Good business partnerships often become like good friendships and that’s what happened with Burns Motor Freight and Mack Trucks. The two companies have been friends for a long time.
In 1949, Burns Motor Freight founder Fred Burns, Sr., was driving a truck for Republic Lumber, which had a mill in Campbelltown. On his way to work one day, Burns saw a year-old Mack truck sitting along the road with a For Sale sign in the window. After driving by the truck several times, Burns stopped to ask about it. The owner agreed to sell the 1948 Mack Model LJ for $10,000.
Burns applied for a loan and went to speak to the bank’s board of directors. After reviewing the application, the board told Burns they could loan him just $6,500. But before the board adjourned, a board member who knew Burns said, “This old boy will work,” and asked the board to reconsider. It did and the $10,000 loan was approved.
That was the start of Burns Motor Freight, a company that now operates 85 trucks – most of them Macks – and employs more than 100 people. This year, as Burns Motor Freight celebrates its 65th anniversary, Mack decided to do something special for their friends in Marlinton. As an anniversary present, Mack added something special to two newly-delivered trucks – custom graphics – with an incredible array of images from Burns Motor Freight history.
A graphics specialist from Pennsylvania came to Marlinton last week to put the final touches on two of the most beautiful Mack trucks in the world. But the custom trucks are no show pieces – they’re already on the road, hauling freight for Burns Motor Freight. Local residents likely will see them winding along the road with a load of lumber.
“I think they look great,” said Burns Motor Freight CEO Fred Burns, Jr. “This all came about because of our relationship with Mack Trucks. We’ve been buying Mack trucks for 65 years, and we know all the officials at Mack Trucks from the president right on down to the engineers.”
A Mack engineer suggested customizing the trucks.
“I was talking with one of their engineers about designing these new trucks to get the best fuel economy,” said Burns. “During the conversation, I mentioned that it was our 65th year. He said, ‘we’d like to put a special wrap on those trucks.’ So that’s how it came about.”
Mack hired a company in Washington State to prepare an artistic design for the trucks. Burns Motor Freight provided several photographs from the company’s history, which were incorporated into a vinyl overlay. Mack hired a Pennsylvania firm to install the vinyl overlays on the trucks last week. The result is an impressive sight to behold.
The base color of the new trucks is the company’s trademark forest green. The hoods feature a 65th anniversary logo, with an image of the company’s first Mack truck and the famous red diamond logo, designed by Fred Burns, Jr. Pictures of Fred Burns, Sr. adorn both sides of the hoods. Images from the company’s history are embedded into the truck cabs and doors, including a picture of an extraordinary transport of a giant telescope shaft to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank.
Another image adorning the truck cabs is a picture of a C&O Railroad car loaded onto a Burns truck. In the early days of the company’s history, a C&O lawyer famously told Fred Sr. that the railroad would put him out of business. Several
years later, a Burns flatbed truck hauled the last C&O rail car out of the county.
Fred Burns, Jr., started out with his father’s company washing cattle trailers. Burns said his father enjoyed tackling the toughest jobs.
“He was a hard worker,” he said. “He always liked to have a challenge. He liked to move the biggest, heaviest thing he could find. He tackled hauling the shaft for the scope at Green Bank.”
The 210-ton telescope shaft arrived by rail at Bartow. Moving the gigantic, cigar-shaped shaft to Green Bank over winding country roads was no mean feat.
“It was quite a challenge,” said Fred Jr. “They brought in a company from Detroit to move that shaft and they couldn’t move it. They had mechanical problems and broke down. Dad had an idea of hooking a dump truck in front of the tractor to help pull the load and one behind pushing. He shored up all the bridges from Bartow to Green Bank and he got the shaft to Green Bank.”
The company president said the trucks reflect – more than anything else – his father’s accomplishments.
“When you look at that truck, you actually see the history of the company and the things that Dad did, like moving the scope to Green Bank,” he said. “And when they built the temporary bridge here in Marlinton. He was the first one to cross it with a tractor trailer, with a crane on the trailer. Everybody was afraid to cross that wooden bridge. He had helped haul stuff in to build that bridge and he wasn’t afraid of it.”
In 1964, Fred Burns, Sr., turned over company management to his three sons, Fred Jr., Larry and Tom. Like Fred Jr., Larry started out with the company washing trucks and trailers. Now, he’s the vice chairman.
“We used to live down on Third Avenue, when I was in junior high school,” he said. “I used to drive the trucks, when I was 13 or 14 years old, down the backstreets and into the alley to get washed. On a Saturday morning, I’d start washing trucks and we only had so many trucks. I could wash them all in four or five hours. Of course, I’d start washing them a second time, just to get to drive them.”
Larry said his father was larger than life.
“Fantastic – I’ve never met another man like him,” he said. “Just a super individual. If you ask anybody about him, they’d tell you the same thing. I miss him more every day. He was very honest. He would never cheat anybody. He always gave people more than what they deserved.
“He was an extremely skilled man. He could operate any piece of equipment. He could figure out how to do things with trucks. He had very little formal education, but he was smart. He was quick with numbers in his head. He taught me a lot – not only how to drive a truck and drive a bulldozer – but one of the things he told me several times was, ‘don’t ever ask somebody to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself,’ as far as doing something dangerous.”
Fred Sr.’s grandsons are assuming more and more responsibility in the management of Burns Motor Freight. Larry’s son, Mike, is vice president. Fred Jr.’s son John is president and Doug is the director of safety.
Doug said the gift from Mack Trucks symbolizes the loyalty between the two companies.
“It speaks to the integrity of our company and the way Granddad started it,” he said. “It says so much about the loyalty between Mack Trucks and Burns Motor Freight. You see the 1948 Mack LJ sitting out here in the shop, Granddad’s first truck, and we have been predominantly Mack for 65 years. There is such a relationship there and I think it’s a wonderful gesture on the part of Mack Trucks.”
Doug said Burns Motor Freight is like an extended family.
“We are a family business and we have so many families that are represented in our business,” he said. “Not just my family, but families like the Goldizens and the Millers. There are so many brothers and their sons who have worked for us, whether it’s driving or whether it’s working in the shop. We probably have four different sets of brothers and fathers and sons who work for our company. We’ve been so fortunate to have loyal employees, all the way up through.”
Mike Burns said Mack is part of the family too.
“When Mack comes in here and produces artwork like this, it tells us that Mack wants to be part of our family and celebrate our 65th anniversary,” he said. “I’m tickled to death with it. It’s fantastic what they’ve done. I’m just impressed that there are companies out there that are willing to do this for you. I wish more companies were like that – being entwined with your business and care about you as much as Mack has over the years.”
Common sense would dictate that Burns Motor Freight move its headquarters to a more accessible location, like the company’s depot at Sam Black Church on I-64. But the company president said the headquarters – and its jobs – will stay in Marlinton.
“Really, this is not the place for a trucking company,” said Fred Jr. “The company is here because we love Pocahontas County and we love Marlinton. We were born and raised here. But we should be in Lexington, Virginia, somewhere along an interstate highway. Of course, we have a terminal at Sam Black, that’s on Interstate 64. By all rights, that’s probably where our main office should be. But this is home.”
Fred Sr.’s wife Lucille, the all-important bookkeeper during the early years of Burns Motor Freight, lives in Marlinton. Fred Sr. passed away in 2007.