Bringing the Bobcat out of the barn

It started with a dirty barn. Not that they were the Augean stables; the problem was that the machines available to farmers in 1956 were of Herculean proportions—too big for the turkey stables of Eddie Velo. So he approached local inventors, Louis and Cyril Keller, with his dilemma. In response, they created a small, mobile machine which was eventually mass-produced as the Bobcat loader. A problem, an invention, a solution, and fifty-odd years later the company’s archives arrive at the Smithsonian. But beyond the press release, what does that mean for you, the museum’s public, that we have 56 cubic feet of documents, pictures and videos from the Bobcat corporate records, preserved in our archive?

AC1129-0000003Image from the Bobcat Archive Collection.

First, all of that information is now publicly available. Selected records will be on view November 30 – January 17, 2010. But it’s more than that, because you, and any member of the public, can make an appointment in our Archives Center to research our collections. The Bobcat Company Records contain documentation of work culture through its commercial films, slides, and photographic prints.

I find the part of the collection dealing with a 1985 corporate exchange trip to Japan intriguing. The visit resulted in the implementation of a process called “kaizen,” or “change for the better,” in Bobcat factories. Each month, employees would analyze the production process for efficiency. These records provide a glimpse into the rewards of cross-cultural engagement. Other people might find something of note in the photographs of company outings and factories, or the commercial films commissioned by the company as a precursor to the info-mercial. Before, these were corporate records. Now, they’re a popular history book, an article or a PhD thesis waiting to happen (my suggestion: “‘From ‘Bobcat a Go-Go’ to the cult of Snuggy: analyzing American purchasing trends in relation to television production values”).

Secondly, and equally important, collecting these records is an affirmation for the employees of Bobcat, past and present, of their place in American manufacturing history. Archivist Alison Oswald visited the town of Gwinner, North Dakota, during the acquisition process. “Just about everyone there has a connection to Bobcat,” Oswald noted. “They take tremendous pride in what they do.”

A complete finding aid for the Bobcat papers will be available on the Archives Center Web site in the near future. Until then, there are guides to other Archives Center holdings which might inspire a detour during your next visit to the museum.

Allison Tara Sundaram is an intern in the New Media program at the National Museum of American History.

Posted at 4:36 pm EDT in From the Collections,Intern Perspectives