Meet me in Chicago

          One of the most enjoyable stories my father told about his childhood concerned the trip his extended family took from their home in Mt. Olive, NC to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. Today, the prospect of such a journey, even with interstate highways and reliable automobiles, would terrify most parents. The only explanation is that Dad’s father and two uncles had no idea how preposterous their plan to go Chicago really was. But full of optimism, the three brothers, Headley, R. L., and Allen Cox, got together and hatched a plan to take their families plus an assortment of others on a road trip to the Chicago World’s Fair.

          The vehicles to make the journey were supplied by my grandfather and consisted of a Studebaker truck and a brand new 1932 touring-style Ford automobile. The truck was used in my grandfather’s business, buying and selling mules, and was large enough to accommodate eight mules. It had canvas sides that could be rolled up or down, depending on the weather. The Ford was the first family-priced automobile in the United States to have a V-8 engine and brakes on all four wheels. Footnote

Like so many other hair-brained schemes, once word spread of the Chicago trip, everyone wanted in. Eventually, four persons from outside the three immediate families were selected to come along. My grandfather’s faithful truck driver, Wade Weeks, promised if he was allowed to come along he would drive the truck and set up camp every night. A black neighbor, Pete Hill, promised if he was allowed to come along, he would do all the cooking and cleaning up. Headley’s wife, Aunt Frank, invited her niece, Elizabeth Oliver, a local school teacher. With these three additions, the group set off from Mt. Olive, NC on a fine summer morning before dawn, stopping in Raleigh for lunch and to pick up the fourth and last addition to the party, the niece of R.L.’s wife Winnie, Carolyn Small.

          The destination of the first day’s travel was Bluefield, WV. They arrived in Bluefield on schedule and camped at a local farm. But something else also arrived upon reaching Bluefield--doubt. That night, the three brothers, Headley, R. L., and Allen, finally realized the full import of what they were trying to do and began to appreciate all the ways the trip could go terribly wrong. They were on the verge of canceling the entire trip, when their wives intervened. In the finest tradition of the American frontier, the wives steadied their husbands and assured them that if the pioneers could make the journey in covered wagons, then they could do it with automobiles and paved roads. The farmer with whom they were staying also stiffened everyone’s resolve by stating that he was so excited about their trip, that he would take the place of anyone who wanted to drop out. Footnote

So the next morning they set off for Chicago with renewed enthusiasm and with perhaps a better appreciation of the task ahead of them.

          The plan was to reach Chicago quickly and save any sightseeing for the return trip. But, this did not mean the outward leg was uneventful. While the adventures were many, only a few will be told here. The V-8 in the Ford had a design defect that the engineers in the flat-lands of Detroit never foresaw. However, this defect was fully exposed by the Appalachian Mountains. Gasoline flowed by gravity to the carburetor on the V-8 from a glass fuel reservoir. Going up a very steep hill resulted in the glass bowl being lower than the carburetor. Because gasoline will not flow uphill, the Ford lost power going up steep hills. While the exact angle where fuel flow ceased was never calculated, the roads in the Appalachian Mountains were in excess of this critical angle. With a resourcefulness that would have made their pioneer ancestors proud, the three brothers hit upon a solution that, while not elegant, was simple and effective. Upon reaching the a steep hill, they turned the car around, put it in reverse and backed up the hill. Given the winding and poor conditions of the roads, having to stop and back up steep hills was not as much of a delay as travelers of today might think.

          Perhaps the best thought out part of the entire trip was the nightly camping arrangements. The three brothers had arranged for Leon Britt, the local blacksmith, to fabricate a cast iron grill for cooking. Two heavy cast iron frying pans were purchased for cooking atop the grill. While Pete Hill was the chief cook, R. L. loved to cook and “supervised” the preparation of every meal. Meals were served on a folding table long enough to seat everyone. When bedtime arrived, a surplus World War I tent was erected next to the truck. Surplus army cots were set up in the tent and the women and girls slept there. The men and boys slept on hay piled in the back of the truck. Shelves immediately behind the truck cab were used store all the cots and cooking gear during the day.

          Another outbound adventure concerned fourteen-year-old Zach Cox on the morning after second night, which was spent in Indiana. While ever eager to help, young Zach did not appreciate all the nuances of automobile travel. Just before beginning the day’s journey, Zach was asked by his father, R. L., to retrieve something from the trunk of the Ford. To do this R. L. gave Zach the car keys. Zach went to the car and opened the trunk. Upon realizing it would take both hands to retrieve the requested object, Zach put the keys in his pocket, picked up the item, and delivered it to his father. Zach then hopped into the back of the flatbed truck, snuggled down, and promptly went to sleep with the keys still in his pocket. With Zach still asleep, the truck drove off leaving R. L. and Headley with the women and the girls at the Ford. Just about the time the truck pulled out of sight, R. L. realized he didn’t have the keys. Fortunately, after about fifteen miles, Zach woke up and discovered the keys in his pocket. Wade turned the truck around and retraced the route back to the immobile Ford. Zach surrendered the keys and was scolded. But Zach has always felt that it wasn’t his fault that his father had started a cross-country trip with only one set of keys to the car.

          In addition to serving as the chief cook and bottle washer, Pete Hill also kept all the boys in the back of the truck amused with tales from his travels about the country. Pete, like Wade, had spent many years driving produce trucks from Mt. Olive to practically every city in the North. The boys stood looking out the sides of the truck at the wonders passing by and Pete would have a funny story about practically everything they saw.

          On the third day of travel, they reached Chicago. In 1933, Chicago was the architectural marvel of the world. The beauty of its skyscrapers outshone anything New York City had to offer. Further heightening its splendor, it was located on an absolutely flat plain that extended for dozens of miles in all directions from Lake Michigan. Driving towards Chicago across that plain and seeing the distant towering spires of the Wrigley Building and the gothic majesty of the Tribune Tower must have been a sight that the travelers would never forget. Upon getting closer, they must have also seen the broad shoulders of the recently completed Merchandise Mart, the largest building in the world until surpassed by the Pentagon fifteen years later.

          But the thrill of reaching Chicago was dampened somewhat by the discovery, upon their arrival, that they had nowhere to stay. Each time they stopped and inquired about lodgings they were told either that the campground was full or that their group was too large to be accommodated. After once again being rebuffed, Headley noticed that the owner of a campground was wearing a ring. A question was asked. An answer given. The owner and all three brothers exchanged handshakes. What Headley had noticed was that the owner was wearing a Masonic ring. Upon confirming that he was a Mason and revealing that all three brothers were also Masons, the campground owner agreed to reconsider his refusal. Not only did he allow them to set up camp next to the showers and bathrooms, but he pointed out a boarding house next to the campground where the women and girls could stay. The women moved into the boarding house, and the men moved to the tents and cots that the women had used on the road.

          There was only one hitch in the plan. The owner of the campground pointed to the black cook, Pete Hill, and firmly stated, “I don’t allow Negroes to stay here. I don’t mind them, but my other campers won’t stand for it.” Upon hearing this, Pete replied with a wit quicker than any of the three brothers, “Why I’m not a Negro, I’m a Red Indian.” Pete was somewhat light-skinned and did have a Cherokee ancestor. The campground owner laughed and said OK. With this final problem out of the way, the group settled down to unpack, organize, and get ready for the time of their lives.

          While many of the details of the wonders they saw while at the World’s Fair are lost from memory, a few stories have always stuck with me. In a remarkable display of parental indulgence, Zach, age 14, his brother Bob, age 16, and their cousin Morris, age 17, were turned loose every morning to roam the fairgrounds as they saw fit with only three restrictions: they had to stay together, they had to be back for supper each day, and they couldn’t go to Sally Rand’s show. Footnote

          The first morning they were set free, the boys immediately stumbled across the Quaker Oats pavilion. Inside this pavilion was a duplicate of the breakfast counter from the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition that had made Aunt Jemima a household name throughout the country. To heighten the authenticity, working behind the counter was a woman who was a dead ringer for Nancy Green, who had originated the Aunt Jemima role at the 1893 Exposition. For a dime, the boys could get all the pancakes they could eat. The woman portraying Aunt Jemima was from North Carolina and took an immediate liking to the boys. They faithfully showed up each morning as the pavilion opened and she not only served them pancakes, but made them drink their milk and refused to serve them coffee.

          Just as the St. Louis World’s Exposition solidified the place of “Little Egypt, Queen of the Nile” in America’s consciousness, the 1933 World’s Fair did the same for Sally Rand. Zach, Bob, and Morris’ parents were forewarned of Sally Rand’s show at the World’s Fair and specifically prohibited the boys from even walking past it. But, boys will be boys. After a brief reconnaissance, the boys ascertained the price of admission to see Sally Rand do her fan dance. The boys pooled their money and gave it to Morris to purchase the tickets. Money in hand, Morris went up to the ticket booth and in the deepest voice he could muster requested three tickets. Upon getting their tickets, the boys waited for thickest crush of people to enter the pavilion and passed within with their heads down, hoping to conceal their youthful appearance. But before they could get seated, they were confronted by the barker collecting tickets. He stopped the three boys, and asked, “How old are you?” While Morris could have passed for 21, both Zach and Bob knew they never could. Once they confessed they were under age, Morris followed suit. The barker collected the three and herded them back to the ticket booth. He reproved the ticket seller saying, “Give these boys back their money, and for God’s sake start paying attention to whom you’re selling tickets.”

          The boys’ disappointment was only momentary because there were so many other marvels to see at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933. The boys repeatedly went to see one of the first television sets ever displayed in public. At each television demonstration, a person from the audience was invited on stage to stand in front of a camera and appear on television. At one show, Bob was selected and became the first person in the Cox family to appear on TV. Footnote

Another frequent stop for the boys was a display where a $25,000 Duesenberg automobile was displayed. Footnote

They also repeatedly went to the train exhibit. Among the massive steam engines and fiery red cabooses was an exotic import from Germany, a diesel locomotive.

          Toward the end of their stay in Chicago, the parents decided that there were sights to see other than those on the Fair Grounds. In conjunction with the World’s Fair, many of Chicago’s industries had opened their gates to the public for tours. The extended Cox family and friends toured the gigantic Ford assembly plant on the banks of Lake Michigan. They surveyed the slaughter houses and meat packing plants of Chicago. And they went up the Chicago Sanitary Canal to visit the Municipal Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, still the largest water treatment plant in the world. The kids marveled at the recreated night skies under the dome of the Hayden Planetarium. Under protest, the children were all hauled into the Art Institute of Chicago. Much to the astonishment of every adult in the group, the children loved the paintings and had to be dragged out with only slightly less protest than had accompanied their entrance.

          After deciding that a trip to Chicago had to last either one week or five years and that there was nothing worth doing in between, the group packed up for home. Hardened by their weeks on the road, they were now seasoned travelers. True to their plan, they set a leisurely pace on the homeward leg of their journey. They stopped and toured Mammoth Cave in Western Kentucky. Footnote

At Mammoth Cave, they viewed eyeless fish and a multitude of stalactites and stalagmites. At one point, the tour guide announced that they were standing directly under the kitchen of the topside hotel. The tour guide then paused, waiting for the impertinence of youth that he knew was sure to come. Unwittingly, Zach played the role of the straight man and piped up, ”How do you know we are below the kitchen?” With practiced aplomb, the tour guide countered, “Why, we had a Methodist preacher in here last week and he smelled the fried chicken being cooked for supper.”

          After Mammoth Cave, they drove on to Nashville and toured Andrew Jackson’s home, the Hermitage. They then turned east and headed back home to North Carolina, once again backing the Ford over the steepest hills. They had planned on spending the night in Charlotte and touring its sites the next day. But that afternoon as they pulled into Charlotte, it started pouring down rain for the first time during the trip. The travelers, as if one, decided to skip Charlotte and push on home to Mt. Olive.


          Once back home, the group disbanded but remained united forever by their unforgettable trip to the Chicago World’s Fair.