On Oct. 14, 1921, farm boy Claude Prowell, 19, kick-started his Indian motorcycle and set off from Wilson County on the trip of a lifetime, a solo journey that would have made Ernest Hemingway and Jack London envious.
With a burning desire to “go west and see it all,” he traveled more than 10,000 miles as he explored 16 states and two Canadian provinces.
On Thursday, the 100th anniversary of Prowell’s departure, his granddaughter, Melissa Prowell, is releasing “Trailblazing Thru Milestones 1921: My Trip Out West,” a short book she edited based on her grandfather’s memoir, which she uncovered in 2010.
“I heard his stories, but it wasn’t until after my maiden aunt died that I had access to the estate. I was going through the safe and noticed a yellowed, white paper bag, and I pulled the manuscript out. I knew definitely what it was but had had no idea this story existed in writing,” said Melissa, who was born and raised in Lebanon and graduated from Lebanon High School in 1971. “His photos (of the yearlong trip) were scattered amongst everything else. I had not seen those before. It was a treasure hunt.”
Below are the first four paragraphs Mr. Prowell recorded of his odyssey.
In the summer of 1921, I was a 19-year-old boy driving a steam engine for my father on his farm, threshing wheat and other grain. I had often read and heard the words, “Go West, young man,” so I decided I would go west and see it all. I had an Indian motorcycle that I thought would go anywhere, so I bought a sidecar and attached it. I got the Nashville Tent & Awning Company to make me a canvas one pole tent to cover it and bought an army cot and a two-burner gasoline camp stove. I made a chuck box to fit in the sidecar to hold my cooking utensils and food.
I told my mother and father that I was going out West, and that I would be gone about a year. My mother supplied my chuck box with what she thought I would need and fried a box of chicken I could carry with me. Neither my mother nor my father thought much of the idea, but they knew they couldn’t change my mind. I think they thought I would be back in a few weeks, but I had been planning this trip, which they knew nothing about, for about six months. I had cut the map of the United States out of my school geography book, the only map I had. I had studied the map for many hours and planned my trip through the southwest to San Diego, California, and then up to Los Angeles, where I planned to spend the winter before going north to Canada in the spring.
So, on October 14, 1921, I said goodbye to my parents and away I went. There were two toll gates on the turnpike between my home in Wilson County and Nashville, Tennessee. I traveled all day and when night came, I was west of McEwen, Tennessee.
The second day I came to the Tennessee River about noon. The ferry was on the other side of the river, so I finished the rest of the chicken while waiting for the ferry to come back across the river. I don’t remember crossing any bridges between Nashville and Memphis. All the little rivers and creeks I couldn’t drive across had ferries, some with motors and some with steel cables across the stream where the men pulled them across by hand. Several times before I got to Memphis I had to walk beside my motorcycle and push it to get over some of the road. Country roads were about all we had in Tennessee at that time.
Melissa said she was inspired to turn her grandfather’s notes and photographs into a book, a 10-year off-and-on task, because she realized the story was important and needed to be told. She also gives credit to her sister, Shelly Hoffman Coluccio, who posed the challenge, asking her, “Why don’t you write the story?”
Fortuitously, her grandfather repeated his 1921 road trip 50 years later with his wife, Hester, and daughter, Claudine.
“They took that same route, and when he came back, his memory was fresh with all these details, so that’s why he wrote it after the second time around,” said Melissa, who possesses Mr. Prowell’s remembrances of the journey, handwritten on the back side of 55 pages of business stationery.
The wanderer encountered numerous challenges but also made lots of friends during his travels that took him through such places as Memphis, Little Rock, Dallas, El Paso, Tucson, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland and into British Columbia. On his way home he took in the sights of Yellowstone National Park and visited the Windy City.
His amateur blacksmithing skills proved invaluable in making repairs to the motorcycle, but it broke down in Los Angeles, so he bought a broken-down Model-T Ford that he was able to repair. Among highlights of his trip were seeing the mansion belonging to his cowboy movie star hero William S. Hart, swimming in the Pacific Ocean and staring up at the giant Sequoia redwood trees. On the downside, he was robbed, penniless for a short time and for several days lived on a diet of pecans to stave off hunger pangs.
Life back in Tennessee
Once back in Tennessee, he stopped in Nashville to take a bath, get a haircut and buy a new suit before returning to Lebanon. Greeting his folks, he realized he had lost part of his Southern accent but was happy to see his father’s eyes light up at his gift of three bottles of bonded whiskey as his dad previously had sipped only Tennessee moonshine.
Back on the farm, the highwayman settled into raising cattle and threshing wheat and grain. He wed Hester Lewis, a direct descendant of Meriwether Lewis, in 1924, and they would have two children, Claudine and C.C. Jr. Industrious and entrepreneurial, Mr. Prowell also operated several businesses.
He and his wife ran Prowell’s Service Station from the late 1930s into the early 1950s as they peddled Texaco gasoline and served hungry travelers bologna-and-cheese sandwiches, soft drinks and other refreshments.
“Later I remember he had Cotton Prowell Implement Co. at 315 E. Main next to Hicks Motor Co. His nickname was Cotton because he got sick as a child and all his hair turned white. It later came back natural. He sold International Harvester equipment because that’s what he did, harvested on the farm,” said Melissa, who lives near Smithville.
“Granddaddy was something else. He dug a lake over by the service station when he was running the store, and people would pay to go fishing there. They named the road beside the service station Prowell Lake Road, and the lake, Prowell Lake, is still there.”
Melissa believes her grandfather got his Indian motorcycle in 1920. The question family members could never answer was where he got it.
(Note: After studying a vintage photo of Mr. Prowell’s motorcycle, David Hansen, owner of The Shop in Ventura, California, one of the oldest independent authorities on Indian and Harley-Davidson motorcycles, said he believed it was a 1917-1918 Powerplus model.)
Always an adventure
As she worked on the book, Melissa said she felt at times as if she was with him on his trip.
“I envisioned the nights where he slept under the stars and being out there in total darkness alone and what he must have experienced: the animals, the snakes, all those things he must have come in contact with.”
Of Mr. Prowell’s many adventures on that century-ago expedition, Melissa said one of the more unique events was when he picked up a girl named Helen from Oklahoma. “She said she wanted to ride in his sidecar to El Paso, Texas, and they were on the road for three days. She paid for all the hotels and food, but he had to buy her little presents, which he did.”
Did Melissa consider following in the footsteps of her grandfather’s trip on a motorcycle or in a car?
“No, I didn’t retrace it, but I did go to Texas and see the roads he traveled on, and I’ve been to some of the places he had been in California. One of the craziest things, he went to within 100 miles of the town where my Canadian boyfriend is from in British Columbia.”
Sharing a few personal details about her grandfather, who died in 1990 at 88 years of age, she added, “He was serious, but he liked to make jokes and was a prankster, and he appreciated nature. He continued to travel. He went to Cuba, to Europe and went to Yellowstone three times. He liked to travel. He liked to learn. He would go watch space rockets take off in Florida.”
Mr. Prowell’s road memoir should be available Oct. 14 as an e-book on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites. It is about 60 pages long and features approximately two dozen photos that he took along the beaten path.