It was a highway in name only. In that summer of 1915, Edsel Ford recorded in his travel journal that July 15 was a “good days run.” He had driven from Williams to Kingman, Arizona, a distance of just over 153 miles on the National Old Trails Road.
He had left Williams that morning and arrived at the Brunswick Hotel in Kingman around midnight. Some of his friends that were traveling with him to California had to return to Seligman. They had broken a spring on their Stutz.
With the luxury of hindsight Edsel’s journey was rather astounding. But he was not alone. More than 20,000 people attending the Panama Pacific Exposition in California that year arrived from outside the state, and they drove.
But consider this. Arizona had been a state for only three years. Fourteen years prior pioneering automobile manufacturer Alexander Winton had attempted a coast to coast drive. He made it from San Francisco to the deserts of Nevada on the western slope of the Sierra’s. The utter lack of roads was the reason given for the aborted adventure.
The first transcontinental trip by automobile was completed in 1903. But it took Dr. Horatio Jackson 63 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes to make this historic drive.
Incredibly just five years later a New York to Paris automobile race was staged. Even more amazing, some of the drivers managed to actually finish the race. This was in spite of obstacles such as being stranded in the Gobi Desert while awaiting the delivery of gasoline by camel, and having to seek a blacksmith in Siberia to make a gear.
I have long been intrigued by the years between 1890 and 1930. Aside from the previous thirty years, that was probably the most dramatic period of transition the world has ever known.
Buffalo Bill Cody at the tiller of a 1903 Michigan. Photo Jim Hinckley collection.
Buffalo Bill Cody purchased a Michigan, an automobile manufactured in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1903. He was a pioneer in the good roads movement. A few years later he was a board member on the National Old Trails Road Association. Geronimo, the legendary Apache warrior, was photographed behind the wheel of a Cadillac. A car named for him was being manufactured in Enid, Oklahoma.
By 1919 more people owned an automobile in the United States than had indoor plumbing. Studebaker, a legendary company had been a leading producer of horse drawn vehicles, was still building wagons unto 1920. And yet, in 1913 they were the third largest manufacturer of automobiles in the country. Stagecoaches were operating in Mohave County, Arizona until 1916, one year after Edsel Ford’s adventure.
The word motel didn’t exist in 1918. And ten years later motels, auto courts and similar lodging options were sprouting up along the highways faster than sunflowers in Kansas.
I recently developed a presentation entitled Era of Innovation. With great pleasure I can say that its debut was well received by a very august audience of professions.
So it is time to take it on the road. First, a pay per view on Zoom and Eventbrite. Next, I am offering it to organizers of events. Interested? Drop me a note for more details.
“Suddenly, a light shined down from the heavens when a very unassuming old man approached me and asked what year the car was and where we were from. We talked and I told him our story and our current situation. It was then that he introduced himself as Jim, the owner of the Four Winds Motel. Jim told me that he loved the car and the journey we were on; so much that he offered me the keys to his pickup so I could drive to get the part I needed. I was astonished and incredibly thankful.” This is a Facebook post from Stuart Krueger who is currently making a cross country trip, sometimes on badly rutted dirt roads, in a stock Model A Ford.
Unless you have been living under a rock the past year or so, you are most likely aware that politicians in general have honed the divisive skills that are their stock in trade to a fine art. Everything has become a crisis that requires immediate action. And only one party has the solution. America is doomed unless we acknowledge that the opposing party, and anyone who votes for members of that party, are a threat to our very existence.
Mr. Krueger’s post this morning was refreshing. And it again confirmed several beliefs. One. Not everyone is out to get us. Two. Slowing the pace, living life and savoring the adventure of the road trip is the best way to reinvigorate optimism and quicken the spirit. And most importantly, to it illustrated the importance of avoiding immersion in an endless stream of news stories, especially from sources that masquerade as journalists, if we are to enjoy life.
And the very best way to slow the pace and rediscover the simple pleasure of the Great American road trip is to drive a vintage car. Not a hot rod but an honest to God vintage vehicle. A time machine with its limitations and mechanical shortcomings that force the driver to learn the skills needed in 1970, 1960 or even 1930.
In 1930 a potential customer had a staggering array of options when it came time to buy a new car or truck. There was a car for every budget and every need. If money was not a consideration, and there was no fear of appearing ostentatious there the mighty SJ Duesenberg that could set the buyer back ten or twenty thousand dollars. At the other end of the spectrum was the lowly but stylish Ford Model A with a price tag in the $500 range. In between were vehicles built by Studebaker, Chevrolet, Nash, Hudson, Lincoln, Buick, Pierce Arrow, Chrysler, De Soto, Plymouth, Dodge, and other companies.
Most of the cars had more advanced features than the Ford that lacked a fuel pump, hydraulic brakes and other components that were increasingly being accepted as industry standards. Few, however, were designed to be maintained and repaired by the average person, even if they lacked mechanical aptitude.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Survivors from all of these automobile manufacturers survive. Well preserved or restored examples can be purchased for $15,000 or less. And their owners often drive these cars albeit on a limited basis. Most, however, choose to trailer the vehicles to an event and then drive a bit with fellow enthusiasts.
Model A owners are different. They know the limitations of the cars and they know how to keep them on the road. They are an extended family always willing to lend a hand. And they drive their cars. I mean they really drive their cars.
Last year a young fellow that goes by the name of Tebo Barnes on Facebook, set out on an adventure from New Hampshire. In his three week odyssey in a ’29 Ford, he drove to Chicago, followed Route 66 to the California coast, up the coast and back home via South Dakota. As I type these words several members of the Model A Ford Club are preparing to drive their cars home from a Model A event in New Hampshire.
Another long held belief is that if we are out of style, and we are patient, with the passing of time we will be in style. I am still waiting. But there are glimmers that my time is coming, and soon.
Several years ago I began noticing a trend. Increasingly there were posts on the Model A Club of America Facebook page from younger folk (at my age anyone under 50 years of age is a youngster). People were posting questions about everything from how to change the oil to overheating issues.
These were from first time owners. Some were as young as 16. Most often the questions were answered with patience, another indication that Model A Ford owners are an extended family. But I noticed another trend.
Young people were driving these cars. They were learning to repair these cars. They were simplifying life. They were having adventures. They were discovering that life is to be lived and to live life to its fullest we must step from our comfort zone, be willing to be challenged, and be open to meeting fascinating strangers.
Well, I was recently told that I drive a vintage vehicle as our old Jeep is now 23 years old. But until quite recently I simply drive old vehicles because even with my limited mechanical skills they could be kept on the road. When my wife and I were courting my daily driver was a battered ’46 GMC, and we double dated in a ’26 Ford. In the first 20 years of marriage, the pick up truck that I drove daily was often 20, 40, and even 50 years old.
But I was always intrigued by the Model A. I never owned one. Well, I think it is time to address that shortcoming. A plan is afoot to acquire a Model A, and to drive it home to Arizona from wherever it is found. Hopefully along Route 66. And that leads me to a hypothetical question.
If I step off the pier and actually do this, who would like to join a convoy along Route 66 to Kingman, Arizona? Obviously I would like to see a parade of Model A’s as surely some of them would have more knowledge about repairs than I do. But I am thinking anything with wheels. Thoughts?
As best I can recall it was the summer of ’65. It was a sweltering day, a muggy miserable day. The Kudzu vines that were overtaking the lopsided old barn seemed to make the heat even more oppressive.
Every summer when we visited the old farm up on Sand Mountain between Dutton and Pisgah, I would spend hours exploring that ancient barn. I would climb on the decrepit buggy and farm wagon, and poke around the loft among the old harnesses and broken tools. Sometime I would sit high up in that loft, stare out across the dusty Alabama fields towards the woods, eat watermelon and daydream.
On this particular day I had been tagging along behind my Uncle Burton. I helped slop the hogs and gather eggs. Then we had driven out to the Pisgah Creek mill for a can of fresh sorghum. It was late afternoon. We were in the barn, and being just a kid, was more interested in swinging on a rope tied to the rafters than paying attention to Uncle Burton who was cussing over a battered old Fordson tractor.
I don’t remember how it all came about. But I sure remember the jolt. He was trying to get the tractor to fire. I was sitting on that old iron tire. Entranced by a dancing spark I grabbed a wire. Curiosity and lesson learned.
Pa always told me that a smart man learns from his mistakes. A genius learns from the mistakes made by others. I have learned a lot from mistakes made. I attribute that to curiosity.
My passion for history is rooted in a desire to learn lessons from the mistakes made by others. Over the years I have come to see that history is also a wellspring of inspiration.
I have very fond memories of my time on the farm on Sand Mountain, and on family farms near Monteagle, Tennessee and Mentone, Alabama. But the 1960s were a time of transition in the south, and for a curious kid there were lots of questions. Few had answers, or at least easy answers. And I still puzzle over some of those questions today.
My grandmother in Michigan had a picture on the mantle of my grandfather on the front porch with Henry Ford. At Aunt Violet’s house the wall over the mantle was dominated by large pictures of General Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in ornate antique frames.
My grandmother in Michigan provided few answers to my probing questions. It was the quest for answers that led me to the kick off of my writing career. My family on Sand Mountain was just as vague. The stock answer for questions asked about the ancient pictures of two stern looking generals was almost always framed by a simple response. They were heroes of the “War of Northern Aggression.”
It was an odd time to be a kid that read lots of books and that had an insatiable curiosity. Why did Uncle Burton get so made at me for drinking out of the “wrong” drinking fountain on the courthouse square in Scottsboro? Why was there a shrine at Stone Mountain but not at the site of the Fort Pillow massacre?
Lots of things have changed since the mid 1960s. But sometimes the more things change, the more they remain the same. I am still possessed of an insatiable curiosity. I am still looking for answers. I am still looking for answers to questions posed a half century ago.
Heat should be expected in Arizona during the months of summer but this afternoon temperatures are set to soar to new records. Not that it is needed but this provides added incentive for a sunrise walkabout.
Counted among my many blessings is the fact that Kingman, Arizona has been my adopted home town since 1966. Within spitting distance of Route 66 and the historic business district is a wonderland of deeply shadowed canyons, awe inspiring vistas, desert oasis, historic sites and territorial era roads.
In recent years there has been a concerted effort to professionally develop a series of trails for hiking or mountain biking in the hills surrounding the city. The Cerbat Foothills Recreation Area and White Cliffs Wagon Road district will soon be linked through trail expansion initiatives. This trail system is one of many treasures that are hiding in plain site.
On this mornings walkabout I decided to follow a deer trail to the summit of the mesa and then an old road to the newly completed Upper Trail. My passion for this wild land is renewed daily.
Stunning views, wildlife, deep canyons, a soaring hawk, and dusty trails that were once arteries of commerce. With each step you feel the spirit being renewed. With each twist of the trail you can feel the mind being cleared of worries, of deadlines, and of never ending stories of divisive politics.
You can feel the inspiration and the ideas flood the mind on the morning walkabout. There is a sense of renewal. As I recall this was how John Adams described the importance of the long morning walk.
I was an odd kid, and still am. For about as long as I can remember there has been a fascination with cemeteries. I used to take my books to the local cemetery, find a shady spot, and while away an afternoon reading. It made me happier than fleas on a puppy.
Ma always said that I was born ninety and never seemed to age. My fascination with cemeteries were but one of the reasons she felt this way.
There are a lot of lessons to be learned in a cemetery. Life is short, some lives are shorter than others. Death is simply part of life. Death is not to be feared as it keeps us focused on what makes life worth living; family, friends, adventures, shared adventures, laughter with friends, making memories and working daily to make our corner of the world a bit better than it was when we got here.
Chris LeDoux in his song The Ride had some real words of wisdom. He said “Sit tall in the saddle, Hold your head up high
Keep your eyes fixed where the trail meets the sky
And live like you ain’t afraid to die
And don’t be scared, just enjoy your ride”
Perhaps one of the most important lessons to be learned from a cemetery walkabout is to keep the ego in check. Praise and adulation are short lived.
Case in point, George Grantham. On a recent morning walkabout through Mountain View Cemetery in Kingman, Arizona, I came across the grave marker for George Grantham.
Grantham was born in Galena, Kansas in 1900. He went to school in Kingman and Flagstaff, Arizona. George Farley “Boots” Grantham was also a Major League second baseman who played for the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, and New York Giants between 1922 and 1934. He played in the 1927 World Series. He died in 1954. His final resting place has a simple marker. George Grantham 1900-1954. Nothing more. And yet there was a time when every baseball fan in America knew his name.
Over the years I have had a few brushes with fame. An interview with Jay Leno in his world famous garage. Twenty books published. Well attended presentations with media coverage in a half dozen countries. Recipient of the bronze medal at the International Automotive Media Awards for The Big Book of Car Culture. Appointment to a couple of prestigious committees.
And I have had some low points. Some were my fault. Some were simply bad luck. Others were just simply a part of life. But those are stories best saved for another day.
Aside from cemeteries I developed a passion for early morning walkabouts decades ago. With few exceptions, summer or winter, in Germany, Arizona or Minnesota, at least three or four days a week, I savor a morning walkabout.
This is the best way I know to clear the head. It is also the best way that I know for starting the day with eager anticipation.
For the past few weeks there has been much to meditate upon. Working with Kingman Main Street, if the fund raising initiative is successful, I will be developing the long dreamed of historic district walking tour.
It will be a multifaceted project that blends the old and new. There will be kiosks with historic photo and caption, credit given to the sponsor and a QR code that allows for narration which expands on the caption. The corresponding website will have a then and now photo, a 360 degree photo and the audio of the narration. The website will allow for a virtual tour of Kingman.
I am so excited about this project. It is the second part of the initiative that I am struggling with. I am to be honored with a life sized bronze statue created by internationally acclaimed artist J. Anne Butler. The statue will stand in a pocket park at the historic depot. The park will contain a brick garden commemorating those who contributed to funding the project. It will also contain the initial Route 66 Walk of Fame that was launched in 2014, and shelved shortly afterwards. The walk of fame will also be given a new lease on life with regular additions.
I harbor no illusions. Fame is fleeting. It has never been something that I pursued. I am honored. I am humbled. And I am a tad bit uncomfortable.
The tentative date for completion of phase one of the tour, and the unveiling, is toward the end of next May at the kick off of the national road trip festivities. The way time flies, that isn’t very long.
Meanwhile I have another book to finish. And I have a visitor guide to develop for the City of Tucumcari as well as two articles to pen for Route. There are also a few presentations and a need to have the outlines for the community education programs I teach at Mohave Community College completed.
And, perhaps, there will be a road trip between then and now as well as visits with friends. Definitely lots to meditate upon during the morning walkabouts.
Then there is a little matter of dusting off a dream. Perhaps this is the year that I see Route 66 through the windshield of a Model A Ford, or a Studebaker Dictator. Perhaps this is the year that I emulate Edsel Ford, and see America in a whole new light.