I’ve found a small niche on the Dave Nemo satellite radio show. I guess they liked my contribution to the Do We Need a New Trucking Hero segment. The producer wants to include some Canadian historical content and I’ve got at least 20,000 words of text that I gathered while I was researching Highway Workplace: the Canadian Truckers Story for the Virtual Museum of Canada (check out www.virtualmuseum.ca/Exhibitions/Highway. The exhibit has been running since 2004, and although some of the economic and census figures may have changed a little, the historical and cultural facts are still accurate. The exhibition was originally meant to travel across Canada housed in a tractor trailer but for various reasons (some which I’ll sound off about in the near future) was never built. What a unique opportunity to reach the Canadian public directly by going right to their communities, schools, fairs, malls and communicate with people on their own turf. Every time I hear someone griping about the poor public image that the trucking community projects, I’m left scratching my head as to why this travelling exhibit was overlooked as a public relations vehicle. The carriers could have flown their flags, OEMs could have demonstrated their products, and a concept like this could have gone a long way to enhance the industry’s often-sullied image, and even acted as a recruiting tool in remote regions of the country. Part of the problem may be that this exhibit was about the men and the women that work in the industry, not just the founders and movers and shakers, the so-called “stake-holders” who might think that they are the centre of the universe. But without the dedicated men and women to drive these trucks we would have nothing, the founders would have floundered. It’s worth noting some of the people that did support the travelling museum, among them Ross Mackie, Roy Craigen, Teamsters Canada, the CAW, United Steelworkers and Highland Transport, and a number of others who offered their time and resources, not least the OTA who allowed me access to their vast photo archives. And I did manage to collect some terrific material that could be a book someday. I think I’ll run some of the segments from time to time as Canadian trucking history is a vast and compelling subject and we should know something about so we know where we’re going.
While researching the exhibit, I came across Albert Lincoln who was heir to Fruitbelt Trucking of Ste. Catherine’s, Ont. Fruitbelt Trucking was a pioneer in hauling refrigerated produce and was started by Albert’s father Ab Lincoln and his partner who got his first truck, a 1928 Ford tandem, as payment for a dept. The company is long gone but was a major player on the trucking scene for several decades, and among the first to use Fruehauf reefers. The last time I saw Albert was about five years ago when he was running a fleet of straight trucks for an organic foods distribution co-op in Etobicoke, Ont. Here’s what he had to say. The rail strike he is referring to happened in 1950 when 130,000 rail workers from CPR and CNR dropped their tools and struck. The strike only lasted a week as the workers were ordered back to work, but this event is credited by historians as being a turning point for the Canadian trucking industry. Rail had been dominant up to that time and most observers felt Canada would be crippled by this strike. Not so, Canadian truckers picked up the ball and kept the economy moving, proving they could do as good or better than the railways.
“My dad and his partner were in the wholesale potato business. They’d go up to Shelburne and haul potatoes out of there-they’d haul potatoes down to restaurants and market in Ste. Catherine’s. They’d use the truck for haulage, to pick up a load of cement for the Queen Elizabeth (they were just building it then), or shit, manure, was a big item. You’d go and shovel a load on and hope your truck was dry by the next morning. From that came produce, fruits and vegetables. The grape season was a big deal. They couldn’t get enough trucks and they’d hire them from everywhere.
I started driving in 1951 before I had a licence. Did you work! 16 to 18 hours a day. It was 1956 and I got $55 a week, and 25 cents an hour road expenses. This was the first truck I drove with a licence was a 1949 International with vacuum brakes. I’d driven lots of trucks before that, though.
You had to buy a defroster fan. And they had them pretty early. You’d just wired them into a switch because there weren’t any cigarette lighters. You needed a long stick or something to keep the snow off your wipers because you had vacuum windshield wipers. As soon as you put the pedal down to get some power, they’d just shut off. When you wanted to stop you prepared yourself. I drove that 49 International for quite a while. I remember a number of times the pedal reach down and the pedal would disappear now and again. So you’d pump it, and I guess you’d pump some vacuum back into the system. And then the brakes weren’t too bad. But when you were going down a steep hill and the thing (pedal) would go hard and your heart would stop. For the longest time drivers would come in and ask if they could have a right hand mirror and they were told no, it’s a luxury.
Things changed pretty fast when they changed. Mack put out a beautiful diesel, unbelievably reliable. The B-61 Mack set a precedent. They were the kings for about 10 years, and then White got into the mix.
I remember the week of the great rail strike. I rounded up all my friends and we worked, I still remember that we worked 126 hours in one week. By the end of it, we were all sleeping against a wall on Carlton Street fruit platform in Ste. Catherine’s. You couldn’t even wake us to drive us home.
There was no such thing as a forklift in those days. The closest thing to mechanical aid was a two-wheeled hand cart. And the LTL guys used, like a 4-wheeled cart. The first time I saw a forklift truck, oh I guess in the mid-50s, I almost cried to see such a wonderful piece of machinery.”
Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.
With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude. All posts by Harry Rudolfs