The National Old Trails Highway at the dawning of Route 66 in Kingman, Arizona
It was mid summer 1966 when we followed the flow of traffic on Route 66 into Kingman, Arizona. Even though I was just a kid, I was no stranger to travel. My folks liked to tease that my toilet training had taken place along the highway and in service station rest rooms in more than a dozen states.
To date all of our road trips and related odysseys had been epic. The first trip west from Virginia into the great southwest had been in a circa 1950 Chevy convertible that pa had been able to purchase cheap since it had been submerged during a hurricane.
Counted among my earliest memories was a memorable trip from Port Huron, Michigan to see ma’s family that lived on a farm Near Dutton on Sand Mountain, Alabama. This would have been the summer of ’63 as my sister was only a few months old.
My pa had cobbled together a vehicle that he dubbed the gypsy wagon. I later learned from old family photos that this home made wooden camper that looked to be a cross between a miniature barn and a two hole outhouse had been built on 1946 or 1947 Ford truck chassis.
A visit to the family farm was always memorable. Still, what made this trip particularly unforgettable were the roadside repairs and resultant campouts along streams in Kentucky and Tennessee. In retrospect that might be where I first picked up a proclivity for being able to string together a series of descriptive four letter words.
The trip to Arizona in the summer of ’66 was unlike anything previously experienced. We were moving, again. But this time the new home seemed as foreign as a lunar colony. It was very hard not to think that Kingman might be the place warned about in Sunday school. With the luxury of hindsight I can see with clarity that it was life changing. The entire course of my life can be traced to that summer.
I had experienced the intense liquid heat of the Mississippi River Delta country. This was different. Yes, it was a dry heat but so is the oven or the furnace. And to compound the misery, in mid August, pa decided that we needed a family picnic – in Needles, California. That was my first trip to Oatman, in a ’64 Ford Fairlane without air-conditioning.
Suffice to say, I survived. And I became enamored with the desert, the colorful characters that pa referenced as dry roasted nuts, and the vast technicolor landscapes of the Grand canyon State.
In time there would be opportunity to expand my explorations throughout the southwest and the west. And I developed a deep affection for the Mojave Desert, for New Mexico, for Utah, for Colorado, for northern Mexico, for Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
But it is Arizona that I consider home. This is where my roots are. I made memories everywhere lived and in all of my travels. But Arizona is really where it all began.
This Sunday morning (7:00 MST), on Coffee With Jim, our live stream program on the Jim Hinckley’s America Facebook page, it’s an Arizona adventure. It will be a bit of road trip inspiration, a mix of history, some personal reflection, and a few laughs. I will be sharing a few of my favorite places, and my favorite drives.
I hope that you will be able to join me. Invite your friends. Let’s make it a coffee party!
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!
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.
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.