One of the first three cars ever used in U.S. combat operations will visit Ben Wheeler for a festive afternoon on Saturday, Sept. 27. Gen. John J. "Blackjack" Pershing rode in the 1915 Dodge Brothers touring car as he led 12,000 U.S. troops into Mexico in 1916 in search of the revolutionary Pancho Villa; his drivers were Lt. Eddie Rickenbacker who later made a name for himself as a World War I flying ace and Lt. George Patton who went on to World War II fame.
The historic, four-door black convertible owned by retired oilman Jack Thomas of Mountain View, Arkansas, is coming to East Texas for the first time. It will highlight a 7.5-mile caravan from downtown Edom west along Hwy. 279 to downtown Ben Wheeler, where all of the cars will be on display from 2-5 p.m. The event will include war-era music from the Texas Doughboys, big-band music, concessions, and more.
Michael Gilbert, an accountant in Tyler, is active in both the Texas Military Historical Society World War II reenactment group and the Military Vehicle Preservation Association which collects and restores military vehicles. He plans to show off his own, later-model Dodge command car or a 1929 Model A during the event.
Gilbert said the use of the automobiles and an airplane in that 1916 excursion into Mexico was the first time the military used anything but foot troops and horse cavalry in combat operations. (In a coincidental aside, Gilbert said he has a client in Waxahachie whose father flew that plane.)
Thomas found the touring car literally in pieces in an old machine shop in 1996, where it had been for more than 75 years. Nobody is sure how the touring car ended up in the shop.
"This car was completely disassembled and piled up in a corner of an old machine shop. That pile of parts was not moved until I got them," Thomas said. "I worked six-day weeks accumulating more than 5,000 hours of mechanical body and paint work over five years. The only thing I didn't do myself was the upholstery, but the original horsehair padding was put back in."
The son of a deceased machine shop operator in Holly Grove, Arkansas, knew that Thomas bought and restored old cars and trucks, and offered to sell the original parts to him. When Thomas balked, the man asked if he would just haul the parts away if the man gave them to him.
"It was in pieces, literally," he said. "Rusty, beat-up pieces. The whole car had been taken apart and all of the instruments were wrapped in newspapers dated 1918."
Not knowing what he had, Thomas began putting the car back together, beginning with the four wheels, then the fenders and doors. He finally found a Dodge Brothers emblem on the dashboard and the serial number, and wrote a letter to the Dodge Brothers Club seeking information. Within two weeks, the Library of Congress called him; eventually a serial number confirmed that the car was used by Pershing in the Mexican excursion.
The Dodge Brothers Club helped him contact someone who owned the same model car; there were only five older ones in existence, and there was no manual. Thomas flew to Putman Valley, New York, and photographed that man's car to help him figure out what to do with his.
Thomas said he'd never seen some of the parts in any other car before. While most cars of that era had gravitational fuel pumps where gas flowed down to the engine, the touring car's driver had to pump gas to the engine using a lever on the dashboard.
Sometimes Thomas innovated. Because there was no glass on the brake light, he checked all of his wife Jane's drinking glasses and found one that fit, cut it in two and put red fingernail polish on the inside of it.
The odometer actually worked. The car had only 10,967 miles on it and the gears, drive train, and steering were not worn much at all.
One of the few visible changes from the original car is that Thomas put a black convertible top on it instead of the customized military green Pershing wanted.
The Dodge Brothers touring car has traveled all over the United States for special events and antique car sows,, although it's most often on display - complete with a dummy of a sombrero-wearing Mexican bandito tied to the hood - a couple of times a week in a restaurant parking lot in MountainView where Thomas shows it off to visitors and sells copies of his self-published book.
Thomas quit entering shows about five years ago, he said, because he physically doesn't want to crawl under the car and clean and maintain it the way it must be done for competitive shows.
"To 99 percent of people, it looks perfect," he said, "but judges look at the bottom, too. I've had 12 bypasses and three heart attacks and don't climb under the car anymore. I can't clean it enough to win first place, and I don't like to finish second."
Thomas retired as owner-operator of Thomas Petroleum gas and oil distribution company, signing the company over to his children. He won't say how much he's been offered for the car, but has signed its deed over to his son, Randy, who may keep it or eventually may turn it over to the Smithsonian.
"Randy is respectful of the car's history, and I've worked with him and worked with him to teach him how to shift it without tearing it up. That took a while. It's really difficult," he said, also noting that his son's middle name is Jack and that it's registered under the name R. Jack Thomas "so people assume it's still mine."
Ben Wheeler Development Company, which is spearheading the Sept. 27 event, is renovating a building to eventually house an antique car and motorcycle museum near downtown.
BWDC's Brooks Gremmels plans to return the southern Van Zandt County community to the way it looked in 1935 and to bring new businesses, cultural attractions, and a new attitude to the area. The project will take at least three years probably longer to recapture the old-fashioned atmosphere with an even longer timeline for some projects. In a community with a thousand or so nearby residents, there will be a new restaurant, new shops downtown, a fully restored downtown park complete with gazebos, and more.
Ben Wheeler, named for the first man to carry mail into Van Zandt County, thrived during the late 1800s and early 1900s as families arrived in horse-drawn wagons, rode horses, or walked to visit, get mail, buy supplies, and sell or trade goods at one of the several general stores. The community included churches, barbers, blacksmiths, tailors, saddle and shoe shop, several gins and mills, a bank, the Berry Resort Hotel, boarding houses, a movie theater, lumber yard, a garage with gas pumps eventually, cafes, a school, and even a college at one time called the Alamo Institute. Ben Wheeler shrank after World War II as many people left for large cities to find work.