If you are a fan of cast iron bathtubs with the white porcelain finish thank David Dunbar Buick. Does cruise control enhance your driving experience on long road trips? If so you might want to thank Ralph Teetor, the prolific blind inventor. After all, it was an idea that he patented in 1950. Ransom E. Olds is best known for the Oldsmobile, and to classic car enthusiasts, the man behind the REO cars and trucks. Did you know that he was also the inventor of the gasoline powered lawn mower? Did you know that Louis Chevrolet’s first business endeavor was the manufacturing of bicycles?
As has become a custom this past few years, I have been preparing some presentations for the fall tour along Route 66 as well as for the winter. Each has been designed as an educational program with a bit of fun tossed into the mix. Louis Chevrolet, David Buick and Ralph Teetor are but a few of the fascinating people I introduce in Dawn of A New Era, a fast bit of time travel back to the dawning of the 20th century and the American auto industry. It was developed for a Hackett Auto Museum fund raiser in Jackson, Michigan. However, I now scheduling other appearances.
Community education has become a passion in recent years. I enjoy providing the tools needed for communities or grass roots initiatives to harness tourism, specifically Route 66 tourism, as a catalyst for economic development as well as historic district revitalization. So, I have created a condensed version of the classes developed for Mohave Community College this past spring. I should note that the college will again be offering these classes. They are scheduled to start in late October at the Bullhead City campus. I am currently scheduling these presentations for the fall tour as well.
As my new book, Murder & Mayhem on The Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66, is scheduled for release in early September, as a series of book signings are also a part of the October tour, an accompanying presentation is being developed. This won’t be suitable for the younger audience but I guarantee it will be of interest for anyone with a macabre sense of humor, or an interest in Route 66 history.
The last presentation is pure fun. It is also a bit educational for anyone with interest in becoming a writer, or for a school journalism class. In this presentation I chronicle my thirty year career as a writer. It is a darkly comedic adventure; an odd series of coincidences that led to an interview in Jay Leno’s Garage, a two year book project that went down in flames when the publisher went broke, and of course, the launch and development of Jim Hinckley’s America that started as a venue for promoting books, book signings and related presentations.
I am compensated for most presentations but there is no charge for those made at schools and similar venues. So, the tour, as well as the various facets of Jim Hinckley’s America – live streaming programs, podcast, videos, etc. – is dependent on support of the crowdfunding initiative on the Patreon platform, donations such as the one recently made by the German Route 66 Associations and advertising sponsors such as Blue Swallow Motel, Roadrunner Lodge and Uranus Fudge Factory & General Store, and major sponsors, Grand Canyon Caverns & Inn and the City of Cuba.
If you would like to schedule a presentation for you community, organization, event or fund raiser, please drop me a note. As the schedule develops it will be added to our Facebook page, noted in the weekly newsletter, and on the Travel Center page.
One of the overlooked chapters from the story about the dawning of the American auto industry is how it went from being a circus sideshow curiosity to multi-million dollar industry in less than two decades.
“Take the children to see the fad before it passes.” Even astute entrepreneurs with vision can be wrong when it comes to predicting the future. These words were spoken by Montgomery Ward, the pioneering department store tycoon, in 1896 when the circus came to town with promotional posters that gave a Duryea Motor Wagon top billing over the albino, bearded lady and dog boy. It was the dawn of a new era, a time of such dramatic transition that within 20 years every aspect of American society had been transformed.
Buffalo Bill Cody at the tiler of a 1903 Michigan. Photo Jim Hinckley collection.
Within seven years of Ward’s recommendation, shorty after the turn of the century, an automobile had been driven from coast to coast. David Buick, Henry Ford, Ransom E. Olds, and dozens of swashbuckling captains of industry were establishing automotive manufacturing empires worth tens of millions of dollars. By 1906 a steamer built by the Stanley brothers had been driven to nearly 150 miles per hour, a new record, on Ormond Beach in Florida. In 1909, 828,000 horse drawn vehicles and 125,000 automobiles rolled from American factories. Two decades later a mere 4,000 horse drawn vehicles were manufactured.
What fueled such a dramatic societal evolution? Marketing. Advertisement. Promotion. An advertisement for the 1900 Porter Stanhope featured a small lithograph type print of the car and a heading in bold print, The Only Perfect Automobile.” Several hundred words of descriptive prose followed. It was groundbreaking, after all in the May 1897 issue of Motorcycle, editor Edward Goff said, “The manufacture of a motorcycle (or automobile) is in a position to take advantage of more free advertisement than any other industry.”
As early as 1903, even though the automobile was still somewhat of a novelty, a tsunami of competition in the industry necessitated advertisement, marketing, and promotion if an automotive manufacturer was to survive. Enter Ernest Elmo Calkins, owner of an advertising agency that chose artistic standards that showcased cars in attention getting scenes rather than lengthy word pictures. Within a few years Calkins & Holden, with the luxury auto manufacturer Pierce Arrow as a primary client, had become the first company to exclusively develop automotive advertising campaigns.
As automotive technologies were being advanced with stunning speed, it was appropriate that the next stage in advertising and marketing would utilize something new as well as exciting. Cadwallader Washburn Kelsey, Cal to his friends, launched his career in automotive marketing with Maxwell-Briscoe. His promotional stunts were worthy of P.T. Barnum. Then in 1907 he contracted with Lubin Film Studios, a pioneering cinematography company that specialized in the making of nickelodeon films for theaters in the northeast, to film his stunts. The automotive commercial was born.
Automobile manufacturers sold dreams made manifest in steel and glass. Automobile marketing companies simply sold the dream. They transformed the automobile from sideshow curiosity to necessity. They replaced the horse by instilling a hunger for horsepower. The art of selling the sizzle rather the steak, that is the fuel that drove the evolution transformed America, and the world.
Scientific American, August 3, 1901 – “Covering the North American Continent from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic Ocean in an automobile has been attempted by Alexander Winton, president of the Winton Motor Carriage Company, of Cleveland, Ohio. That the expedition failed is no fault of the machine Mr. Winton used, nor was it due to absence of grit or determination on the part of the operator. Neither was the failure due to roads. The utter absence of roads was the direct and only cause.”
Fame is a fickle thing. People that transform the world through innovation can be less than an historic footnote a generation or two later. Even the rich and famous are not immune to the curse of time that can render them a forgotten obscurity with the passing of time. Case in point, Alexander Winton, father of the great America road trip.
By 1891 the fledgling hobby of bicycling was on the cusp of becoming a national obsession. Within a few short years the number of bicycle manufacturers in the United States soared from a mere handful to hundreds. Winton opened his factory in 1891. Before the decade closed, it was the embryonic automobile industry and related technologies that was grabbing the nations attention. Alexander Winton was a pioneer in this industry as well. The Winton Motor Car Carriage Company was established in 1897, and his first automobile sold in 1898.
Winton pioneered racing and performance sports as a marketing tool, and in 1901 he set out on what was to be an epic adventure that ensured his company and the cars that he produced would be the most famous ones in the world. Accompanied by Charles B. Shank, a journalist with Scientific American, Winton’s grueling odyssey was chronicled. The duo left from San Francisco on the morning of Monday, May 20. They rolled into Mill City on the eastern slope of the Sierras in Nevada on May 29, and then loaded their battered car onto a a train for shipping home to Cleveland. The epic adventure was a failure in only that Winton did not complete his trip. The riveting tale added to Winton’s fame, and ignited a national passion for automobile odysseys worthy of Jason and the Argo-naughts, and stories about daring “automobilists.”
In 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson became the first person to drive an automobile from coast to coast. Five years later in an epic race drivers fought a first place finish over a course that stretched from New York City to Paris France. In 1913, the Lincoln Highway, the first highway built specifically for automobile drivers, that connected Times Square in New York City with Lincoln Park in San Francisco was completed and extensively marketed. Dozens of other highways were completed during this period including the National Old Trails Road, predecessor to Route 66 in the southwest.
Every day dozens of feature articles, books, and speakers extolled the wonders experienced on the great America road trip. Emily Post chronicled her adventure in a best selling book By Motor to The Golden Gate. In 1915, Edsel Ford chronicled his adventure to California from Michigan with college buddies in a journal and provided dozens of interviews to interested journalists. Road trips, even if just for a Sunday drive, was national mania by 1920. Preachers lamented the decline in church in attendance as families took to the road in ever increasing numbers. All of this publicity coupled with a healthy dose of media induced romanticism set the stage for a series of marketing campaigns that would transform a mere highway into an internationally recognized icon that has come to symbolize the quintessential American experience – the road trip.
Route 66 Czech style
US 66 was commissioned in November 1926. In early 1927, Cyrus Avery and a handful of businessmen with vision launched the US Highway 66 Association, and kicked off a marketing campaign that promoted Route 66 as the Main Street of America. This was followed by the Transcontinental Foot Race, an event dubbed as the Bunion Derby that garnered international media attention, and a promotional campaign that promoted the highway as the best route to the Olympics in Los Angles. Then came the book and movie The Grapes of Wrath, a little song about getting your kicks on Route 66, and a television program.
Fast forward to 2019. Communities and states along the highway corridor are planning centennial Route 66 celebrations. The Dutch Route 66 Association is planning a “meet & greet” in Amsterdam this August. Organizers in Poland are working on details for a 2020 European Route 66 Festival. Companies in Australia and the Czech Republic, Germany and New Zealand, Netherlands and Norway specialize in Route 66 tours.
Alexander Winton may have fallen short of his goal. But the Great American Road Trip that he launched in 1901 is today more popular than ever before. The big difference between then and now is that that road trip has an international fan club.
W.A. “Tex” Thornton was a larger than life figure in the oil fields of Texas in the 1920s and 1930s, and as a result his murder and a trial that included tales of illicit sexual exploits grabbed headlines throughout the nation in 1949. His exploits were so legendary that it was almost impossible to separate fact from fiction, especially since Tex often acted as his press agent and he was famous for tall tales. Before the age of six, Thornton’s family relocated from Mississippi to Goree, Texas about halfway between Wichita Falls and Abilene. In nearby Electra, a major oil discovery sparked a boom, and Thornton, then 16-years of age, dropped out of school and went to work as a roughneck on rigs. Shortly afterwards he signed on with a torpedo company as a well shooter and displayed such a talent for the job, the company sent him to Ohio for training. It was there that he acquired the nick name “Tex.” In 1919 he shot out his first well fire near Electra, Texas, and within a couple of years he was the Panhandle branch manager of the U.S. Torpedo Company in Amarillo, Texas.
At a particularly difficult well fire, he devised a valve system that became an industry standard. In 1924, in Hutchinson County, he shot out a fire that had been blazing for a week. The following year he extinguished six blazes that had resisted the most professional teams available. In 1926, the Borger, Texas oil field was discovered, and Thornton’s career skyrocketed. On April 11, 1927, a premature well shooting explosion killing three men, and badly injured several more. Tex was on the scene, and after racing into the blazing inferno to pull the injured to safety, was hailed a hero. Less than a month after his daring rescue, a major explosion and fire at Sanford ten miles west of Borger killed eight men. Two days later, clad in an asbestos suit of his design, Thornton shot the fire out. Less than 24 hours later, there was another well explosion and fire southeast of Borger, and Thornton donned his now famous asbestos suit, entered the fire, placed a charge, and extinguished the fire before an audience of several thousand people. On June 9, there was a well fire near Pampa. This time Thornton entered the fire zone and closed a still intact valve which extinguished the blaze. Soon he was being called to work well fires in throughout Texas as well as Oklahoma, and New Mexico.
It was in a bedroom at this motel on Route 66 in Amarillo, Texas that the legendary life of Tex Thornton came to an abrupt end. Photo Joe Sonderman
Thornton’s murder was tailor made for the fueling of a major media circus and speculative stories that lured readers back for updates the following day. As an example, Norton Spayde, an Amarillo Globe reporter, asked a question that resonated with everyone familiar with Tex Thornton, a legend in the oil industry, “How a young pair as described to officers could take advantage of Mr. Thornton is still a mystery. Both the young people are described as lightweights, and Tex had been schooled in the rough and ready oil fields.”
Thornton’s widow in an interview with police, claimed that he had left Amarillo on Sunday, June 19, 1949 for a job in Farmington, New Mexico with plans to return on Tuesday, June 21 and so law enforcement agencies along the Route 66 corridor in New Mexico were called upon to retrace Thornton’s steps and to assist in the search for Thornton’s Chrysler. The Amarillo Range Riders formed their own search teams to track the car after it left Amarillo. Between 4:00 p.m. and 5 p.m. on the 21st, Thornton had called Frank McCullough, sales manager of Meyers Motor Company in Amarillo, and said that he was east of Albuquerque, and was experiencing trouble with his distributor. Police determined that Thornton had spent the night in Albuquerque and theorized that he had picked up the hitchhiking couple between Santa Rosa and Tucumcari, New Mexico. Friday morning, 24-hours after discovery of the body, a Potter County grand jury returned murder indictments against John Doe and Mary Roe.
Members of the Range Riders followed leads east along Route 66 to Elk City, Oklahoma, and located a service station where the attendant identified the car, and the man and woman. Other witnesses were found in El Reno and Oklahoma City. A few days later, police located Thornton’s Chrysler abandoned in Dodge City, Kansas. In a field nearby, they found the keys, and a .45 caliber handgun that had belonged to Thornton. The discovery was front page news in the Saturday edition of The Amarillo Daily News.
Route 66 served as center stage for the story of Tex Thornton’s murder in 1949, a tale that I detail in my new book, Murder & Mayhem on the Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66. Today Route 66 is known for its neon, the catchy song made famous by Nat King Cole, the television program, and countless stories of fun filled adventures shared through the magic of social media. When this storied old highway truly was the Main Street of America, it was know as bloody 66. This reputation was well deserved resultant of the thousands of bloody wrecks that littered the highway from Chicago to Santa Monica. There was another facet to the highways association with death, quick, sudden, unexpected, and bloody. It was the stories of serial killer, murderers, and gangsters that often had an association with US 66, the Mother Road, that appeared in newspapers most every day.