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Getting There: How an old Spokane wrecking truck ended up in England

By the time the truck got to Cudworth, England, it had 605,520 miles on the odometer.

That, some rust spots, a flat tire and more than a few unanswered questions, the first of which came in an email.

“I am in England and have recently purchased an old Chevy step side,” Chris Rawlinson wrote on Jan. 26. “It is still in its original livery and it seems that it originated, or was once owned, by someone in your city? I was hoping you or someone else there might remember either the truck or the company it belonged to, with any luck.”

Photos soon came, showing a dusty green truck. The doors read, “East Sprague Wrecking.” They also had a phone number, said “Spokane, Wash.,” and a little illustration showed a busted car with a blown radiator.

But luck was thin, and the plot of the mystery truck simply thickened. How did the truck go from Spokane to a little village in South Yorkshire in the middle of England? Where was East Sprague Wrecking, and when did it operate? How had this truck escaped not only the fate of its own expired company, but that of the countless cars that went through its scrapping, wrecking jaws?

In the family line

The 1953 Chevrolet step-side pickup came to Rawlinson in a typical 21st-century way, via freight and the online marketplace. But the reason he wanted that particular kind of truck goes back a bit further.

The way he tells it, Rawlinson comes from a long line of the mechanically inclined. His great grandfather was a blacksmith. So was his grandfather, who served as an engineer aboard a destroyer in World War I. His dad was a mechanical engineer and a Royal Air Force aircraft engineer during World War II.

Rawlinson is a mechanical engineer. So is his son.

“So as you see, it is in the blood really,” he wrote, noting that his three grandchildren are all in college studying to be an accountant, pharmacist and human geneticist. “Unfortunately, or perhaps not these days, my son will be the last in the line.”

After being “made redundant from the motor trade” in the 1970s, Rawlinson started a restoration business, specializing in MGs and Jaguars. He did well, and his son continued to run the family business when Rawlinson retired a few years back.

But old habits die hard, and Rawlinson couldn’t help himself. He wanted a truck like the one his father bought in the 1960s when a England-based U.S. airbase was closing and surplussing its fleet.

In October 2017, he bought the Chevy. And that was about all Rawlinson knew.

“As far as I know, the truck came to the U.K. around the middle of 2017,” he wrote. “Sorry I ain’t got anything else to help, anything you can turn up for me though, would be really appreciated, if it is only a picture now of where the truck/garage used to be or still is, better than nothing, eh?”

In the junker business

Pens aren’t allowed in the Ned M. Barnes Northwest Room in downtown’s Spokane Public Library. That’s wise, because the quiet room is filled with books that tell of Spokane history, books that may well be the only surviving copy.

Some of those books are R.L. Polk directories, relics of a simpler era. We may worry over privacy nowadays, and fret over the power of social media, but with a Polk directory you could look up any address and find the name of who lives there. You could look up the mayor, or newspaper publisher, and knock on his door.

Or, you could find East Sprague Wrecking. First stop, the 1953 directory, same year the truck came to be. Fourteen directories later, the first sign of the company appeared.

In 1967, the wrecking yard opened, and was owned by Robert Burns and Ronald Dewey. Its address was 2019 E. Sprague Ave.

It probably wasn’t a whim or long-held dream of Burns and Dewey to open the wrecker, which came during a strange time in American auto history. After decades of booming car sales, and the wealth sprung from the post-war economy, the aging cars would die and suddenly, it seems, there were dead cars everywhere. State regulators struggled with what to do with all the scrap. Abandoned cars took over neighborhood streets. Cars lined distant county roads. Engineers used the hulks to fight erosion along riverbanks, including along Latah Creek.

The first mention of “auto wrecking” appeared in The Spokesman-Review on Dec. 23, 1956, in an article detailing the “brisk” business the few local yards did. The story said that both car enthusiasts and the ordinary car owner picked through the yard’s supply, “but the wrecking yards generally have cleaned out their stock of parts for all but a few of the more popular models of ancient vehicles.”

But business was too brisk, and freelancers started dismantling cars on their own, whether they owned them or not.

In March 1957, Spokane police began handing out warnings to people wrecking cars without a license. Officers in the “auto squad” said the wrongdoers were “men who want to turn up a few dollars in their spare time or who are out of work begin wrecking cars.”

That same month, the Chronicle reported that officers had pulled over a truck “loaded with junk” and three teenage boys. They had just illegally sold 1,600 pounds of scrap metal to a dealer. The boys ran from the cops, but were caught. The “car-wrecking youths” were sentenced to 30 days in jail.

A story in the Chronicle on Sept. 5, 1958, detailed a new American era, when the suburban, freeway lifestyle really took hold.

Called “Highway accidents create chore,” the story began: “The crunching concussion of automobile meeting automobile is a sound peculiar to our century. It has brought with it a business also new to mankind – the business of ‘car wrecking.’ ”

The article described in detail how a car was “junked,” first stripping the radio, heaters and “spotlight.” Then parting out to companies looking for “engines, transmissions, differentials, radiators, wheels, tires and other salable parts for merchandising separately.”

By 1963, The Spokesman reported that wrecking yards had “become big business.” It counted 29 wrecking companies in Spokane that scrapped 10,000 autos and made $3.2 million a year.

“This is a good business and an extremely necessary one,” said George Montague, a Spokane wrecker. “We realize a wrecking yard isn’t pretty, but people have little appreciation of what lots, curbs and streets would look like if we didn’t gather up those old heaps and bring them to a central gathering place.”

Montague spoke too soon.

In 1965, the Associated Press reported that “motorists are junking cars at a record rate,” and said that 6,099,015 vehicles were not re-registered from the previous year and presumed scrapped. It was by far the largest number of vehicles put down in a year, and a crisis was brewing.

On May 25, 1965, U.S. Sen. Paul Douglas, D-Ill., proposed a “car burial tax” of 2 percent on new cars.

“Let us act now,” he told the Senate. “Let us get rid of the rusting scrap heaps that are a disgrace to our country. Every automobile should carry with it the funds for its own burial.” He later noted the nearly $200 million in revenue the tax would generate would cover the cost of “burial, cremation or immersion at sea” of cars.

Within a month, the Chronicle reported that local wreckers were “beginning to worry about disposal of hundreds of stripped down and burned out car bodies for which there no longer is much demand.” New technology at steel mills had cut in half the amount of scrap they needed. Business was no longer so brisk.

In July 1966, the Los Angeles Times reported the “accumulation of unused and unwanted cars is reaching a crisis level due to a serious case of soaring supply and dwindling demand for baled scrap.” The article said 30 million “automobile hulks” were “abandoned or stashed along highways throughout the United States and ‘are driving my wife mad,’ said President Johnson.”

The problem in Southern California, which even then was known for its outsized car population, came to Spokane. On Feb. 26, 1967, The Spokesman reported “thousands of derelict jalopies are jamming Spokane auto wrecking yards these days in near capacity proportions.”

It sounded like a good time to open a wrecking yard.

Dolph the wrecker

The corner of Napa Street and East Sprague is storied in Spokane auto history. After Sprague became part of the Sunset Highway in 1913, the strip became one of the busiest in the city, and auto-oriented businesses like the Pansie Auto Shop and Quality Garage and Service Station sprung up along its length.

In 1935, Dolph Spalding opened one of the city’s first wrecking yards at 2019 E. Sprague Ave., on the northeast corner of Napa and Sprague.

Spalding wasn’t the first wrecker. That designation goes to Dee Churchill, who opened a wrecking yard in 1918 at Third and Post. And Spalding wasn’t alone. Claude Merrill had purchased AA Auto Wrecking in 1941, from a man who started the business in 1922.

In a 1973 profile, Merrill said he and Spalding were the only two “old timers” left. Wrecking apparently runs in the blood. In the first article about “auto wreckers” that ran 20 years before Merrill’s profile, his and Spalding’s companies were mentioned as the first wreckers. And to this day, those wreckers remain in family hands.

Merrill’s daughter, Bettie Simmons, is 69 and still runs AA Auto Salvage. She says the company, still in in its original Inland Empire Way location with its 43-acre yard, is “kind of like a brother.”

“My dad was definitely of that era where boys went to college and the girls – and there was only one girl, me – the girls married well,” Simmons said. For various reasons, her four brothers didn’t take to the business. “So it just went to me. My dad died in ’88 and I’ve been running it ever since.”

Simmons said her earliest memories are of running around the yard, and the closest times she had with her father were there, not at the West Central home where she grew up.

“My dad was a 24-7 type of guy. He’d take us down there and that’s how we’d have family time,” she said. “He’d dump gas in a car, and we’d race around the back roads and he’d say, ‘Don’t run into any of my cars.’ And sure enough we’d run into a car.”

When the yard was founded, it was country. But over the decades, the city grew and now neighborhoods surround it.

“In the ’90s, I had to defend it,” she said. “Somebody wanted to give me trouble and I’d say, ‘Wait a minute, you moved into my neighborhood.’ ”

With no children of her own, Simmons said she’s ready to move on. For the past few years, she’s stopped taking cars. She’s trying to “clear the land” and “finish it off, put it back to what it was: acreage sitting there.”

“It’s been a wrecking yard for so long, behind every bush we find something else,” she said. “It just became that time. I had a whole series of heart attacks and I don’t want to hand it to anyone else. I have had it my whole life. I’m ready to move on.”

The Spalding story is a bit different, if just as long. Dolph’s son, Max, still runs it. Max’s sons, Russ and Steve, own Pull and Save Auto Parts and Bill’s Auto Parts, respectively.

Spalding’s yard did start on East Sprague, but Dolph closed that location in 1959. You could say it’s a historic place, the first location of what will soon be the last of the “old timer” wrecking yards standing. Currently, it’s the location of a used car dealer, Rick’s Kar Korner.

But between Spalding’s departure and Rick’s coming, another wrecker used the site: East Sprague Wrecking.

The autos pile up

It probably wasn’t easy running the East Sprague yard. After Burns and Dewey opened it in 1967, Burns sold out to a man named James Deagan. Two years later, a couple named Andrew and Everett Reynolds bought it and ran it – for one year.

In 1971, the wrecker sold to Dwayne Meier, who would end up owning the company the longest, until 1976.

It was a heady time for auto wreckers. Cars continued to pile up and new regulations governing air pollution and fencing requirements streamed in.

In 1969, The Spokesman reported that David Dawson, president of the Independent Garage Owners, said there were 5,000 abandoned cars on city streets that couldn’t be junked due to lack of clear ownership.

“One thing is for sure. There will be more tomorrow than there are tonight,” he said. He was right.

In April 1972, The Spokesman said junked autos posed a “vast disposal riddle.” The article quoted state Trooper William Altvater as saying that an “average of three abandoned junkers is on every block in Spokane and the Valley. In some eastern parts of the city, he estimates the average jumps to 10 or 12 a block.”

“No, I’m not exaggerating,” Altvater said. “It’s far more serious than most people realize.”

It wasn’t only in the city, either. Road 900 down near the Snake River outside of Lewiston, Idaho, had become a place to abandon hundreds of cars. The Army Corps of Engineers solved that problem by flooding the road with the waters behind the Lower Granite Dam southwest of Pullman, which started operation in 1975. Halfway across the country, the Army Engineers were experimenting using junked auto bodies to bolster river dikes in the Mississippi River near Vicksburg.

In 1973, in preparation for Expo ’74, the Chronicle reported that students from 15 local high schools started a drive to find and scrap abandoned cars around the county, with proceeds going toward “ecology-oriented community improvement.” The Washington Army National Guard helped with a helicopter survey, and Fairchild Air Force Base agreed to remove vehicles with its heavy equipment and trucks.

Still, despite the need, East Sprague Wrecking didn’t make it. In 1976, Meier sold it to Robert Littell, who ran it for two years. Where the business should be listed in the 1978 Polk directory, there’s nothing.

Back to life

Ricky Shaw’s background photo on Facebook is of a smoke-filled starting line at a drag race. Scrolling through his pictures, you’ll see a lot of his daughter, and a lot of cars in Duluth, Minnesota, where he lives.

That’s where it was. The truck, in Shaw’s post from Aug. 9, 2016, with a note written in the stilted language of the internet.

“Hey im still trying to sell this truck,” he wrote. “If ya know anyone looking to pass it on…. $3k runs drives plated.”

In a message, Shaw said the truck was a pain to own and sold it after a few months.

“Yes, I sold it to a guy in the U.K.,” he wrote. “I got the truck from a buddy that ordered it out of book few years back. He got it and it was not as described so he ate that and I ended up asking for it a few years later.”

That friend, Richard Morgan, doesn’t have a Facebook account. His phone is a “burner” and he prefers talking on his landline.

The question burned: Where had Morgan gotten the truck from?

“I bought it long distance. I kind of got screwed on it,” he said. “They said it was up and running, but when it got here, it was a bunch of issues with it.”

He had purchased the truck for $7,200 on Barn Finds, an online auction house for classic cars, some of which are found in old forgotten barns, like the name suggests.

Morgan couldn’t remember where the truck came from, and couldn’t find any receipts from the sale.

“It was five or six years ago,” he said. “It was Washington somewhere.”

But where, he didn’t know. The administrator of Barn Finds also turned up empty-handed. But at some point, that old truck left East Sprague Avenue for Duluth, then for Cudworth and into Rawlinson’s hands.

Like Simmons at her father’s wrecking yard, Rawlinson is getting older and is worried about his health. Soon after retiring, he suffered cardiac arrest and was resuscitated with CPR, which broke eight of his ribs, and a defibrillator. After being in an induced coma for two weeks, he was fine for a year before the same thing happened again.

“Never been known to happen twice and survive!” he wrote. “I now have my own pacemaker and defibrillator installed under my skin, connected via GPS to the hospital. Today’s technology is unbelievable!”

But it’s yesterday’s technology that occupies his time, and, instead of being scrapped, the truck is being brought back to life. A couple of weeks ago, Rawlinson sent some more photos, with a shinier, healthier looking Chevy. He insisted he wouldn’t repaint it, but instead just clear coat it, “keeping all the original patina.”

“It now has a new up-rated V-8 engine,” he wrote, adding that he also upgraded the brakes. “So she should go well and stop when needed.”

Surely, but where will she go next?


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