Keep on trucking
By Knolan Benfield (text and photos)
In 1932, when most folks were just trying to survive the Great Depression, Grier Beam, with a degree in animal husbandry and poultry from N.C. State University, returned home to Cherryville. But there were no jobs there. He eventually found a job in Florida, but because of the Depression, that didn’t last long. He returned to Cherryville unemployed.
With a $500 loan from his father, a farmer, young Grier bought a used one-and-a-half-ton Chevy truck and started his own business. He’d drive that old truck to Florida where he’d buy fresh fruit that he hauled back to Cherryville to sell on the street corner. He still wasn’t making much money, so he sold his services to the Lincoln County Schools hauling coal.
Grier persistently searched for someone who needed something hauled someplace and could pay for it. When a cotton mill contracted him to do their hauling, it was the break he needed. He’d haul yarn north and other products back down south. He purchased a second truck, then a third. Beam Trucking Company was rolling now.
Men were glad to drive for the new company since few of them had work. One of the first drivers for Beam Trucking was Ralf Self. I spent a delightful time listening to his widow, Blanch Self, tell about the early days of Beam Trucking. When I met her she was 96. She has since passed away, but here is some of what she told me about the good old days of trucking.
“As soon as a job came up a driver would leave. He’d take off for New York City or some such place. The wives didn’t work back then. We stayed home and raised the kids. I’d fix some sardine sandwiches and beans for my husband for a trip. The drivers got paid $12 to $15 for the whole trip. Might be gone for up to a week, and they had to pay their own expenses. They just slept in the truck. Had to wait for a load to haul back. You just never knew. Didn’t have any trouble getting drivers. Nobody had a job, and they were glad to get the work.”
Their trucks would haul anything that paid: potatoes, beer, roofing materials, candy, whatever. And it didn’t matter if the haul was long or short, they carried it.
In 1937 Beam Trucking incorporated as Carolina Freight Carriers Corporation. They kept adding trucks, people and hauling contracts until it became one of the 10 largest trucking companies in the U.S. with over 11,000 employees. They kept on trucking for over 60 years. There were bumper stickers that read: “Nothing could be finer than to ship by Carolina in the morning.”
When Carolina Freight celebrated 50 years in business in 1982, they started the C. Grier Beam Truck Museum in Cherryville as a memorial, with trucks restored in the company shops. The museum is committed to preserving the history of trucking. Grier Beam passed away in 1992. Carolina Freight Carriers was acquired by Arkansas Best Corp. in 1995, and the operation left Cherryville, but the museum remained.
On permanent display are 14 of those restored trucks. The oldest dates back to 1928. The museum is located in Cherryville, about 35 miles northwest of Charlotte. Blanch Self was the first manager of the museum, and she ran the place until 1988.