After retiring a few years ago, I moved to the Finger Lakes region of Central/Western New York state. While this area has been producing wines for well over 100 years, it’s just in the last several years that the Finger Lakes wine region has been named the best, or one of the best, wine producing areas in the country by polls and surveys from wine experts. With that said, I am surrounded by grape growers, and along with that some trucks, as well, including the cool old “grape ride” seen here.
Grape growers and wineries need to get their product to the wineries almost immediately after harvesting, and trucks play an important role during the harvest in September and October. Because of the costs of not only purchasing but also maintaining an expensive truck and trailer, few wineries, if any, do their own grape transporting. Early on during this year’s grape harvest, I kept seeing a “phantom” cabover pulling a flatbed loaded with grape bins driving past or near my house. As I am a COE fan, I was very intrigued – I could hear it, but every time I tried to identify the tractor, I missed seeing its front, so I had no idea what make it was. After several weeks of trying to ID the tractor, I finally saw its front and grille, and was very happy to realize it was a GMC Astro.
A couple days later, while driving down a road less than a couple miles from my house, there it was, parked by a willow tree, facing the road, between a house and a barn. On an overcast but not very rainy Saturday morning, I spent some time with Bill Culver, who is a grape farmer and truck driver. Bill owns a 130-acre farm of which 6+ acres are grapes. Bill’s father bought vineyards all over the place, which Bill maintained (he has since sold many of these plots). He still rents or owns vineyards totaling 57 acres. Located near Penn Yan, at the north end of Keuka Lake, the vineyards that Bill deals with produce Concord, Elvira, Ives, and Niagara grapes.
The 1982 GMC Astro originally had a Cummins Formula 300 Big Cam, but it was eventually changed to a Big Cam 400, which runs through a 9-speed Fuller RT 11609A. Bill lent me some of the original paperwork, including the build sheet and operating manual, which was very helpful. The rig was originally bought in August 1981 for use as a North American Van Lines tractor and was first painted in their colors. It’s a model D9L064 and is 142 inches long with an 86-inch aluminum cab. The rears are Eaton DS-380s with a 3.70 ratio.
After years of service at North American Van Lines, the tractor ended up in New York after being purchased by Bill’s neighbors, Mike and Jennifer Carson, who used it to haul grapes, and then stored it in Bill’s barn the rest of the year. When Mike decided to stop driving, he sold the truck to Bill in the mid-90s. The original grab handles weren’t in very good shape, and since replacements were quite expensive, Bill opted to customize the handles himself.
With two different trailers to choose from, depending on the load, Bill’s GMC can be seen pulling either of them during grape hauling season. One trailer is a 44-foot 1979 drop deck Fontaine that was originally used to haul plastic pipe. This trailer generally hauls up to 22 grape bins usually weighing between 25 and 27 tons. His other trailer is a straight 40-foot 1975 Fruehauf that he acquired from his father who had sold the trailer very soon after purchasing it, but he later got it back after that buyer defaulted on the loan.
There’s a nice dedication to Bill’s father, Chet, painted on the back of the cab, as well as the names of his wife Hilary and daughter Meg on the passenger door. Bill’s granddaughter Jade has also recently spent some time in the co-pilot’s seat, so her name “Jade Girl” will soon be added to the door, as well. The Jimmy was painted in 1999 with “Ford Electric Crimson Red” which Culver said cost more than other color options. Back then, few farmers had names for their farms. Bill thought it would be good to put Bill Culver Farms on the side door. He also had “Woopee S#*t!” painted as well, as he didn’t think it was a big deal to have his name on the door.
I met Bill a few miles from my house, as the last couple of bins were being loaded on his trailer, parked along a very steep and narrow country road. These were Concord grapes that were destined to be grape juice, not red wine, which they jokingly called “Amish Juice” (which is grape juice to be sold to the Amish community). Bill skillfully maneuvered the Astro up the steep hills with a load of 16 bins and headed for Swedish Hill, a winery located between the northern ends of Seneca and Cayuga Lakes, roughly an hour’s distance.
We were a little early arriving at the facility, so we had a short wait. Then, two guys with forklifts soon appeared and started unloading the bins onto a row on the ground next to the building. First, each bin was weighed and then brought over to a large tank to be dumped into. From there, the grapes went through a separator – the waste was sent to a large holding tank while the juice was pumped into tanks inside the building. The empty bin was then reweighed, and then the other forklift operator reloaded it onto Bill’s trailer. Each bin weighs about 225 pounds empty and can hold up to 2,500 pounds of grapes. The bins are about 4 feet by 4 feet by about 3.5 feet. This load weighed in at about 32,000 pounds.
During the unloading, Bill was on the phone with the harvesters back in the vineyard where this load originated. Bill had plans to return to the winery with one more load the following day, which would be his last for the year. There is a limited amount of juice that the winery can process, so Bill had to make sure he didn’t pick up too much. After today’s unloading at Swedish Hill, the plan was to haul the drop deck back to Bill’s farm and then go just a few miles to where his other trailer had been loaded. Bill would hook up to that trailer and then haul the load home for the night, with plans to deliver that load the next morning.
At 72 years old, Bill has now been driving for over 50 years, and the only other truck he’s ever owned was a 1969 Brockway 358 that he bought from his father. For a while, Culver worked for Penn Yan Boats and hauled 10-foot-wide vessels to New York City. He’s hauled other loads, including apples, and the other major NY state commodity – milk. He now prefers to keep to the Finger Lakes region and doesn’t see a need to haul long distances anymore.
He and wife Hilary live in an old farmhouse where Bill lived as a child and have one daughter. He collects guns and has a sizeable toy truck collection, along with other antiques, as his mother was an estate antique dealer. A good amount of time is spent maintaining the vineyards, such as trimming and tying branches, which keeps Bill quite busy when not hauling grapes.