Charles Nash, born in 1864, was an abandoned child that became a ward of the court. He ran away from an abusive situation at age 12, got a job on a farm, and in the years that followed learned carpentry skills, clerked in a grocery store and worked stuffing cushions for a wagon company. And he read books. In 1895 he was employed as the manager of the Durant Dort Carriage Company. Fifteen years later he was in charge of Buick, and in 1912 was president of General Motors. In 1916 he launched the Nash Motors Company and became one of the leading manufacturers of automobiles in the United States.
Henry Martyn Leland was born in 1843 and apprenticed under Samuel Colt, the firearms manufacturer, to learn precision tooling. He developed a hair clipper that revolutionized the barbershop. In 1894 he launched the first precision machine shop in Detroit specializing in gear manufacturing. Two years later Leland developed a line of gasoline and steam engines for use in streetcars as well as boats. In 1901 he developed an innovative engine for Ransom E Olds. Resultant of a factory fire that prevented Olds from the envisioned expansion, Leland took his engine to the men behind the Henry Ford Company. And that led to reorganization and the launch of a new company – Cadillac. In 1917 Leland organized a new company to produce aircraft engines under the Lincoln name. This company would become a leading manufacture of luxury automobiles.
There are lessons to be learned in history. Consider these two me as a case study. Nash overcame debilitating poverty and hardship, and never forgot. When new equipment was installed at Nash, he donned overalls and worked on the factory floor to learn its operation side by side with employees. During the depths of the Great Depression he had coal and apples delivered to laid off employees. And he survived and thrived during the economic collapse of the 1890s and the post WWI recession, and a world wide pandemic.
Leland may not have endured poverty but he was well acquainted with business disasters. After spending years working to develop Cadillac he was roughly shown the door. At an age when when most people have been enjoying retirement for nearly a decade, he launched a new company, and lost control of a company. He too survived economic downturn, and a couple of pandemics.
So, what lessons can be learned. Tenacity, perseverance and knowledge are key to surviving crisis, economic or natural. You are never old to learn. Linked with that, when you quit learning the world will pass you by. Flexibility is needed to survive changing times.
So, don’t be so quick to accept and regurgitate what you hear. Learn from history. You might just discover that when ever you are alive it is the best of times, and the worst of times. You might just find that politicians are playing you for a sucker. You might just find opportunity in a time of crises.
This past Friday morning before the Adventurers Club Live program from Victoria’s Sugar Shack in Kingman, Arizona, Andy Sansom, archivist at the Mohave Museum of History & Arts surprised me with a gift, the temporary loan of four large external hard drives. I now need to find time to peruse more than a century of scanned newspapers from the Kingman area and other intriguing historic tidbits.
Contrary to what most of us learned in high school, history is not boring. Nor is it dead or irrelevant. History is what provides balance and perspective. Without the context of history how can you judge if this is the worst of times, or the best of times? How can you passionately claim that this president is the best, or worst, without a comparative study? Are you better off today than say people who lived in 1958? Are we as a nation addressing prejudice in a manner that is better or worse than our predecessors in 1970, 1950, or 1930? Is the political divisiveness worse today than it was in the election of 1800?
Looking at history with nothing more than the perspective of personal experience leads to a distorted view of the world. A perspective based solely on attendance of car shows would lead a person to think that the 1957 Chevy had been a popular car when new. Surprise! In 1957, Ford sold 1,676,448 vehicles. Chevrolet only sold 1,507,904 cars. Ford had an all new body style to offer while Chevy was trying to sell a face lifted model that had debuted in 1955. The popularity of the ’57 Chevy today is rooted in the fact that it was a popular used car for high school students and young adults in 1958, 1959, and 1960. Here is another shocker for you, during the economic years of 1957 and 1958, only American Motors was able to increase sales. Did you know that the Rambler Rebel was one of the fastest cars off the show room floor in 1957?
Route 66, like Elvis Presley, the ’57 Chevy, and Woodstock has morphed into a larger than life icon, a romanticized version of a perception. The old double six has become America’s longest theme park, a neon lit wonderland where the traveler can experience the best of the 1950’s. Only in a few rare instances will you find vestiges or reference to Route 66 as it was when it was promoted as The Main Street of America; a road where many travelers relied upon the Negro Motorist Green Book to ensure a safe trip, a highway where horrendous accidents gave it a reputation as “bloody 66,” and a road that people drove at night to avoid the scorching heat of the desert.
Old newspaper articles are snapshots, sepia toned images form a lost world. The world was a much different place in 1990, or 1900, and historians will look back on 2019 with a similar perspective. Thank you, Andy. I look forward to peeling back the calendar pages visiting the past. To plagiarize a bit of classic literature, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I suppose that that sums up life in general regardless of the year or where you live. That is but one of many lessons we can learn from history.