High Life Adventure: Driving a Beer Truck to Alaska, 1952
By Jim Ducker
In March 1952, Evan Earthfield, an employee of Ringstad Beverage Company, drove a tractor trailer loaded with Miller High Life beer into Fairbanks, Alaska. Ringstad had bought the truck and trailer in Wisconsin and had Earthfield drive it north over the 10-year-old–and still rough and wild–Alaska Highway. The Milwaukee Sentinel wanted stories of the trip over the frontier road for its readers and arranged to have Charles House, one of its reporters who seems to have fancied himself as a Humphrey Bogart tough guy, travel with Earthfield. Upon the truck’s arrival in Fairbanks, the editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner asked House to summarize his Alaska Highway trip for local readers. House’s account follows:
An unkempt newspaperman wearing a pair of much abused coveralls and a scraggly beard rolled into Fairbanks last night, a passenger on a semi-trailer consigned to the Ringstad Beverage Co. here.
The newspaperman was me. The semi-trailer is Gwendolyn. Aboard Gwendolyn is about a thousand cases of Miller beer, a product brewed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin–my home town.
That’s about the story, except for details.
The Ringstad company bought the 120 horsepower diesel tractor and the handsome 32-foot aluminum trailer in Wisconsin. Rather than rumble an empty trailer over the Alaska highway he had it loaded with the beer.
Then he sent a driver, 24-year-old Evan Earthfield, also of Fairbanks, to Milwaukee to get the tractor, trailer, and the beer–and deliver it via the big stem.
I hitched a ride with milady’s final words still ringing in my ears: “You’d do anything for a story.”
It turned out that I did.
I put on and took off tire chains in weather ranging from 30 above to 25 below zero. I ate the fumes of hundreds of gallons of diesel gas.
I chafed, cut, abrased, and blistered my typewriter-soft hands. I had them frostbitten and so cold I felt they would never get warm.
And I sat and sat and sat on the leather seat and rode for exactly 4,000 miles.
I worried and fretted. I smoked Canadian cigarettes and drank the tea-coffee which is served in so many places along the 1,523 miles of the Alaska highway.
I went sleepless and hungry for 36 hours.
It turned out that the trip was a hard one. The sun, now gentle, has taken the temper from the ice which upholsters the big road, and has made it treacherously slick. Ice skaters know that slightly thawed ice is the best for skating. Truck-rivers, however, know it’s the worst for driving over the demi-mountains of the celebrated highway.
Before we had reached milepost 600 we had worn out $200 in tire chains.
We were in trouble. Without chains we “spun out”–truckers’ parlance for almost reaching the summit of an ice slick hill and then having the wheels spin uselessly.
Then we’d have to back down–sometimes in the night, black as night can be. The trailer wheels often slipped and scudded our 25 tons of equipment and Milwaukee beer toward the lip of some hungry canyon.
Ice made Gwendolyn reluctant. Lack of chains made her almost unmanageable.
One black night Gwendolyn slithered us into a snow covered ditch. We stayed there for 20 hours before Canadian maintenance men towed us out for something approaching a king’s ransom. The next night we had the first food we had had for 36 hours.
Another night we found a reluctant hill. We had to park tractor, trailer, and beer at the base of the hill among all those mooses. Then we walked 18 miles to the nearest roadhouse.
At length, four days after we had beseeched Whitehorse to send us new tire chains, we got them. Then we rolled happily into Fairbanks.
The 4,000 mile trip from Milwaukee required three weeks.
Gwendolyn is feeling fine. Truck driver Evan Earthfield has the pride in knowing that he has done a difficult job well. And me, I have blisters on my hands, a crubby looking beard, ruined overalls.
And a story.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, March 19, 1952