Monday, May 23, 2016

Back on the Road Again

When some people these days hear the name REO Speedwagon, they think, "oh yeah, I've heard them on the radio a time or two," but they don't realize the origin of the band's name stems from one of the workhorse vehicles of the early Twentieth Century and it has an Owingsville connection.  Ransom E. Olds, founder of the Olds Motor Vehicle Company that later became Oldsmobile, established the REO Motor Car Company in 1905.  Based in Lansing, Michigan, the REO line of vehicles lasted until 1975 and at one time was one of the wealthiest automobile manufacturers of the early 1900's.  Touring cars were largely produced by the REO Company those early days; usually open top convertibles that people used to drive across the dusty country roads on a leisurely afternoon. 
A truck manufacturing division was established in 1910 to help move products across the booming nation.  A light duty truck called the REO Speedwagon hit the production market in 1915 with a state of the art chassis and basic design that became a widely used service vehicle until around 1953.  These trucks were the predecessor of the modern pickup truck and used as hearses, ambulances, delivery, tow, dump and fire trucks.  Prior to World War I, the Speedwagons were a highly successful and durable line of vehicle.  

Fire trucks have been in service for hundreds of years throughout the world.  The earliest trucks were hand drawn pumps that were deployed by men carrying or dragging them to fire scenes.  Cities soon began to sprawl out, demanding the need for more efficient trucks to carry more water and get to fires more quickly.  The first self-propelled fire truck was a steam powered engine built in New York City in 1841; probably the first modern fire truck powered by a combustion engine was manufactured by the Knox Automobile Company in 1905.  The REO Speedwagon fire trucks usually featured what was called the 'Gold Crown' type six cylinder power plants; a heavy duty motor which gave them extra power to pull the weight of the truck with a load of water and other equipment.  The top speed, however, was left to be desired; most of the trucks only managed about 45 miles per hour at best. 
Classic open cab style 
The City of Owingsville sought a new, modern fire truck sometime in the 1930’s.  The earliest known fire truck Owingsville had was an old hand-drawn Howe pumper housed where the Hometown Mortgage office now stands.  Water was drafted from cisterns or wells into the truck via large rubber hoses as men used a lever/piston type mechanism to get water pressure through the cotton fire hoses.  The City Council voted to purchase a reliable fire truck and settled on a 1932 REO Speedwagon vehicle.  Unfortunately, the council meeting minutes from that era have been lost, so the actual date is unknown.  Current Fire Chief John Barry Staton recently sat down with Tom Byron and discussed some of the history of Owingsville’s ‘Old REO’.  In the early 1930’s, Owingsville’s water supply was upgraded with new fire hydrants to better protect the city under the direction of Ernie Downs.  Byron said that Downs was in charge of the water company and held a significant role in the city’s affairs.  He wasn’t sure of Downs was fire chief at the time, but Tom says his uncle, Ed Byron, was the mayor during this time.  “I believe Dinks Jones may have been the Fire Chief when the truck was bought,” said Tom.  “Jones actually went to St. Louis and drove the fire truck all the way back to Owingsville".  This was an interesting feat due to the slow speed of the truck and the fact it was an open top.

The 'Old REO' stayed in service many years and was housed at the old city hall building which is located across from Gray's Funeral Home on Slate Avenue.  During this time, the fire truck was only allowed to respond to fire calls within the city limits; a policy that remained until more recent times.  Tom Byron said that the city bought another fire truck around 1953 or 1954; a Ford that with the Speedwagon, were the two front line trucks for the City of Owingsville. It was mentioned that the REO fire truck was an open topped vehicle, which maintains that vintage, classic look.  The padded wooden seat probably wasn't very luxurious or comfortable for long rides, but it served the purpose.  The truck's hose bed is wooden planks that were stained to protect against the wet cotton hoses that were stored until the next call.  Unlike today's fire trucks that hold 1,000 or more gallons of water, the REO Speedwagon only held maybe fifty gallons of water.  There is a coupling that is fitted onto the driver's side of the truck that hooked to a hose firefighters secured to a fire hydrant which fed water into the tank for larger fires.  In its day, the fire truck was a vibrant red with gold trimmings painted on it and Owingsville F.D. painted in gold on the hood.  A simple 'O.F.D.' was also painted in gold on each side of the truck's body just behind the cab.  Only a couple of people could ride in the open cab, which left the other firefighters to ride on the side boards or tailboard to the fire scene.  One can envision this classic sight of a fire truck roaring down the streets as firemen hung onto the sides.

Eventually, standards in firefighting were streamlined and certain rules were established regarding how much water a fire truck needed to flow to effectively extinguish a large fire, rendering the REO Speedwagon truck obsolete.  The truck went out of service sometime before the fire department reorganized in 1975. Jeff Adkins, who has been a member of the Owingsville Fire Department since 1984, recalls seeing the 'Old REO' sitting at the service station that once stood where Owingsville Fire Department's station is now located.  Around 1982 or 1983, the truck was even decorated as a parade float and pulled through the May Day Parade.  As time went on, the REO Speedwagon was moved to the old water plant that used to be along Slate Avenue, and next door to Tom Byron.  Tom told Chief Staton that he was talking to the late Mayor William Steele and the mayor told Tom, "this old truck needs to go away somewhere soon".  Understanding the historical and local tradition the old truck had, Byron purchased 'Old REO' , saving it from being scrapped.  The truck was moved to a barn Tom owned and there it stayed for twenty-eight years. 

About a month ago, Tom Byron needed help repairing a tractor that was on the farm.  Randy Ferrell, who owns a local repair shop and tow service on East High Street, came to help Tom.  Along with him was Jeff Adkins, who had always knew the truck was somewhere on the property.  With permission, Jeff opened up the door to a barn and before him was "Old REO".  Randy and Jeff negotiated with Tom and was granted permission to haul the vintage fire truck out of the barn to the shop on a journey of restoration.  The truck is in quite remarkable condition; the vibrant red and gold paint has faded and oxidized, the tires have dry rotted and seat cushions are gone, but the truck is just stunning to look at. 
Owingsville's REO Speedwagon fire truck will be restored back to its original state over the course of the next several months.  If you attended the May Day Parade last week, you saw the truck poised upon
Randy Ferrell's roll back truck with Mayor Gary Hunt and Owingsville Fire Department junior member Jacob Purvis atop it.  Randy said that over the past month, several people have stopped to snap pictures or even asked to buy it.  The truck still belongs to Tom Byron, who has the original title dated 1932, and there are no immediate plans to sell it anytime soon. There are only 7,000 original miles on the REO Speedwagon, most of which were tacked on when the maiden trip from St. Louis to Owingsville was made. One piece of equipment that isn't on the truck is the old bell, which was donated to the Bath County Memorial Library in honor of Mayor Robert Gilmore, but an old pike pole and section of hose is still there.  The spotlight and red beacon light is still on the truck and appear to be in great condition.  Randy said the power plant six cylinder motor is in remarkable shape, and has been pulled out to be restored along with the rest of the truck.  As months go by, it will be interesting to see the restoration progress of this vintage gem of a truck; a true visual relic of Owingsville's history.

Hand crank type windshield wiper

Add caption

Faint Owingsville FD on the hood

Friday, May 6, 2016

Thomas Deye Owings, Military and Civic Leader

Colonel Thomas Deye Owings, 28th US Infantry
The War of 1812 is regarded as America’s Second Revolution.  The British Government had restricted trade during their war with France and had captured several thousand American merchant sailors and hundreds of ships loaded with goods.  They also opposed the annexation of America into the remaining British held territories of the Northwest, which is now the upper Midwest near the Canadian border.  In return, the United States opposed British support of the Native American tribes who fought the pioneers expanding westward past Kentucky.  In June 1807, the British ship Leopard engaged the USS Chesapeake, a frigate with deserters from the Royal Navy, at Norfolk, Virginia.  While on blockade patrol, Salusbury Humphreys, captain of the Leopard, ordered the Chesapeake to submit to a search.  Captain James Barron refused the order from the British naval officer, prompting the Leopard to fire on the American frigate.  The crew of the Chesapeake only managed to fire a single shot before being nearly decimated by the furious cannon fire.  Three of the Chesapeake’s crew had been killed with 18 wounded, including Captain Barron.  Realizing the gravity of the situation, Barron lowered his flag, signaling surrender.  Humphreys ordered the Chesapeake to be boarded regardless of the surrender, and four men were taken off the stricken ship, three of which were American sailors who had previously served on British ships.  This act sent shockwaves across the Untied States and a cry for retaliation was sounded.  President Thomas Jefferson responded with the Embargo Act of 1807; choosing to treat the issue diplomatically rather than with force.  This incident, known as the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, helped spark the declaration of war five years later.

During this time, Kentucky was the known as the far western territory. The Mississippi River was the westernmost point in the United States, with territories in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan being mainly frontier occupied by natives.  American expansion into these territories and into Canada was hindered by native tribes who were supplied by the British.  Kentucky was a young state of only twenty years at the time war was declared in June, 1812.  A vast majority of those who would fight against the British and Natives came from Kentucky, including Owingsville’s namesake, Thomas Deye Owings.  Owings was the owner of the Bourbon Ironworks and successful businessman, securing a government contract in 1807 to supply the newly formed US Navy with cannon balls, grapeshot and canisters.  The war material was taken by oxcarts to a shipping point in Maysville, then loaded onto boats and floated down the Ohio River to the Mississippi to New Orleans.  When the War of 1812 broke out, Owings raised a regiment of 377 soldiers; mostly soldiers from Bath and surrounding counties.  On April 3, 1813, Owings was commissioned as a colonel of the 28th US Infantry and attached to General Isaac Shelby, who, consequently, was Kentucky’s first governor and Revolutionary War veteran.  Shelby was again governor at the outbreak of the war, and was asked to supply troops to support the Northwest campaigns.  He was personally asked by future president General William Henry Harrison to join the fight and lead more volunteers in June, 1813, raising a force of 3,500 soldiers to fight the British and Native Americans.  Thomas Deye Owings’ regiment, under General Shelby’s force, was part of the recapture of Detroit in September 1813 and in October, participated in a significant battle that would help change the course of the war.

Shawnee Chief Tecumseh led a Native American tribal confederacy and was allied with the British Army commanded by Major General Henry Procter during the war.  Tecumseh opposed the treaties between the Federal government and the native nations, and wanted to reclaim the territories as their own.  With the coalition of the British, the confederacy was well equipped to match the Americans and had gained significant victories early in the conflict; notably the capture of Fort Detroit and control of Lake Erie.  A fierce naval battle on September 10, 1813 resulted in the British losing Lake Erie and cutting vital supply routes the British needed to sustain Detroit and other occupied territories.  Colonel Owings and 28 others from the 28th Infantry joined Commodore Oliver Perry’s fleet as sharpshooters hidden in the rigging of the frigates during this crucial battle.  Immediately after this battle, General Procter began a retreat to a position near Lake Ontario at Burlington Heights; an act that would threaten to leave the native confederacy to fend for themselves.  Tecumseh objected to the retreat and argued to stay and fight the Americans, but relented and joined General Procter. 

General William Henry Harrison, with a force of around 3,500 infantry and cavalry which included a detachment of the 28th Infantry including Colonel Owings, pursued the fleeing British a few days after the Battle of Lake Erie.  The army captured several abandoned boats and encountered several stragglers that were taken prisoner along the way.  The British army consisted of around 800 troops from the 41st Regiment; Tecumseh’s warriors numbered around 500, both greatly outnumbered and outgunned.  The armies would finally meet along the Thames River near Moraviantown in present day Ontario.  Around daybreak, October 5, 1813, General Procter formed a battle line in an attempt to surprise and trap the American army.  Tecumseh positioned his warriors along a swampy area to the right of the British position to try to flank Harrison’s troops.  Unfortunately, Procter failed to fortify his position and left the field of battle unbroken.  James Johnson was ordered to make a frontal attack with his mounted Kentucky riflemen, breaking through the line under a hail of bullets from Tecumseh’s warriors.  The British were overrun; General Procter and 250 men retreated while the rest surrendered.  Tecumseh and his warriors stayed to fight, inflicting flanking fire into the Americans.  A charge led by Colonel Richard Johnson into the natives’ position was quickly stopped by intense firing, with fifteen of Johnson’s soldiers killed or injured; Johnson was reportedly hit five times.  The main force became bogged down in the swampy marsh during the fight, and at some point, a bullet fatally struck the great Shawnee Chief.  American reinforcements began to assist Colonel Johnson’s troops, and soon the native’s flank began to fail.  The warriors became disheartened after Tecumseh’s death and began a hasty retreat from the battlefield.  This victory was a crushing blow to the British and natives; securing the Northwestern front and Detroit in favor of the Americans.

After the war, Thomas Deye Owings returned to Owingsville, and welcomed as a war hero.  Word of his bravery and indirect assistance in the killing of Tecumseh fueled that sentiment among those around the already successful man.  He elected into the Kentucky House of Representatives from 1815 until 1818, and as State Senator in 1825.  In 1835, Texas sought to gain independence from Mexico, and Colonel Owings pledged 1,500 troops to support the Texas Revolution.  His own son, Robert Smith Owings, joined Captain Burr Duvall's army based in Bardstown and was sent to New Orleans to await orders to march into Texas.  From letters sent to various parties during this time, it seems Colonel Owings was financing the recruitment and munitions for the Kentucky army's Texas campaign.  On March 27, 1836, the Goliad Massacre took place when over 400 US prisoners of war were killed by the Mexican Army, including 75 Kentuckians an Owings' son.  In April, Colonel Owings and a regiment of troops numbering around 1,500 left Maysville on a steamer bound for New Orleans.  From there, the regiment planned to move into Texas, but the Texans' victory at San Jacinto ended the fighting before Colonel Owings' regiment could see battle. 

Thomas Owings was awarded land grants in Texas and settled in Brenham for the last sixteen years of his life.  He was prosperous as a land owner and businessman, but only returned to Kentucky for occasional visits.  His home in his namesake town of Owingsville became an inn and hotel and is still standing today as the Owingsville Banking Company.  The Bourbon Iron Works, the first iron industry west of the Alleghenies, made its last blast in 1838 and left to abandonment.  The stack for the furnace stands as a roadside park and is on the National Register of Historical Places. It is said that Owings was nearly bankrupt and at one point had over 250 lawsuits either as plaintiff or defendant due to his business ventures and land disputes.  At the end of his life on October 6, 1853, Thomas Deye Owings was given a Masonic burial in Brenham, Texas and still hailed as a hero of the War of 1812.
His family lineage stretches far and wide, with ancestors still living in the area around Bath County, Texas, Missouri and Maryland.  While it is commonplace now for those in military service and wartime campaigns to be awarded medals and ribbons, the War of 1812 only bore the award called the Congressional Gold Medal.  It is unknown if Colonel Owings received such a medal, but his service record is of remarkable distinction.  The First Division, 28th Infantry that Colonel Owings served under was deactivated and reorganized as 2nd Battalion, 19th Infantry during the Indian Wars in 1866 and lasted until 1869, when it was finally reflagged wholly as the 19th Infantry.  A third version of the 28th Infantry went into service during the Philippine War from 1901 until 1904, and fought with distinction in all major US conflicts through Vietnam.  Although not part of the original 28th Infantry Thomas Deye Owings was a commanding officer of, the 28th Infantry was my Army Basic Training unit at Fort Jackson, South Carolina (Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry).  While most Bath Countians only know what is written on the bronze historical marker outside the Owings House, the history of Colonel Owings' military and civic leadership is one that reflects well on the town that bears his name some 212 years later.