My personal tale about my father and my love for International Scouts that appeared in The Journal Gazette on Dec. 16, 2018, may have started the Harvester Homecoming charity and its inaugural festival set for Saturday.
Though my father was part of that first story, Homecoming isn't about him or my family. My dad didn't work at International Harvester – an employment stalwart in Fort Wayne from 1923 to 1983 – nor did my grandfather, uncle, cousin or anyone else on my family tree. I also didn't grow up here. I just loved my truck and have grown, over my 20 years here, to love the city where it was built.
Harvester Homecoming – the charity and festival, which debuts Saturday – is about a great company, the great trucks it produced in Fort Wayne and the great people who worked there.
After raising the needed funds and drawing hundreds of truck enthusiasts, hopefully thousands of former employees and other interested folks will attend this event and garner a lot of attention to facilities the city had buried in its past for far too long.
The onetime “Heavy-Duty Truck Capital of the World” and the birthplace of the legendary International Scout had a bitter end to production when the last truck rolled off the line in 1983. Pain was felt again when the remaining Navistar jobs in the Truck Design and Technology Center on Meyer Road were moved to Chicago, but it did not have the same financial impact on the city. I was not here in 1983 to see the devastation. But I knew those truck facilities were the stuff of legend.
I learned to drive on my grandfather's farm, and there were big International trucks among the fleet. As a young boy traveling the highways with my parents, I would signal to passing semis to honk their horns. Back then, many of them carried that IH logo and many of them were built right here.
The facilities didn't just produce trucks, they built the Midwest in a lot of ways. Semi tractors, big delivery trucks, dump trucks, wreckers – they all came from here, too.
I don't want that to be forgotten, which is why I started this project.
Early on, before the Harvester Homecoming nonprofit was officially formed and approved, it was the little guys who pitched in $100 or $200 because they knew the history and they believed in it. And it was the International truck community that climbed aboard for the ride in droves. They were as excited as I was about this epic day.
It was Nelson Lemmond of IH Gear who helped me contact Navistar representatives and simply solid folks who love and collect the trucks from all parts of the country. He also made some pretty awesome gear for the show.
It was guys like Lenny Ohnmeiss of Cogan Station, Pennsylvania, who was the first to buy a ticket to the festival – before it was even public knowledge – and who was excited to bring his 1913 Model MW high-wheeler and his trailer full of rare collectibles for all to see.
And there was former IH dealer George Mitchell from Clyde, Ohio, who committed to bringing my choice of the rare vehicles from his vast collection.
They are all friends now. And there are many more.
Jerry Betley, whom I interviewed for my first article, is a 40-year Harvester employee who has been by my side through it all. He has been my sounding board, my adviser, the vice president of our charity and my teacher. His sister, Bonnie Hilsmier, another longtime IH employee who met her husband and former IH executive, Larry, while working there, has gone the extra mile to make everything just right for the employee memorabilia displays, the silent auction and the truck entry cards.
Everyone told me to get in touch with Howard Pletcher. The smartest man I know when it comes to the Fort Wayne facilities' history is a living encyclopedia of IH.
Levi Gleixner, another longtime IH employee who volunteers at the National Automotive and Truck Museum – or NATMUS as it is commonly called – in Auburn offered to help in any way he could.
Before I could even ask whether NATMUS director Dave Yarde and Brandon Anderson of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum wanted to be involved, Yarde interrupted and simply asked, “You ready to go downstairs (to the International Harvester Gallery) and pick out what you want us to bring?”
The volunteers got inspired at NATMUS, and some relics in that collection were brought back to life. I cried as I watched the Endeavor III, a world-record diesel semi for all intents and purposes, roar for the first time in 15 years on a video the museum posted that said they were getting it ready for Harvester Homecoming.
That video found its way to Otis Orchards, Washington, and Mike McCombs, who drove the Endeavor during those record runs. He will be there alongside it Saturday – and will be honoring his late father, Doug, who was the leader of the Endeavor racing team.
Another NATMUS video that came not long after filled me with joy. It featured Pletcher driving the 1910 Autowagon that was once on display in the Truck Design Center. They got it running for the first time in 12 years for Homecoming.
I have also had the pleasure of working with automotive journalist Jim Allen, who co-wrote the “International Scout Encyclopedia” with John Glancy of Super Scout Specialists in Enon, Ohio. Allen has helped assemble one of the most impressive arrays of Scouts ever for this show. And Glancy, who is celebrating his 30th IH Scout and All-Truck Nationals gathering on Aug. 16-18, is taking time out of planning his show to be here and offer his support.
But the most touching memories were created by the generosity of former Scout factory employee and New Haven native Phil Coonrod, who opened his shop and his heart to this project, me and my family. My 16-year-old son, Payton, went to work on weekends for Coonrod. When I arrived to pick my boy up at the end of his first day of work and the legendary Scout parts supplier opened the garage, there was my son looking just like me when I was his age in my garage with my dad working on my first Scout.
Coonrod, who has been a part of the Rocky Mountain Rendevous IH truck gathering at his winter home in Kremmling, Colorado, for more than 25 years, sat in on our first meeting like everyone's uncle providing sage advice and keeping us from getting too overzealous. He, and Rendevous' attorney Patrick Schilken, who is making the trip from Colorado to be at Homecoming, were invaluable.
Don Cates of Three Rivers Federal Credit Union – which was originally International Harvester Credit Union – didn't even think about it when I asked him to be our pilot sponsor. This never would have happened without him and the credit union's gift that came when this was just a little idea.
The Tippmann family donated the Scout Conference Center and their property for the event.
Bill Bean intimidated me a bit, but that quickly melted away when we discussed the event and the charity. The man who owns or has owned many restaurants I have reviewed opened the Proving Grounds to us.
And I can't forget Chuck Surack, of course. He pledged his help not long after Cates and, aside from making a generous donation to the charity, has given me some great advice.
One note – on a comment section of a story by Hemmings Motor News – sticks out more than any other in describing what this event means to those with a history with the Fort Wayne truck works. It draws tears every time I read it.
“I grew up in the shadow of the Fort Wayne plant, on Shadybrook Drive. My dad worked there from the early 1960s until the plant closed; he then retired from the Springfield plant in the mid 2000s. Many of my childhood memories are related to the sights, sounds and smells of that facility. The whistle, the workers rushing out at the end of their shift, the sound of the foundry hammers at night, riding my Stingray around the truck and Scout holding lots, Christmas music being played from the Tower, and sitting on the fire hydrant at the south end of Shadybrook Drive waiting for my dad to walk out of the gate. It is really nice to see that the men and women, as well as the company, are being acknowledged by the community. I completely understand any hard feelings that were harbored towards IH-Navistar by the community, I lived through it, it was rough, but I am glad to see it may be time to let it go and celebrate the legacy. Ryan, I plan to attend with my dad, and hopefully his grandchildren, so they can get a sense of their heritage and see the old place surrounded by shiny paint and chrome, as I still see it in my memory.”
That's what Harvester Homecoming is really about – helping to restore the legacy of the plant workers and those amazing International Harvester facilities. It's time to recognize and celebrate this vital part of Fort Wayne's past.
Ryan DuVall is the restaurant critic and a 20-year employee of The Journal Gazette. He is the founding executive director of Harvester Homecoming Inc. and owns a 1976 International Scout Traveler. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call at 461-8130. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.