Growing up with a Texas bobtail

December 6, 2011  | by: Maurice Bourne, excerpted from Old Time Trucks magazine

[For more stories of antique trucks and their adventures, go to Old Time Trucks magazine. -- ed.]

Coventry, R.I.-resident Hamilton Benn owns the 1940 Ford shown here. It is similar to the one Maurice Bourne drove.

As a teen in the early 1950s, I took a liking to trucks. I grew up in Marquez, Texas, a small town in a big farming region. We raised watermelons, corn, grain, peas, tomatoes, hay and other crops. We also raised lots of cattle. In that rural part of Texas, if a boy was too skinny to do much work, but had more-or-less good sense, he ended up operating farm tractors and old trucks. I qualified on both counts, so my fate was determined at a young age.

Our region had a lot of flat beds, which we called them bobtails. Most of our farmers and ranchers liked Chevrolet trucks, although a few owned Internationals and Fords. One old farmer once told me that the International was the best truck made, but it cost “way too much money.” I don’t know what a 2-ton International sold for in the 1940s and 1950s, but evidently it was way too much.

Most of these trucks spent their lives in fields, on dirt road, and on narrow asphalt farm-to-market roads. They all had gas engines and 4-speed gearboxes, while a few had two-speed rear axles, a fancy add-on that mystified most of the old-timers. Most of these bobtails had 14- or 16-foot beds, and a few had 18-footers

This was before the age of the goose-neck trailer, and in my part of Texas most cattle went to local auction barns loaded on bobtail trucks. Nobody seemed to worry much about GVW ratings – trucks were just loaded until they looked about right. As far as I can remember, a full load on one of these trucks ranged from 5 to 10 tons.

The first real truck I ever drove, as a 17-year-old, was a flatbed Ford. I think it was a 1940 model, and it was the first time I ever drove something bigger than a pickup. The fellow who owned the Ford bobtail was a cattle buyer, and I got acquainted with him when he hired me to install the cattle racks (sideboards) on his truck. That seemed like a simple job, but as it turned out, these homemade cattle racks were solid oak, weighed about a ton, and were not very well designed.

After the stakes had been driven into the side pockets, the sides and ends had to be joined by nailing them together with 20 penny nails. For safety’s sake, I also wrapped baling wire around all the corners. That “simple” job took me the better part of a day. In spite of their appearance, these rickety racks manage to stay together while I hauled many a load of half-crazy cows to the sale barns in Buffalo, Groesbeck, Calvert, and Crockett. I was 17 years old that summer.

The fellow who owned the truck was what we called a hands-off guy. He bought and sold cows. He would look silently at a pen full of cows and make the farmer an offer. If the farmer didn’t like the offer, we would get in our truck and drive on down the road. If the farmer agreed, the buyer would pay cash on the spot. I would then back that flatbed up to the loading chute and start loading cows while the cattle-buyer would stand around, chew tobacco and chat with farmers.

Loading cattle is a world unto itself. A cow doesn’t respond to soft words and gentle persuasion. It’s hard to explain to civilized people how 15 or even 20 cows can be crammed into the back of a 14-foot flatbed. It can be done, but it takes a great deal yelling, beating, whipping, cussing and general carrying-on. I became something of an expert at it.

If my early days were any indication, it seemed I was destined to become a truck driver, and that suited me just fine. As it turned out, fate sent me in different directions several years later. But during those years I drove a lot of old trucks.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, those were probably the best years of my life.

About the author: Maurice W. Bourne is an award winning, part-time writer who writes about trucking, flying and other subjects. He is a Vietnam veteran and owns a fiberglass molding shop in Marquez, Texas. For more stories and photos go to Old Time Trucks.

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