1919-2009: Celebrating 90 Years in Ship By Truck
They did things the hard way because they had to. They saw opportunities and seized them, took risks, rolled with the punches, and reaped the rewards. They didn’t squeeze pricing or pinch service; everything was set in stone. And they hauled everything and anything during the Great Depression, World War II, and beyond. Join Inbound Logistics as we celebrate the legacies that made motor freight move.
When the Transcontinental Motor Convoy—the first coast-to-coast movement of automobiles—rolled into the Columbiana, Ohio, homestead of rubber baron Harvey Firestone on Sunday, July 13, 1919, no one could have imagined the significance such serendipity might bring. But the experience left an indelible mark on a dashing, 29-year-old lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Tank Corps named Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The military caravan debarked at 6:30 a.m. the next day, enduring many of the same routine challenges that typified the 63-day, 3,251-mile trek from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco: broken rod bearings, radiator leaks, blown gaskets, punctured tires, and most discouraging, roads to nowhere.
Arriving in Wooster, Ohio, on July 14, the convoy of 300 soldiers and 70 vehicles encountered few exceptions from the norm. “Boxing and wrestling at camp in evening,” wrote Eisenhower in his daily log. “Warm with light rains. Fine brick roads, except eight miles [sic] dirt. Made 83 miles in nine hours.”
Few exceptions apart from a pair of new trucks equipped with Firestone’s pneumatic treads.
The opportunity to “kick his tires” on the most ambitious mass movement of vehicles across the country must have piqued Firestone’s imagination and tipped his hat and hand to the convoy. One year earlier, in 1918, he debuted his Ship By Truck advertising crusade, plugging a new way to sell tires and transport goods. It served as a novel promotion for the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, and an important endorsement for emerging motor freight carriers.
To Eisenhower, the message resonated as well. Firestone’s generosity and friendship, and the performance of his tires on a rutted cross-country odyssey, set in motion a transportation revolution that rolls to this day.
UNITING THE STATES
If you’ve ever driven the Alaskan triangle between Tok, Anchorage, and Fairbanks; or ventured to the island of Oahu, Hawaii; crossed the U.S.-Canadian border in Houlton, Maine; or circumnavigated Puerto Rico, you know where Eisenhower’s Interstate System can take you. And, likely, you can appreciate the value of good treads.
President Eisenhower’s role in the development and expansion of the U.S. transportation system is well documented. In 1956, he introduced what was popularly titled the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act (later The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956), earmarking $25 billion to develop highway infrastructure across the United States.
In a letter to Congress on Feb. 22, 1955, Eisenhower addressed the importance of such endeavor: “Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods,” he wrote. “The ceaseless flow of information throughout the Republic is matched by individual and commercial movement over a vast system of inter-connected highways crisscrossing the country and joining at our national borders with friendly neighbors to the north and south.”
Eisenhower’s vision of a national network of roads was a conflux of influences: his experiences during World War II and the efficiency of the German Autobahns; the 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy; and the existing, if nebulous, Lincoln Highway system. But his objective was far more cohesive. Eisenhower wanted a reliable means for effectively transporting military armaments to defend the country in case of foreign attack, and, ultimately, conveying commercial goods more efficiently and expeditiously.
His casual encounter with Harvey Firestone in 1919 had an immeasurable consequence. “Many years later, Ike wrote to Harvey Firestone, Jr. [the industrialist’s son] that the visit to Columbiana was still ‘memorable,'” write Paul Dickson and William D. Hickman in Firestone: A Legend. A Century. A Celebration. “It was the transcontinental caravan that Eisenhower said ‘started him thinking’ about the value of good roads. While on the trip, the seed of an idea for an extensive system of highways took root.”
But between 1919 and 1956 another important development ignited the idea kindled by Firestone’s Ship By Truck advertising campaign and Eisenhower’s military one: the birth of the modern-day motor freight carrier.
Ninety years removed from that fair July afternoon, a day tangled in celebration and fate, Inbound Logistics turns back the clock to celebrate the trucking legacies that bought Firestone’s sell and swayed Eisenhower’s way.
Through the stories of industry vanguards, we explore the innovation and invention, leadership and vision that sparked mainstream commercial use of trucking in the United States. Firestone reinvented the wheel and gave it a spin. Eisenhower legislated how far it could go. A group of trucking pioneers embraced the vision and brought it home.
MAKING A NAME
Today their identities are synonymous with the road, plastered on thousands of tractors and trailers, spanning as many miles and more across the United States. Two and three generations ago, Alexander (A.) Duie Pyle, Al Schneider, the Vander Pol brothers, Louis Saia Sr., Lillian and Earl Congdon, James Ryder, and John Ruan were the names answering the phone, dispatching loads, driving the trucks, and selling their word.
These forebears realized the synergies between transportation innovation and industrial demand. Where their trucks rolled, commerce followed. And where agriculture and manufacturing sprouted, they began.
Duie Pyle was the product of a Coatesville, Pa., farm and the state’s famed steel industry. “He was working at a Lukens Steel mill when a neighbor came looking to unload a couple of hard rubber-tired trucks. It was April 1, 1924,” says Peter Latta, his grandson and current chairman of A. Duie Pyle. Duie figured he’d be a fool if he didn’t take the chance. So he bought the trucks, took on their existing customers, and added some others through his steel mill contacts.
Al Schneider shared a similar upbringing and entrepreneurial spirit. Raised on a Wisconsin farm, he sold the family car in 1935 and bought a single-axle tractor, operating as an independent contractor in the Green Bay area. Then he managed a small, 60-truck operation until he bought and incorporated it as Schneider Transport in 1938. Today it’s the largest truckload carrier in the United States.
As legend goes, the Vander Pol family got into trucking because they had too many sons to work their farm on Whidbey Island, Wash. So, in 1936, John and Gus Vander Pol purchased Oak Harbor Transfer, a local cartage carrier founded in 1916, for $600 cash. Their younger brother Henry joined them one year later. In 1942, the brothers purchased another small trucking company called Oak Harbor Freight Lines, which they merged and adopted the name.
As with the Vander Pol brothers, most trucking companies that cut their treads during the 1920s and 1930s were family affairs.
Earl and Lillian Congdon started up Old Dominion Freight Line in the wake of the Great Depression. They first sold the family car, a wedding gift from Lillian’s parents, and bought a truck that Earl drove until it was wrecked. Thereafter he worked various jobs, including stints with Virginia Motor Express and as a salesman for a Packard dealership. In 1934, he and his wife poured their savings into a dream. Lillian dispatched pick-ups from their dining room table and Earl drove the truck between Richmond and Norfolk, hauling coffee, paper, chemicals, and bales of burlap.
“On his first load, Earl had to hawk his spare tire to pay for fuel,” says Chip Overbey, vice president for Old Dominion. “After he made the delivery and got paid, he bought back the tire. The rest is history.”
The Saia family started their trucking business in 1924—without a truck. Louis Saia Sr., who came to America from Sicily in 1912, began hauling produce from New Orleans to his sisters’ grocery store in Houma, La., 60 miles to the southwest. It started out as a horse-and-wagon enterprise but soon evolved.
With Louis Saia working as the driver and salesperson, and his wife Christine handling the office, their three sons—John, Vincent, and Louis Jr.—drove when school allowed. When a load of freight arrived in Houma, the brothers would remove the backseat from the family automobile to deliver small package shipments to their customers.
Still other trucking pioneers found their inspiration in the school of hard knocks.
A shoddy, mismatched suit and dateless senior prom stirred James Ryder to do something with his life. He started out as an unskilled laborer for CR Clark Construction in Miami, toiling six days a week and earning 25 cents an hour. While working one day, Ryder had a conversation with a former classmate who was delivering materials to one of the contractor’s sites.
“He learned he could make 35 cents driving a truck, then wondered what he might make if he actually owned the truck,” shares David Bruce, vice president of corporate communications, Ryder. “So he made a $35 down payment and paid $25 per month for a black 1931 Ford Model A.”
Eighteen-year-old John Ruan left Iowa State University in 1932 to earn money for a family struggling during the Great Depression, says his son, John Ruan III, now chairman of Ruan Transportation. “When he discovered a road builder needed gravel at his work site, Ruan traded the family car for a truck and hauled his first load on July 4.”
A cracker of an idea popped in his head. Ruan soon discovered a talent for selling and a passion for business that exists to this day. On February 11, 2009, he celebrated his 95th birthday.
THE GREAT IMPRESSION
The 1920s and 1930s produced their fair share of trials and travails as companies struggled to gain a footing in the grip of the Great Depression. But through adversity, motor freight carriers gained credibility and respect and grew their businesses the old fashioned way—by earning it. They expected as much and more from themselves and their employees, and they valued the merits of self-sufficiency and enterprise.
John Ruan had a knack for selling from early childhood—he trapped animals and sold their pelts, picked berries, hunted mushrooms, and popped corn, peddling his wares to neighbors. “My father often credits his success to hard work, saying he might not be smarter than the average man, but he works harder. He also was willing to take risks—acting on ideas others considered too uncertain,” says John Ruan III.
Nineteen-year-old James Ryder brought a similar work ethic and penchant for perfection to his first job at CR Clark Construction—qualities that served him well later in his career. Among his responsibilities was making cement.
“Mixing one batch of cement at a time with wheelbarrows waiting to move, he recognized there was a better way to do the job,” explains Bruce. “So he built a second mixing box, allowing him to begin a fresh batch before the other one was depleted. Working in a more just-in-time manner resulted in less lag time, and earned him a nickel raise to 30 cents an hour.”
Hard work came naturally to Ryder. When he acquired his first truck in 1933, Miami Beach was just beginning to come into its own and construction was rampant. Ryder would pick up anything he could find—construction materials, tree trimmings, trash, and bag cement, transporting them between warehouses, rail yards, and local beaches. Recognizing an opportunity, Ryder engaged his friend Ed Bond to join him on the job and in the cab. This way they could run the tractor 22 hours a day.
THE HEAVY HAND OF REGULATION
While carriers explored innovative ways to get the job done better and attract more business, they did so under the heavy hand of government regulation. As the trucking industry grew, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), first introduced by President Grover Cleveland in 1887 to regulate unbridled railroad monopolies, extended its sanctions to over-the-road transport. The 1935 Motor Carrier Act gave the ICC authority to regulate interstate truck and bus companies, dictating which companies could become motor carriers, what services they could offer, and what rates they could charge.
“Trucking companies had to buy or acquire lanes,” says Mike Hobby, accounts receivable manager for Oak Harbor. “For example, they had to go to the state operating authority and request permission to move freight between Oak Harbor and Washburn, Wash.”
In the 1930s, Oak Harbor was primarily delivering goods to and from Whidbey Island, which was connected to the mainland by bridge.
The carrier’s business grew as it added routes other trucking companies willingly ceded or forfeited when they went out of business. There was a strict quota on truck movements in specific lanes and the state authority set pricing as well.
“Because of these restrictions, Oak Harbor would haul everything and anything in its lanes, inbound and outbound,” adds Hobby. “Henry Vander Pol used to talk about how they would truck fertilizer one way, then watermelons back; haul horse manure, hose out the box, and load the truck with apples for the backhaul.”
CUSTOMER SERVICE TAKES ROOT
Regulation may have limited profitability and expansion, but it also forced trucking companies to engage customers and grow their business organically.
In its early years, Schneider Transport operated as a local carrier hauling paper, pulp, and foodstuffs for companies such as Kimberly Clark, Proctor and Gamble, Fort Howard Paper, and Schreiber Foods. As these companies expanded, their needs changed. “A loyal customer base supported Schneider from the start—they had a need for inter-state service,” shares Wayne Lubner, senior vice president of associate relations at Schneider National.
Lubner, whose tenure at Schneider National spans 36 years, fondly recalls the founder’s ethos: “He used to say, ‘Without the customer, we are nothing. If we can’t provide what the customer wants, we’ll be out of business.'”
Customer service and technological improvements paved the way for Schneider and other carriers to expand their market presence and scope of operations. Up until the 1950s, trucking moves were essentially “less than truckload” local runs direct to consignees or between terminals. But as equipment and highway infrastructure improved, and customers demanded greater coverage, the Schneiders of the world followed their lead. In time, Eisenhower’s Interstate gave them access to a larger swath of the country.
“The advent of truckload transportation allowed us to move goods on irregular routes from any point-to-point location in the United States,” says Lubner. This provided a competitive alternative to traditional boxcar rail service.
As the United States clawed itself out of a depression and began ramping up production to provision the U.S. military for World War II, the trucking industry was on the brink of another resurgence. A new generation was being groomed to take the helm, expectations were heightened, and expansion was imminent.
WAR AND PEACE
The buildup to World War II had a marked impact on the United States’ manufacturing pulse and economic recovery, but the motor freight industry was beset by new challenges.
Trucks became scarce as new equipment was swallowed up by the war effort and fleets were frozen. James Ryder had to temporarily abandon truck leasing because there weren’t enough trucks to lend. But it gave him incentive to concentrate efforts on trucking and warehousing, especially as military activity in Miami Beach picked up.
John Ruan felt similar pressures. In 1937, he bought the majority share of McCoy Trucking of Waterloo, Iowa, which served Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Nebraska. He soon acquired two more trucking companies and later began hauling petroleum products, for which demand had increased as a result of World War II.
“During the war, keeping up with business was a challenge as shortages in truck parts and drivers forced my father to become more efficient—to the point of driving loads himself to ensure delivery,” says John Ruan III.
Old Dominion had mixed fortunes. Serving an important lane between military bases in Richmond and Norfolk, it benefited from an increase in freight volumes. But a Teamster’s strike forced the company to reinvent itself as a nonunion carrier shortly after the war.
World War II presented the Saias with a different challenge. The family’s workforce, namely John and Vincent, was called away to the U.S. Army and U.S. Marines, respectively. Louis and Christine Saia struggled to keep the business moving without their muscle.
But sacrifices made during the first half of the decade were redeemed in spades following the war. As the “next generation” returned to the workforce, trucking companies were welcome beneficiaries.
Peter Latta’s parents had married before his father, James, shipped off. When he returned, Duie Pyle offered his son-in-law a job with the company. It presented a natural continuity, shares Latta: “My grandfather had the entrepreneurial spirit, but he needed the business discipline, which my father provided. This helped the transition from generation to generation.”
Equal fortune befell the Saias when the two brothers returned, and with their younger sibling, Louis Jr., resumed familiar roles in the family enterprise. Soon after, Saia opened its first terminal outside New Orleans in Lafayette, La.
Following the war, trucking companies began to expand their services and coverage areas by aggressively targeting new customers and acquisitions.
When Ryder entered into a lease arrangement with an Anheuser-Busch distributorship in the summer of 1945, it took the carrier statewide. Later that year, the company secured its first dedicated contract carriage arrangement—a handshake agreement between James Ryder and John S. Knight, owner of Knight-Ridder Newspapers—to distribute daily editions of the Miami Herald. The contract remains in effect to this day.
Between 1945 and 1949, Ryder’s fleet grew from 172 trucks to 450, and by the end of the decade it was operating five facilities in state. That same year it locked in an agreement with Minute Maid to haul 109 refrigerated trailers from the company’s Plymouth, Fla., location to Midwest and East Coast locations, taking the carrier outside the confines of Florida for the first time.
Earl Congdon’s death in 1950 pressed Lillian into a new role as president, and later chairman, of Old Dominion—at a time when matriarchal leadership was anything but common. Then her two sons, Earl Jr. and Jack, joined the company. With the acquisition of Bottoms-Fiske Truck Line in 1957, Old Dominion extended its market presence throughout southern Virginia and North Carolina.
Schneider, which had dabbled in storing household goods since the 1930s, discontinued that part of the business in 1944. In 1958, it was granted its first interstate authority by the ICC, carrying a shipment for Procter & Gamble from a plant in Green Bay, Wisc., to Cheboygan, Mich. By 1961, Don Schneider, Al’s oldest son, joined the company as manager, bringing the office staff to five.
“Al had a great entrepreneurial spirit,” shares Lubner. “Don took that and built a company that could innovate on a broader scale. When he took over, he said we need to lead with technology, bigger and better equipment, to deliver the ultimate value to the customer.”
John Ruan did as much in 1948 when he bought 76 tractors, one of the largest deals in Iowa trucking history. By the end of the 1940s, Ruan had 10 terminals in Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota. One decade later the company was the largest hauler of bulk petroleum products in the United States, operating 40 terminals across the country.
The lean 1920s and 1930s made the boom years that much more rewarding. The labor and sacrifice that helped truckers survive the Depression allowed them to thrive in the post-war era. Challenges turned into opportunities. The capitalist spirit of founding fathers—and mothers—was recast by upstart offspring. They, in turn, sprung a new vision to emerging U.S. industries dependent on trucking services to grow.
When President Eisenhower pitched the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, trucking companies were prepared for the longer haul and committed to making his speculative idea a reality.
THE ROAD GOES ON FOREVER
By the time the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 rolled around and suspended government regulation, the trucking industry was well entrenched in the U.S. economic psyche. The old guard had set an example that, borrowing from Harvey Firestone’s Ship By Truck pitch, was right then and is right now.
From the very beginning, the Vander Pols and countless others were driving their own trucks and interacting directly with customers.
“Because it was a family-owned company, generation to generation worked every job in the company,” says Mike Hobby. “They knew the operations inside and out. The Vander Pol name was attached to everything we did. They owned the level of service and committed to high expectations because they knew they could do it.”
With their names literally tied to their word, these trucking companies couldn’t hide behind excuses. They did things the hard way because they had to. They saw opportunities and seized them, took risks, rolled with the punches, and reaped the rewards. They believed customers and employees deserved respect, not just because some were family—everyone was treated as family. They didn’t squeeze pricing or pinch service; everything was set in stone. And they hauled everything and anything during the Great Depression, World War II, and beyond.
As with Firestone and his Ship By Truck mantra, then President Eisenhower and his Interstate vision, A. Duie Pyle, Al Schneider, the Vander Pol brothers, Louis Saia Sr., Lillian and Earl Congdon, James Ryder, and John Ruan are forever linked with one of the greatest legacies of U.S. enterprise.
It took a chance encounter between a leading industrialist and a future war hero and president to excite the imagination and carry it forward. It took another generation of risk takers and opportunists to share the vision and make it reality.
Their legacies are part of your story and ours. It’s a grand narrative that speaks to the ethics and will of generations before; it also cobbles together unique roadmaps of individuals who pioneered transportation innovation that continues to this day.
“People that started in the trucking business had a dream; their story is about American ingenuity and engineering,” concludes Lubner. “The Al Schneiders of the world made change possible when it wasn’t popular.”
A. Duie Pyle: The Golden Rule
Growing up on a farm gave Duie Pyle a good idea of the work ethic necessary to succeed in business. “When interviewing prospective employees, he would always ask three questions: ‘Do you drink? Do you smoke? Have you ever worked on a farm?'” says Peter Latta, his grandson and current chairman of A. Duie Pyle. “The first two questions really didn’t matter—the last one did.”
Duie Pyle valued the integrity and principles of working on a farm, where necessity was truly the mother of invention. This belief was similarly infused by the golden rule—treat others as you would like to be treated. Duie Pyle motivated and came to the aide of his employees, his extended family, with those words in mind. Latta points to two anecdotes recently unearthed while researching and writing a book about the history of the company, The First 85 Years—A History of A. Duie Pyle, Inc.
There was a high school student named Preston Layfield (now 89) who was employed part-time on the Pyle family farm in the 1920s. One day Duie Pyle asked him to drive a truck to the company’s warehouse in Coatesville, Pa.
“I told him that I had never driven a truck on the highway before,” recalls Layfield. “To this Duie replied, ‘You drive the truck on the farm, don’t you?'” So Layfield got in the truck and drove to the warehouse.
When he dropped off the truck, he asked for a ride back to the farm. Instead, Duie Pyle told him to take the truck to the Lukens Byproducts Mill, also in Coatesville, and load it up. Layfield responded: “‘You think I can do that?’ He said, ‘You brought it in here, didn’t you?'” Again Layfield followed orders and drove the truck to the steel mill.
Then Duie Pyle told him to go home and get a good night’s sleep—because he was taking a load to New York City the next morning.
“I had never been there in my life,” remembers Layfield. “But before I knew it, the next morning I was driving to New York City sandwiched in between other Pyle trucks. Unbeknownst to me, the other drivers were ordered not to pass me so if I was driving up a hill and had trouble shifting gears, they would be able to bump me up the rest of the way.”
That was on-the-job training in Duie Pyle’s book.
Peter Latta also cites his grandfather’s compassionate side, through the words of Gladys Flamer, the wife of Paul Flamer, one of the carrier’s first drivers. Gladys, now 102 and still driving, recalls how Duie Pyle helped them when they got “sheriffed” out of their house during the Great Depression.
“My family had trouble paying the rent, but Mr. Pyle rescued us by paying most of our overdue bills. And he gave Paul enough work to maintain our home and keep the family alive,” says Gladys. Duie Pyle found a new place for the Flamers to live—with indoor plumbing—a fact that Gladys gushed about.
For Duie Pyle then, and for the company today, work and family remain one in the same.
James Ryder: An Honest Mistake
Opportunities never passed James Ryder by. His willingness to take risks was a reflection of his philosophy. “He approached business like drilling for oil. Some wells are productive, others are not, but you have to keep drilling,” explains David Bruce, vice president of corporate communications, Ryder.
In 1938, Ryder began diversifying the company’s footprint outside of hauling concrete materials, acquiring his first warehousing facility to store and move furniture, liquor, general merchandise, and building materials.
At the same time, Ryder encountered a business proposition that would ultimately define his future. He heard about a company in New York that was leasing its trucks to customers. So when an opportunity presented itself to deliver a similar offer to a Florida beer distributorship that had recently acquired the rights to move Champagne Velvet beer in Florida, he jumped.
Ryder priced the deal at $37.75 per truck, per week, and nine cents a mile. The distributor jumped on his quote, but for the wrong reason—they believed it was far too high.
Ryder, who had spent a long night crunching numbers to come up with the quote, reacted “hotly” to their counter, explains Bruce. Eventually, the distributor accepted his bid because they believed his reaction was honest, which they valued more than the price. Ryder outfitted five Swamp Holly Orange-colored International Harvester trucks with Champagne Velvet splashed on the side, and his truck-leasing business was off and running.
Years later, and in retrospect, Ryder admitted that the price he quoted the distributor was indeed too high—an honest mistake. But he also figured that he ultimately repaid the debt to the company because Champagne Velvet became the unofficial beverage of choice for Ryder employees, who demanded that their favorite establishments serve it all over Miami.
John Ruan: Renaissance Man
John Ruan may not have considered himself worldly wise, but that’s how he approached the business. He brought a work ethic to thought that saw innovative ideas through to execution.
When the Great Depression struck in 1929, his resourcefulness paid dividends. Many of Ruan’s customers could only afford to purchase small batches of coal, compared to full truckloads. To avoid hauling semi-full trucks, he crafted a divider for the truck bed that allowed several pre-measured units of coal to be shipped as a single load. This way he could still deliver to multiple customers in a single run.
During the War, he developed the “key-stop system”—a time-saving innovation borrowed from the railroads for the tank truck industry. It allowed drivers to pick up or drop off petroleum day or night using their own keys to unlock necessary valves at unattended facilities, says John Ruan III.
If Ruan wasn’t exploring better ways to move things, he was finding better things to move. Just a few months after starting the business, carrying his first load of gravel, Ruan bought two more trucks, hired drivers, and switched to hauling coal. When he learned he might have a chance to carry goods for Western Grocer, Ruan secured a loan for 10 new trucks, which he had customized specifically for groceries. Eventually, when demand for petroleum spiked during World War II, he turned his attention to that and became a leading player in the industry.
His thought leadership didn’t end there. As a hands-on leader of his thriving transport business, Ruan keenly understood the art of politics and advocating for legislation that would benefit his business and customers, while persuading legislators to forgo measures that would not.
“I’ve always found that good work gets good results…that people are the center of any successful enterprise,” says the man himself. “The more we invest in the improvement of our society, the more we’ll succeed in making our own lives more satisfying. Underlying the success of the Ruan companies is our strong desire to make things better, not only for ourselves and our nation, but for people throughout the world.”