By Frank Lessiter, Chairman
From the Lessiter Lore column of the July 2018 Lessiter Link newsletter
After Pam and I purchased No-Till Farmer and Farm Building News in March of 1981, we had 10 months to put together the lineup of speakers and promote the National Farm Builder Show being held in St. Louis during the last week of January 1982.
Just thinking about that week brings back uncomfortable memories and the need to hit the Tums bottle.
The doors to the 200-booth trade show were to open at 3 p.m. on Sunday for the event. The educational program with 35 speakers would get underway on Monday morning.
Soon after Pam and I went out to dinner that Saturday night, a heavy rainstorm evolved into a snowstorm. By Sunday afternoon, 20 inches of snow had fallen in St. Louis, which had very little snow equipment nor experience in handling a storm of this magnitude.
The city had anticipated 4 inches of snow that weekend. Instead, it became the 3rd heaviest snowfall ever recorded in St. Louis and the worst in 70 years. Builders driving through southern Illinois were turned back by more than 2 feet of fresh snow.
Half the Crowd
We were expecting 2,100 attendees, but only 1,100 builders and exhibitors made it. Builders from several states drove 800 miles yet couldn’t make the last 17 miles over 4 days into downtown St. Louis. Many turned around and headed home without ever making it to the show.
The host hotel was across the street from the downtown St. Louis convention center where the show was held. That street, with over 20 inches of snow, was never plowed in 4 days.
On Monday morning, an exhibitor fell on the snowy street and cracked his head. When we called 911 for an ambulance, we got a recording! We paid a kid with a 4-wheel-drive Jeep $20 to take the poor guy to the hospital.
Sunday night was crazy. I had realized earlier in the day that fewer than a dozen of the 35 scheduled speakers had arrived. I spent much of the trade show time putting an arm around builders who learned, on the spot, they’d be panel presenters the next day. A few speakers from out West eventually made it to St. Louis, but half the speakers never made it to the event.
Hotel service wasn’t a concern, as the general manager made his staff hunker down in the hotel for the storm’s duration. Attendees recall janitors delivering food to tables, while several remarked that the hotel’s general manager had cleaned their rooms and made the beds.
General Patton’s Appearance
The scheduled Tuesday night banquet speaker was an impersonator of famous World War II U.S. Army General George Patton. General Patton would have been proud of the grit this doppelganger showed. He kept phoning, explaining that he didn’t know how he was going to do it, but that he would be there for the banquet.
With the St. Louis Airport closed, I figured our speaker would never make it. But 35 minutes before he was to go on stage, he arrived. To this day, I don’t know how he got there from New York City, but he’d made a promise to me and nothing was going to stop him and his commitment.
I still get choked up when I think of that speaker dressed in a U.S. Army General’s uniform repeating word-for-word Patton’s famous profanity-filled 3rd Army speech. Known as “Old Blood and Guts,” Patton, with his hard-driving personality, would have expected nothing less. (In a future issue, I’ll share what happened when we hired a U.S. President Jimmy Carter impersonator.)
The program for the following year’s National Farm Builder Show was the easiest one ever. I simply rebooked the 25 speakers for the next year’s show that had never made it to St. Louis. I’m happy to say, we’ve secured over 2,000 speakers since that first event.