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New book tells story of Clydesdale truck company

Tom Jackson • Jun 28, 2014 at 10:00 AM

A "Liberty Truck" made in Clyde links the town to one of the most important wars in history. 

World War I began 100 years ago next month, on July 28, 1914, a cataclysmic event that killed millions of people. 

A trucking company from Clyde, Clydesdale Motor Trucks, made hundreds of trucks that served during the war. The "Liberty Truck of Europe" was a big moment in the life of the company, which began in 1917 and didn't shut down for good until 1939.

A new book, "The Clydesdale Motor Truck Company," tells the story of the Clyde business, which made more than 5,000 trucks before closing its doors. It's written by Tiffany Willey Middletown, a Clyde native who now lives in Chicago, and James M. Semon, a Sandusky native who lives in Westlake.

They met when Semon gave a talk at the public library in Clyde. He'd previously mentioned to the librarian there that he was interested in writing a book on the trucks, and she  suggested he get in touch with Middletown. 

"During the first World War, they were doing great," said Semon, 74, who has written three other books, all on railroad topics. "When they were in Europe, they got a lot of high marks for durability."

The usefulness of trucks really didn't catch on in a big way until the First World War, said Middleton, 32, who has two degrees in history, including a master's from Case Western Reserve University. 

"World War I was really the first war where we saw trucks used," she said.

During the early decades of the 20th century, thousands of companies in the U.S. manufactured cars and trucks. 

Most of those companies reached the end of the road pretty quickly, but Clydesdale fought hard to survive. It went bankrupt in the mid-1920s, but investors bought it and kept it going. It went out of business in 1929 as the Depression set in, but there were two attempts to revive the company during the 1930s.

The two authors' skills complemented each other as they wrote the book.

Middleton, trained as a young academic historian, knew how to comb through Internet databases. She tracked down a patent that the company had for its engine governor.

"You could set a rate of speed and the engine would maintain that rate of speed, like a modern cruise control," she explained.

Digging through files at the National Archives office in Chicago, she also found the file for the company's 1924 bankruptcy.

Semon had been collecting Clydesdale Truck memorabilia, including photographs, since 1966. He even owns an ashtray that's a model of an early Clydesdale truck. Judging from the style of the body, the ashtray dates from 1920 or earlier, he said. 

Semon said that without Middleton's work, the truck book would likely have been more a technical guide to the trucks. Middleton's digging uncovered many of the human stories behind the truck, he said. 

"She found a lot of the auto shows with the Clydesdale. She found the leading salesman in New York City was a woman," he said. "It's actually a pretty readable story."

Semon, who has loved trucks, airplanes and trains since he was a boy, has collected transportation memorabilia all of his life and has seized opportunities to study airplanes, trucks and trains.

When he began dating his wife, Bonnie, he would fly to North Bass Island aboard Ford Tri-motor airplanes, sometimes sharing space with loads of fish and other cargo.

"Sometimes a dead person would be in there," he said. "It was an interesting experience."

While Semon doesn't live in Sandusky, he isn't exactly a stranger. The 1958 Sandusky High School graduate says all of his children and grandchildren live here.

Semon also drives down from Westlake every Sunday to attend services at St. John Lutheran Church — stopping each time at a truck stop to pick up coffee and check out the trucks in the parking lot.

Meet the author

WHAT: Author Jim Semon at the Firelands Postcard Club booth, Sandusky Old Fashioned Stars & Stripes Celebration. 

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Independence Day, July 4.

Signed copies of "The Clydesdale Motor Truck Company: An Illustrated History, 1917-1939" will be on sale. Semon says that for every sale, he'll throw in a reproduction of a drawing of a Clydesdale bus and four postcards.

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