Bill Starnes and Texas tomatoes

September 13, 2011  | by: By Brad Wike, Reprinted from Old Time Trucks magazine

[This story was published originally in Old Time Trucks, a magazine devoted to truck antiques and their adventures.]

In September 1947 at the age of 19, Bill Starnes became a married man. Working for his father Herbert Starnes, who owned Starnes Produce in Charlotte, N.C., Bill began preparing for a trip to Texas to pick up a load of bell peppers and tomatoes. Herbert had just purchased a 1947 Brockway 154 with a sleeper cab that had been previously owned by Cash & Carry Produce of Chattanooga, Tenn.

“It was a fine truck with easy steering, a roomy sleeper cab, and plenty of power in the old 360 Continental engine,” Bill recalls.

Even though his new wife Betty was against the idea, Bill set out for Texas with his driving partner James Kelly of Concord, N.C. They drove the Brockway and pulled a 1946 Fruehauf single axle van trailer, headed for Laredo over 1,400 miles away. Herbert already had the load of peppers and a tomato sold for a good profit, and was anxious for the load to arrive in Charlotte.

Once Bill and James finally made it to Laredo, they picked up the load and started back home. After driving about 300 miles, James crawled in the sleeper to rest while Bill drove. They were traveling on Hwy 79 in Buffalo, Texas, when Bill approached an intersection with a stoplight. His light changed to green, so he grabbed another gear and gassed the old Brockway back up to about 50 mph. Just as he was going through the intersection, he recalls a black Dodge car pulling out directly in front of him.

Bill hit the brakes, hit the car, swerved off the road, and lost control of the Brockway. He recalls hanging on while the truck rolled completely over, throwing bell peppers and tomatoes all over the road. The wreck destroyed the truck and trailer with its anxiously awaited load of produce.

Bill recalls there were four people in the Dodge car, but they were all unharmed. James, who was in the sleeper, escaped injury as well, but was worried about finding his shoes. The police took Bill to the hospital with bruises and a badly sprained arm. He is shown in the photo when he returned to the wreckage. A train headed to North Carolina took Bill and James back home, where Bill’s wife wanted to hurt him even worse when he got there.

Bill’s brother Howard set out with his helper Charlie Lewis to get the wrecked truck. They drove a WC-22 White tow truck to Texas, picked up the Brockway, and headed home. The Fruehauf trailer was destroyed and had to be left behind.

In Georgia the White broke a king pin, so Howard had to catch a ride back to Charlotte to get parts to fix the tow truck. Finally they made it back to Charlotte with the Brockway. Bill Biggers drove a 1947 Ford tractor and 26-ft trailer back to Texas to pick up what remained of the bell peppers and tomatoes.

Howard ordered a new cab and replacements for all the Brockway’s damaged parts at a cost of approximately $850. They rebuilt the truck and later traded it for a Hudson Hornet.

The Starneses are believed to be the first truckers ever to haul a load of tomatoes from Texas to North Carolina. Bill is retired now and spends quite a bit of time at Villa Heights Garage in Charlotte, which is owned by his brother Howard. He enjoys spinning yarns about the “good old days” of trucking.

Brad Wike is a resident of Taylorsville, N.C. Photos courtesy of Old Time Trucks.

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