Not long ago, I was sitting in a deli in Madison, Wisconsin enjoying some ice cream with my “adopted daughter” Sarah, and we were talking about some possible story ideas I was kicking around for upcoming articles. At that point, she told me about her husband’s grandmother who had owned a truck and ran by herself since the 1970s. Knowing how tough it was to be a female truck driver back then, I knew that I’d have to go meet this lady and tell her story. She is retired today, but I really had a great time getting to know her and talking with her – we had so much in common!
Jean Moreth was born on April 5, 1934. She grew up on a farm in East Bristol, Wisconsin. She met Phillip Landphier at a very young age and the two really hit it off. Phillip’s dad had a repair shop in North Bristol, and young Phillip began driving a milk truck when he was just 13 (things were different back then). At 17, Jean began riding along with Phillip when he started hauling feeder pigs, which we both agreed was a “smelly” job. Those pigs stink and they do what pigs do! They even had to go so far as to vaccinate them alongside the road. I’ve heard many a bull hauler say “that’s the smell of money” but I always tell them my money has never smelled like that. But like Jean said, you have to do what you have to do to keep the wolves away from the door.
Back then, in the early 1950s, Jean did a little “unofficial” driving before she got her license to help Phillip when she was riding along with him. Phillip taught her how to drive, and all of the trucks she’s ever drove had a Cummins engine and a 13-speed transmission. Always driving cabovers, she never graduated to a truck with a hood and she never had the pleasure of stepping back and standing up to get dressed or undressed.
After spending a few years in Korea, Phillip returned home from the war and the two were married in 1955. Jean, who was 21 at that time, now became Jean Landphier. Of course, the order of things back then was to first get married and then start a family, and that is exactly what they did. Their first son, Phillip Douglas (Doug) was born on March 10, 1956. Another son, Robert, came next, and then their first daughter Carol Jean was born. Finishing up their clan, little Lisa was the last child to be born.
Jean can’t remember exact dates, but she figured that it was around 1972 when Phillip bought his first truck from Robertson Trucking – a Diamond Reo cabover. He had a lot of trouble with that truck (and it didn’t have enough power) so he got another Diamond Reo cabover. Over the years, they had many Diamond Reo trucks and Peterbilts, but they were all cabovers. Back then, while the kids were growing up, Jean did not drive. Jean stayed at home to raise the kids and sometimes worked at various restaurants or at the local canning factory for extra Christmas money.
Things changed pretty dramatically in 1977 when Phillip had a heart attack. Phillip told Jean that she should get her license, so she did just that. And after pulling a combine around the block, she was officially a licensed truck driver. Back then, they worked for Diamond Transportation, hauling tractors and combines for delivery out west. She had to go with Phillip to start, but then got her own truck and began to run by herself. Sometimes she and Phillip would get to run together in separate trucks, and occasionally they got to run as a team, but she usually ran by herself.
Being a truck driver was not an easy job – especially for a woman in the late 1970s. Over the years, she got all the standard comments like, “You don’t look like a truck driver,” and, “You should be home barefoot and pregnant,” and the ever-classic for that time, “You’re taking a man’s job!” Jean’s first truck was a 1974 Diamond Reo with, of course, a Cummins engine and 13-speeds.
In 1980, Phillip and Jean got their own authority and Phil Landphier & Sons was born. After a few years, Jean became known as “Ole Mom” and Phillip as “Ole dad” as the company became a true family affair. Both of their boys started driving for them and, at one time, even Lisa got her license and drove with her husband. Their son Robert moved back to Wisconsin from Texas and married his wife Deb that same year. Robert got his license and ran with Jean for a while. Later, Robert’s wife Deb got her license and started running with him. Today, they have their own company called D&S Trucking, and both of their boys, Danny and Scott, work for them. Scott’s wife Sarah (the one who introduced me to Jean) runs an escort vehicle for Scott when he needs one – they haul flatbed and oversize freight. The only one who didn’t get a license was Carol Jean.
One time when Jean was running team with her son Robert, during his probationary period when he first started out, they had an interesting experience delivering a load of lumber that they had brought from Washington. Jean went in to the lumber yard and was waiting when the man behind the counter asked, “Can I help you?” Her answer was, “Yes, I’m here to deliver a load of lumber.” He replied, “You were supposed to be here three days ago.” As she began to explain that there was ice and snow which caused the delay, Robert came in and joined her. Not knowing that Robert was her son, the man made a smart remark about what she might have been doing with this young man instead of working. Infuriated with this man’s lack of respect for his mother, Robert reached across the counter and pulled the man back, telling him that he ought to not be talking about his mother that way! Once the man realized what was going on, he apologized and they got unloaded without further incident.
Jean had a lot of wonderful times while running team with Phillip and her sons. They saw and did all kinds of fun things, like visiting Mud Island down in Memphis. In 1976, they had a load to Las Vegas and Jean had the thrill of seeing her favorite entertainer, Elvis Presley. Tell me trucking doesn’t have perks! Not knowing just how soon he would be gone, it was an experience she still treasures to this day. When Mt. St Helens blew up in 1980, she was out there with Phillip and Robert. They sat for three days for fear of sucking all that ash into their air cleaners.
Jean had a steady run to Memphis, delivering donut sugar a block from Beal Street. Her first visit to Graceland was so soon after his death that people weren’t allowed in the house. She has visited several times since and can remember the grass field across the street where people parked their cars and trucks. Last year, when she went with a group of friends, they were allowed to see the entire house, but she couldn’t believe just how much it had all changed.
In 1989, Jean added a 4-legged passenger – one that is near and dear to my heart – to her truck. Her beloved black cocker spaniel named “JR” rode with her until she had to get off the road, and it was in October of 2000 when she had to finally put him to sleep. Jean and Phillip were so depressed that their kids brought them a wonderful little beagle, and once he jumped into Phillip’s lap, it was all over – “Buddy” became part of the Landphier family.
Jean pulled a flatbed for about five years, then a box trailer, and then a reefer. We chatted about a lot of the same places we have delivered to over the years, like the lovely Chicago Water Market. She told me about going in there alone and how one man told her to hide her money really well inside her truck. At one time, they had a shop on South Bird Street in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Once, when she was there working on her truck, a friend stopped by to visit. When Jean rolled out from under the truck in her insulated coveralls, the friend said, “That looks good for show.” It was then that Phillip proceeded to inform this friend that Jean helped work on the truck all the time and that it wasn’t “for show”!
Jean had to get off the road in 1996 after she was involved in her very first accident (in her pickup truck on her way to work). It put her in a wheelchair for three months and, after a lot of physical therapy, she recovered but couldn’t get back in the truck. Phillip passed away five years ago, shortly after their 50th wedding anniversary. She worked at The Swiss Colony (the mail-order cheese and snacks company) for 11 years before a well-earned retirement in 2007.
I wish that I had pictures of all her old trucks through the years, but back then, not many pictures were taken (and the ones that were, weren’t very good). So, I made sure to snap a few pictures of a saw that was given to Jean and Phillip years ago as a gift. This saw was hand painted with pictures of several of their old cabovers, and now proudly hangs on Jean’s wall in her Wisconsin home.
Today, Jean keeps busy being part of the Tony Rocker Fan Club, and goes to several shows performed by this great Elvis impersonator. In the summer months, Buddy and Jean walk between five and seven miles, but in the winter that goes down to two or three miles. And on really bad days, she goes to the mall. I had so much in common with Jean and so enjoyed our time together. I can’t wait until we can get together again. I only hope that I can be so active and alive when I get to be her age. Jean Landphier is the perfect example of what it meant to be a true trucking lady – whether she looked like a truck driver or not!