International Towing and Recovery Museum
If Detroit is the capital of the auto industry, then Chattanooga is the Detroit of tow trucks. The world's largest tow truck factory is in Chattanooga. The world's first tow truck was built in Chattanooga, in 1916, by Ernest Holmes. He was an interior decorator who also owned a repair garage, and he reasoned that the same pulleys and cables that could lift a heavy curtain could also lift a car out of a ditch.
"The big profit jobs," Holmes wrote in an early ad, "don't drive in. They are towed in."
So in Chattanooga the group "Friends of Towing" has built the International Towing And Recovery Hall Of Fame And Museum, with the goal of preserving towing history, honoring its champions, and remembering those who died in the line of duty.
That last task is given to the "Wall of the Fallen" which stands between the parking lot and the highway. It's topped by a sculpture of a hero tow truck driver as he reaches down to pull people to safety from a car sinking into the memorial fountain. An introductory video at the Museum says that 50 to 100 tow truck drivers die on the job every year in the U.S., but the "rules of the Wall" decree that only those who are killed while actually helping people will get their names engraved on it.
Standards for inclusion are just as rigorous for the dozens of ancient and odd-looking tow trucks displayed inside the Museum, all spotlessly restored. There's a 1919 model 485 wrecker on a 1913 Locomobile and a 440 Hi-Power on a 1979 Chevy Silverado, "the world's fastest wrecker," which topped 130 mph in the straightaway at Talladega.
A unique 1953 model W-70 is named "Dad" and is the largest mechanical wrecker ever built, according to its accompanying sign. "The cost to do the restoration on this giant was in the excess of $100,000. It is here because of Donnie Cruse and Terry Humelsine's undying love for the Towing and Recovery Industry."
Donnie and Terry, as might be expected, are members of the Towing And Recovery Hall Of Fame, which is literally a hall between the museum and its gift shop. Photos of dozens of proud inductees line the walls. Industry giants such as Ernest Holmes are honored, as are pioneers such as Ashley Beasley and Gerry Plumpton.
Although any member of the towing industry is eligible, few make it through the Hall's rigorous screening. As its entrance sign declares, it is "one of the highest honors of the towing and recovery profession."
We popped back into the museum to look at more hardware, and started asking questions of a guy who looked like a tow truck driver. To our surprise, he turned out to be the chairman of Friends of Towing, George Connolly, who had driven in from Colorado to oversee some museum expansion plans.
George quickly began describing the merits of the 1940s frame lift -- it was designed by Ernest Holmes Jr. and was years ahead of its time -- and of tow truck drivers in general. "What would people do if they couldn't get to work in the morning because the accident in front of them couldn't get cleared out of the road?" he asked us. "You've got to think about that sometimes."
George encouraged us to look at the artifacts filling the walls and the floor space between the trucks -- jacks and dollies and tire changers and oil pumps, all devised and built by tow truck drivers. Russell Tolle, a towing legend, has his own display because he invented both the Cable Reinforced Belt and the Forged J-Hook.
George pointed out a miniature diorama of a 1957 Chevy being winched out of a ditch by a model 460 twin boom wrecker mounted on a 1953 Chevy one-ton truck (all of the signs here are very specific). A sprawled body lies next to the car, waiting for an ambulance that obviously was no match in speed for the tow truck.
"Towers are first responders, just like firefighters and the police," George told us. "They risk their lives for others every day."
Colorful quilts of wreckers, made by women in the industry, hang on the walls, along with a framed photo of the biggest recovery job in history, a 177-ton-load that fell halfway into the Piekenierskloof Pass between South Africa and Namibia. On a neighboring wall hangs an article from a 1995 Tow Times, advising tow drivers to "go easy on the macho" and "drive away" when confronted by disgruntled customers.
This last display hints at the image problem that the International Towing And Recovery Hall Of Fame And Museum was created in part to solve. Tow truck drivers have been viewed by some as brutish vultures -- the guys who haul your car away while you're shopping, or who show up when your car is disabled and charge $80 to change a tire.
"Our industry has always been tinged with a dark stick," George conceded. "We're wanted, but we're not wanted. We've got bad ones, but for every bad one we've got nine or ten who are working hard, trying to make a living and feed their families."
"Whether we can explain everything to the public, I don't know," he said. "But I hope that this place at least gives them a better feeling about that dumb old tow truck driver."