Highlands Chamber Volunteers Good as Gold

Nearly everyone new to The Plateau checks in with the Highlands Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center, 108 Main Street, for maps, directions, dining and accommodation recommendations, events and entertainment advice, and much more.

Beverly Wichman, Highlands Chamber of Commerce Volunteer & Event Manager, is responsible for inspiring local residents to volunteer at the Center.  

“Our volunteers are the best of Highlands,” says Beverly. “Their enthusiasm and dedication to promoting our town makes them ambassadors of the highest order.  The Chamber Visitor Center could not service the needs of our visitors and residents without them.  When a volunteer recommends something, the guest knows it’s good as gold.”

Highlands volunteers come from diverse career paths including attorney, commercial airline pilot, computer company executive, government official, sales executive, and registered nurse, among a few. And their reasons for volunteering are just as varied.  Here are some of their stories. 

Joyce Fleming: “Highlands is our get-away home for 17 years. We’ve made it our almost-full-time home for the last eight. I am a Texas transplant, second-gen Mexican-American, and I’m a retired lawyer.  I enjoy the wealth of activities The Plateau has to offer. I’m a second-year volunteer. Visitors come from all over the United States and the world.   I never know what someone is going to ask. Researching answers helps me learn more about the area. I regularly pull out Ran Shaffner’s thick book about Highlands and the ‘Highland Hiker’s Guide to Trails’ to give advice.”

Steve Mehder: “When I first started volunteering, I recall Bob Kieltyka, the Chamber Executive Director, saying that ‘Highlands was the center of the universe.’ Almost every day I meet a visitor and find out that we both know the same people, regardless of where they are from. The most unusual episode was a visitor from Hong Kong who knew a neighbor of mine in the US.”

Anne Parsons: “If one loves Highlands, it is easy to come to work at the Visitors Center  with a smile.  I have volunteered two days a week since 2011.  Two of the most memorable questions I can recall are:  A family of four from Michigan came in asking where in town they could view bears… I felt like saying oh yes, a mama bear and cubs cross Main Street at 4th every afternoon at 4:00!  (I did not); the other, two elderly ladies said they had been told that there were many beautiful homes here and wanted to know the street they could drive down… telling them that was not possible, I gave them a real estate guide.”

Anne and her husband are summer residents in Highlands for six months, the other part of the year they reside in Orlando.

Suzanne Pfeiffer: “I enjoy meeting and talking with people and helping them find fun things to do. The Highlands Visitor Center is a great resource. It’s a joy to see how amazed people are when they hear about all the mountain experiences that await.” 

Chip Snyder: Volunteering at the Highlands Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center is a great opportunity to share with visitors and new residents my love of Highlands.  It’s people, wonderful outdoor activities,  and area amenities, packaged into this quaint mountain top village. 

DeeDee Thompson: “After my husband and I moved to Highlands, I started volunteering for several groups. I had no idea what I was in for when I began at the Chamber. Volunteers are included in Chamber activities as well as Volunteer events.  Recently we had an event at the Highland Aerial Park where I got to zipline.  I never thought I would do this at my age! My grandchildren were quite impressed.  Volunteering has given me the opportunity to learn and share the beauty of Highlands.”

Bob Trevathan: “I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy interaction with visitors.”

Beverly adds, “Bob is the newest volunteer but is full of information about Highlands.  Having lived here for over 20 years, he knows everything – every hike, waterfall – and even every watering hole.  Come by any Monday morning and he’ll enthusiastically share every detail.” 

Sandie Trevathan: “The Chamber hosts monthly Business After Hour events where I help set up and greet guests.  At a recent event there was a cake but no serving utensil.  I remembered a merchant – The Spice & Tea Exchange – where I had taken a cooking class.  Their store was just down the street and I borrowed their utensil.  They saved the day. Our merchants really help each other out!” 

Stacey Wright: “My family started coming to Highlands in 1932. While on a multi-week car trip, the Fate brought them here. My mother was nine. Once here, my grandmother told my grandfather she loved it and wasn’t planning on leaving anytime soon.”

Stacey and her family continue to stay and visit the original family property.

“Last summer was my first summer as a volunteer,” she says.  “I wanted to find something that would give back in some small way. The highlight for me is sharing my love and enthusiasm for this place with visitors that stop by.  It’s such a pleasurable, easy job!  And let’s face it, visitors are going to be so happy they’re here, so it’s a pretty easy gig!”

When you bump into any of these wonderful volunteers, thank them for all they do to make Highlands one of the South’s favorite towns to visit.  Or better yet – come by the Visitor Center and say “Hello” Monday through Saturday and especially on Friday to meet Elaine Carlton, a volunteer for 16 years.  If you’d like to volunteer, contact Beverly Wichman at (828) 526-2112 or at [email protected].   

The American Woody:The first generation of depot hacks boasted open bodies constructed of wagon-style solid planking. But by the mid-1910s, closed station wagon bodies became more common and lighter construction was required. The rib-and-panel style that is familiar today made its first appearance on these vehicles and allowed for the first partially enclosed wooden station wagons with side curtains, two or more rows of seats, and side doors. These new wagons could still be considered depot hacks, but were now called Suburbans, Combinations and Country Clubs. (Versions of these names still appear today.) The lower halves of these wagonette bodies resembled the earlier versions and were now combined with a flat roof. These designs found favor with non-commercial customers, and an increasing number of firms began building them. Major manufacturers such as Ford started offering woodies through dealerships, although independent body builders performed the actual construction. The Martin Truck and Body Corp. in York, Pennsylvania, made so many bodies for Ford, Dodge and others during the 1910s and 1920s that they billed themselves as "The Largest Commercial Car Builder in the World." The golden age of the custom wood body maker ended during the Depression, as many of the small independent firms went out of business. Some reorganized and diversified, like the Kentucky Wagon Manufacturing Company, which stopped making wood Ford Model T and Model A bodies (and its own line of automobiles as the Dixie Motor Car Company) and started manufacturing truck trailers. The company is still in business today as Kentucky Trailer. The major automobile manufacturers acquired many others at fire-sale prices during this time. The fortunes of Martin Truck and Body, who called themselves "The Largest Commercial Car Builder in the World," changed dramatically during the Depression. After merging with failed carmaker Parry in 1919, Martin Truck and Body was acquired by Chevrolet in 1930 and became its first in-house commercial truck body division. Ford, with its vast timber operations near Lake Superior, was gaining experience in woody manufacturing. That experience would be put into practice in 1936 when a plant opened at Iron Mountain that built complete wood wagon bodies that were then shipped to Ford plants around the country for final assembly. While Ford was the only manufacturer building woodies from the ground up, there were still coachbuilt versions available based on GM, Chrysler, Packard, Willys, Hupmobile, Graham, Hudson, Studebaker and even American Bantam chassis. The trend toward luxury continued through the 1930s, although woody amenities lagged far behind those in production automobiles. Pontiac, for instance, did not offer full glazing until 1939. As the country began to recover economically, woodies were increasingly perceived as upscale vehicles and sales rose accordingly. Ford easily maintained its dominance, selling almost 10,000 redesigned Standard and DeLuxe station wagons in 1940 alone. Chrysler introduced its first truly car-quality woody, the Town & Country, in March of the following year. It boasted an all-steel roof and a white ash and mahogany body by Pekin Wood Products of Helena, Arkansas. With Willys, Buick, Pontiac and Plymouth all getting serious about passenger comfort in their woodies, things were about to heat up when the manufacturers were told to cease production of passenger cars and contribute to the war effort. A trickle of cars continued for a brief time, but all domestic automobile production had ended by March of 1942. Ford continued to produce a small number of Ford and Mercury woody sedans and ambulances used during the war. We reach Crystal Cove and its landmark Shake Shack and pull in to switch drivers. Remembering the earlier starting difficulty, we leave the Ford idling while photographer Joseph Puhy shoots some images. Little do we know, the ethanol-laced modern gas blend is busy vaporizing in the fuel line, a common Ford flathead V-8 problem. It happens on the uphill leaving the Shake Shack, the woodie chugging slower and slower, until it can’t chug anymore. Now we’re stranded beside the Coast Highway, with Audis and Acuras zipping past at speed. Bad scene. With no luck re-firing the engine, I resort to bump-starting it backward downhill. This works, and the ’34 has just enough power to get us turned around and find safe haven in a nearby park. But the woodie’s day is over. “I think this has cured me of wanting an old car!” Dean says, laughing. Oddly enough, another “Surf City” lyric has portended our current situation: “And if my woodie breaks down on me somewhere on the surf route/Surf City, here we come/I’ll strap my board to my back and hitch a ride in my wetsuit.” With the photo and video teams close behind, our rescue isn’t quite that dramatic, and we all safely return to the museum in modern cars, leaving the generous McPherson and his beautiful ’34 awaiting Hagerty Plus Roadside Service. The last great year of the woody was, by some accounts, 1949. Handcrafting complicated and maintenance-intensive wood frames and panels was becoming very difficult to justify in the red-hot, new-car market. The epochal Chrysler Town & Country switched to Dinoc vinyl (still available in aftermarket "wallpaper woody" kits today) with ornamental ash framing, and the 1949 Ford used all-steel construction with experimental plywood-like panels that underwent a dramatically high rate of failure. General Motors abandoned wood framing after 1948, and from 1948 through 1951, Packard produced station wagons with window framing and ornamental wood door trim by Briggs Manufacturing. The few coachbuilders that survived the Depression and World War II were again in jeopardy during the 1950s. Despite efforts to make the transition to more modern products such as hearses and other steel bodies, the wood-body manufacturers, steeped in old-world hand craftsmanship, were almost all gone by the end of the decade. Car design and manufacture, as well as the tastes of the car-buying public, were undergoing radical changes and the woody, redolent of 1930s and 1940s country clubs, fell from favor. The Chrysler Town & Country was discontinued in 1951, and while Fords continued to sell well, they now increasingly used vinyl and paint instead of real wood. The 1953 Buick wagons were the last real woodies from any major American manufacturer. Various wallpaper woodies or "vinylies" are still offered by Detroit to this day, but the age of the real woody ended in 1953. Fiberglass would come to substitute for ash and Dinoc for mahogany. It was a slow death, and the last real wood exterior trim of any kind on an American vehicle appeared on the Dodge Adventurer 150 "Li'l Red Express Truck" option available in 1978 and 1979.By the time I had my summer epiphany in San Diego, woodies were already in their second incarnation as an American icon. Furniture makers constructed the first of them on truck frames in the late 1920s. The car replaced the horse-drawn vehicles–jitneys or hacks–that had hauled passengers from train depots to hotels. Woodies were, literally, “station wagons,” and you’ll see them turn up. In Southern California, the place to see any style in wood cars is the annual Wavecrest meeting, held every September at Moonlight Beach near San Diego. Trophies are given for Best 1960s Surfing Woodie and Best Hot Rod Woodie. There are big-money restorations and Model A’s with rotting wood, Buick Estate Wagons with fewer than 50,000 miles on the odometer and more Town and Country wagons than Pasadena’s Rose Parade. Lovely as these ghosts are, there’s nothing that can duplicate your first time. Nearly 40 years ago, on the afternoon when I saw that first woodie in a San Diego gas station, I was just way to my part-time job in a suit and tie. What I watched from across the street was a preview of another kind of life, one that was raw and vital, one where a whole world was spread out along the coast waiting to be discovered. It was a moment that changed my life–because that day I quit my job and started surfing.