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That old truck: a love-hate relationship with my summer camp’s 1.5-ton Ford stakebed

Published in blog.hemmings.com

I had a love-hate relationship with this Ford 1.5-ton pickup truck. It took me from one end of Vermont to the other during the summer of 1955. My friends and I held on for our lives. Photos by Jonathan Booraem, except where noted.

There were moments when I hated—and loved—that old truck.

It was a long time ago—64 years—and my memory is fading, but I’m almost certain it was a 1.5-ton Ford made between 1945 and 1947. I do remember it had a flathead V-8 that probably displaced 221 cubic inches and put out 85 horsepower. And jutting from the floorboard was a long gearshift rod with black knob at the end that stirred three forward gears and reverse.

It could really pull on steep grades, gears whining and complaining when its driver made hard, grinding shifts (the result of a worn clutch). It was noisy, too. A blatting muffler, clunky, rock-stiff suspension and rattling wood rails startled cows, horses, rabbits and other wildlife living along dirt roads bisecting fields lined with stone walls.

It was summer 1955. Looking back, I’d like to once again stand on that flatbed, friends surrounding me and holding on for dear life. It was a magical year that saw me take an eight-hour train ride from New York City’s Grand Central Station along the Hudson River’s banks north to Albany. The views were spectacular. On one side was the enormous, winding river, and on the other were tall rock cliffs that hung menacingly over the train. I was among hundreds of excited boys and girls on their annual pilgrimage to New England summer camps nestled in the Adirondack, Catskill, White and Green Mountains.

It was late afternoon when the train arrived at the Albany station, which was quiet, devoid of people and vehicles, and resembled an abandoned movie set. Most passengers had disembarked earlier and I wondered why the station was deserted. Then I spotted the truck near the tracks and thought it looked “ancient.” It wasn’t, of course, but my 11-year-old perceptions had been conditioned by finned, chrome-adorned vehicular behemoths of the early 1950s.

Its driver looked old, too. Wearing overalls, skin weathered by sun and wind, and hair prematurely whitened by decades of hard work, his soft, firm voice commanded attention.

My old-truck adventure started at New York City’s massive Grand Central Station in 1955. The train ride to Albany, NY, paralleled the Hudson River’s cliffs to Albany. Image via AmericanRail.

“If you’re here for Camp Sangamon, welcome and come this way,” said Leone Smith, the camp’s patriarch and director. About a dozen boys and I struggled to lift heavy footlockers to the truck’s flatbed and were told to “hop aboard.” This was to be my first ride on an open truck with high side rails.

It was a different time
It took muscle and coordination to scale the wood rails and climb into the truck. The flatbed was at least three feet above the ground, and the top rail added another four feet. There were no steps or ladder. Boards creaked and bent as you pulled your body upward, one foot planted on the outside rear wheel and both hands gripping the first rail. Finally, straddling the top rail with your legs, carefully protecting the “family jewels,” you swung your leg over and made the leap down to the flatbed.

After the truck pulled onto the highway, the cool, rushing air was bracing as it pushed back the hair I once had and chilled the skin. The truck barreled north along unlit two-lane farm roads as the sun set and the temperature dropped.

What an adventure. I had no idea where we were heading but remember seeing a “Welcome to Vermont” sign. Miles and miles later, we turned off the paved highway and started a long climb up a dirt road flanked by trees, rock walls, and enormous fields.

The truck’s engine chugged in low gear as it strained, pulling us along at about 10 miles per hour. Finally reaching the top, we made an abrupt left turn on a single-lane dirt road and passed an old wood sign, paint faded, with “Camp Sangamon” written on its weathered surface. Crickets sang and bullfrogs croaked somewhere in the distance. The moon darted behind trees in the thick forest.

Leone Smith (bottom row, second from left) and his wife, Eleanor (bottom row, fourth from left), operated Camp Sangamon, a boy’s camp set deep in the Vermont woods. Leone and his son, Larry (in between his parents), really knew how to drive that old Ford truck. Photo from the author’s collection.

I could see lights in the distance between the trees. The truck pulled into a clearing circled by old buildings including a lodge that had started as an early 1900s house but had expanded to many times its original size over the decades. A dilapidated barn, rusted tractor, and a little barking dog named Trippy completed the picture.

A sweet, grandmotherly woman wearing an apron greeted us with a big smile.

“Hello, boys…welcome!” she said. “Climb down and let’s get acquainted.” Mr. Smith’s wife, Eleanor, became our surrogate “mother” for the next eight weeks. After introductions in the dark, we were guided, flashlights in hand and stumbling, along a rocky trail to primitive cabins with fireplaces. After spreading our sleeping bags on double-deck beds that had no mattresses, just canvas stretched between wood poles, it didn’t take long for us to crash into deep slumber.

The camp’s primitive wood cabins had bunks with no mattresses. Instead, canvas was stretched between wood poles. A fireplace kept us warm during cool nights. Photo via Camp Sangamon.

Double-duty truck
In the days and weeks that followed, I realized Mr. Smith had a strong affection for the “green beast” with dual rear wheels. It was his workhorse that hauled firewood, tools, and buckets used in the production of maple syrup. He and his family distilled the syrup from the sap of abundant maple trees. Area pioneers for as long as anyone could remember, they refined the sap into the finest syrup and candies I ever tasted.

He probably bought the truck around the time World War II ended in 1945. The War Production Board told Ford it could resume production of its heavy-duty trucks for commercial sale that May. These were basically the same trucks the company sold in 1942, but were beefed up and their V-8 engines were made stronger.

Ford was given permission by the War Production Board to resume manufacture and sale of pre-WW-II trucks in late 1945. This was about the time Mr. Smith bought his. Photo via Blue Oval Trucks.

Sometime in the 1920s, while raising three sons and a daughter in the original house on 400 acres, Leone and Eleanor started Camp Sangamon for boys ages 5 to 15. The property had sufficient pasture for milk cows and horses. It also bordered a small, spring-fed lake, Burr Pond, formed by the same glaciers that carved out Vermont’s Green Mountains. It was hardly a “pond.” About a mile wide, the spring-fed lake was a sight to behold. Vermont’s finest mountains enclosed it and their reflections danced on the deep-blue, 60-degree water.

The camp started small with only a few boys, but by the time I showed up it had grown to more than 100 youngsters and counselors. Our days were spent swimming, doing farm chores and participating in baseball games, horseback riding, archery, fishing, canoeing, and tennis.

Vermont’s awesome mountains
Hailing from flat New Jersey, I was awestruck when I first viewed Vermont’s mountains. Several were more than 4,000 feet and had mysterious names such as Pico, Killington, Camel’s Hump, and Mansfield. Before summer’s end, I climbed them all and several others. Thursday mornings were a military drill as we donned hiking clothing, stout boots and mosquito repellent, then loaded the old truck with food and provisions.

Nestled among Vermont’s green mountains, Burr Pond was always cold and shriveled my body parts. Minnows constantly nibbled at toes as I mastered swimming skills.

Imagine standing on that flatbed between boxes filled with food and equipment, ranging from tents and sleeping bags to lanterns and first aid kits, and being sandwiched among as many as 20 boys. It was tight and it was a good thing I was skinny.

We never thought about safety. In fact, it was the last thing on our minds. Although the truck often had to stop quickly, my companions and I were never thrown down or over the sides to the pavement. What I hated, however, were the bugs—bees, wasps, crickets, and flies—that frequently flew into our open mouths and eyes. Coughing up bugs became routine; bugs in eyes required the camp nurse’s attention.

You got strong legs standing in the truck, shifting your balance from one foot to the other depending on curves in the road. Holding the rails built hand and arm strength. We often raised and lowered our arms rapidly to encourage truck drivers to blow their horns.

Driving into nearby Rutland on Saturday nights, we’d stop at a drive-in and buy triple-decker cones. Imagine the mess when a melting cone got jammed into a mouth or against someone’s back when the truck lurched. Soda bottles and milkshakes weren’t allowed.

The bucolic Camp Sangamon summers lasted from 1955 to 1958. Those were the “Eisenhower years,” a period of harmony and incredible growth in America that saw the development of our immense federal highway system.

I missed that old truck when it was replaced by a newer model at the start of the 1957 season. The new truck had a modern, overhead-valve V-8 and was much faster. It cornered and stopped better, too, which made it safer.

But it would never replace that old truck in my mind.

That old truck was replaced by this Ford in 1957. It was faster, cornered and stopped better, and was safer.