Help find the missing Oxmobile
Northwestern pioneer and Oregon Trail booster Ezra Meeker, pictured with his “Oxmobile” in September 1928; Meeker died in December 1928, and the Oxmobile disappeared shortly after 1935 (Credit: Dennis Larsen)
It was a distinctive vehicle called the “Oxmobile” and Ezra Meeker traced part of the Oregon Trail by traveling there in 1928. The special truck – and its clever name – predates the famous Wienermobile and even the original Batmobile from about a decade ago. The Oxmobile was a remarkable artifact of a remarkable Washingtonian, and it rightly went to a famous national museum established by Henry Ford in the 1930s.
But the Oxmobile is gone.
“Ford has no record of where he’s been or what happened to him or anything,” said Dennis Larsen, author of several books on Ezra Meeker. “I suspect it ended up somewhere in a dump, but we don’t know.”
Ezra Meeker is a larger-than-life figure of Washington’s past. He came to the Pacific Northwest by boxcar on the Oregon Trail in 1852. For ten years after ten years he was an entrepreneur and historian, a prolific author and “King of Hops” who built the Gentler mansion at Puyallup. And, incidentally, he had a big beard, much like the recent pandemic facial hair of a certain Seattle’s Morning News host.
Another thing that the very accomplished Ezra Meeker set out to do at the turn of the 20th century was to ensure that the history of the Oregon Trail was preserved and remembered. Until his death at age 97 in 1928, he traveled the country, giving lectures on history and dedicating monuments along the route thousands of settlers traveled from the 1830s to the 1860s.
During the last summer before Meeker’s death, Henry Ford himself led the Ford Motor Company to build the Pioneer Icon, a special vehicle for his travels across the country. It was a Ford truck chassis – a 1927 or 1928 model AA, for those who mattered – with the custom bodywork of prairie schooner wagon built on it. An intelligent person called it the Oxmobile, for the ox that pulled covered wagons in the 19th century. For those who mattered, Meeker had acquired a similar vehicle a decade earlier, made by a longtime automaker called Pathfinder. For some reason, this gas-powered wagon’s clever nickname – “Mobile Schooner” – didn’t hold up, and it was simply known as the Pathfinder.
Meeker’s Ford Oxmobile had a large canvas cover, as did a wagon, which read on the side, in giant letters, “Over The Old Oregon Trail”. There were beds and a stove, and, according to the historian and writer Camille Bradford, he also had electrical equipment donated by inventor Thomas Edison – one of the many famous people with whom Ezra Meeker befriended.
Dennis Larsen – who comes from published a book on 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 a first motorhome, and that in some ways Ezra Meeker invented the summer road trip.
During that summer of 1928, with the help of a driver, Meeker toured New England in the all-new Oxmobile, then traveled to Detroit in September, where Henry Ford had offered to install better shocks. from the automaker’s Lincoln lineup of vehicles. When Meeker arrived in Detroit, the 97-year-old fell ill and had to be hospitalized. A month later, too fragile to travel by Oxmobile, he returned home to Seattle by train and died in December.
During this time, the Oxmobile stayed with the Ford Company. It was the very first years of the expansion Henry Ford Museum which will open in 1933. Ford was a collector, and the museum was full of all kinds of buildings and vehicles and other great artifacts that told the story of American craftsmanship and expansion. It’s easy to imagine the Oxmobile parked there, among other sacred items like an old DC-3 plane and a vintage McDonald’s sign.
In 1930, the Oregon Trail Memorial Association (OTMA) and the Boy Scouts rode the Oxmobile and it was driven to a centennial boxcar event in Independence Rock, Wyoming. Then, in 1935, he appeared on the White House lawn during a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Pony Express. It was the last time he was photographed. After appearing at a Boy Scout event in nearby Chesapeake Bay, the Oxmobile was returned to the Ford Museum in Michigan.
What happened next is guessable, because although historians did find a mention of the Oxmobile in a 1943 newspaper article, it has never been seen since.
Over the past few decades, a handful of Ezra Meeker scholars have attempted to locate the distinctive truck. The first place Oxmobile hunters checked out was, of course, the Henry Ford Museum. Andy Anderson, who was administrator of the Meeker Mansion for the Ezra Meeker Historical Society in the 1990s, and Camille Bradford, whose stepfather succeeded Ezra Meeker as president of OTMA in 1928 – both checked with the staff there. Everyone was told, in essence, that the Oxmobile had never been acquired – which is the museum’s fancy word for formal possession of an artifact. Anderson and Bradford both say that no one at the Henry Ford Museum has any idea where he’s been, what happened to him, or where he might be now.
Andy Anderson told KIRO Radio that 30 years ago, before the internet, former Meeker Mansion associates believed the Oxmobile would one day appear in a car magazine for sale – after possibly being discovered in a dusty barn. somewhere or spat out by a collector who had hidden it. But even with the internet, proof of the Oxmobile’s ultimate fate has been hard to come by.
As to what exactly could have happened to this unique piece of history, Anderson’s theory is that in the 1940s, the Oxmobile was simply converted back to a regular truck, with its custom-fitted wagon body and canvas roof replaced by a truck bed. Then, according to Anderson, the regular old truck would have just been driven until it was worn out and then scrapped.
“I believe… it was taken apart and refitted with a truck bed and driven into the ground,” Anderson wrote in an email. “The canvas would have rotted many years ago. “
Can you help solve the mystery?
I’d love to see if KIRO listeners and MyNorthwest readers can help solve the mystery of the missing Oxmobile. Please share this story on social media with the hashtag #FindTheOxMobile, and see if we can figure out what happened to Ezra Meeker’s unique ride.
I will even offer a reward of $ 97.30 for any information to locate the Oxmobile or prove its disappearance.
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, find out more about himhere, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Felikshere.