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Portrait of America—Past and Present

by | Oct 9, 2021 | Photography | 0 comments

The day started with a warm glow in the eastern sky. We were on our way to Parke County, Indiana, to photograph the 2021 Model T Ford Covered Bridge tour. As we approached Rockville, the warm light of the rising sun filtered over the pristine landscape. The early morning mist hung over the rural countryside. The landscape of Parke County is gently undulating hills. Forests cover much of the land, but there were also amber fields of corn, soybeans, squash, and sunflowers ready for harvest. The landscape has been sculpted over thousands of years by water from creeks, streams, and the Wabash River. Over the millennia, wind and rain eroded gullies and small canyons. As a result, rock outcroppings are sometimes visible along the roadside.

Portrait of America—Past and Present 87The Model T tour included about fifty Model T Cars from Wisconsin, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Iowa, New York, Nevada, South Dakota, Michigan, and Indiana. Over the five days of the tour, the route covered 276 miles of Parke, vermillion, and Fountain Counties (averaging 55 miles a day). The course went through or by 31 historic covered bridges.

The covered bridges in western Indiana beckon visitors to a time when life was slower and simpler. The timber-truss bridges have a roof, decking, and siding, which creates an almost complete enclosure. The purpose of the covering is to protect the wooden structures from the weather. Without this covering, the wooden bridges would deteriorate more rapidly from the effects of rain and sun. The covered bridges tend to be in isolated places, making them subject to vandalism and arson. Parke County is one area where many covered bridges still remain. The quaint ad picturesque bridges are reminiscent of early settlements in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Portrait of America—Past and Present 88Like the covered bridges, the Model T Ford also harkens to earlier times. They bring nostalgia to the early twentieth century. The combination of the two provides a perfect conduit to the rich history of the past. The Amish communities in this area add to the charming ambiance.

Henry Ford changed the car landscape forever. The various styles of Model T cars were manufactured between 1908 and 1927. The Model T touring, coupe, roadster, runabout, fordor and tudor sedan, flatbed truck, and a depot hack were all represented among the fifty cars entered in the 2021 Covered Bridge Tour.

We live in a throwaway world. Many modern manufactured items can’t be repaired or the repairs are prohibitively expensive. The average lifespan of current cars is about eight years. Amazingly, the Model T cars, which are sometimes called “forever cars,” are still running after an entire century. A fascinating assortment of people have the wherewithal and the means to know how to repair and rebuild these early cars.

Portrait of Nick Ellingwood

Nick Ellingwood

“You see much more at 30 miles an hour—you see real country,” said Nick Ellingwood, owner of the Model T Ford Garage in Wallace, Indiana. “At 30 miles an hour, you don’t have to be a defensive driver. You do have to be careful, but it’s not like seventy or eighty miles an hour on the Interstate. And if you are going slower, you can say ‘hay Fred, how are the potatoes doing.’” Nick has a warm and affable personality. He purchased his first Model T in 1988. “I overpaid by about twice for that car. I gave $7,000, and it was only worth about $3,500 to $5,000. I have had that car all over the United States. We have had $50,000 worth of fun out of that car.”

The Model T Ford Garage is filled with cars as well as a plane that Nick built with supplies from a local lumber yard and hardware store. I asked Nick if one of the covered bridges in the area was his favorite. He quipped, “any that will hold my Model T is my favorite.”

One car in this year’s tour has a message “I may be slow, but I’m ahead of you.” printed on the back of the car.

Portrait of John Hidy

John Hidy

John Hidy, from Batavia, Iowa, was driving a 1923 Model T Ford. He makes his own repairs to the car he has had for over ten years. I asked John about his interest in Model T cars. “We own a 1924 C cab T truck that my grandfather bought brand new. The family history has it the last day that truck was driven was May 7, 1938, to take a pregnant young lady down a mud road to where another car was parked so she could go to the hospital to have a baby. And if you are paying close attention, I just told you what day my father was born. The Ford truck was driven back home and parked in the barn and hasn’t been driven since. We started buying T cars to learn how the truck works so we could make it run. But we get so interested in the cars that we don’t get anything done with the truck.”

John said, “I love the Model T Covered Bridge Tour. This has become a week’s vacation. We do the bridge tour and then the Hill Climb. When I asked John what he liked about the tour, he said, “The bridges, the scenery, the people, comradery, the whole thing.”

Portrait of America—Past and Present 89Tom and Cathleen Loftfield brought their 1912 Model T touring car with brass trimmings from Brevard, North Carolina. They have had this particular car for four years. “This is one of the best tours that we have ever done. This is an excellent tour.” A picnic basket and suitcase are attached to the running board of their touring car. “In the picnic basket are the making for tea. We have an LP gas burner, a teapot, cups, tea, sugar, creamer; we are all set for afternoon tea on the road.”

The brass item between the Loftfield’s picnic basket and their suitcase is the acetylene generator. “Calcium carbide is placed in the bottom and water in the top. When the valve is opened, the water drips onto the calcium carbide, which makes acetylene gas. The gas is fed through a tube to the two gas headlights, which are then ignited with a long match. This is what gas headlights mean.”

Portrait of Cathleen Loftfield

Cathleen Loftfield

Tom and Cathleen were wearing vintage clothing to match the time period of their Model T. Cathleen was wearing a button “votes for women” since women’s sufferance was a significant issue when their 1912 Model T was manufactured. The ninetieth amendment giving women the legal right to vote became part of the American Constitution in 1920.

Portrait of Ron Vassallie

Ron Vassallie

Ron Vassallie, from Sullivan, Missouri, was the oldest driver in this year’s Covered Bridge Tour. At age 99, he was driving a 1926 touring car. Ron said he has been on the Model T Ford Covered Bridge tour 12 or 13 times.

Hosting this event is a huge effort. The tour is coordinated by Brian and Valerie Jordan and Kem and Todd Johnson.

Photographing the Model T Covered Bridge tour had its challenges. The Model Ts are moving as they cross the covered bridges and travel the countryside. This motion required a higher shutter speed. If the cars stopped to view the bridge, which they sometimes did, the cars were not positioned to capture the bridge in the background. The weather for the tour was beautiful bright sunny days. This was wonderful for the participants but created harsh shadows. A bright overcast sky would have been more conducive to photography. And when the black or dark-colored cars were in the shade, they tended to blend with deep shadows of the forest undergrowth. I was able to match the shaded area inside the covered bridges with the bright sunny landscapes by blending two images taken at different exposures.

Several participants in the tour remarked about the friends they met. There is an instant comradery between Model T car owners. The tour provides a way of making new friends. One participant said it is impossible to get in and out of the car without strangers coming over to ask about the car.

Following are some other comments I heard from participants Covered Bridge Tour.

“This is such beautiful country. It is so scenic. And the bridges were fascinating.

Another added, “the people are friendly.”

“I like going through the little trails, the roads, and the trees, and forests, and crossing the creeks. It was just so beautiful.”

“I loved everything; it was just so pretty–the trees and the corn on both sides of the road.”

“I’d have to say the scenery with all the bridges; all of the people are super friendly. There’s nothing that can be done about the roads. It is what it is. It is just Model T’ing”

“Probably just getting together fellow Model T people and the camaraderie. We had a great time.”

“All of it, it’s the people. We enjoy getting to see people, nice people, people we don’t see all the time. I’ve been coming twenty plus years.”
As a photographer, I thoroughly enjoyed this portrait of America—including the fascinating people we meet, the rich history of the cars and bridges, and the beautiful countryside. It is an event that I hope to be able to photograph again.

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