Old Workhorses Find Resting Place in Pennsylvania Truck Museum

Deer Lake, Pa., Museum Is Home to ‘Tired Truck Restoration’ Collection
Exterior of the Orwigsburg Historical Society
The exterior of the Orwigsburg Historical Society & Museum. (Google Maps)

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DEER LAKE, Pa. — Keith Ernst never knew West Chester, Pa., moving contractor Ralph G. Smith, but he’s keeping his legacy alive at an old truck museum in West Brunswick Township, Pa.

Ernst is preserving Smith’s 1919 moving van — a Mack chassis with a body built by Belgrade Wagon Works in Philadelphia — in his collection of early trucks built in Pennsylvania.

A savvy entrepreneur, Smith had his glitzy moving van covered with advertisements, including messages that said he also hauled horses and moved pianos. The vintage van is just one of dozens of pre-World War II-era trucks in what Ernst calls his “tired truck restoration” collection.

He has lost track of exactly how many trucks are in the collection, but notes it takes up three warehouses and then some.

The public will have a rare chance to view Ernst’s collection, which is private, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sept. 16. Tickets are available from the Orwigsburg Historical Society, which arranged the tour.

Jennifer Bowen, society president, said Ernst’s collection is a hidden gem.

“It’s amazing he’s been able to find these relics, sometimes in pieces and parts,” she said. “They were workhorses, not pleasure cars.”

Ernst, 69, grew up in a Deer Lake area trucking family. His father, J. Marlin Ernst, founded a trucking company when he was still a student at Auburn High School.


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“My dad bought two trucks — 1936 and 1937 Fords — when he was a senior in high school,” Ernst recalled. “And, he hired drivers for them.”

J. Marlin Ernst & Sons trucking is still in business in the Pinedale section of West Brunswick Township. It’s run by Keith’s Ernst’s brother, Terry. Keith Ernst, who’s retired, began collecting trucks about 50 years ago.

“I thought it would be neat to work on trucks like my grandfather did,” he said, referring to John J. Ernst’s Gulf station in Deer Lake.

During a recent interview, Keith Ernst said there were once about 30 truck builders in Pennsylvania. Reading, Allentown and Scranton all had truck manufacturing plants. One of his favorites is a rare 1920 Vim huckster truck built in Philadelphia. Another prized possession is the 1938 Hahn fire truck, built in Hamburg, that was once in service at Good Will Hose Co. in Cressona. It has a distinctive grille whose shape resembles a butterfly.

In addition to being an authority on the mechanics and body work of old trucks, Ernst also knows a lot about their history. A partnership formed by Jack Mack and Roland Carr built Maccar trucks in Scranton. Jack Mack and his brother, Gus, were the founders of Mack Trucks in Allentown. Ernst has a 1921 Maccar in his collection.

A 1928 chain-drive International Harvester dump truck in his collection, Ernst said, worked on the building of the Boulder Dam on the Colorado River. It was powered by a McCormick-Deere tractor engine, he said. An old Selden truck, built in Allentown, harbors a backstory that figured in the development of the American automotive industry.

Before he built trucks, George B. Selden, a New Yorker, patented a combustion engine and enforced it on burgeoning auto manufacturers across the country.

In 1903, Selden filed a patent infringement lawsuit against none other than Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Co. It took about eight years, but Ford finally won. In the process Henry Ford became a household name at a time when his Model T Ford was changing the American auto landscape.

Ernst has large framed photos of Ford’s Model A, which was introduced in 1928. He believes they once were in the windows of Morrison Motors, an Orwigsburg Ford dealership.

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Model A’s were in such demand that smaller dealers like Morrison couldn’t get showroom models, Ernst said. Instead, dealers put photos of the car in the showroom window.

It’s well known that Pierce-Arrow built some of America’s finest luxury cars in the first four decades of the 20th century. What’s not as well known is that the Buffalo, N.Y., company also made trucks.

Ernst has a 1928 Pierce-Arrow Model H-B, a 5-ton dump truck, in his collection. It sold for around $3,500, and included innovative dual valves, dual ignition and shock absorbers on its front bumpers.

Perhaps its most amazing feature was an early form of turn signals. The driver pulled a lever, and a panel mounted on the rear of the cab flipped out to show the direction of the turn.

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