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International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum parked in Chattanooga


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CHATTANOOGA — One day in 1916, businessman John A. Wiley Sr. was motoring along Old Byrd’s Mill Road and wound up steering his Model T Ford off the road. He quickly found himself and his tin lizzie upside down in South Chickamauga Creek.

Walking away from the accident, he called local mechanic Ernest Holmes Sr. and asked if he would extract his vehicle from the creek bed. Thinking it to be a quick fix, the garage owner agreed. With the assistance of eight men, it was six hours later before Holmes, using block and tackle, retrieved the crumpled car from the creek.

Exasperated, Holmes thought there must be an easier way.


The result?


Within a month or so, he designed a simple machine with hand-crank winches: the first tow truck.


Holmes assembled his first wrecker in 1917 and patented it in 1918, and that made him the father of modern towing and Chattanooga the birthplace of the tow truck.


Since 1995, the “Scenic City” has been the site of the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum, a place that, if you love vintage vehicles, will pick you up. It sits at the foot of Lookout Mountain, about three miles from where Holmes had his garage. The museum was birthed by the Friends of Towing which originally transported towing artifacts and memorabilia in a semi-trailer to towing and recovery industry trade shows across the country.




“I love the fact that we are preserving history for this industry,” said museum general manager Cathy Brumgard, “We have 23 fully restored tow trucks on site, and we have the exact replica of the first tow truck built. We’ve got two levels of galleries, upstairs and down. I also like to tell people we have a fully restored WWII tow truck that had been on the beaches of Normandy. It was given to the French government, and some tow truck lovers in the States knew about it and brought it back over and restored it.




“We also have the world’s largest toy truck collection along with a really a great collection of pedal-car trucks. We probably have a couple of thousand toy trucks.”


Sharing more of the history behind how Holmes, an interior decorator, made that first tow truck by putting the hydraulics on the foundation of a 1913 Cadillac, Brumgard said, “We know from the writing of his wife, Hattie, that Ernest always wanted to be a mechanic, and his parents told him ‘no.’ He went on to get an engineering degree through correspondence.


“When he was ready to hit the work force, he ended up at Loveman’s, a department store here in Chattanooga. He did all kinds of things, working as a handyman, in sales and wherever they needed him, but he was very unhappy, and his wife knew it. She received a family inheritance and with some of that money she helped set him up in a garage downtown.”


Being a mechanic, Holmes was called to haul wrecked cars from accident sites and off the side of the mountain. Retrieving vehicles was time consuming, so he began to think of a better way, which led him to his patented wrecker, an apparatus that featured an iron chain, a pulley and several metal poles, which he attached to the back of his Caddy.


His wrecker business boomed so much that by 1923 he and a brother had 70 employees working for them. By the late 1930s and early ’40s, he began to mass produce tow trucks in Rossville, Ga.


Brumgard said that Holmes tow trucks continue to be produced today in Chattanooga by Miller Industries, the world’s largest producer of tow trucks, and that their latest wrecker can lift 100 tons.


As for the original Holmes tow truck, Brumgard reported, “The first one was burned up in a fire. The one here in the museum is owned by the Pellow family of St. Paul, Minn., and is on loan and was built to specification to the original blueprint.”


Holmes and company went on to build thousands of more wreckers over the decades including the six-wheel drive Diamond T Wrecker with Holmes W45 twin-boom equipment, and the museum holds one of these that landed on the beaches of Normandy.


“He made over 7,200 W45s for WWII, which was used in Red Ball Express (the supply line created following the invasion of Normandy to bring supplies and maintain roads for the front lines). When WWII really ramped up, all of Holmes’ assets were more or less frozen and he was only allowed to make tow trucks for the U.S. government,” Brumgard said.

On the fleeter side, the museum is home to the world’s fastest wrecker, which set a record average speed of 109.333 miles per hour on Aug. 1, 1979, at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Ala.




More than trucks

Besides the gorgeously restored wreckers from across the years, the museum displays historic photographs, tools and other memorabilia. These include quite a few tools used by Holmes, a batch of restored gasoline pumps and even several tow-related quilts.


“We had passed here a lot. At first, I scratched my head: tow truck museum? But then we came in to tour the place and learn the history and see the old tow trucks — things you don’t know about, like tow trucks started in Chattanooga. It’s fun and brings out the kid in you.”




Member owned and governed by a board of directors, the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum has several objectives. Obviously, it collects, restores and displays artifacts and memorabilia related to the industry and also provides an information center for the public regarding the towing and recovery industry’s contributions to society.


Near the front of the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum is the Wall of the Fallen, a memorial to those who have lost their lives in the line of service. Currently, 529 names are enshrined on the wall and 26 more names will be added at the next Wall of the Fallen ceremony at 10 a.m. Oct. 8. The museum’s survivor fund also provides financial support to the families of those who died while serving the public.



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