Some of you who’ve indulged my father-son blogs and been to our events are already familiar with my 23-year-old son, Drew, who returned from serving in Kuwait this spring. I’d written before about our trip to Iowa just prior to his deployment to see the final week of greyhound racing in Dubuque and validate his system at the casino. We also made an impromptu trip to see the Field of Dreams site in Dyersville. 

After an accident in mid-July, I found myself wheelchair bound for 12 weeks, which grounded me from the Dealership Minds Summit and National Strip-Tillage Conference in early August. While I began getting into the office for half-days, I’d grown tired of gathering dust in my first-floor recliner and realized my schedule was about to change in a big way. The “sitting around” was about to end in favor of the “real work” as soon as I’d be cleared for an aggressive PT and rehab schedule.

Drew agreed to chauffeur me from Wisconsin to take in some MLB baseball in Cleveland and Cincinnati and hit the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The inspection of a trade show venue and visit to Ag-Pro’s recently reimagined Harley Davidson dealership in Canton would make the mileage legit with the IRS. And the baseball junkie/card shark also let me tag along with him to casinos in Cleveland and Cincinnati as well.

Favorite Business Quotes Found on the Hall’s Walls

  • "Success isn't owned. It's leased, and rent is due every day.” – J.J. Watt
  • "Adversity is an opportunity for heroism." – Marv Levy
  • "If we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” – Vince Lombardi

The trip was my first to the longed-for NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and it lived up to all expectations. We got to see the exhibits on the newly inducted Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns, who attended the same high school as me and my boys and whose name now appears on the Brookfield Central High School field. 

Drew-Thomas.jpgDrew Lessiter at the display of 2023 Inductee and Brookfield, Wis., native Joe Thomas. Thomas holds the record for consecutive offensive snaps at 10,363. As a rookie out of the Univ. of Wisconsin in 2007 (#3 pick overall by the Cleveland Browns), Thomas didn’t miss a game in 10.5 years and blocked for nearly 2 dozen different QBs (compare that to 2 Green Bay signal-callers, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, who led the Green Bay Packers for 30 years).

But something that caught my attention was the league’s historical lineage and connection to the dealer world.

The whole reason the Hall of Fame is in Canton is due to a 1920 meeting held in its downtown auto dealership. To be precise, Canton Bulldogs owner Ralph Hay hosted a meeting on Sept. 17, 1920 at the Jordan and Hupmobile auto dealership he owned. He’d invited every pro football team in the Midwest to come and meet on their respective franchises and fates.

Dealer.jpgThe League’s organizational meeting was held in Ralph Hay's Hupmobile showroom located in this downtown Canton building.

Reps from 10 pro football teams from 4 states attended that meeting, including George Halas, the famous manager of the Decatur (Ill.) Staleys, who’d relocate and rebrand his squad as the owner of the Chicago Bears 2 years later. Halas recalled that the dealership’s office was so limited that the reps sat on the running boards and fenders of the 4 Hupmobiles parked in the dealer’s showroom. There was a lot of cigar smoke in that showroom as well as buckets of beer on the floor (though my fact-checking shows that would’ve been illegal in the fall of 1920). 

Owners.jpgHay's dealership showroom became the meeting venue for the inaugural league meeting, with representatives doing business while sitting on Hupmobile fenders and running boards.

And I know you’re all wondering, so I’ll get it out of the way ... Green Bay’s squad was not present at the meeting; the Indian Packing Company and founder Curly Lambeau would not join the league until the following year.

A Little More Trivia for You. The NFL's Charter Members include the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Tigers, Dayton Triangles, Decatur Staleys, Hammond Pros, Muncie Flyers, Racine Cardinals, Rochester Jeffersons, and the Rock Island Independents. The world’s greatest athlete, Jim Thorpe, was named the leagues’ first president. Only the Cardinals (Arizona) and Halas’ Staleys (Chicago Bears) remain. 

The American Professional Football Assn. was born in that dealership in 1920 and renamed the National Football League a year later. Like many of the original members, things didn’t work out well for the Canton franchise. You can sense the disappointment that still remains, though the city would get redeemed in a small way 4 decades later, thanks to a farm equipment components supplier.

Ag Implement Dealers Were ‘First In’

In many of Farm Equipment’s articles and industry meetings, it’s common to point to our dealer brethren on the automotive side, as it’s generally accepted that what takes place in the auto dealer world arrives in the farm machinery space in relatively short order. We often look to auto dealers deferentially, it seems, or in awe of their facilities and business software technologies. But the auto world would’ve learned how to retail and service customers from its implement dealer counterparts.

Research shows that the farm implement dealer was well ahead of that horseless carriage, with the first of the implement dealerships arriving after the Civil War. The 1991 book, The Story of the North American Dealers Association, by Earl J. Becker shared that farm implements brought meaningful retail commerce to the county seats’ mainstreets right after the Civil War. By 1868, dealers were reporting 20% margins on a $210-list price hand-raked reaper.

Back to Canton and Hay. Despite the Bulldogs’ great success on the field (the NFL’s first two-time champions and undefeated in 1922 and 1923), Hay was bleeding too much cash for even his successful auto dealership to support the team. He’d have to sell the team by 1923 (overpriced at the asking price of $1,500), and the franchise survived only 3 more seasons when the league purged its weaker franchises. 

By 1939, the Detroit-based Hupmobile brand would be out of production.

Hupmobile.jpgThe Hupmobile auto contract lined Hay’s wallet enough to buy the Canton team, but it couldn’t support the cashflow needs of the operation and Hay had to exit. The Detroit-based Hupmobile was finished by 1939.

Other Possibilities?

Drew was ready for me to call it a day as I got stuck at the league-founding photos and displays. Eventually he got me back into the truck for the drive to Cincinnati. 

The 3.5-hours spent in the back seat provided ample time for musings and ponderings of what could have slowed or staved off Canton’s devastating loss of its beloved Bulldogs. 

Ag Dealer Instead? It’s been reported that the Canton Bulldogs couldn’t do anything to attract the crowds it needed to support the team’s wages and operating expenses. Consider what “might’ve been” had Hay been a farm equipment business; imagine something like “Hay’s Hay Tools & Tractors.” 

Unlike the one-and-done retail world of auto sales, a thriving farm implement business would’ve brought a steady stream of repeat parts and other implement sales from farmers who would've afforded a built-in marketing plan for ticket sales. If their ancestors were anything like many of the farm equipment dealers I know today, there would’ve been widespread promotions of game tickets with every new equipment, parts and twine purchase.

AgPro3.jpgJust a few miles away from the NFL Hall of Fame is Ag-Power’s newly renovated store in a former Harley Davidson dealership. Ohio Cat’s sprawling campus is across the highway.

By the mid-1920s, the farm machinery business was significantly improving over the previous few years. There was even a “Better Farm Equipment Week” campaign in March of 1926 (a year before the Bulldogs’ demise) that showcased the wonder of modern farm machinery. It was embraced by dealers, wholesalers, branch houses, travelers and manufacturers in a concerted national effort.

Further, what if Hay had sold his franchise to an implement dealer? After all, the team moved to Cleveland for a short stint. And we know that John C. Koenig (now Koenig Equipment) left International Harvester and founded a thriving farm and general hardgoods store in Botkins, Ohio, 180 miles to the east. 

Drew-busts.jpgDrew’s favorite HOF busts were Green Bay legends Reggie White, Charles Woodson, Brett Favre and Bart Starr, and his boyhood favorite LaDainian Tomlinson of the Chargers.

Enter Timken. The exhibits heaped a great deal of praise on Canton-based Timken Company for spearheading the campaign that landed the city the NFL Hall of Fame in 1961. Timken was famous world-wide by World War I for its tapered roller bearings, and later its steel business. 

Had the manufacturer (who would advertise its products in our Farm Equipment and Implement & Tractor magazines) discovered the ag equipment applications just a few years earlier, it would no doubt have had the resources to extend the life of the Canton franchise.

At any rate, a tip of the hat to our dealer brethren for their role in today’s thriving American institution. Thanks for reading, and we’ll let you get back to your own 4th quarter chaos. Best of luck helping your customers bring in the crop and securing the year-end buys!

Drew-Thorpe.jpgDubbed the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th Century, Canton player Jim Thorpe was the first president of the league that would become the NFL.

P.S. Come to think of it, I’ve been making a habit of these types of trips. Following the trip to the original family farmstead in Michigan last spring, I’d taken the boys to the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit. I’d also taken a site visit to the downtown Indianapolis Marriott (home of January’s Precision Farming Dealer Summit and National No-Tillage Conference) as a way to get my middle son, Owen, over to the NCAA Hall of Champions Museum a few blocks away before a visit to Indiana University. On that same trip, I slipped under the gate at an Indiana AGCO dealership to snap some facility photos, something that my rule-following 18-year-old was not exactly digging (stay tuned).

For more content that involves trapping my sons on long trips for “Business Lessons According to Dad,” click on the links below: