Most people don’t think for a second about the towing and recovery industry—until they find themselves stranded on the side of the road or involved in a collision. Then they call the American Automobile Association (AAA) or a wrecker arrives on the scene, and they find themselves grateful for the help. But one place the unsung heroes of the industry are recognized is the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a unique institution that highlights the rich heritage of what is now a $15 billion a year industry.
It’s no accident that the museum is located in Chattanooga, a city of 155,000 in southeast Tennessee. After all, Chattanooga is the birthplace of the wrecker industry, and to this day, the city remains the towing and recovery capital of the world. Incidentally, there is a difference between a wrecker and a tow truck (a wrecker is designed to tow and recover, and a tow truck merely tows), though casual observers rarely reflect on this distinction.
The Grandfather of Towing and Recovery
As legend has it, the industry was born one fateful day in 1916 after a driver lost control of his Tin Lizzie—that is, a Ford Model T—and it ended up in Chickamauga Creek, which winds its way through the Chattanooga area. Ernest Holmes Sr. (1883-1945)—who was a member of the local auto club and whose brother Curtis owned a service station—got wind of the mishap and went to help recover the car from the water, a job that took ten men eight hours to complete. Thinking there must be an easier way, Holmes went back to his garage and began formulating a plan to build a wrecker, which he developed with an assist from two friends—L.C. Decker and Elmer Gross.
However, the first time Holmes put his prototype to the test it let him down, and the rescue workers had to fall back on old-fashioned manpower. He quickly came to the realization that his wrecker (bolted to the chassis of a 1913 Cadillac) needed outriggers to stabilize the vehicle when in recovery mode.
Despite the fact that the need for wreckers seemed self-evident, this initial setback no doubt emboldened naysayers, who included his mother and father. According to museum staffer Joyce Shrum, who worked in the parts department of the Ernest Holmes Company in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Holmes’ parents didn’t want him to get involved in the auto service industry because his neighbor—the aforementioned Decker—had put an eye out while on the job.
Undeterred, Holmes made improvements to his design, and by 1919 had secured a patent and was selling branded wreckers, which were mounted on the backs of used cars. His first successful production model was the Holmes 485—one of which is on display at the museum, having been coupled with a 1913 Locomobile, a car that sold new for six-thousand dollars. (The combo on exhibit is worth a quarter-million dollars.)
Less well-known is the fact that Holmes’ first model was the 680, which at $680 proved too expensive for the marketplace, hence the 485, which sold for—you guessed it—$485. Holmes’ business continued to thrive until the United States entered World War II, at which point the raw materials he needed were deemed off-limits or in short supply. “Even during the Great Depression the Holmes Company didn’t lay anyone off. It prospered even as other businesses were failing,” notes Shrum.
Ultimately, Holmes received a government contract to build recovery vehicles and bomb-loaders for the war effort, which sustained the operation until his death (from a heart attack) in 1945. The company remained family-owned until 1973, when it was sold to the Dover Corporation for $64 million, and eventually ended up in the hands of Miller Industries (the world’s largest manufacturing of towing and recovery vehicles), based in nearby Ooltewah, Tennessee. Miller builds between five- and six-thousand vehicles a year, and remains a big reason why Chattanooga is to the wrecker industry what Detroit is to the automobile.
A Museum on the Move
Fittingly the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum got its start as a traveling museum, its exhibits housed in a tractor-trailer, which was transported from city to city by tow truck. Then in 1995—under the tutelage of curator William “Frank” Thomas Jr. (1924-2011)—the institution found a home in downtown Chattanooga, before settling in at a new location, on Broad Street, in 2003. Not only is the current space significantly larger, countless tourists now stumble across the museum on their way to Lookout Mountain, an area attraction that features a funicular (incline) railway, which has been, quite literally, towing passengers to the summit since 1895.
According to executive director Cheryl H. Mish, the museum—which is funded by memberships, donations and admission fees—receives upwards of ten-thousand visitors a year. Approximately one-quarter of those are somehow connected to the industry—the kind of individuals who read Tow Times, American Towman or On Call 24/7, business-to-business magazines that serve the industry. Certainly it’s insiders that are most appreciative of the vehicles on display, including the olive drab Diamond T wrecker that was used by the U.S. military during World War II, not to mention the largest mechanical wrecker ever built, a 70-ton prototype that was never put into production.
Devoted professionals are also drawn to the Hall of Fame gallery, a long hallway featuring photographs of everyone who has been enshrined in the industry’s hall of fame, which will count 275 members this coming September with the addition of five new inductees. And virtually everyone appreciates the huge collection of towing-related toys, as well as the model tow trucks and service station memorabilia.
The Men and Women of Towing
What does it take to be honored by the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame? “You have to be in the industry for at least twenty years,” attests Shrum, but beyond that the requirements seem nebulous. “You also have to be an outstanding person,” she continues, noting that potential inductees must be nominated by a member of the museum, at which point the Board of Directors considers the candidate’s résumé and determines whether or not they will be inducted.
While the hall of fame effectively highlights the achievements of the titans of the industry, the most important aspect of the museum’s mission is educating the public about the importance of and challenges of the work being done by the thousands of men and women who, day in and day out, get the job done without much fanfare. In this regard, most visitors find the museum an eye-opening experience, says Mish. “A lot of visitors come to the understanding that it’s a much larger industry than they realized,” she begins. “They also don’t recognize that towing and recovery is a very hazardous occupation,” at least not until they come face-to-face with the Wall of the Fallen memorial (located just outside the museum’s front entrance), which honors those killed in the line of duty.
As for the dangers involved, it’s more than just the fact that upwards of fifty individuals are struck and killed every year by oncoming traffic—mostly by drunk drivers. Repossessors, for instance, are frequently assaulted (or even shot) by aggrieved vehicle owners, which perhaps explains why Tow Times recently published a “Repossessor Special” that featured tips on confrontation avoidance techniques.
In an effort to assist those that have lost a loved one on the side of the road, the museum has established a survivor fund, which provides monies (up to $1,500) for funeral expenses or other emergency needs. For better or worse, though, it seems unlikely that the public will ever fully appreciate the individuals who provide roadside service. “People just don’t think about the towing industry at all,” laments Mish. “Until they need a tow.”