A history teacher pushes the student to memorize facts and dates. In the process they often instill a life long perception that history is as dead and boring as an insurance seminar about actuary tables. A historian provides relevance. They illustrate how the events of 1920 play a role in the events of 2021.

Did you know that in 1918 and 1919 Americans rebelled against the wearing of face masks during a global pandemic? Did you know that influenza blunted President Wilson’s role in the establishment of the League of Nations? Did you know that as a result, harsh reparations were imposed upon Germany and this provided fertile ground for the rabid nationalism espoused by Adolph Hitler?

Did you know that Studebaker celebrated its centennial in 1952? Did you know that the company founded its automobile manufacturing on the production of an electric car designed by Thomas Edison? Did you know that the Wood’s Dual Power introduced in 1917 was the world’s first production hybrid automobile?

Did you know that the motto “In God We trust”  resulted from an act of Congress passed on April 22, 1864? Did you know that the Pledge of Allegiance was written in August 1892, but ‘under God” was not added until 1954?

A gifted historian is also a teacher and an entrancing storyteller. They are also an artist that masterfully presents history as a seamless flow of interconnected events. This is accomplished by dusting off the bones, adding flesh and bringing history to life.

History teachers are common. Historians are a rarity. A gifted historian, the artist, is a rarity. They are as scarce as a cool breeze in the Mojave Desert during the month of August. Seldom is a generation blessed with more than a gifted historian or two. Ken Burns is an example of the gifted historian.

I am a storyteller. And I am a bit of a historian. As to being gifted, well, that is not for me to decide.

But I do derive tremendous satisfaction from bringing history to life. And I suffer from an incurable obsession to instill a fascination for history. That, my friends is at the foundation of Jim Hinckley’s America.

Telling people where to go. Inspiring road trips. Blending this with living history. Each and everything that I do is built on these pillars.

To date this passion to free people from the perceptions of history instilled in high school has manifested in nineteen books. The topics have been diverse. Ghost Towns of the Southwest. The Big Book of car Culture. Travel Route 66. Checker Cab Manufacturing Company: An Illustrated History. The Route 66 Encyclopedia. 

In 1915, Edsel Ford and his college buddies set out on an epic adventure from Michigan to the Panama Pacific Exposition. Photo Historic Vehicle Association

And it has led me to push beyond my comfort zona and harness new technologies. This is made manifest in the Sunday morning Coffee With Jim program that is live streamed on the Jim Hinckley’s America Facebook page, our YouTube channel, the use of Zoom for presentations, and 5 Minutes With Jim, our audio podcast.

But wait until you see what we have planned for the future! A weekly live interactive audio program. A new video series. New partnerships. And a new book! 


Visionary or Eccentric?

Visionary or Eccentric?

The line between visionary and eccentric is often one that overlaps. Among the many things that make the formative years of the American automobile industry fascinating are manifestations that blur that line.

On the visionary side of that line would be the optional swing away, electrically heated steering wheel available on the 1917 McFarlan. An example of the eccentric side would be the exceedingly odd eight-wheeled Octauto, or six-wheeled Sextoauto, devised by Milton O. Reeves.

Straddling the line would be the automobiles built by Benjamin Briscoe in Jackson, Michigan. The 1914 Briscoe models sported a single Cyclops headlight mounted dead center in the upper radiator shell and featured laminated papier-mâché body panels on wood framing “to ease with repair.” The 1916 models were sold with four cylinder engines and a promotion proclaiming, “Buy the Four. Use it a month. If then you decide you want the Eight, simply pay the difference and a small installation fee.”

Often, what appears as manifestations of eccentricity today was representative of innovative technology during the first decades of the industry.  Promoted as, “The Friction Drive Car” was the 1907 Lambert, a vehicle that capitalized on the patented developments of Byron Carter.

Carter’s Cartercar received rave reviews from the automotive press and was the vehicle heralded as the future with promotion billing that proclaimed, “The car of a thousand speeds!” The companies’ slogan was, “No Clutch to Slip, No Gears to Strip.” Lambert and Cartercar were not the only automobiles to utilize the intriguing system devised by Carter. Other manufacturers included Metz, Petrel, Simplicity, and Sears.

For a very brief moment in time, the friction drive system with its paper fiber transmission rims seemed to represent the future of automotive engineering. Exemplifying this would be the purchase of the Cartercar Company by William Durant, the founder of General Motors, in 1909.

Then there are those innovations that simply defy any semblance of reason, even in the context of the times when built. Case in point; the 1913 Duck, a four-passenger touring car with the drivers’ seat being in the rear of the car!

The speed of technological advancement during this period quickly relegated the visionary developments of one year into a manifestation of eccentric oddity the next. In 1911, compressed air starters were among some of the most innovative options available on luxury automobiles. The McFarlan of 1912 offered an in house designed and built unit as standard equipment. This system was operated by a four cylinder Kellogg pump and a pressurized canister that stored air at 200 pounds of pressure.

In 1912, Cadillac advertisement promoted the new models as, “The Car That Has No Crank.” By 1914, the electric starter introduced by Cadillac two years previously had rendered the automotive compressed air starter system an historical artifact.

Often the innovative features of an automobile became its claim to fame in advertisement and promotion. Here too, the transformation of a company’s image from innovative to quirky happened quickly.

The Premier of 1918 was “The Aluminum Six with Magnetic Gear Shift.” Two years later the company that had manufactured automobiles featuring overhead valves, sliding gear transmissions, and shaft drive in 1904, was in its death throes. The troublesome magnetic gearshift proved to be the companies undoing.

The hill climbing prowess of a Cartercar is put to the test.

On occasion, visionary and innovative thinking leapt ahead of the technological capabilities of the time. The first automotive recall in the United States, and the development of leaded gasoline, stemmed from of an engineering equivalent of getting the horse before the cart.

The air-cooled Chevrolet debacle of 1923 began with experimentation by Charles Kettering, the innovative genius behind the development of the electric starter that appeared on the 1912 Cadillac.  It culminated with a rush to production fueled by a power struggle for control of General Motors.

Perhaps the most intriguing technological innovations from the formative years of the industry are those that were literally decades ahead of practical feasibility. The Woods Dual Power of 1916 was a hybrid featuring many of the engineering principles found on the Prius.

The first automotive endeavors of Studebaker were an electric powered vehicle designed by Thomas Edison. The initial offering by Knox in 1902-featured finned cylinder jugs that facilitated air-cooling, which were uncannily similar to those that appeared on the Volkswagen Type 1.

To be a visionary or eccentric requires independent thinking. From that perspective, during the formative years of the American automobile industry independent thinking reigned supreme.

Well, That Was Interesting

Well, That Was Interesting

Few things in life serve as milestones to mark the passing of time better than a visit to the old homestead of my youth. The house is now empty. Its windows broken and the door is standing wide with sand dunes spread across the floor. The roof on the cavernous garage has collapsed, and the rest of the building isn’t far behind.

What a rush of memories! This past week while filming an episode of Legends of Route 66, a program on the Fast TV Network, about Route 66 in western Arizona a scene was shot at the old homestead.

Pa mustered out of the service in the late spring of 1966. After sailing the Pacific during a stint in the navy during WWII, and years spent on the Great Lakes while serving in the Coast Guard, he was obsessed with living in a drier climate. And so he set his sights on the southwest and was enticed to buy several acres in a planned community west of Kingman, Arizona.

As it turned out the only plan in the planned community was to fleece buyers. The wide paved streets, utilities, shopping center, recreation center, parks and even water department existed only in the colorful brochures. And the land company had no plans to provide any of these amenities. Their priority was to fill the pockets, and high tail it before the law or a lynch mob of angry buyers caught up with them.

I can only imagine pa’s surprise when he gazed upon his acquisition. On our initial search for the property he buried the ’64 Ford Fairlane in soft sand and it took most of the day to get the car back to the main road, Route 66. So, being rather resourceful, he went with plan “B” and rented a house in Kingman. Then at a tax sale he bought the “model home” for the proposed planned community which was located along a section of Route 66 that had been bypassed in 1952.

Filming an episode of the Fast TV network program Legends of Route 66 at the old homestead. Photo Mike Lee

The house was a shell. So, he set to work to make it livable. Suffice to say, as a kid from Michigan that had spent summers on family farms in Alabama and Tennessee my impression was that Kingman was the place warned about in Sunday school. As it turned out I was wrong. Our new house was the place warned about in Sunday school.

We had electricity but no running water, at least in our first few months. Pa soon rigged up an innovative system but it required hauling water from the site of the long abandoned Fig Springs Camp at the bottom of the valley. Not long afterwards, even though I was still years away from being old enough to qualify for a drivers license, one of my chores was to haul water every Saturday morning.

The garage was an interesting project. Pa an I tore down the old Episcopal church on Spring Street, and two houses, one on Maple Street and one on Grandview Avenue. The lumber and other components including sinks, toilets and bathtub were recycled and used in building the homestead.

I helped hand mix the concrete for the garage footing. As it turned out my pa would have saved a lot of trouble if he had hired a surveyor. The footing extended five feet into neighboring property. It remains as mute testimony to pa’s stubbornness and his steadfast refusal to pay anyone for something he felt he could do himself.

Well, we got the footing right and built the garage, the same one that is, one strong wind from falling down. And we finished the interior of the house, sort of. Chances are that circa 1890 it would have been considered luxurious. In 1970 not so much.

We heated with wood. We had concrete floors. For cooling we had fans and wet strips of burlap. And then later a small evaporative cooler in the living room. The unit required the hauling of water twice per week. It kept the living room moderately comfortable, and the rest of the house about 15 degrees cooler than outdoors. That meant during the months of summer it was often 90 degrees in the kitchen or bedroom.

I learned to ride a bicycle on the broken asphalt out front of this house. I learned to drive on that road. My little sister broke her arm climbing on the pile of used building materials. The first time I killed a rattlesnake was on the back porch. My first encounters with scorpions were in my bedroom. The first time I helped my pa bleed the brakes and tune up the ’53 Chevy truck were in that garage. I learned to saddle a horse at the homestead.

Sharing a bit of this story during filming unleashed a flood of memories. Some were good, and some were bad. And some were simple reflections on the passing of time, of age, and of changing times. There were thoughts of my little sister who passed away in the winter of 2010, just ten days after ma. And of course there were thoughts of my pa who passed away last February.

In the blink of an eye almost sixty years of life has zipped past. And that thought alone brought me up short. I now have to squint hard to see sixty in the rear view mirror, and seventy is looming at the top of the hill.



Inspiration, Road Trips & Interesting Discoveries

Inspiration, Road Trips & Interesting Discoveries

On May 2, 1915, 26-year-old Effie Hotchkiss set off from her home in Brooklyn, New York, for the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, with her, quote, “rotund” 52-year-old mother, Avis, in the side car. For two women to drive a car on such an adventure would have been amazing. This was truly astounding.

But it was only part of the story. Effie was obsessed with motorcycles and with speed. She had been ticketed for cruising at 35 mph on Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway. In another incident her speed was estimated to be in excess of 70 mph. Her mother tagged along on the trip to California to keep her daughter from getting in trouble.

Aside from the friends made, and the fascinating people met along the way, the greatest joy derived from developing the various Jim Hinckley’s America programs is the research. I make the most fascinating discoveries. Sometimes they are inspirational. Sometimes they are unsolved mysteries. But they are always interesting.

The intrepid Effie Hotchkiss is one such discovery. I stumbled on her story while preparing for an episode about epic road trips on Coffee With Jim, our live stream program on the Jim Hinckley’s America Facebook page.

There are two primary components that underlie everything we do at Jim Hinckley’s America. Telling people where to go through shared adventures. Adding depth and context that brings history to life. Encouragement comes from comments such as this one from Tammy Garrett-Rutherford. “I honestly could listen to the history you tell all day long!”

As frustrating and maddening as modern technologies are, social media, Zoom, YouTube, Vimeo and the swirl of available options to share adventures are near endless opportunities for bringing history to life. Even though it is my preference to make presentations before an audience, in recent months using Zoom it has been possible to share the Route 66 story, tales of inspiration and stories about the origins of the automotive industry with a diverse audience. In recent months I have made presentations for the Rotary Club of El Paso, a garden club in Spokane, a car club in Europe, and a seniors group in Prescott, Arizona.

Is such a pleasure to share stories about people such as Erwin “Cannonball” Baker. If the name doesn’t sound familiar let me give a bit of a teaser.

Baker was legendary during the first decades of the 20th century.  He was a showman of extraordinary talent. In 1905 he earned his living as a bicycle racer, and in an acrobatic vaudeville act where he beat punching bags with his hands, feet, and head.

in 1906 he purchased an Indian motorcycle and became a stunt rider. Two years later, at a Fourth of July picnic in Crawfordsville, Ind., he entered his first race and won. By 1909, he was a member of the factory Indian motorcycle team and competed at the first motorized competition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Aug. 14, 1909. Then he launched a series of publicity grabbing stunts such as racing passenger locomotives from town to town. George Hendee, co-founder, and president of Indian, staged a South American tour for Baker in 1912. It was a resounding success, as Baker logged 14,000 miles through South America, Jamaica, Cuba, and Panama. In the same year Baker became the first man to cross the United States on a motorcycle. I profiled Baker in a recent story for MotoringNZ, and included a few of his exploits in the Coffee With Jim episode about epic road trips.

Recently I added a new facet to Jim Hinckley’s America, a video project with The Bee. It is in the pilot stage as we seek sponsors but the series of short videos will highlight attractions and the history of Mohave County in Arizona. To date we have completed short videos about Beale Springs, site of territorial era Camp Beale, and the trail system at White Cliffs Wagon Trail. The latest episode is a tour of the historic Bonelli house with a bit of the fascinating history beyond the home and family. It is an exciting new way to tell people where to go, to share adventures, and to provide road trip inspiration.

So, what’s next for Jim Hinckley’s America? Stay tuned. We have some exciting new projects coming down the pike.


The Mine Field

The Mine Field

I was vaguely aware of the horrendous 1917 race riot in East St. Louis, Missouri before commencing with research for the book Murder and Mayhem on the Main Street of Route 66: Tales from Bloody 66But as I studied the incident one question began to dominate my thoughts. How can a tragedy of this magnitude be so obscure?

The answer was relatively simple. History had been censored. It had been expunged from the historic record. It was an ugly truth that did not fit into the acceptable narrative of the era. It was a national embarrassment.

And so it was not included in the text books used by students. As a result, with the passing of years and of the witnesses to the events, it this national tragedy became a forgotten footnote to history.

If in school you had been taught about the heinous atrocities committed during an event know as the Fort Pillow Massacre, would your perception about what the Confederate battle flag represents be different? Would this education have fostered a less romanticized view of the Confederacy?

If you knew that poor Irish immigrants that had died during construction of the railroad had been buried without ceremony in a mass grave in Funks Grove, Illinois, would your views about the settlement of the west be different?

How would your perception of manifest destiny and the settlement of the American west have been altered if you knew of the conflict between the Yavapai and Hualapai, or how the Apache warred against other tribes?

When we censor history because it is uncomfortable, because it is offense to modern sensitivities, we stifle progress. We also deprive future generations of context. Even worse, we become a society that feels honor bound to protect future generations from offense. As a result we become a colorless society. We become a people without comparatives.

The recent uproar over Dr. Seuss books makes for an interesting case study. Some titles in a series of books that have helped generations of children learn to read, and to make memories with parents that read to them, have been deemed offensive. And as a result they are to removed from view. Perhaps they should be burned to ensure that people do not have their sensitivities offended in the future. Obviously I am being facetious.

Yes, some images in the books are racist and insensitive when viewed from modern eyes. But this modern ability to recognize racism or offensive imagery was derived from historic context.

The demand for removal of statues and memorials to heroes of the Confederacy are another example of our increasing hunger to sterilize history. These memorials should never have been erected, but they were. Removing them will not correct the offense. It will, however, deny future generations of needed context.

Would we not be better served if the monuments, the statues were transformed into educational tools that help us better understand why they were erected, who these people were, the decisions that they made, and why they fought to maintain the institution of slavery? Then these memorials would become an instrument of long overdue healing rather than tools for the fostering of divisions. Then they would become milestones that measure our progress as a people.

History must be taught as it was. It must be taught with context. And it must be taught with sensitivity, a respectful awareness that what was once deemed socially acceptable is often now offensive. But how do we know that behavior of the past is offensive? It is because we have context. We owe it to ourselves, and to future generations, to preserve history, no matter how painful.