Happy Birthday, Lillian Watson!!

 

On June 3 of this year, Lillian Watson will celebrate her 90th birthday. One chapter of her full life thus far includes time spent as a long-haul trucker with northAmerican Van Lines, which thrills us to no end. Around here, we call Lillian the “Longhaul Trailblazer” and are in awe of her accomplishments at a time when women were definitely not a regular fixture in the trucking industry.

When Lillian Watson was born in 1928, the trucking industry was limited by a nearly non-existent interstate road system. Business started booming right along with the advent of highway construction, starting in the 1930s. Through the post-WW2 expansion in the 1940s and 1950s, the nation was linked together with thousands of miles of paved road, and commerce flowed more and more easily along these ribbons of highway. That’s where Lillian’s connection to the trucking world started.

In the mid 1960s, Lillian would join her husband, Charley E. Watson, on trucking runs for northAmerican. By 1970, the team at northAmerican was encouraging her to get her own CDL license and officially join the ranks. She was, if not the first, certainly among the first women to be a fully-licensed CDL driver at northAmerican and definitely one of a very small group in the industry as a whole.

That’s right. Women in trucking was still a rare thing in the 1970s. Way back in 1918, Luella Bates is credited with being the first woman trucker, driving for the Four Wheel Drive Auto Co. But today, things have changed. Today, while men still dominate the industry, you’ll nonetheless find cohorts like Women in Trucking signaling a growing female voice in the industry.

Lillian Watson remembers her days as a trucker fondly, and she’s a delight to visit with. Her grandson Ben will attest that she’s always quick with a story for family members and sure to be smiling as she’s telling it. Lillian has had an amazing life and has much to be proud of, but among those accomplishments she treasures is being one of the first women to haul for northAmerican. In fact, she remembers the first load she and Charley hauled together, when they were bound for Wisconsin. “We go to pick up our first load and it’s in the middle of the night. It doesn’t feel like we have anything in the truck, but it’s locked up. We drove to the destination and they opened the doors. Guess what? It was full, but most items were lightweight. We thought we were hauling feathers—pretty close!”

Lillian recalls an occasion in eastern Washington where she drove alone from Olympia to Tacoma and then onto Fife. At the last stop, things got complicated. “That was the hardest back up I ever did,” Lillian said. “It had an angle where you had to come across a railroad track and back up into the dock.”

Fellow truckers will appreciate one of Lillian’s first times stopping at a weigh station. This was on a haul through Ohio. “The attendant said I should put my two drivers on the two small scales and bring my papers in, yet I only had one. I don’t have a tandem. Even though they are duals I just have one set,” said Lillian. “So, I split my one set of wheels half way on the front scale and half way on the back scale. He thought I was trying to be funny, but I was just trying to comply with what he wanted me to do.”

She and Charley drove for northAmerican from 1970 to 1973, traveling through and across some 47 states. They were based out of Fort Wayne, Indiana and lived in the Provo-Orem, Utah metropolitan area. They’ve pretty much been everywhere during the course of their lifetimes, and are definitely what you’d describe as an adventuresome pair. They loved being on the road together. Being a trucking couple meant they could indulge their shared love of exploration and history. Books and documentaries are one thing, but to be able to plan visits to places like Valley Forge and Gettysburg while they were on the road—that made history come alive for the couple.

Following her career with northAmerican, Lillian and Charley worked on a farm together in Fairfield, Montana, where she still resides today. Lillian is not one to make a fuss, and but for her grandson Ben, we might have missed out on this connection.

But Ben had different ideas. After hearing his grandmother’s stories of life and work on the open road, and knowing her birthday was coming up, grandson Ben Watson reached out to us and helped connect the dots, and bring us back together with Lillian once more. This way, we can celebrate together—both her birthday and her accomplishment as a Longhaul Trailblazer.

This Women’s History month, all of us at northAmerican pay our respects to Lillian and all the women like her that are making a mark in the commercial truck driving industry. We thank her for not only being a trailblazer, but for her service and her amazing spirit. “It’s our honor to have had Lillian Watson as part of the northAmerican truck driver team, and to have her share her stories of life on the road with not only her family, but with the world,” said VP and General Manager Andy Kroll.