Author Spotlight: Dave Dyer

Book: Steel’s: A Forgotten Stock Market Scandal from the 1920s

Dave DyerDave Dyer is an independent investor and freelance writer.  He is also the author of Steel’s, “a fascinating and thoroughly engaging story of Buffalo-based Steel’s department store told by a master storyteller” as described by Field HorneDyer’s Spring 2013 title was published by the Syracuse University Press in March.

Could you provide the audience with a brief description of Steel’s?

“My grandmother’s brother, Clayton Pickard, vanished in 1923 and I set out to find what happened to him. Through a long string of lucky breaks and coincidences, I learned about him even though he had changed his name. I also learned that he worked for the L. R. Steel Company, and I was again lucky enough to acquire about 20 lbs. of original documents from that company. The box contained newsletters from the early 1920s with thousands of photographs and other documents. It was like finding an unopened time capsule.

The documents gave an inside view of a chain store business run by a very creative and visionary entrepreneur named Leonard Rambler Steel.  The business consisted of 75 retail stores, but the real money maker was his scheme to sell stock in the business. He promoted stock sales by making a silent film about his business…probably one of the first infomercials. The film helped him sell stock to 60,000 people, and they all lost their money when the company went bankrupt in 1923.  Steel had other big ideas, like developing Niagara Falls into a permanent World’s Fair that would be dedicated to the glory of electricity and international commerce, but he never got around to implementing that one.

There were fraud indictments for some of the executives in 1923, but Leonard Rambler Steel died suddenly, at only 44, while he was on a train to seek a loan from Henry Ford to resurrect his company.  Clayton Pickard was not charged, but I expect his disappearance was related to the scandal.  Eventually, all the indictments were dropped and the story was no longer as newsworthy since the charismatic founder was dead.  There is no other account of this story in print and it might have been lost forever if I had not been lucky enough to find that box of documents.”

What went through your mind when you began to discover the stock market scandal?

“I started reading the documents to find out about my grandmother’s brother, but I soon found Leonard Rambler Steel to be more interesting.  At first, I assumed that there must be a book or some historical article on this amazing story, but I could find none. I visited Buffalo a couple of times and found newspaper articles from the 1920s, but nothing recent.

The documents revealed an unusual company; women in management and some employees in their eighties. When I started reading about the movie, I was hooked.  The movie was released in 1922 and it was 3 hours long. It was shown for free all over North America to generate leads for his stock selling scheme. He made 50 copies of the 10-reel film, and each one had a different ending; each ended with views of his store in the locality where it was shown. He anticipated the value of localization in advertising and this amazing insight was what convinced me that the story needed to be researched and documented.”

When did you decide to research your great uncle, Clayton Pickard?

“My grandmother had always wondered about her vanished brother and I thought it would be easy to resolve the mystery since so many old records are now digitized and searchable. I did not anticipate that he would change his name!

Also, my grandmother always told me that I was a lot like Clayton. When you grow up hearing something like that, you remember it.  Finally, when I was digitizing some old family photos, my wife commented that I really do look a bit like him.”

steelsAre there any unresolved questions you have regarding your findings?

“Yes, I would love to know what happened to all 50 copies of the film.  When the company went bankrupt, they were scattered all over the country in small town movie houses. Some were probably not returned because there was no company to return them to.  Is there a much deteriorated copy still in some attic?

The last showing was in the Erie County prosecutor’s office looking for evidence of fraud, but they have not been able to locate it now.  I offered to spend a couple of days just opening boxes in their long-term storage area, but they were prudent enough not to take me up on that.”

As an independent investor, how did writing Steel’s influence you in relation to your work?

“I have been fascinated with the stock market for over 30 years and I specialize in analyzing small growth companies with unique technology for some niche market.  I love to find a creative company with an idea that actually works. I was the ideal person to appreciate the documents that I found.”

What do you hope the audience takes from your story?

“Sometimes failure is more interesting than success, especially when the person who failed had the talent needed to succeed.  And, to quote Leonard Rambler Steel,

“The line between success and failure is so finely drawn that often all that is required is one step forward to land on the winning side.”  L. R. Steel, December 24, 1920′”

What can we expect next from you?

“First, I would love to see Steel’s made into a movie or TV show. The characters are so vivid and a film based in Buffalo when it was a boom town in the 1920s just might work. If anyone knows an agent who could make this happen, I’m available. Also, if the publication of the book happens to turn up a copy of the lost silent film (hey, I’ve been lucky on everything else) that would be a nice ending.

Although Steel’s is my first book, I have several hundred other shorter publications, mostly magazine articles, newspaper editorials, and lots of stock market newsletters and commentary. I am about half way through a second book called, I Knew a Guy Who Worked Once.  It is a guide for people who want to reach escape velocity from corporate life by using aggressive investing techniques.  It is based on some investment courses that I taught and I hope it will be one of the few humorous investment books.

I have two other projects in the planning stage. One is a history book about the influence of weather on history.  There has been lots of recent discussion about mankind’s potential effect on the weather, but less about the effect of weather on human events.  I am interested in things like the sudden hurricane that saved Washington, DC, from being burned by the British in August, 1814 or the tornado that helped General “Mad” Anthony Wayne win the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.  Also, my wife and I are planning a book about how to turn underutilized urban land into public parks. We have done this once and created a 22-acre urban nature preserve.  We are now in the process of repeating this with a smaller parcel that will be used as a dog park. We hope to document the lessons we have learned.”

For more information on Dave Dyer’s Steel’s, visit the Syracuse University Press website.  It is available for sale now!

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