THE WORLD'S FAIR EXPRESS
This article is a condensed version of a fascinating story written by John Spafford, one of the participants in this adventure. The complete story can be found at the Wakeman Archival Center. John Spafford recently passed away and his obit is on this website and on Facebook.
In mid-June 1933, three new Waterville High School graduates, Gale Buerk, Ralph Emerson “Bill” Waffle, and Johnny Spafford, were discussing how they should spend their summer. The senior class had gone to the Chicago World’s Fair by train; Gale suggested that they go back to Chicago to see more exhibits. It wouldn’t cost much if they had a car because they could pitch a tent in South Chicago and ride the streetcar to and from the Fair.
Who did they know who had a car they could use? Gale knew that Old Man Boston had a Model T on blocks in his barn. He also had seen a Model T chassis with wheels in the junk pile behind Graf’s garage. Then Gale squatted down under the bench in his father’s shop and found a Model T Ford engine with the transmission as well as a radiator and two front tires hanging in the shop. Johnny said his Uncle Frank Lyon, a respected mechanic, had told him that most of the Model T parts from 1922 through 1927 were interchangeable. The boys decided they would keep the parts at Johnny’s home. Although all of them had work to do, they decided they could work on the car in the evening. A few days later the three boys visited Earnest Graf, who was well-known as a mechanic and a sharp dealer in the automotive business. In the end of the conversation, Ol’ Ernie made a deal: The boys could have the chassis if they would load Ernie’s truck with all the other pieces and leave the area neat. Deep in the pile they discovered a drive shaft which Ernie said would fit the rear end of their chassis, but he charged them two dollars. At the same time he gave the boys six inner tubes of unknown condition. As they were about to leave, Ernie came back with a tube repair kit that cost them another sixty-nine cents. Besides the parts Gale found in his father’s plumbing shop, Johnny discovered parts in the family corncrib, Bill got a fourth tire from Old Man Boston, and various items were found at the Toledo scrapyard for which they paid sixteen dollars. Uncle Frank also gave them many pieces, and, most important to the boys, a manual for the car. Ol’ Ernie came one day to see how the boys were doing. Johnny told him they needed a fan belt and some gas before starting up. After looking the car over, he reminded them they needed oil and water, too. When Ol’ Ernie left, he told them he would set aside a fan belt for them, and he would mark it off to public relations. A fourth boy, Freddie Bellner, had joined the venture in early summer. He was an outgoing, fun loving boy who was working for Uncle Roy in the farm next door. During the latter part of July, Uncle Frank’s family had Sunday dinner with Johnny’s family. The highlight of the day was after dinner when Uncle Frank revved the engine of the Model T and drove down the driveway. After driving around, it was decided that the four bearings should be adjusted. Then they needed gasket material, finally using a flour bag to cut out a new paper gasket. Eventually the job was done and dramatically improved the Ford’s performance. A license was procured with Johnny declaring their vehicle was a touring car because they were going to tour the World’s Fair.
They still needed a body for the Model T. One day Gale learned that Doyle Clear’s family had a Model T body they no longer wanted. Gale and Johnny together paid two dollars and fifty-seven cents for the body. While the boys were putting the body on the frame, Mom Spafford was busy taking pictures. Her comment was, “You’re not going to stop now are you? It looks pretty tacky; you ought to paint it.” The boys painted the body and hood forest green, and the fenders shiny black. The paint on the oak wheels was scraped off with pieces of glass, and then the forty-eight spokes were varnished.
Finally in the third week of August plans were made for the trip to the World’s Fair, packing a tent, tarpaulin, tools, picnic dishes, blankets, and clothes. Each boy took thirty dollars and gave Gale five dollars for running expenses. At about 5:30 a.m. on Saturday boys left Waterville. Gale was the number one driver by mutual consent, but all of the boys would take turns. Calamity stuck at about 6:30 when they were going through Swanton. Suddenly a lot of engine vibration and heavy thumping began. They needed a new connecting rod with shims, a can of oil, and some shop towels, which Gale was able to purchase from a garage which was nearby. The boys were able to fix the problem. After that, they stopped often to check the oil, gas, and water. Because of the stops, they were not going to get to Chicago that day. They decided they could make it to Hammond where Maxine, Uncle Roy’s daughter, lived. Unfortunately, there was a parade in Hammond, and the car was having some problems. The long evening gave them time to do more work on the car. Using the blankets they had brought along, the boys were able to spend the night on Maxine’s long side porch. As they came to the outskirts of Chicago the next day, they were looking for a place to camp. They also needed to check the oil and buy gas. Bill noticed there was an empty lot behind the gas station, and they made a deal. Each boy paid two dollars to raise the tent on the highest area for the week. While the boys went by bus or streetcar to the Fair, the men at the gas station displayed the boys’ car. Each morning the boys put together a lunch and ate a light breakfast. On Monday they purchased a five-day ticket for admission to the Fair. On Wednesday afternoon they had rain, and the boys decided to take the Model T’s seats into the tent.
Saturday night they decided it was time to head home. When they started to leave, the boys had a good feeling and were singing. However, it wasn’t long before rain began. Freddy wanted to pull over and cover the car with the tarpaulin. There was a roadside park where they parked and then pulled the tarpaulin over the Ford’s top, leaving an open space above the doors on the leeward side. In South Bend the Model T was treated with oil and gas, and its passengers treated themselves to a late pancake breakfast. During the rest of the day they took turns driving, stopping only occasionally to add oil. It was almost five o’clock when they left U.S. Twenty and headed south toward Swanton, Ohio. They waved at the nice lady’s house where they had their trauma a week before. After stopping for banana splits, they then drove the last twenty miles to Waterville, and so ended the big adventure for the Summer of 1933.