FELIKS BANEL

All Over The Map: Help find the missing Oxmobile

Jun 4, 2021, 5:16 AM | Updated: 12:57 pm
Meeker, Oxmobile...
Northwest pioneer and Oregon Trail booster Ezra Meeker, pictured with his "Oxmobile" in September 1928; Meeker died in December 1928, and the Oxmobile disappeared sometime after 1935. (Courtesy Dennis Larsen)
(Courtesy Dennis Larsen)

It was a distinctive vehicle called the “Oxmobile,” and Ezra Meeker retraced part of the Oregon Trail while riding in it in 1928. The special truck – and its clever name – predate the famous Wienermobile and even the original Batmobile by roughly a decade. The Oxmobile was a remarkable artifact of a remarkable Washingtonian, and it fittingly went to a famous national museum created by Henry Ford back in the 1930s.

But the Oxmobile is missing.

“Ford doesn’t have a record of where it went or what happened to it or anything,” said Dennis Larsen, author of several books about Ezra Meeker. “I suspect it ended up in a junkyard somewhere, but we don’t know.”

Ezra Meeker is a larger-than-life figure from Washington’s past. He came to the Pacific Northwest by covered wagon on the Oregon Trail back in 1852. For decade after active decade, he was an entrepreneur and historian, prolific author, and “Hop King” who built the Meeker Mansion in Puyallup.  And, incidentally, he had a big beard, not unlike the recent pandemic facial hair of a certain Seattle’s Morning News host.

One more thing that the highly accomplished Ezra Meeker set about doing in the early 20th century was to make sure that the history of the Oregon Trail was preserved and commemorated. Until his death at age 97 in 1928, he traveled back and forth across the country, giving history talks, and dedicating monuments along the route that thousands of settlers traveled from the 1830s to the 1860s.

In that last summer before Meeker died, Henry Ford himself directed the Ford Motor Company to build the pioneer icon a special vehicle for his cross-country travels. It was a Ford truck chassis – a 1927 or 1928 Model AA, for those keeping score – with the custom body of prairie schooner wagon built onto it. Some clever person named it the Oxmobile, for the ox that pulled covered wagons in the 19th century. Also for those keeping score, Meeker had acquired a similar vehicle a decade earlier made by a long-gone automaker called Pathfinder. For some reason, the clever nickname for that gas-powered wagon – “Schooner mobile” – didn’t stick, and it was known simply as the Pathfinder.

Meeker’s Ford Oxmobile had a big canvas cover, just like a wagon, that read on the side, in giant letters, “Over The Old Oregon Trail.” It had beds and a stove, and, according to historian and writer Camille Bradford, it also had electrical gear courtesy of inventor Thomas Edison – one of the many famous people that Ezra Meeker befriended.

Dennis Larsen – who just published a book about Meeker’s dedication to saving and promoting the history of the Oregon Trail – told the Washington State Historical Society in a recent podcast that the Oxmobile was like an early RV, and that, in some ways, Ezra Meeker invented the summer road trip.

In that summer of 1928, with help from a driver, Meeker toured New England in the brand-new Oxmobile, and then headed to Detroit in September, where Henry Ford had offered to install better shocks from the automaker’s Lincoln line of vehicles. When Meeker arrived in Detroit, the 97-year old took ill and had to be hospitalized. A month later, too frail to travel by Oxmobile, he went home to Seattle via train, and died in December.

Meanwhile, the Oxmobile stayed with the Ford Company. This was the very early years of the sprawling Henry Ford Museum that would open in 1933. Ford was a collector, and the museum was stocked with all kinds of buildings and vehicles and other big artifacts that told the story of American know-how and expansion. It’s easy to imagine the Oxmobile parked there, among other hallowed objects like an old DC-3 airplane and a vintage McDonald’s sign.

In 1930, the Oregon Trail Memorial Association (OTMA) and the Boy Scouts borrowed the Oxmobile and it was driven to a covered wagon centennial event at Independence Rock, Wyoming — this is perhaps the farthest west the vehicle ever came. Then, in 1935, it appeared on the White House lawn at a Pony Express 75th anniversary commemoration. This was the last time it was photographed. After appearing at a Boy Scout event at nearby Chesapeake Bay, the Oxmobile was shipped back to the Ford museum in Michigan.

What happened next is anybody’s guess, because though historians tracked down a mention of the Oxmobile in a newspaper article from 1943, it’s never been seen since.

Over the past few decades, a handful of Ezra Meeker scholars have tried to locate the distinctive truck. The first place the Oxmobile hunters checked was, of course, the Henry Ford Museum. Both Andy Anderson, who was administrator of the Meeker Mansion for the Ezra Meeker Historical Society back in the 1990s, and Camille Bradford, whose stepfather succeeded Ezra Meeker as president of the OTMA back in 1928 – checked with the staff there. Each was told, essentially, that the Oxmobile was never accessioned – which is the fancy museum word for taking formal possession of an artifact. Both Anderson and Bradford say that nobody at the Henry Ford Museum has any idea where it went, what happened to it, or where it might be now.

Andy Anderson told KIRO Radio that 30 years ago, before the internet, old-timers associated with the Meeker Mansion figured that the Oxmobile would show up in a car magazine for sale someday – after perhaps being discovered in a dusty barn somewhere or coughed up by a collector who had secreted it away. But even with the internet, evidence of the Oxmobile’s ultimate fate has been hard to come by.

As to what exactly might have happened to this unique piece of history, Anderson’s theory is that sometime in the 1940s, the Oxmobile was simply converted back to a regular truck, with its custom covered wagon body and canvas top swapped out for a truck bed. Then, Anderson figures, the regular old truck would just have been driven until it was worn out and then scrapped.

“I believe … that it was stripped and refitted with a truck bed and driven into the ground,” Anderson wrote in an email. “The canvas would have rotted many years before.”

Can you help solve the mystery?

I’d like to see if KIRO listeners and MyNorthwest readers can help solve the mystery of the missing Oxmobile. Please share this story on social media along with the hashtag #FindTheOxMobile, and let’s see if we can figure out what happened to Ezra Meeker’s one-of-a-kind ride.

I’ll even throw in a reward of $97.30 for any information that leads to the Oxmobile’s whereabouts or to proof of its demise.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Help find the missing Oxmobile