one-fourth
interest in a foundry. He would sell at absolutely
inventory value. They made an inventory and the
one-fourth came to just eighty-eight dollars and ninety-six
cents. Oliver had a hundred dollars in his pocket,
and paid the man at once.
Cast-iron plows formed one item of
this little foundry’s work. Oliver, being
a farmer, knew plows and he knew that there
was not a good plow in the world. Where others
saw and accepted, he rebelled. He insisted that
an approximately perfect plow could be made. He
realized that a good plow should stay in the ground
without wearing out the man at the handles.
The man who hasn’t been jerked
up astride of the plow-handles or been flung into
the furrow by a balky plow has never had his vocabulary
Oliver had a theory that the plow
should be as light in weight as was consistent with
endurance and good work, and that a moldboard should
scour, so as to turn the soil with a singing sound;
then the share, or cutting edge, must be made separate
from the moldboard, so as to be easily and cheaply
replaced. A plow could be made that needn’t
be fought to keep it furrow-wise.
Without tiring the reader with mechanical
details, let the fact be stated that after twelve
years of experimenting planning, dreaming,
thinking, working, striving, often perplexed, disappointed
and ridiculed James Oliver perfected his
Chilled Plow. He had a moldboard nearly as bright
as a diamond and about as hard, one that “sang”
at its work. Instead of a dead pull, “it
sort of sails through the soil,” a surprised
farmer said. To be exact, it reduced the draft
on the team from twenty per cent to one-half, depending
upon the nature of the soil. It was the difference
between pulling a low-wheeled lumber-wagon and riding
in a buggy.
From this on, the business grew slowly,
steadily, surely. James Oliver anticipated that
other plow-wise Scot, Andrew Carnegie, who said, “Young
man, put all of your eggs in one basket and then watch
the basket.” On this policy has the Oliver
Chilled-Plow Works been built up and maintained, until
the plant now covers seventy-five acres, with a floor
space of over thirty acres and a capacity of more than
half a million plows a year. The enterprise supplies
bread and butter to more than twenty thousand mouths,
and is without a serious rival in its chosen field.
If the horse tribe could speak, it
would arise and whinny pæans to the name of Oliver,
joining in the chorus of farmers. For a moldboard
that always scours gives a peace to a farmer like
unto that given to a prima donna by a dress that
fits in the back.
While James Oliver was not a distinctively
religious man, yet many passages of Scripture that
he had learned at his mother’s knee clung to
him through his long life and leaped easily to his
tongue. One of his favorite and oft-quoted verses
was this from Isaiah, “And they shall beat their
swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks:
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither
shall they learn war any more.”
The Big Idea of chilled metal for
the moldboard of a plow, probably had its germ in
the mind of James Oliver from this very passage of
“When Cincinnatus left his plow
in the field to go in defense of his country, his
excuse was the only one that could pardon such a breach,”
he once said.
Oliver hated war. His bent was
for the peaceful arts; for that which would give fruits
and flowers and better homes for the people; for love,
joy and all that makes for the good of women and children
and those who have lived long. James Oliver loved
old people and he loved children. He realized
that the awful burdens and woes of war fall on the
innocent and the helpless. And so the business
of converting sword metal into plow metal made an
appeal to him. Being a metal-worker and knowing
much of the history of the metals, he knew of the
“Toledo blade” that secret
and marvelous invention with its tremendous strength,
keen cutting edge and lightness. To make a moldboard
as finely tempered in its way as a “Toledo blade”
was his ambition.
He used to declare that the secret
of the sword-makers of old Toledo in Spain was his
secret, too. Whether this was absolutely true
is not for us to question; perhaps a little egotism
in a man of this character should be allowable.
Cast-iron plows, as well as the steel
plows of that date, were very heavy, wore out rapidly the
metal being soft and didn’t “scour,”
except in the purer sands and gravels. The share
and moldboard quickly accumulated soil, increased
the “draft,” forced the plow out of the
ground, destroyed the regularity of the furrows, killed
the horses, and ruined the temper of the farmer.
Every few minutes the plowman had to scrape off the
soil from the moldboard with his boot-heel or stick
When a local rival fitted out a plow
with a leather pocket tacked on to his plow-beam,
and offered to give a paddle with every plow, James
Oliver laughed aloud. “I give no paddles,
because I do not believe in them, either for punishment
or plow use my plows and my children do
not need paddles,” was his remark.
The one particular thing the
Big Idea in the Oliver Plow was the chilled
moldboard. Chilling the iron, by having a compartment
of water adjoining the casting-clay, gives a temper
to the metal that can be attained in no other way.
To produce a chilled moldboard was the one particular
achievement of James Oliver. Others had tried
it, but the sudden cooling of the metal had caused
the moldboard to warp and lose its shape, and all
good plowmen know that a moldboard has to have a form
as exact in its way as the back of a violin, otherwise
it simply pushes its way through the ground, gathering
soil and rubbish in front of it, until horses, lines,
lash and cuss words drop in despair, and give it up.
The desirable and necessary thing was to preserve the
exact and delicate shape of the moldboard so that
it would scour as bright as a new silver dollar in
any soil, rolling and tossing the dirt from it.
An Oliver moldboard has little checkerboard
lines across it. These come from marks in the
mold, made to allow the gas to escape when the metal
is chilled, and thus all warping and twisting is prevented.
Morse, in inventing the telegraph-key,
worked out his miracle of dot and dash in a single
night. The thought came to him that electricity
flowed in a continuous current, and that by breaking
or intercepting this current, a flash of light could
be made or a lever moved. Then these breaks in
the current could stand for letters or words.
It was a very simple proposition, so simple that men
marveled that no one had ever thought of it before.
Watt’s discovery of the expansive
power of steam was made in watching the cover of his
mother’s teakettle vibrate.
Gutenberg’s invention of printing
from movable type, Arkwright with his spinning-jenny,
and Eli Whitney with his cotton-gin, worked on mechanical
principles that were very simple after they
were explained. Exactly so!
Oliver’s invention was a simple
one, but tremendously effective. When we consider
that one-half of our population is farmers, and that
sixty per cent of the annual wealth of the world is
the production of men who follow the fresh furrow,
we see how mighty and far-reaching is an invention
that lightens labor, as this most efficient tool certainly
Accidentally, I found an interesting
item on page two hundred seventy-six of the Senate
Report of the Forty-fifth Congress. Mr. Coffin,
statistician, was testifying as an expert on the value
of patents to the people. Mr. Coffin says, “My
estimate is that for a single year, if all of the
farmers in the United States had used the Oliver Chilled
Plows, instead of the regular steel or iron plow, the
saving in labor would have totaled the sum of forty-five
When the papers announced the passing
of James Oliver some of them stated that he was “probably
the richest man in Indiana.” This fact,
of itself, would not make him worthy of the world’s
special attention. There are two things we want
to know about a very rich man: First, how did
he get his wealth? Second, what is he doing with
it? But the fact that wealth was not the end
or aim of this man, that riches came to him merely
as an incident of human service, and that his wealth
was used in giving employment to a vast army of workmen,
makes the name of Oliver one that merits our remembrance.
James Oliver worked for one thing
and got another. We lose that for which we clutch.
The hot attempt to secure a thing sets in motion an
opposition which defeats us. All the beautiful
rewards of life come by indirection, and are the incidental
results of simply doing our work up to our highest
and best. The striker, with a lust for more money
and shorter hours, the party who wears the face off
the clock, and the man with a continual eye on the
pay-envelope, all have their reward and
it is mighty small. Nemesis with her barrel-stave
lies in wait for them around the corner. They
get what is coming to them.
The Oliver fortune is founded on reciprocity.
James Oliver was a farmer in fact, it was
the joke of his friends to say that he took as much
pride in his farming as in his manufacturing.
Mr. Oliver considered himself a farmer, and regarded
every farmer as a brother or partner to himself.
“I am a partner of the farmer, and the farmer
is a partner of Nature,” he used to say.
He always looked forward to the time when he would
go back to the farm and earn his living by tilling
He studied the wants of the farmer,
knew the value of good roads, of fertilizers and drainage,
and would argue long and vigorously as to the saving
in plowing with three horses instead of two, or on
the use of mules versus horses. He had positive
views as to the value of Clydesdales compared with
So did he love the Clydes that for
many years he drove a half-breed, shaggy-legged and
flat-tailed plow-horse to a buggy, and used to declare
that all a good Clyde really needed was patience in
training to make him a racehorse. He used to
declare the horse he drove could trot very fast “if
I would let him out.” Unhappily he never
let him out, but the suspicion was that the speed-limit
of the honest nag was about six miles an hour, with
the driver working his passage.
Ayrshire cattle always caught his
eye, and he would stop farmers in the field and interrogate
them as to their success in cattle-breeding. When
told that his love for Ayrshire cattle was only a prejudice
on account of his love for Robert Burns, who was born
at Ayr, he would say, “A mon’s a mon
for a’ that.”
He declared that great men and great
animals always came from the same soil, and where
you could produce good horses and cattle you could
grow great men.
Mr. Oliver loved trees, and liked
to plant them himself and encouraged boys to plant
For music he cared little, yet during
the Seventies and the Eighties he had a way of buying
“Mason and Hamlin” organs, and sending
them as Christmas presents to some of his farmer friends
where there were growing girls. “A sewing-machine,
a Mason and Hamlin organ, and an Oliver Plow form
a trinity of necessities for a farmer,” he once
When Orange Judd first began to issue
his “Rural American,” the enterprise received
the hearty interest and support of Mr. Oliver and he
subscribed for hundreds of copies.
He thought that farmers should be
the most intelligent, the most healthy and the happiest
people on earth nothing was too good for
a farmer. “Your businessmen are only middlemen the
farmer digs his wealth out of the ground,” he
used to say.
He quoted Brigham Young’s advice
to the Mormons: “Raise food-products and
feed the miners and you will all get rich. But
if you mine for gold and silver, a very few will get
rich, and the most of you will die poor.”
So there is the point: James
Oliver was more interested in industrialism than in
finance. His interest in humanity arose out of
his desire to benefit humanity, and not for a wish
to exploit it.
If that is not a great lesson for
the young, as well as for the old, then write me down
as a soused gurnet.
The gentle art of four-flushing was
absolutely beyond his ken. He was like those
South-Sea Islanders told of by Robert Louis Stevenson,
who didn’t know enough to lie until after the
missionaries came, when they partially overcame the
James Oliver didn’t know enough
to lie. He knew only one way to do business,
and that was the simple, frank, honest and direct way.
The shibboleth of that great New York politician,
“Find your sucker, play your sucker, land your
sucker, and then beat it,” would have been to
him hopeless Choctaw.
His ambition was to make a better
plow than any other living man could make, and then
sell it at a price the farmer could afford to pay.
His own personal profit was a secondary matter.
In fact, at board-meetings, when ways and means were
under discussion, he would break in and display a
moldboard, a colter or a new clevis, with a letter
from Farmer John Johnson of Jones’ Crossroads,
as to its efficiency. Then when the board did
not wax enthusiastic over his new toy, he would slide
out and forget to come back. His heart was set
on making a better tool at less expense to the consumer,
than the world had ever seen. Thus would he lessen
labor and increase production. So besides great
talent he had a unique simplicity, which often supplied
smiles for his friends.
James Oliver had a sort of warm feeling
for every man who had ever held the handles of an
Oliver Plow he regarded such a one as belonging
to the great family of Olivers. He believed that
success depended upon supplying a commodity that made
the buyer a friend; and heaven, to him, was a vast
County Fair, largely attended by farmers, where exhibitions
of plowing were important items on the program.
Streets paved with gold were no lure for him.
In various ways he resembled William
Morris, who, when asked what was his greatest ambition,
answered, “I hope to make a perfect blue,”
and the dye on his hands attested his endeavors in
Both were workingmen and delighted
in the society of toilers. They lived like poor
men, and wore the garb of mechanics. Neither had
any use for the cards, curds and custards of what
is called polite society. They hated hypocrisy,
sham, pretense, and scorned the soft, the warm, the
pleasant, the luxurious. They liked stormy weather,
the sweep of the wind, the splash of the rain and
the creak of cordage. They gloried in difficulties,
reveled in the opposition of things, and smiled at
the tug of inertia. In their natures was a granitic
outcrop that defied failure. It was the Anglo-Saxon,
with a goodly cross of the Norse, that gave them this
disdain of danger, and made levitation in their natures
the supreme thing not gravitation.
The stubbornness of the Scot is an
inheritance from his Norse forebears, who discovered
America five hundred years before Columbus turned the
trick. These men were well called the “Wolves
of the Sea.” About the year One Thousand,
a troop of them sailed up the Seine in their rude but
staunch ships. The people on the shore, seeing
these strange giants, their yellow hair flying in
the wind, called to them, “Where are you from,
and who are your masters?”
And the defiant answer rang back over
the waters, “We are from the round world, and
we call no man master.”
James Oliver called no man master.
Yet with him, the violent had given way to the psychic
and mental. His battleground was the world of
ideas. The love of freedom he imbibed with his
mother’s milk. It was the thing that prompted
their leaving Scotland.
James Oliver had the defect of his
qualities. He was essentially Cromwellian.
He too would have said, “Take away that bauble!”
He did not look outside of himself for help.
Emerson’s essay on “Self-Reliance”
made small impression upon him, because he had the
thing of which Emerson wrote. His strength came
from within, not from without. And it was this
dominant note of self-reliance which made him seem
indifferent to the strong men of his own town and
vicinity. It was not a contempt for strong men:
it was only the natural indifference of one who called
no man master.
He was a big body himself, big in
brain, big in initiative, big in self-sufficiency.
He could do without men; and there
lies the paradox if you would have friends
you must be able to do without them.
James Oliver had a host of personal
friends, and he also had a goodly list of enemies,
for a man of his temperament does not trim ship.
He was a good hater. He hugged his enemies to
his heart with hoops of steel, and at times they inspired
him as soft and mawkish concession never could.
And well could he say, “A little more grape,
Also, “We love him for the enemies
he made.” He had a beautiful disdain for
society society in its Smart-Set sense.
He used to say, “In order to get into heaven
you have to be good and you have to be dead, but in
order to get into society you do not have to be either.”
Exclusion and caste were abhorrent to him.
Oliver gave all, and doing so he won
all in the way of fame and fortune that the world
has to offer. His was a full, free, happy and
Across the sky in letters of light
I would write these words of James Oliver: To
benefit yourself, you must benefit
Zangwill has written it down in fadeless
ink that Scotland has produced three bad things:
Scotch humor, Scotch religion and Scotch whisky.
James Oliver had use for only one of the commodities
just named and that was humor.
Through his cosmos ran a silver thread
of quiet chuckle that added light to his life and
endeared him to thousands. Laughter is the solvent
for most of our ills! All of his own personal
religion and he had a deal of it was
never saved up for Sunday; he used it in his business.
But James Oliver was a Scotchman, and this being so,
the fires of his theological nature were merely banked.
When Death was at the door an hour before his passing,
this hardy son of heath and heather, of bog and fen
and bleak North Wind, roused himself from stupor,
and in his deep, impressive voice, soon to be stilled
forever, startled the attendants with the stern order,
“Let us pray!” Then he repeated slowly
the Lord’s Prayer, and with the word “Amen”
sank back upon his pillow to arise no more.
For the occasional drunken workman,
he had terms of pity and sentences of scorn in alternation.
At such times the Scotch bur would come to his lips,
and the blood of his ancestors would tangle his tongue.
One of his clerks once said to me, “As long
as Mr. James talks United States, I am not alarmed,
but when he begins to roll it out with a bur on his
tongue, as if his mouth were full of hot mush, I am
scared to death.”
In Eighteen Hundred Ninety-three,
James Oliver spent several months at the Chicago Exposition.
He was one of the World’s-Fair Commissioners.
Hundreds of people shook hands with
him daily. He was a commanding figure, with personality
plus. No one ever asked him, any more than they
did old Doctor Johnson, “Sir, are you anybody
in particular?” He was somebody in particular,
all over and all of the time.
That story about how the stevedores
on the docks in Liverpool turned and looked at Daniel
Webster and said, “There goes the King of America,”
has been related of James Oliver. He was a commanding
figure, with the face and front of a man in whom there
was no parley. He was a good man to agree with.
In any emergency, even up to his eightieth year, he
would have at once taken charge of affairs by divine
right. His voice was the voice of command.
So there at Chicago he was always
the center of an admiring group. He was Exhibit
A of the Oliver Plow Works Exhibition and yet he never
realized it. One day, when he was in a particularly
happy mood, and the Scotch bur was delightfully apparent,
as it was when he was either very angry or very happy,
an elderly woman pushed her way through the throng
and seizing the hand that ruled the Oliver Plow Works
in both of her own, said in ecstatic tones: “Oh!
it is such a joy to see you again. Twenty years
ago I used to hear you preach every Sunday!”
For once James Oliver was undone.
He hesitated, stammered and then exclaimed in flat
contradiction, “Madam, you never heard me preach!”
“Why, aren’t you Robert
Collyer the Reverend Robert Collyer?”
“Not I, madam. My name
is Oliver, and I make plows,” was the proud
That night Oliver asked his trusted
helper, Captain Nicar, this question: “I
say, Nicar, who is this man Collyer that
woman was the third person within a week who mistook
me for that preacher. I don’t look like
a dominie, do I, Captain?”
And then Captain Nicar explained what
Mr. Oliver had known, but which had temporarily slipped
his mind that Robert Collyer was a very
great preacher, a Unitarian who had graduated out
of orthodoxy, and who in his youth had been a blacksmith.
“Why didn’t he stay a
blacksmith, if he was a good one, and let it go at
But this Nicar couldn’t answer.
However, the very next day Robert Collyer came along,
piloted by Marshall Field, and Oliver had an opportunity
to put the question to the man himself.
Robert Collyer was much impressed
by Mr. Oliver, and Mr. Oliver declared that Mr. Collyer
was not to blame for his looks. And so they shook
Collyer was at Chicago to attend the
Parliament of Religions. This department of the
great Exposition had not before especially appealed
to Oliver machinery was his bent.
But now he forgot plows long enough to go and hear
Robert Collyer speak on “Why I Am a Unitarian.”
After the address Mr. Oliver said
to Mr. Collyer, “Almost thou persuadest me to
be a Unitarian.”
“Had you taken to the pulpit,
you would have made a great preacher, Mr. Oliver,”
said Mr. Collyer. “And if you had stuck
to your bellows and forge, you might have been a great
plow-maker,” replied Mr. Oliver “and
it’s lucky for me you didn’t.”
“Which is no pleasantry,”
replied Mr. Collyer, “for if I had made plows
I should, like you, have made only the best.”
The Oliver Exhibit at the great Fair
was a kind of meeting-place for a group of such choice
spirits as Philip D. Armour, Sam Allerton, Clark E.
Carr and Joseph Medill; and then David Swing, Robert
Collyer, Doctor Frank Gunsaulus and ’Gene Field
were added to the coterie. ’Gene Field’s
column of “Sharps and Flats” used to get
the benefit of the persiflage.
Collyer and Oliver were born the same
year Eighteen Hundred Twenty-three.
Both had the same magnificent health, the same high
hope and courage that never falters, and either would
have succeeded in anything into which he might have
turned his energies.
Chance made Oliver a mechanic and
an inventor. He evolved the industrial side of
his nature. Chance also lifted Collyer out of
a blacksmith-shop and tossed him into the pulpit.
Collyer was born in Yorkshire, but
his ancestors were Scotch. Oliver’s mother’s
name was Irving, and the Irvings appear in the Collyer
pedigree, tracing to Edward Irving, that strong and
earnest preacher who played such a part in influencing
Tammas the Titan, of Ecclefechan. Whether Oliver
and Collyer ever followed up their spiritual relationship
to see whether it was a blood-tie, I do not know:
probably not, since both, like all superbly strong
men, have a beautiful indifference to climbing genealogical
I once heard Robert Collyer speak
in a sermon of James Oliver as “a transplanted
thistle evolved into a beautiful flower,” and
“the man of many manly virtues.”
Seemingly Mr. Collyer was unconscious
of the fact that, in describing Mr. Oliver, he was
picturing himself. Industry, economy, the love
of fresh air, the enjoyment of the early morning,
the hatred of laziness, shiftlessness, sharp practise
and all that savors of graft, grab and get-by-any-means these
characteristics were strong in both. And surely
Robert Collyer was right: if the world ever produces
a race of noble men, that race will be founded on
the simple virtues, upon which there is neither caveat
nor copyright the virtues possessed by James
Oliver in such a rare degree.
George H. Daniels, of the New York
Central Railroad, and James Oliver were close personal
friends. Both were graduates of the University
of Hard Knocks; both loved their Alma Mater.
When Daniels printed that literary
trifle, “A Message to Garcia,” he sent
five thousand copies to Oliver, who gave one to every
man in his factory.
Daniels was one of the Illini, and
had held the handles of an Oliver Plow. He had
seen the great business of the Olivers at South Bend
evolve. Oliver admired Daniels, as he did any
man who could do big things in a big way. Daniels
had an exhibition of locomotives and passenger-cars
at the Chicago Exposition, and personally spent much
time there. Among the very interesting items
in the New York Central’s exhibit was the locomotive
that once ran from Albany to Schenectady, when that
streak of scrap-iron rust, sixteen miles long, constituted
the whole of the New York Central Railroad; and this
locomotive, the “De Witt Clinton,” had
been the entire motor equipment, save two good mules
used for switching purposes.
It was during the Exposition that
Oliver incidentally told Daniels about how he had
been mistaken for the Reverend Robert Collyer.
“I can sympathize with you,”
said Daniels; “for the plague of my life is
a preacher who looks like me. Only last week I
was stopped on the street by a man who wanted me to
go to his house and perform a marriage-ceremony.”
“And you punched his ticket?” asked Oliver.
“No, I accepted, and sent for
the sky-pilot to do the job, and the happy couple
never knew of the break.”
The man who so closely resembled Daniels
was the Reverend Doctor Thomas R. Slicer of Buffalo,
an eminent clergyman now in New York City. Besides
other points of resemblance, the one thing that marked
them as twins was a beautiful red chin-whisker, about
the color of an Irish setter. Once Daniels challenged
the reverend gentleman to toss up to see who should
sacrifice the lilacs. Doctor Slicer got tails,
but lost his nerve before he reached the barber’s,
and so still clings to his beauty-mark.
Doctor Slicer was once going through
the Grand Central Station when he was approached by
a man who struck him for a pass to Niagara Falls.
“I regret,” said the preacher,
“that I can not issue you a pass to Niagara
Falls; all I can do is to give you a pass to Paradise.”
“Which,” said Mr. Oliver,
when Mr. Daniels told him the story, “which
was only a preacher’s way of telling the man
to go to hades. You and I, George, express ourselves
much more simply.”
It will not do to make James Oliver
out a religious man in a sectarian sense. He
did, however, have a great abiding faith in the Supreme
Intelligence in which we are bathed and of which we
are a part. He saw the wisdom and goodness of
the Creator on every hand. He loved Nature the
birds in the hedgerows and the flowers in the field.
He gloried in the sunrise, and probably saw the sun
rise more times than any other man in Indiana.
“The morning is full of perfume,”
he used to say. And so it is, but most of us
need to be so informed.
He believed most of all in his own
mission and in his own divinity. Therefore he
prized good health, and looked upon sickness and sick
people with a touch of scorn. He reverenced the
laws of health as God’s laws, and so he would
not put an enemy in his mouth to steal away his brains.
He used no tobacco, was wedded to the daily cold bath,
and was a regular amphibian for splashing. He
had a system of calisthenics which he followed as
religiously as the Mohammedan prays to the East.
The pasteboard proclivity was not one of his accomplishments.
But a few months before his death
he was missed one day at the works. His son thought
he would drive out to his farm and see if he were there.
He was there all right, and had just one hundred twenty-seven
men, by actual count, digging a ditch and laying out
James Oliver wasn’t a man given
to explanations, apologies or excuses. His working
motto usually was that of the Reverend Doctor Jowett
of Baliol, “Never explain, never apologize get
the thing done, and let them howl!”
But on this occasion, anticipating
a gentle reproach from his son for his extravagance,
he said: “All right, Joe, all right.
You see I’ve been postponing this tarnashun
job for twenty years, and I thought I’d just
take hold and clean it up, because I knew you never
He was let off with a warning, but
Joseph had to go behind the barn and laugh.
One thing that was as much gratification
to Mr. Oliver as making the road was the sense of
motion, action, bustle and doing things. He delighted
in looking after a rush job, and often took charge
of “the boys” personally.
For the men who made the plows, his
regard was as great as for those who used them.
He moved among the men as one of them, and while his
discipline never relaxed, he was always approachable
and ready to advise even with the most lowly.
His sense of justice and his consideration are shown
in the fact that in all the long years that the Oliver
Plow Works existed, it has never once been defendant
in a lawsuit in its home county, damage or otherwise.
Thousands of men have been employed
and accidents have occasionally happened, but the
unfortunate man and his family have always been cared
for. Indeed, the Olivers carry a pension-roll
for the benefit of widows, orphans and old people,
the extent of which is known only to the confidential
cashier. They do not proclaim their charities
with a brass band.
James Oliver thought that a man should
live so as to be useful all of his days. Getting
old was to him a bad habit. He did not believe
in retiring from business, either to have a good time
or because you were old and bughouse. “Use
your faculties and you will keep them,” he used
to repeat again and again. He agreed with Herbert
Spencer that men have softening of the brain because
they have failed to use that organ.
And certainly he proved his theories,
for he, himself, was sane and sensible to the day
of his death. Yet when certain of his helpers,
bowed beneath the weight of years and life’s
vicissitudes, would become weak and needful of care,
he would say, “Well, old John has done us good
work, and we must look after him.” And he
He would have denied that he was either
charitable or philanthropic; but the fact was that
the Golden Rule was a part of his business policy,
and beneath his brusk outside, there beat a very warm
and generous heart.
When the financial panic of Eighteen
Hundred Ninety-three struck the country, and dealers
were canceling their orders and everybody was shortening
sail, the Olivers kept right along manufacturing, and
stored their product.
Never have they laid off labor on
account of hard times. Never have they even shortened
hours or pay. This is a record, I believe, equaled
by no big manufacturing concern in America.
In October, Nineteen Hundred Seven,
when workmen were being laid off on every hand, the
Olivers simply started in and increased their area
for the storage of surplus product. They had
faith that the tide would turn, and this faith was
founded on the experience of forty years and more in
business. Said James Oliver, “Man’s
first business was to till the soil; his last business
will be to till the soil; I help the farmer to do his
work, and for my product there will always be a demand.”
James Oliver had no fear of death.
He had an abiding faith that the Power that cared
for him here would never desert him there. He
looked upon death as being as natural as life and
probably just as good. For the quibbles of theology
he had small patience. “Live right here wait,
and we shall know,” he used to say.
When his wife died, in Nineteen Hundred
Two, he bore the blow like a Spartan. Fifty-eight
years had they journeyed together. She was a woman
of great good sense, and a very handsome woman, even
in her old age. Her husband had always depended
on her, telling her his plans and thus clarifying
them in his own mind. They were companions, friends,
chums, lovers man and wife. After
her death he redoubled his activities, and fought
valiantly to keep from depressing the household with
the grief that was gnawing at his heart.
A year passed, and one day he said
to his son, “Joe, I do miss your mother awfully but
then, I’ll not have to endure this loneliness
And this was as near a sign of weakness
as he ever showed.
James Oliver was a successful man,
but it was not always smooth sailing. In the
early days, the Plow Plant caught fire at night and
was absolutely consumed. Returning home at three
o’clock in the morning, exhausted, and with
clothing wet and frozen in a sheet of ice, this man,
sorely kicked by an unkind Fate, turned a chair over
on the floor before the fireplace, and reclining on
it there with eyes closed, endeavored to forget the
trying scenes of the night.
Mrs. Oliver had made coffee and prepared
a simple breakfast for the tired man. But rest
was never for her or her family when there was pressing
work demanding attention. “James, why are
you wasting time? Drink this coffee, put on these
dry clothes and go at once before daylight and order
lumber and brick so the men can begin at seven o’clock
to rebuild. We have orders to fill!” And
the man arousing himself obeyed the command.
At seven o’clock the lumber was on the ground
and the men were at work preparing to rebuild.
James Oliver was a man of courage,
but his patience, persistency and unfaltering faith
were largely the reflection of his wife’s soul
and brain. When seventy years of age, a neighbor
once dropped in for a little visit, and in conversation
referred to Mr. Oliver’s being a rich man.
“Yes,” said this kindly
old Spartan, “yes, they say I am rich, but if
I didn’t have a dollar, I would still be rich with
a wife like that!” and he pointed to his partner
of nearly half a century.
Mrs. Oliver smiled and said chidingly, “Now,
But he continued, “I say, mother,
if we did not have a dollar, we could still earn our
living with our hands at just plain hard work, couldn’t
And the old lady (who really was never
old) replied, “Yes, James, we could still earn
our living with our hands, and we would not be miserable
over it, either.” Near the close of his
wonderful career, Pericles said, “I have caused
no one to wear crape.” The Honorable Marvin
Campbell, in a speech at South Bend, once quoted this
remark of the man who built the City of Athens and
added, “Not only can we pay James Oliver the
compliment of saying that he never caused any one to
wear crape, but no one ever lost money by investing
in either his goods or his enterprises, and moreover
no one ever associated with him who did not prosper
and grow wiser and better through the association.”
A few weeks before his passing, some
one told him this little story of Tolstoy’s:
A priest, seeing a peasant plowing, approached him
and said, “If you knew you were to die tonight,
how would you spend the rest of the day?”
And the peasant promptly answered, “I would
It seems the priest thought the man
would answer, “In confession,” or “In
prayer,” or “At church.” The
priest heard the answer in surprise. He thought
a moment, and then replied, “My friend, you have
given the wisest answer a man can possibly make, for
to plow is to pray, since the prayer of honest labor
is always answered.”
The story impressed Mr. Oliver.
He told it to several people, and then made a personal
application of it, thus, “If I knew I were to
die tonight, I would make plows today.”