A Brownie, a baseball bat and a carload of lumpers
April 1, 2011 | by: By Robert Ward as told to Lucinda Coulter
I was born in 1941 and have always liked semi-trucks. My favorites were the diesel-powered rigs with lots of noise and smoke. And they were always bigger – and so much better to me – than the gas-powered trucks. That’s me in the photo at 10 years old in 1951, with my brother Randy on the right and the first Peterbilt, a 1950 Model 350, behind us.
I started taking truck photos with a $3 Brownie camera when I was 9. My parents’ house was only two blocks from U.S. Highway 6, which ran from Rhode Island to Los Angeles. Although I’ve taken fewer photos in the last 15 years, I have about 2,000 photos archived, 1,000 slides and overall nearly 5,000 semi-truck photos. For one of three truck photos essays I published in Overdrive‘s 1967 issues, see the featured story, “Trucking’s good ol’ days in pictures,” for April 1, 2011, on this site.
In 1953, Harlan’s Triangle Truckport, a large truck stop for that era, opened on the highway only a couple of miles from our house. Harlan and Kathleen Hagberg ran the restaurant, each of them working 12-hour shifts. Nel Lemon ran the rest of the place. I went to work at the stop’s service station in 1954 and worked there part-time through early 1960.
The place was ahead of its time. It had a mechanical garage, a drivers’ rec room with TV, pool table, showers and a 12-room bunk house with a common ceiling area. It had two fuel islands and sold propane.
Prices remained the same through the ‘50s: Diesel was 21 cents per gallon, gas was 28 cents per gallon and propane averaged 10 cents per gallon. A trucker could take a shower with towels and soap for 25 cents and a room for 24 hours was $1.50. Food prices were stable too. A hamburger was 25 cents, cheeseburger only a nickel more, a milk shake and a short stack of pancakes were 25 cents a piece, and a chicken dinner cost a dollar.
Harlan’s was time wise perfect for driver changes on two-man rigs using 5-hour drive time. The trips from Omaha to Des Moines, Des Moines to Davenport and Davenport to Chicago all took five hours.
Large two-man trucking companies such as Kingsby, Watson Bros. IML, Navajo and PIE fueled up at Harlan’s. Iowa’s many meat-packing plants depended on owner-operators to distribute their goods.
While I worked at Harlan’s, I got to know drivers from all over the country, and I saw every make and model of truck coming through on the major east-west route.
When I was nearly 16, my dad told me I could take a trip with Dwight Hancock, a trucker from Kansas, for a Heinz foods delivery he was making to Milwaukee. My mom wasn’t keen about the idea. But back then, few people caused much trouble and most truckers at Harlan’s slept with open windows and unlocked doors. Mr. Hancock drove a dark green 1952 White conventional with a factory sleeper, shown here in the photo. It had a 180-hp Cummins and a two-stick transmission.
We left in the evening. That White really smoked a lot, but at night it had at least six inches of fire shooting out of the stack. We took a nap in the wee hours in southern Wisconsin and then started unloading in the early morning in Milwaukee.
I was helping Dwight unload when a carload of lumpers stopped and demanded that he pay them to unload. He told me to get back in the truck’s cab. He kept a baseball bat in the trailer, and I wondered how many times he had to use it. I watched in the rearview mirror while he talked to the guys. I heard him bang the bat on the trailer door. He emphasized to the five guys that it was either going to be them or the car.
He won the battle quickly, and they left a little worse for wear. We finished unloading, and I enjoyed taking a few photos looking out of the cab as we made an easy return trip — running empty.
Robert Ward is a native and resident of Davenport, Iowa. He was a machinist by trade over a more than 40-year career, some of which he spent as a machinist with Caterpillar. He has written and published photo essays in the American Truck Historical Society’s publication Wheels of Time and Old Time Trucks. He is also a member of OOIDA. He bought his first Overdrive at Bill Moon’s Iowa 80 truck stop.