YOU FIND THE STRANGEST THINGS IN THE ODDEST PLACES

By nature, I am a rather inquisitive person. So, I suppose, that is one reason the research for the books and feature articles I write intrigues me so. And as I can’t help but think there are others that share my proclivity to finding pleasure in obscure facts, a certain pleasure is derived in sharing what is learned. 
As a result, being contracted to produce the Route 66 encyclopedia and atlas, and generous editorial parameters that allowed for up to 150,000 words of text, was akin to being a painter whose imagination was unleashed with a commission that allowed him to move from portrait painting to creating the artistry of the Sistine Chapel. However, the excitement derived in contemplating the massive blank canvas before me was tinged with a sense of apprehension as this work, a time capsule chronicling the 85 year history of Route 66, was seen as a sacred honor, a thought that magnified my obsession with accuracy. 
Before the work of writing commenced, I created a basic framework for the project that included the need to have a concise history of every community on every alignment of Route 66. Then I buried myself in research, a project that manifested in an entire file drawer filled with notes. 
Years ago I learned that in the quest for information you will find the strangest things in the oddest places. When offered the opportunity to write a book on the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company (subject of interview with Jay Leno, the clip is toward the bottom of this column), I jumped at the chance. Writing a book represented the fulfillment of a childhood dream. 
This led to the learning of another lesson. Before accepting a project, always ask why no one had attempted it before. 
As it turns out, little had been written about Checker because there was very little information available. It had been a family run operation from its inception, with the exception of a brief period in the 1930s when the founder, Morris Markin, lost control of the company and turned to E.L. Cord for assistance in regaining control of the helm. 
Most decisions were made among a very small circle and there was very little promotional material produced as the company allowed the product to advertise itself. Further limitations on available material for research was derived from the fact that Markin owned another company, Checker Taxi, that he sold the cars to and through. 
As a result, the period between 1922 and the end of World War II was an almost completely blank slate.  Here was a company that had produced, in small numbers, a job specific designed vehicle that dominated much of he American taxi business and there was almost no documentation. Here was a company that produced an incredible number of specialty, niche market vehicles and there was only the faintest of paper trails, few photographs and fewer existent models. 
In fact, when I wrote this book there were less than twenty existent Checker built vehicles to represent the period between 1922 and 1958! Needless to say, I was faced with a daunting task. 
My first attempt at unraveling the Checker story was through the front door, a series of phone calls to the Checker company in Kalamazoo in the hopes of scoring an interview with David Markin, the founders son. When these efforts were rebuffed I turned to a friend who worked in the transportation wing of the Smithsonian Institute archives. 
Imagine my surprise when I learned that their collection of pre war material consisted of five photos, two brochures, and a couple of trade journals from the 1920s! That was when I instituted my research in odd places starting with the Detroit phone book. 
In the 1970s a writer by the name of Stanley Yost had gained access to the Checker files and written a book about some of the various Checker models. A the time he had lived in the Detroit area, and the photography shop that had copied the photos he used as illustrations was also in that city, or at least it had been thirty years before. 
Well, to make a long story short, the photography shop was still in business, the gentleman who had owned the shop before selling it in the 1990s was still alive, and with just two phone calls, I had his phone number. As it turned out this was a dead end for he had lost contact with Mr. Yost when he moved to Florida. Even worse, the photos from the Checker archives, and his negatives had been donated to a now defunct museum. 
Back to square one with but one lead, Mr. Yost, a WWII bomber pilot who kept in touch with the surviving members of his crew, enjoyed vintage cars and airplanes. After spending a bit of time browsing the member registry of the Society of Automotive Historians and the Antique Automobile Club of America, and looking for areas in Florida where car shows and plane shows were often held together, I had a list of towns where a Mr. Yost, if still alive, might reside. 
I called information in the first town, was given a phone number, gave it a dial, and a very elderly Mr. Yost answered! We talked for quite awhile, he provided with me information as he remembered it, and informed me that he had obtained a number of factory photos and negatives (some on nitrate film and some on glass negatives) from Checker and dozens of other companies during he 1950s. He then had these made into slides but had given them away years ago. 
When we hung up I wrote a note to myself pertaining to getting a picture of the Kingman Army Airfield from the Mohave Museum of History & Arts and sending it Mr. Yost. Then I turned to tracing other leads. 
A week or so later, Mr. Yost called and said he had found two boxes of the automobile slides in the attic. He was unsure of the exact contents but if I was willing to pay shipping, they were mine. 
Two weeks later I was the proud owner of more than twenty one of a kind Checker photos! As a bonus I also had pictures of Buffalo Bill Cody taking delivery of his 1903 Michigan, Ben Turpin with his new McFarland, and hundreds of other rare photos. 
With that experience at the forefront of my thoughts, I set out to unravel the secrets of America’s most famous highway with an excitement only equaled by the start of a Route 66 adventure.