The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Schield, Vern L.
(November 13, 1902–August 4, 1993)

–cofounder of Schield Bantam Company and founder of Self-Help International—was born on a farm near Hawarden, Iowa, the fourth of seven children born to Fred and Emma (Thompson) Schield. His early life was spent working on the family farm, where he showed a fascination with machinery. Following brief training in mechanics in Ames, probably at Iowa State College, he continued agricultural work, relocating with the family to a farm near Montevideo, Minnesota, in 1920.

    Considering a career as a missionary, he attended Anderson College, a Church of God school in Indiana, from 1922 to 1924. He chose instead to pursue a business education and graduated from Minneapolis Business College in 1928. In the poor agricultural conditions of the late 1920s, his parents were forced to sell their property in Minnesota in 1929 and relocate to a smaller farm north of Waverly, Iowa, where Schield joined them.

    In 1930 Schield and his brother Wilbur acquired the machinery of a nearby limestone quarry and sold crushed lime to farmer to improve their soil. The brothers, both musically talented, performed as "The Limestone Boys" in local venues and on WMT, a Waterloo radio station, to advertise their business. On December 11, 1932, Schield married Marjorie Vosseller. They had two children.

    With business poor in the midst of the Great Depression, Wilbur Schield sought work in Indiana in 1933, while Vern continued the lime business. The improving agricultural economy under the New Deal benefited the operation, and in 1936 Schield purchased the quarry. Keeping rundown equipment functioning and finding new ways to use machinery to boost productivity at the quarry challenged and honed Schield's mechanical genius. He saw the advantages of having a small dragline–a crane with a bucket that scoops with a dredging action that could fill trucks delivering lime. Using parts from a variety of machines, in 1942 Schield created such a dragline mounted on a truck. Requests from other quarry owners for similar machines convinced Schield of the opportunities available in producing equipment suitably sized for small operators.

    In 1943 Schield's brother Wilbur rejoined him at the quarry, where the two began producing truck-mounted cranes, dubbed Bantams. Shortages of labor and materials during World War II hampered the business, but the war's end brought an economic boom in which it prospered.

    In 1946 the firm moved to a new plant built in Waverly and incorporated as the Schield Bantam Company. The Bantam served a critical need in the postwar construction boom by providing excavating equipment small contractors could afford. Vern's mechanical abilities and Wilbur's business savvy served the company well. By 1956 annual domestic and international sales figures topped $10 million, and Bantams dominated the market for similarly sized machines. The company was noted for encouraging open communication with employees and was an early adopter of a profit-sharing plan. In 1963 the Koehring Company acquired the firm.

    The company's success and overseas markets gave Schield the opportunity to travel widely. Reflecting his early interest in religious work, he often found time to visit missionaries. There he discovered needs that his mechanical talents could meet. In 1952 he founded Self-Help, Inc., a nonprofit organization now known as Self-Help International. Initially, Self-Help purchased and reconditioned various kinds of machinery, much of it obsolete in the American economy but well suited to conditions in developing nations, and sold it at prices customers there could afford. In the 1960s Schield designed a small tractor he named the Self-Helper. Built from salvage and surplus parts and funded partially through donations, this tractor was intended to help small farmer in developing countries improve agricultural yield. Self-Helpers are no longer produced, but Self-Help International continues other projects aimed at helping people in the developing world find ways to improve their lives.

    In 1968 Schield founded the Schield International Museum in Waverly to display artifacts he collected from his extensive travels. It also exhibits the first Bantam and houses the Self-Help International offices.

    Schield died in Waterloo and was buried in Harlington Cemetery, Waverly.
Sources See Schield's memoir, Buffalo Grass and Bare Feet (1979); his impressions of the Soviet Union in Russia . . . As I Saw It: Chronicles of Fred and Emma Schield's Family (1997); and The Limestone Boys & Their Small but Scrappy Bantam: A Video History of Waverly's Schield-Bantam Company (2002). Obituaries appeared in the Des Moines Register, 8/6/1993; Waterloo Courier, 8/5/1993; and Waverly Democrat, 8/5/1993.
Contributor: Terrence J. Lindell