For those of us who have been on the road for decades, we may understand this month’s article more than the new drivers coming into the business. To those new drivers, listen up – hold on to pictures and mementos of your early driving career, because one day they will be little bits of history in our awesome industry. Facebook is not all bad. There are groups on Facebook dedicated to just one subject, and they do not deviate from that subject. I’ve joined a few groups that are all about old trucks and companies that were once well known from coast to coast but, sadly, went out of business. Now, all we have left are the pictures and the stories – but only if people saved them and share them!
I joined a group called Vintage Midwest Coast Transport. I remember the MCT trucks running the west coast back in the early days. In this group, my fiancé John Jaikes and I got to know Russell Spawn Jr., a driver from Omaha, NE. The conversations we’ve had are interesting and informative. Talk about a collector of truck history. The only person I can think of who would come close to Russell is 10-4 Magazine’s own poem writer Trevor Hardwick.
Russell graduated high school in 1987 and in the fall of that year he went to work washing trucks at a Blue Beacon in Council Bluffs, IA. Moving closer to his real dream of driving, he went to work for Nelson News in Omaha, NE working in the warehouse. In the spring of 1988, his position there changed to a full-time driver that delivered magazines, racing forms and books, driving a gas-powered Ford straight truck. He would volunteer for work on Saturdays when a load was scheduled to the warehouse in Grand Island, NE so he could drive the cabover Mack straight truck they owned. This truck had a 5-speed transmission, and Russell thought he’d hit the big time when he got to drive this Mack.
In 1990 Russell left Nelson News to attend Midwest Coast Transport’s five-week truck driving course. Once completed, he was teamed up with his dad, Russell Spawn Sr., who was driving for an owner operator named Gary Wills. Gary had 30 trucks leased to MCT. While teaming with his dad, Russell absorbed everything he could from him about his chosen career. He actually went solo for a while until MCT offered Gary a steady run from Oscar Meyer in Chicago to Ontario, CA every week. Gary thought it would be a perfect run for this great father/son team – and he was right. They would run team from Omaha west and then take turns running into Chicago to unload and reload so each of them got a little extra home time.
In 1992 Gary Wills left MCT, so Russell talked to his mom and dad about partnering up and buying the 1992 KW T600 they were currently driving. They had been promised they could keep their steady run, and the promise was kept. The pickup point of Chicago got changed to Madison, WI, but they kept the run. This was when Russell Spawn & Son Trucking started with one truck, eventually growing to five, before going back down to just one in 2001.
In late 2001, with Russell and his wife expecting their first child, Russell started putting applications in at the big LTL companies in Omaha. Looking for more home time, benefits, steady work, and good pay, he applied at American Freightways (AF) and got an interview, which turned into a job offer, which he accepted. Later, American Freightways was bought out by FedEx and became FedEx Freight. Russell stayed and has now been there for 19 years.
I wholeheartedly agree with the philosophy Russell was raised with that says, “Take care of the truck and the truck will take care of you.” He is one of those now very rare employees who keeps the inside of his truck spotless and waxes the exterior, too. When others ask him why he does that, since the truck is not his, he tells them he can’t help it and, “It’s the way it should be.” It makes me think of the people who have told me over the years “It’s not yours” – well, I don’t care if it’s mine or not, I still give a damn, and so does Russell.
It was the winter of 1994 when a snow storm forced Russell to shut down at the Iowa 80 Truck Stop because the road was closed. It was here that he bought his first copy of Wheels of Time, the magazine put out by the American Truck Historical Society (ATHS). He enjoyed reading the magazine, so he joined the organization. In 1998 he got to meet Gene Olson, one of the “all-time greats and founders” of ATHS. Inspired by Gene, Russell formed the Midwest Plains Chapter in the Omaha area in 1999. But Gene’s inspiration didn’t stop there – he also encouraged Russell to write about his family’s trucking history and submit the stories to Wheels of Time and other transportation magazines.
Russell loves old trucks and wants to preserve the history of our business by honoring those who made it so great. He collects old trucking memorabilia and has thousands of pictures that he has taken over the years. He has also had other drivers give him their collection of old pictures because they felt no one in their family cared and they would just be thrown away after they were gone. But his biggest (and coolest) collectible is a 1980 cabover Kenworth.
Sixteen years ago, the Midwest Plains Chapter of the ATHS started an annual classic truck show. The show draws over 100 trucks and hundreds of people. The one-day event has actually become a place for the old time Omaha, NE trucking crowd to get together every year and share stories about the good old days. There is no judging, and the only awards are from the ATHS. Every year Russell tries to present at least one Golden Achievement Award, which is presented to someone who has had at least 50 years in the trucking industry or a company that has been in business for several decades. A few companies he has awarded over the years include Sapp Brothers Truck Stops, Freymiller, Ring Transfer, and Werner Enterprises.
“Interviewing people like Don Freymiller and CL Werner really gives a person insight into how those single truck operations of the past grew into the huge companies of today,” said Russell. I have to add a huge thank you to one of the owners he mentioned – Don Freymiller. That is the company where I started my over-the-road career when they still had a terminal where it began in Shullsburg, WI. Hauling cheese and meat out of Wisconsin to California and produce back, just like what so many of those MCT drivers did way back when, it was a great place to start!
Russell knows the ATHS awards mean as much to the big companies as they do to the little ones because, as he put it, “The thank you for doing this for me hand shake always feels the same.” Please check out the ATHS online at www.aths.org and learn more about the old trucks and the stories their drivers have to tell. Maybe you can share a few of your own stories and old pictures, as well. I hope you enjoy the few pictures Russell shared here but understand that he has thousands more!
How long is Russell going to be out here? At least until he has his 25 years in, and maybe he’ll go for 35 years, so he gets the gold watch and the engraved truck hooked to a set of doubles. When he does decide to retire, he thinks it will be time to buy an old W900 Kenworth or a 389 Peterbilt and then lease to a local company and just run the Midwest. The guys at work tell him he’s a nut, but maybe they just don’t understand that this trucking thing is in his blood, and it runs really deep.