From Livestock to the Nation’s Christmas Tree to Telescopes for Space Exploration – Burns Motor Freight has Hauled it All

 By L. Wayne Sheets

The little town of Marlinton, West Virginia, nestled deep in the Allegheny Mountains along the picturesque Greenbrier River is home to one of West Virginia’s oldest continuous trucking operations – Burns Motor Freight.  Since 1949 when Fred C. Burns Sr. bought his first truck, a 1948 LJ Mack, the company has enjoyed over five and a half decades of diverse and successful trucking.

In 1932 Fred’s father moved his family from their farm at Millboro, Virginia, to Marlinton and opened a feed store.  He had two or three trucks that he used for hauling commodities and livestock back and forth between Marlinton and Baltimore, Maryland and points in between.  “My dad would buy chickens and turkeys and most anything else that the local farmers had for sale.  Sometimes he would pay cash for what he bought and sometimes he would barter with feed or fertilizer.  He would then load the livestock up and take it to Baltimore and sell it.  On the way back he’d bring a load of feed or fertilizer or produce, anything that his customers in the Marlinton area needed,” Burns said.  “That’s how I got started in trucking.  In fact,” he said, “I stretched my age when I got my chauffeurs license.  You were supposed to be sixteen; I was only fourteen or fifteen.”

A 1948 LJ Mack is a Dream Come True

“My dad closed his store and moved his family back to Virginia; all but my brother Ralph and me.  I went to work for a lumber company.  On my way to work and back every day I would drive by this old 1948 LJ Mack.  The more I saw it the more determined I became to own it.  One day I got up the nerve to stop and ask the owner, Willard Gunnoe, if he’d sell it to me.  ‘Yep, he said, I’ll sell it to you for $10,000.’  I went down to the bank and put in an application for a loan.  The bank would only go $6,500.  My wife and I owned our home and some other property here in town, so we put that up and I went before the bank’s board of directors.  The first time the application was reviewed they turned me down.  As the board was about to adjourn one of the members who owned a feed store here in town suggested that they reconsider the application.  He told the other board members ‘this old boy will work; let’s bring his application back up and have another look at it.’  They did, and finally approved my loan.  After the board adjourned, but before they left the room, one of the other board members said to the rest of them, ‘You’d better send that boy to the [insane] asylum.  Anybody wanting to borrow that kind of money to by a truck must be crazy.’”

Burns started his one-truck operation hauling livestock.  In those days the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) regulated the trucking industry and strictly enforced their regulations.  Approval had to be granted by the ICC to haul each different commodity and it took two or three years to get their approval.  Livestock, however, was exempt from those regulations.  While hauling livestock to the markets for the local farmers, Burns filed applications to haul lumber, fertilizer, feed and other commodities.  At one of those hearings in Washington, D.C. the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad (C&ORR) sent one of their attorneys from Chicago to contest Burns’ request for hauling lumber, livestock and other commodities.  He told Burns that the C&ORR would put him out of business.  The fortunes, however, turned in Burns’ favor; he had the distinct pleasure of hauling the last C&ORR boxcar out of the area on one of his trucks.  (See accompanying photograph.)

“I was married and had four children when I started my business,” Mr. Burns said.  “My wife, Lucille, was my dispatcher and bookkeeper – and a good one she was, too.  While serving as my dispatcher she took care of our three sons and daughter, a garden, the house, and the myriad of other household work.

“Calling home when I was on the road was always an entertaining experience.  You always had to go through an operator in those days.  When I’d give her the number, 62F3, there’d be a long silence, after which she’d ask ‘what’s the rest of the number.’  I’d tell her ‘that’s it’ and she’d put the call through.  Today it’s hard to imagine such a telephone number ever existed.”

Not long after he started his business Burns started hauling livestock for a broker in Roanoke, Virginia.  He bought livestock in practically every state east of the Mississippi River and hauled to the abattoirs in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Baltimore, Maryland, Philadelphia, New York City and Elizabeth, New Jersey.  The bulk of the livestock, though, went to New York City.  On many occasions Burns would have one or more loads of livestock destined for the markets in New York but they couldn’t accept them for a day or two.  In order to facilitate handling the animals during the delay Burns built a stock pen next door to his truck garage.  He brought the livestock to the pens and held them there until they could be hauled on to the slaughter houses in New York, Baltimore or Philadelphia.  After authorization was obtained to haul lumber, it became the next most transported item.  Change in farming methods and different marketing strategies eventually negated the need of the services of Burns Motor Freight in the livestock industry.  But with the approval to haul other commodities the loss of the livestock market was soon filled.

Company Expansion Based on Quality Service

The company’s expansion from a “one-man” operation to its present day size of 106 over-the-road tractors, 254 trailers, 117 employees and three terminals has been a result of Burns’ inflexible demand of his employees that they provide quality service.  “If that truck breaks down,” he said, “or for any reason you can’t make your appointment with the customer at the appointed time, you call that man and let him know that you are going to be late.  And let him know why you are going to be late.”  Burns also credits his employee’s professionalism and dedication to the company as a major contributor to the company’s success.  Burns bought only two preexisting companies in the expansion of his company.  The company has always been a “family affair” and, if you consider Fred Burns Sr.’s frequent visits to insure that the company is still operating according to his standards, today there are three generations busy insuring the company’s continued success.

Like so many other family businesses, Fred Sr., enticed his boys into the trucking industry by taking them with him on numerous trips while they were very young.  Of course big trucks, fire engines and airplanes are little boy’s fancies anyway.  Some are fortunate enough to live their boyhood dreams.

In February 1964 Fred Sr. turned his business over to his three sons Fred Jr., Larry and Tom and the company was incorporated as Burns Motor Freight and adopted the omnipresent red diamond logo.  Fred Jr., President, his sons John, Vice-President of Operations, and Doug, Director of Safety, and Larry, Vice-President, and his son Mike, Director of Maintenance, and daughter Carrie, Data Entry Clerk, are today’s back bone of the company.  Tom has since gone into business for himself.

The Burns family is not only a successful business family; they are active in the affairs of the local community, the state and national level of the trucking industry.  Fred Jr. was named Chairman of the American Trucking Association (ATA) on October 22, 2003 and served during the organization’s centennial year.  He has also served on its safety, human resources, and technology committees.  He founded and later chaired the ATA Small Carrier Committee, which gives small companies like his own the same trucking business and safety resources that major national motor carriers enjoy.  While Chairman of the ATA he continued to serve as Chairman of the ATA Insurance Task Force, a group that works to drive down the ever-rising trucking industry insurance costs.  During his tenure, 22 states adopted tort reforms.  His lobbying efforts in West Virginia convinced the Governor to sign a bill that requires filings to have a connection to the state before they can be tried there.  “Our [state] courts are so liberal,” he said, “that lawyers bring cases from all over the country [to be tried here.]”  Other capacities in which he has served include President of the West Virginia Motor Trucking Association, West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, and numerous other local and state civic organizations.

Larry and Fred Jr. were selected as Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year regional winners in 1999.  Larry is active with the Truck Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Association.

The Nation’s Christmas tree

One of the most satisfying and enjoyable experiences for the company involved the National Christmas tree.  In 1971 a 75-foot Red Spruce (Picea rubens) harvested at Camp Thornwood in the Monongahela National Forest near Bartow, Pocahontas County, served as the nation’s Christmas tree.  After special wrapping and preparation for shipment to protect the tree’s shape, it was transported to our Nation’s Capitol accompanied by all the fanfare and celebration that surrounds such an event.  The company principals and employees were especially proud and gratified to be part of the national scene at Christmas time.

Ears of the Universe

Located twenty miles north of Marlinton, as the crow flies, sits one of the world’s premier listening posts to outer space.  From the time construction on the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) commenced in the late 1950s, Burns Motor Freight hauled the vast majority of the building material – sand, stone, gravel, marble, steel and assembled components – from the local railheads to the construction site.  The materials were shipped to either nearby Cass or Bartow by rail and then transported by Burns to the construction site at Green Bank.  Weight was always a major concern when transporting the components of the telescopes but none presented the challenges that the main shaft of the 140 foot telescope presented in March 1959.  The two-hundred ten ton shaft was shipped by raid to Bartow, some fifteen miles north of the observatory, and from there it had to be moved by truck.  The narrow country roads, small bridges and hilly terrain presented some unique problems.

The first obstacle was a half-mile long hill with a grade of about nine or ten percent.  Burns was never one to be intimidated by an unusual challenge.  He knew that it would take more than one tractor to pull that kind of load up such a steep grade.  Burns told his crew to use at least three tractors but the first attempt was made with only two.  This resulted in the destruction of the lead tractor’s transmission.  On the next attempt three tractors were used as Burns had instructed in the beginning – two in front pulling, and one behind the load pushing; this time they were successful.

The next obstacle, a newly constructed bridge over a small creek and marsh, awaited less than five down the road.  The West Virginia Department of Highways was in the process of inspecting the bridge for acceptance but had not yet taken possession.  The contractor would not let Burns move the 210-ton shaft across it for the obvious reasons.  First, it had not been built to withstand so much weight, and secondly, the contractor was not about to expose it to such stress while the bridge was still his responsibility.  Once again Burns put his ingenuity to work.  He and his crew built their own bridge across the creek and adjoining swamp with heavy timbers.  Only once did the shaft threaten to bury itself, the trucks and trailer, and the make-shift bridge in the swamp before it was moved successfully across the stream and swamp.

The Flood of ‘85

In the last days of October 1985 Hurricane Juan left the Gulf of Mexico and moved up the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys.  Its remnants crossed the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia and western Virginia on the second and third of November drenching the mountains and valleys soaking the soil beyond its capacity.  The next day a low pressure system drifting slowly southeastward stalled over the region dumping as much as four inches of rain per hour at times for nearly twenty-four hours on the already soggy mountains.  There was no place for the water to go except down the mountains’ sides into the small streams and on to the larger streams they fed, the Greenbrier River being one of them.  The river reached flood stage shortly before dark on November 4.

Burns had 15 head of cattle corralled in his stock pen next to the truck garage and barely escaped with his life while trying to free them from a watery end.  “The water had overflowed the river’s banks and was rising in waves,” Burns related.  “While trying to reach the livestock in my Jeep the water rose inside until it was over the seat.  I barely got turned around and out of the water.  Thirteen head of prime, registered Black Angus were drowned and washed away.

Burns trucking, along with all the other businesses and homes near the river, suffered horrific damage.  By the time the river crested the Burns Motor Freight offices and maintenance shops had eleven and a half feet of water in them.  Along with the trucks that were damaged, much of the irreplaceable administrative and financial records were lost.  Through the dedicated efforts of the employees most of the critical rolling fleet was back in operation within forty-eight hours, but it took several months and $2.3 million to restore the company’s facilities and the rest of the rolling stock back to normal.

Fred Senior’s Hobby – Down on the Farm

Having been raised on a farm and hauling so much livestock in his early trucking days, it was only natural that Fred Sr. would return to farming as a “hobby” when his stepped down from the rigors of the trucking business.  “I started looking for a hobby,” he said, “after the boys took over the business.  I had always liked being around livestock so I started looking for a farm.  As it turned out I found one, bought it, and soon afterward the farms on either side of it came up for sale.  I bought them and now have 1,700 acres of farm land.”  That’s a hobby?  That’s more like a full-time job!  “For 25 years I run cattle on the farm year ‘round,” he said.  “Twenty-five years of that was enough.  Now I cut the hay and sell it and run around 300 head of cattle on it from May to late November when they are shipped to market.”

Under the watchful eye of the family patriarch, who will be eighty-six (going on sixty-six) years old in March of this year (2005), Burns Motor Freight continues to be a successful and growing company while he and his life-long helpmate, Lucille, keep themselves busy down on the farm.