1920-1929: THE ROARING 20s

Harvester made city 'truck capital of world'

International Harvester
International Harvester
Construction on the International Harvester factory in Fort Wayne nears completion in this photo in 1923. It would be the dominant industry for 60 years.
By LYNNE McKENNA FRAZIER of The News-Sentinel

At the end of World War I, the company that had mechanized the American farm was ready to repeat that success on the American road.

International Harvester Co. was getting serious about the truck business. That decision would shape the Fort Wayne economy for more than 60 years.

The company was then one of the giants of American industry. International Harvester, in fact, had just been reconfigured after cutting a deal with the government to settle antitrust claims. It was the nation's dominant maker of farm equipment. The company had ranked fourth among all U.S. corporations a decade earlier -- behind only Standard Oil of New Jersey, U.S. Steel and American Tobacco Co.

After the war, even though the nation was in a postwar slump, International Harvester was looking for a place to make trucks.

This was a major project -- $5 million, which translates to about $50 million in today's dollars. And like the efforts of cities to win industry in the 1980s and 1990s, it elicited a bidding war, one that Fort Wayne entered.

But the bid to bring Harvester to Fort Wayne was much quieter than similar contests now. This was a deal cut behind closed doors by a small group of civic leaders -- organized through the Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce -- who decided what was in the best interests of the community.

International Harvester laid out its demands to 28 cities, including streetcar service to the plant, utilities, streets, rail lines and housing for workers.

Fort Wayne got the nod on May 31, 1920. But the deal wasn't clinched until the city could prove it had the financial muscle to carry out promised improvements.

In those days, state government didn't loan money to cities for infrastructure improvements, as is done now. Nearly $1 million was raised from private contributors and channeled through the Fort Wayne Development Corp., which had been established by the chamber to pay for streets, water lines, sewers and rail. They even put up 14 houses for workers before private contractors stepped into the act.

Contracts were let beginning in May 1922, and one of the biggest construction projects in Fort Wayne history was under way. A year later, Harvester was building its first trucks in Fort Wayne.

Those first trucks were the same models that Harvester was building at plants in Springfield, Ohio, and Chatham, Ontario. Fort Wayne started building a 10-ton truck, equipped with a Hall Scott four-cylinder engine, making it the most powerful heavy-duty truck on the road.

"The Hall Scotts were so powerful and economical to run that Harvester's new heavies soon became the darlings of forestry contractors and long-distance haulers," wrote Barbara Marsh in her history of the company.

Harvester did not buy all of the southeast site that the chamber had bought to attract the company. But over the next several years, other companies moved into the area, establishing the east end of town as the heart of pre-World War II industrial Fort Wayne.

By the end of the 1920s, Fort Wayne was on its way to establishing the identity that would mark it until the upheaval of the 1980s -- the Heavy-Duty Truck Capital of the World.

Sources: News-Sentinel files; "A Corporate Tragedy: The Agony of International Harvester Company," by Barbara Marsh, Doubleday, 1985.

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