Cordova Chronicles: If Wheels Could Talk

Like all things ancient, the little Ford has quite a history

An excited Bill Bernard stands by his 1932 Ford truck as Wendall Padulla prepared to start it by hand crank. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/The Cordova Times

A few weeks ago I was driving out Whitshed Road, trying to watch the speedometer to make sure I wasn’t breaking any speed limits. In case you haven’t noticed, in the mile stretch starting at the intersection in front of the high school and ending at the turnoff to Whiskey Ridge road, the speed limit changes six times: 20-40-25-35-25-35.

I discovered this after being pulled over by Police Chief Mike Hicks, who took great delight in using flashing lights and siren, perhaps so my wife across Odiak Slough would see it was hers truly being ticketed.

Fortunately, as we all know, officer Hicks is a good-natured guy, and I think it was payback for a bad call I made while officiating his daughter’s basketball game 20 years ago. After I pointed one way to a sign that said 35 mph and the other way one that said 25 mph, he let me off with a warning.

Despite careful attention to the various signs, something shiny blue off to the right caught my eye. Glancing over, there was Bill Bernard and Wendall Dadulla putzing around a small Ford pickup.

I pulled over, and stepped back into an era when trucks would be hard pressed to break any of the speed limits on Whitshed road. The duo was examining a 1932 Ford one-and-a-half-ton pickup that Bill has faithfully been restoring in his nearby garage.

The engine compartment side hoods were up, and Dadulla was about to try the hand crank. I assumed they were having trouble getting it started.

“Look out,” counseled Bernard. “It starts real easy, and that crank will take your hand off.”

Turns out the compact 4-cylinder engine fires off routinely using battery-powered ignition, and Wendall just wanted to see what it was like to start a car by hand.

Like all things ancient, the little Ford has quite a history – which I was about to hear.  And I love oral history, which soon transitions to folklore.

How did the truck get to Cordova? Well, by being accidentally dropped overboard at the Ocean Dock.

“It was an insurance job,” said Bernard. “The truck was supposed to go somewhere else, but when they were offloading stuff, it was dumped in the bay. So they recovered it, and sold it to the highest bidder, the Service Transfer, which was run by Bill O’Brien at that time.”

Dan Glasen, whose father Dar Glasen eventually ended up with the truck, verified this story. “Don’t you remember? They used to unload freight using cranes or ship’s rigging, and were dropping things all the time. This time it just happened to land in the water instead of on the dock.”

The small four cylinder engine barely had enough horsepower to haul a 500 gallon fuel tank up Cordova’s hills. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/The Cordova Times

Actually, I do remember. For a few years, I worked for Charlie Nestor’s long shore crew, and all the supplies for Cordova were offloaded onto the dock in wooden “cribs” on pallets, which were then hauled by forklift into a long Alaska Steam warehouse. The cribs were opened, and all the boxes inside were stacked under signs for various local businesses. Then each business had to come down and pick them up.

Every now and then the labor force would accidentally drop a box of candy bars or other goodies near the Davis Superfoods or K&E Foodland signs. Hmmm. It was noteworthy that the section for all the local bars was enclosed in wire mesh, with a padlock on the door to protect loss of supplies for the 13 pubs and liquor stores that lined Main Street.

The back of the small pickup was a wooden flatbed.

“It actually had dual rear tires,” Bernard said. “And can you believe it was used to haul oil to many of the old buildings in Cordova, including the Windsor, the club, the post office, city hall and the high school up across from Urata’s dental office.”

“There was a 500 gallon tank cabled on to the back of the truck, and the furnaces burned crude oil, which flowed so slow by gravity feed it sometimes took four to eight hours to deliver,” Glasen said. “In fact, drivers would start it flowing, and then come back several hours later to see how full the tanks were getting.

“I remember one time Mildred O’Brien called and asked why Bill hadn’t come home for lunch. Turns out he had fallen asleep while delivering oil.”

Just getting up the hills to some of the fuel stops was a challenge. The 1932 Ford Model BB was one of the first successors to the classic Model A, and produced 50 horsepower.  Five hundred gallons of crude weighs 3,600 pounds.

Both Connie and Maryland Johnson worked for O’Brien in the ’30s.

“The high school hill was so steep the truck couldn’t make it up without stalling,” Mayland said. “So Bill would sit in the truck, rev up the engine and pop the clutch. It would climb about five feet. I ran behind with blocking to put under the back wheels each time it stopped. It took awhile, but eventually we made it.”

“I would be just as scared getting it down the hill,” Bernard said. “There was no such thing as hydraulic brakes back then, it was all mechanical.”

Eventually bigger and better delivery trucks became available. In fact, Ford engineers replaced the 4-cylinder engine with their first V8’s the following year. After sitting outside in the weather for years, the small truck was placed in storage at the back of the cement block building that is now North Star Lumber. Dar’s son Don Glasen began the restoration project. Bernard said Larry Kritchen was instrumental in helping him continue the project and also find spare parts.

Eighty-five years later, heating technology and fuel delivery methods have surely changed. The blue ’32 Ford’s days of hauling crude are over, but it still can fire up and deliver many a fond tale.

And anyone who says “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” is exactly right.

About people or trucks.

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and third place in 2017.