Honest, hard-working, durable and reliable are all descriptions of farmers and the vehicle that no farm could do without, the pickup truck.
Through Oct. 31, the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown explores their evolution in the exhibition “The Pickup Truck: America’s Driving Force.”
Michelle Murdock, director of exhibitions, said the exhibit of seven trucks ranging in date from 1907 through 1977 is appropriate for the museum because farmers are reliant upon their trucks.
The first pickup trucks started out before 1900 as people began modifying passenger vehicles to carrry cargo about the time horse-drawn wagons were becoming obsolete. They purchased the chassis and built the “beds” for them, and sometimes cabs, too.
The vehicles were also a staple for small-business owners who needed to deliver produce and other goods. A rare Syracuse-built 1907 Chase Model D “Open Express” Motor Truck on loan from the Northeast Classic Car Museum in Norwich represents the period. It has a slick wooden bed and tires that look more like wagon wheels.
There are a couple of examples of homemade pickup trucks. One is a 1922 Ford Model T with a replica “woody” pickup body. It was built by dentist and amateur blacksmith Harold Fry and his son and later restored by Cooperstown’s Harlo Beals.
Don and Sharon Oberriter of Fly Creek purchased it in 1988. It was a regular presence in Cooperstown area parades, and the Oberriters drove it around town. Oberriter likes the truck because its wooden body and sleek black chassis are unusual.
Another is a 1925 Ford Model T that metal worker and mechanic Tom Krieg of Milford built as a retirement gift for his father in 1980.
He found the frame in the Adirondacks. The rest of the parts came from an old truck in Sharon Springs. He originally rebuilt the car, and then added the replica of the box back cargo bed, painted green with “Tom Krieg’s Boat Shop” painted on the side.
Knowing a good thing when they saw it, American automobile companies began manufacturing the first pickup trucks in the mid-1920s.
H. William Smith Jr.’s 1937 ford with a factory-installed dump body is an early example. Smith, who grew up around cars at his father’s Ford dealerships in Norwich and Cooperstown, purchased the truck over a half-century ago and restored it, adding his name on the cab door.
People’s fondness for their pickup trucks is revealed in the preservation of those in this show, especially the latest three. All were barely drivable when their current owners rescued them.
John W. Bush of Hartiwck found a 1955 Chevrolet 3100 “Step-Side” in a barn in Oxford. It was one of Chevrolet’s most popular models in the 1950s. Bush restored it because it reminded him of the vehicles that his father drove when he was a child.
Bush rescued another truck from a barn, a 1967 Ford Fairlane 289 Ranchero. Bush, who owns John Bush Used Cars and has been fixing up old vehicles since he was 14, restored the pickup, saving the original motor, transmission and rear end.
The most recent truck in the exhibit is a 1977 Chevrolet “Step-Side” C-10 that Doug Bush of MountVision, Otsego County, found in Unadilla, also in Otsego. He began the restoration project when he was diagnosed with cancer in 1998. It reveals how owners began customizing their pickup trucks in the 1970s.
Bush made it fit for racing (although he doesn’t race it) by installing race car seats and a special heavy-duty suspension to support the “air scoop” on the hood. He had a patriotic design painted on the hood with the words “Let’s Rock ’n’ Roll.”
“We wanted to show our guests how the physical pickup has evolved through the lens of manufacturing but also through the lens of the owner,” Murdock said.
“A pickup, people want them, then once they get them, they personalize them and make them their own.”
Visitors can view an array of after-market accessories for the vehicles, showing how owners customized them. A photograph of the owner accompanies each truck.
Several informational sections round out the exhibit. They show how pickups have been used historically, including in wartime and in firefighting. They chronicle how the pickup transitioned into a family car in the 1950s and 1960s and how they made their way onto the racing scene.
One section shows how the vehicle made its way into the mainstream of American culture, with examples of toys and a listing of movies and top 40 country and rock songs with the pickup truck as their subject.
Another section illustrates where the pickup truck stands today, with fuel-efficient high-end versions that offer technology hubs right inside the vehicles.
“I think the takeaway is that the pickup truck is quintessentially American,” Murdock said.
“We liken it to blue jeans and baseball and fireworks and things like that. It’s a physical thing that exemplifies a lot of our collective values that we as a nation tend to hold.”