A few years ago, my buddy Brian worked out a deal with the land owner next to his hunting property in Hale County, Alabama, to store his old Ford tractors in his barn.
It was a pretty good deal. The landowner, Mr. Bill, was an old soldier who’d been in the Korean War. He didn’t want his wife to know he still drank. So rent for the barn space was an occasional fifth of Early Times whiskey we’d stash on a shelf behind some old toolboxes for him.
(Among his other quirks, Mr. Bill also refused to use indoor plumbing. But that’s another story.)
Anyway… There were a few old tractors Mr. Bill owned in the barn, too, including a 1941 International Farmall that was in pretty rough shape. But the tractor was locally famous because it was known to be the first-ever powered tractor in Hale County. Think about that for a minute. There were parts of the United States so poor and backward that they didn’t even see mechanized farm equipment until the very eve of our involvement in World War II.
When Mr. Bill died, there was a scramble for the old tractor. Several collectors wanted it, and there was some question as to who had the best claim to the old machine.
A bigger problem was getting the old tractor running. It hadn’t moved in years – decades, even. And it turned out there was only one man in all of Hale County who even knew how to work on the thing – an old black man in his 90s, who remembered going in a mule-drawn wagon the 20-plus miles over to Greensboro (that’s “Greenbow” to you “Forrest Gump” fans out there) to see the shining new tractor the day it came in on the railroad.
That’s how America worked before World War II. Everything moved by rail. And if you ordered a big-ticket item like a new International tractor, you often had to drive over to the nearest train depot, find the railroad agent, sign for your property, and then figure out how you were going to get it back to your farm or homestead.
Long-haul trucking changed all that.
After the war ended, a couple of new forces were driving a burgeoning economic boom centered on the working and middle classes that would last for decades to come.
The first trend was that by 1946, Americans were to put the double-punch, 20-year-long hardships of the Great Depression and World War II behind them. The other trend was that the war had pushed the country’s mass-production capabilities to heights that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years earlier.
All of this meant that there were plenty of jobs available, producing plenty of goods that Americans were more than willing to spend money on to enjoy life for a change.
Those market forces, in turn, created a new problem for manufacturers – how to efficiently get the flood of consumer products Americans were suddenly buying at fantastic rates into their hands efficiently.
This was a highly competitive market, after all. There was a mountain of money to be made – particularly for the brands and companies that could establish a national, instead of a regional, brand identity. And with everyone’s manufacturing and marketing capabilities being pretty much equal, it didn’t take an economic genius to see that distribution was going to be the key to establishing dominance in the marketplace.
And so another uniquely American industry was born – long-haul trucking, a new system for moving consumer goods across the country quickly, efficiently, and with the flexibility to reach even remote, podunk little towns like Greensboro, Alabama.
Only the United States had the perfect blend of technology, manufacturing capability, distance and roads to make this new transportation system work. And work it did. Long-haul trucking grew with amazing swiftness, to the point that its importance in moving goods was a primary driver in pushing Congress to approve massive spending for a national Interstate Highway System by 1956.
Trucking doesn’t get near enough credit for the incredible economic boom it helped create and sustain – one that ran from the end of World War II right up until the 1980s.
But other countries have noticed. China, in particular, has taken note of the history of American long-haul trucking and the economic benefits it helped create. The country is working hard to create a 21st-century highway network of its own with the same goals in mind – creating strong working and middle classes that, its leaders hope, will propel it to surpass the United States and become the number-one economic superpower on the planet at some point in this century.
All of which goes to show that trucking is a hugely important factor in our global economic competitiveness and will be so for many, many decades to come.
What you do is important. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.