James O. Helms Jr.
In 1939, James O. Helms Jr.’s family was one of the first in Coffee County, Alabama, to purchase a tractor to work their peanut and row crop farm. A few years later, during a break from his studies at Alabama Polytechnic Institute, the determined young man drove that tractor from the Helms’ farm to the local U.S. Navy recruiting office and signed up to serve in World War II. After a tour in the South Pacific, he completed officer candidate school and, at war’s end, returned to Auburn to complete his degree in agricultural engineering in 1948.
After marrying his high school sweetheart and fellow API graduate, Mary Lou, the Enterprise native taught vocational agriculture to Coffee County veterans for a year before accepting a position with API’s north Auburn teaching farm. Helms spent the next 13 years in Auburn leading the farm, where he helped hundreds of API students learn by doing.
In addition to his teaching duties, during these years Helms acted as host for the annual meeting of the Alabama Farm and Power Equipment Dealers Association—now the Southern Equipment Dealers Association. He became well-known for conducting the group’s “earth roast,” slow-cooking the meeting’s main meal on coals in a pit dug in the farm’s rocky soil.
In 1962, Helms began what would be a 40-year career in farm equipment sales when he and Ed Allen Sr. partnered to lead Anniston Equipment Company, a John Deere dealership. Five years later, he joined Ford Motor Company’s Tractor Division near Atlanta, where he served tractor dealers throughout the Southeast and used his expertise as an agricultural engineer to help farmers as well.
From there, Helms went on to work for the Birmingham Ford Tractor Company for two years before purchasing the Montgomery Ford Tractor Company in Montgomery. Under the new name, Helms and Sons Tractor Company, the business flourished under his leadership and later, his son’s, for the next three decades.
During this time, Helms was recognized by the Montgomery County Farmers Service and Welfare Association with the group’s Community and Economic Development Award. He also served as president of the Agribusiness Advisory Committee.
Helms and his wife of 61 years had three children: Jim, Dick and Jane. He passed away in 2007.