George Connolly Talks History Of Wreckers.




President Of International Towing & Recovery Hall Of Fame & Museum Discusses Pride & History At HQ in Chattanooga

George Connolly standing in front of an Ernest Holmes replica wrecker. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

The history of mechanical and automobile evolution has permeated the identity of the United States from the beginning. Examining the progress moving from the Industrial Revolution through The Depression and into World War II, there is a undeniable burst of innovation. The towing industry was no different. George Connolly, President of the International Towing & Recovery Hall Of Fame & Museum, sat down with The Buzz at their headquarters in Chattanooga, Tennessee to discuss evolution of the wrecker, the pride of the workers and the true human connection.

The Buzz: How did the International Towing & Recovery Hall Of Fame & Museum evolve in Chattanooga?

George Connolly: The reason the museum's here in Chattanooga is Ernest Holmes Sr. patented the first wrecker as we know it [here]. The wrecker is a tow truck basically with the unit on the back of the truck. He patented the first wrecker known to man, as we call it, in 1916 here in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Just down here on Market Street between 3rd and 4th, there's actually a plaque there where he actually patented it. It was the first patent given to a wrecker in the world. We believe him to be the father of the wrecker. The story of Ernest Holmes was that he was a young man, born down in Alabama and his family moved to Chattanooga. He initially worked for one of the hardware stores. And in the day, with the hardware store, if your wife went in and ordered Venetian blinds, as the husband, you didn't hook 'em up. You had the hardware store come out and they sent the young man out to hook 'em up. Well, Ernest was that gentleman in his younger years. As he got into his 20s, he was trying to make a life for himself. This was 1908 to 1913, someplace in there, probably in the later teens because he patented the wrecker in 1916. So we think that a couple years before that is when he got involved in what was known as a livery stable back then. He took care of the horses. But at that point they're converting their livery stables and blacksmith shops all into automotive garages. There was a gentleman that had a livery stable type of affair here in Chattanooga between 3rd and 4th on Market. He was converting it to an automotive garage and sold it to Ernest and a partner of his. The partner worked it for a couple years and didn't like the automobiles. He ended up selling out to Ernest. Ernest had a customer that called him on a car that got wrecked. He went down into Chickamauga Creek here. Ernest thought no big deal. They went to get[the car]. Well, the story goes that two and a half, three days later, they [finally] got her [out]. But it took teams of horses… seven guys…and on and on and on. He went back to his garage going, "Well, this is BS," or whatever. Basically he designed the first wrecker as we know it today. And he designed it with a capability of a recovery unit also. Not just a towing unit, but a recovery unit.

The Buzz: Now when you’re talking about a recovery unit back in those days…we know what a wrecker is, but the you have all the swivels and everything else...

GC: But that's how he did it years ago. We actually have the truck here that is the replica. The original Cadillac that he used supposedly was damaged in a fire sometime in his life and destroyed. The Ernest Holmes Company was still owned by Junior. Ernest Sr. died in approximately 1945 I believe. Junior was running the company for the family because the company basically went to him and his sisters. They're the ones who when Ernest's wife passed away…that's where the stock went. Ernest Jr. decided in the late '50s…they found a Cadillac, and they built what they called the Replica Cadillac. The family eventually sold it out to the Dover Corporation. You ever been in an elevator that says Dover?

A restored recover arm inside the International Towing & Recovery Museum. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

GC: That's who ended up buying Ernest Holmes. They bought the Ernest Holmes Company when the family decided to get out of it. They were all getting older. The Dover Corporation ran it for a few years and then liquidated the company. And, as we were just talking about this, the Ernest Holmes wreckers were a registered trademark thing and the Miller Corporation out here in Ooltewah built that. They're one of the largest manufacturers of towing equipment today… right out here off Exit 11 off 75.  Actually Sr.’s grandson, Jerry Holmes was an engineer who initially worked for Dover. He quit Dover and went and started the Century Corporation. Miller owns them also now.

The Buzz: So who retained the patent?

GC: The original patent? When they give a patent like this, I understand that the patent is not good forever. The patent's only good for so many years. There’s certain things that they patented where the patents have ran out on now. Miller Industries has got other patents that have come through the years.

The Buzz: But this is the heart of where it began?

GC: This is where the heart where it actually began we believe. We've changed some things over the years. We are an international group here. We have members in Canada, in England and Scotland, and Ireland and South Africa…we've got 'em all over the place. That's why we're an international group 'cause towing is towing. It's just different vehicles, different types of equipment's used.

The Buzz: Now, you have an inherent fascination with this, and obviously you have a lot of experience. Could you talk where those two aspects bridged into being here at the museum and doing this anybody who's involved in this industry has had probably an interest in this kind of thing?

GC: Our mission statement here says that we're here to preserve and maintain the history and preservation of our industry. A few years ago we started our Wall of the Fallen. We’re losing approximately in the continental United States about 60 drivers a year to roadside kills. They're on the side of the road hooking up a vehicle and somebody comes and runs them over, basically. We are right up there with police and fire as first responders to a point where we're getting killed. So we have our wall out front that is honoring them. We also have our Survivor Fund. The Survivor Fund is a set amount of money that is given to the family of the person that has been killed in basically in the line of duty. It's not earmarked for anything. How many guys do you know in this day in age go from pay check to pay check?

The Buzz: Many.

GC: Exactly. This is what it's for. We honor them here. We also honor members of the industry that have gone above and beyond to move the industry forward, which is our Hall of Fame.

An old picture of an early wrecker inside George Connolly's office. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

The Buzz: Can you talk about the pride in the job in this industry?

GC: Most towing owners don't have MBAs in anything or any type of a college degree. Most of them are just hard workers. You got to think about this. Who's going to work 24 hours, seven days a week? Who's the guy that's going to go out and put in the 20-22 hour a day sometimes? Where I'm from, Colorado, we get snow storms and if you got six hours sleep last night, you done did good. But who else is going to do that? There has to be a pride in what you're doing. When I started my business back in the '70s it was more to help people…you saw people needing help. As it evolves and gets bigger, you realize it is a big business. I started with one truck and I have over 40 now. It's grown from something very small and family... It's still family-owned and ran…but it's gone from this little family operation to this “monster” some days, as I call it. But there's still a pride there. You want the truck to look nice. You want the lady with the white skirt that's getting off work [to appreciate that]. You don't want her climbing in a dirty, old, greasy tow truck. You want her climbing in something that's not going get her skirt all dirty.

I can remember years ago a Christmas Eve that the snow was so bad in Denver we could not tow cars because if you found the car, you had to dig the snow out of it for an hour and a half to even hook it up. All I did Christmas Eve was pick-ups. Ladies were calling that their husbands were stuck down town, and that they couldn't get their cars out of the garage. One of them that I went to…the snow plow had piled snow in front of the garage but they blocked all these people inside the parking garage. They couldn't get out. All they want, and it was Christmas Eve, was to be with their husband home for Christmas. We were picking people up downtown two at a time with their briefcases and their Christmas packages and dropping them off at home. That was our service…and the reason we did that was because taxi cabs couldn't move.

The Buzz: Yeah… but the wreckers could get through...

Tim Wassberg

A graduate of New York University's Tisch School Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct craft beers among other things.

International Towing & Recovery Hall Of Fame & Museum

Make Sure To Check Out:

The International Towing & Recovery Hall Of Fame & Museum, which features restored antique wreckers and equipment from the tow truck industry as well as related toys, tools, equipment, and pictorial histories.

 The collection of tow trucks ranges from the early days of the automobile.

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