Chattanooga and the Tow Truck Museum and Hall of Fame (Originally Published 12/31/2005)
Notes From A Shunpiker’s Journal
By Steve Purdy
TheAutoChannel Detroit Bureau
On a sweeping bend of the Tennessee River, near the southern-most reaches of the Smoky Mountains, at the confluence of Interstates 75 and 24, just a few miles north of the Tennessee/Georgia border sits the lovely and welcoming town of Chattanooga. Famous for the historic Choo-Choo, the spectacular tram up Lookout Mountain, the largest fresh water aquarium in the US, Ruby Falls, many magnificent gardens, and for being the historic home of the decadent Moon Pie, Chattanooga is also home to the only museum in the world dedicated to the common tow truck.
The Moon Pie, for the uninformed reader, is a glom of white marshmallow squashed between two cardboard-like graham crackers, all covered with a thin waxy chocolate.
My pretty blonde, my accomplice, Joe, and I swung through Chattanooga on our way to the Carolina coast recently while road testing a new Mitsubishi Outlander (look for road test article elsewhere on TheAutoChannel). We wanted to see what the museum is all about and to explore Chattanooga just a bit, since we had recently seen this city of over 150,000 folks listed as one of the best places to live and visit.
We arrived well after dark having enjoyed an easy cruise of 9½-hours from Michigan straight down I-75. As we took the I-24 connector toward downtown we could see we were surrounded by high ridges, or perhaps small mountains, with lights sparkling all the way up - some homes with spectacular views, I’ll bet.
The gracious folks at the Marriott put us up for the night and the friendly young ladies at the desk gave us some recommendations for a dinner spot. We unloaded our Outlander, freshened up a bit and headed out to see what downtown Chattanooga had to offer. We were amazed at the fresh, clean and busy downtown area, rife with restaurants and entertainment. Our first stop was at a rock and roll bar/restaurant with a steep cover charge, but it appeared a bit too crowded and noisy for us weary travelers. Around the corner the huge new aquarium was lit up for the holidays, and after checking out a few other small restaurants we settled on the Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakery - a good choice it turned out.
The Mellow Mushroom is situated in what appears to have been a warehouse or industrial building of some sort with exposed brick and original wood details. The building, we found out through brilliant research, was originally the first Coca Cola bottling plant and distribution center in the area. The pizza was exceptionally creative, fresh and fun, but more importantly it was happy hour featuring $2 drafts with 42 varieties of draft beers and ales from which to choose. An after-dinner drive around town revealed some great old architecture and an apparently vibrant downtown.
Before bed we indulged in a little Moon Pie provided by our gracious hosts at the Visitor’s Bureau. I used to eat Moon Pies as a kid and while I thought it was a passable sweet treat for the end of the evening my pretty blonde thought it was atrocious and literally spit hers out. Perhaps it is an acquired taste.
But, what about the tow truck museum, you ask?
Oh, yah, I’m getting to that.
It was bright and brisk the next morning as we made our way just a few blocks south of downtown along Broad Street. On the right we spotted a one-story building with a bright white, late-50s Chevy tow truck in front. That must be it. Across the front of the building was lettered, “The International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum.” Sounds like there’s more to it than just tow trucks.
Inside we connected with the director of the place, Cheryl Mish, who first showed us around the library and then gave us a guided tour of the museum while providing the history and focus of the collection and the facility.
Frank “Pops” Thomas the curator and resident PR character is not in this day so the duty fell to congenial Cheryl to give us the story and she did an admirable job. She emphasized how the collection of trucks is only a part of the focus and perhaps not the most important part. Rather, it’s the people associated with the trucks who bring them to life with their stories. “If these trucks could talk, what stories they could tell,” mused Ms. Mish while chatting with my pretty blonde.
Established by the a long time tow truck operator and business man, John “The Old Hawk” Hawkins II and a bunch of his pals known as “Friends of Towing” in 1984 the museum and Hall of Fame now occupies a 16,000 square foot building filled nearly to overflowing with interesting stuff. Mr. Hawkins philosophy is brashly posted on a plaque in his honor and is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail.”
Inside are 16 tow trucks, two Model T Fords, a whole wall of toy tow trucks, interesting pieces of equipment and memorabilia used by tow truckers and displays depicting the history of the trade and profession.
Most popular among the trucks are the “Bubble Nose” GMC from the early 50s, the miniature Japanese rig (the only truck kids are allowed to sit in), the beautiful cream-colored converted 1929 Packard 640 Limousine with 3-ton Manley Crane and the 1913 Locomobile, oldest in the collection.
Don’t miss the 1974 Ford with the first Vulcan “Cradle Snatcher” or the 1926 Ford TT with Manley Crane. Each truck has a story and the museum folks have annotated them well so a leisurely browse around the place reveals story after story.
Between the museum area and the gift shop is the Wall of Fame where headshots and biographies document the hundreds of inductees into the Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame. Nominated mostly by museum members these inductees have distinguished themselves in the profession and they come from all over the world. One caught my eye not only because he is from Michigan but because he is from the little town where I worked for nearly 30 years - a fellow in fact, who towed my cars on a half dozen occasions.
A good share of the support for this fascinating facility comes from a gentleman by the name of Bill Miller. Mr. Miller, who was already a successful businessman, bought up some of the companies that design and manufacture tow truck equipment about the time many were going into receivership about 15 years ago. He has brought these enterprises back to life and profitability. Miller Industries is now the premier maker of such equipment in the world. Mr. Miller is not one to seek the spotlight but a couple of the projects he has instigated in addition to the museum need to be explained, as well.
The Miller Family Foundation is funding a memorial that will be finished in 2006, reminiscent of the Viet Nam War Memorial, designed as a “Wall of the Fallen” with the engraved names of tow truck operators who have died in the line of duty. “I am proud to be part of the towing and recovery industry . . . and I believe the establishment of this memorial is an important step in gaining the public recognition and respect the towing and recovery profession so deserves,” he said.
Miller, along with state tow truck associations and a few others, are behind a legislative push to recognize tow truckers as “first responders” for purposes the Department of Homeland Security. He notes that, per capita, as many towing and recovery operators die in the line of duty as do police and firemen. And, of course, they are often first on the scene of emergencies.
It certainly is about the people as much as the neat old trucks and equipment. But isn’t that the way with most of our old car fascinations? What would the Model ‘T’ be without the stories of eccentric Henry Ford, or the flash and pizzazz of GM in the 50s without stories about Harley Earl?
There is much more to see and do both at the museum and the whole area so we’re planning a return trip in the spring. Chattanooga and the Tow Truck Museum certainly deserve a leisurely visit, and not just for old car and truck nuts. We hope you’ll visit both.
But you might want to pass on the Moon Pies.
© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions