Harold Campbell met family and friends at Kowaliga Restaurant last month for his daughter’s birthday brunch – or so he thought. He’d been told that was the plan, but when he arrived on Sunday morning, the gathering took a spin 57 years backward, almost to the day.
Fifty-six years and 364 days before that celebrated Lake Martin brunch, Campbell had stood in the driveway at his parents’ Hope Hull horse farm. He was there to borrow his father’s 1954 Chevy pickup, as he needed to move his mare to his uncle’s farm for breeding. The truck had been purchased eight years prior right off the line.
What happened next changed Campbell’s life.
His father handed him the keys and walked into the house, where he laid down with his newspaper and died.
The truck became an icon – a treasured link to Campbell’s father – and one that has journeyed with Campbell for more than 50 years of hard work, raising a family and spending almost every weekend since at Lake Martin.
Campbell took over his father’s gas station, and the truck became his. When his brother-in-law, Robert Lambert, urged him to take a look at an old cabin on an Alabama Power Company lot at Parker Creek in 1965, the truck took on a new mission in life.
Weekends were spent at the lake after that.
“The whole family started coming,” said Campbell.
Someplace along the line, the truck was brush-painted red and later was sanded down and sprayed green, its original paint color buried under the layers. It didn’t matter to the Campbell clan; they loaded it with supplies, and the five them – Campbell, his wife, Becky, and their three children – climbed in, and they drove up to the lake.
Lake Martin was sparsely populated in those years, Campbell said. Around 1975, he bought a cabin cruiser, and boat rides became the order of the days.
“It was one of the biggest boats on this side of the bridge at the time,” he said.
He used it primarily to pull skiers.
“That was my job. I pulled kids on skis – all day long,” Campbell said.
Being on Parker Creek, it was a long boat ride to go anywhere on the lake in that boat.
“The original wood and concrete bridge at Kowaliga was much lower than the one that’s there now. We used to have to push the boat along with our hands to get under the bridge,” he said. “We would take it to Bama Park and Wind Creek.”
There were no televisions at the lake in those years – no telephones or air conditioning either.
“We all lived outside and were constantly on the water,” Campbell added.
That first cabin cost Campbell and his wife’s brother $650 back in 1965, and the 800-square-foot house was already too small as soon as the papers were signed.
“We used to put up tents around the cabin for everyone to sleep in,” said Becky, Campbell’s wife of 60 years.
They brought up some windows and building supplies in the truck and closed in the porch to create more sleeping space.
Becky’s family bought cabins in the same Parker Creek neighborhood, and they liked to fish, which made Lake Martin a year-round destination for the whole family.
“We spend Thanksgiving here every year. Everyone comes. These days, that’s about 60 people,” Campbell said.
Lambert and Campbell owned the little cabin together for 10 years before Lambert decided to purchase a place on his own. Campbell bought him out and took on the power company lot rental fee of $65 per year, but it alleviated the cabin crowding only slightly. By then, the Campbell children were old enough to invite friends to the lake, and the Campbells shared their little cabin with friends as well.
And the pickup truck saw it all.
“We’d all pile in and come up to the lake,” Campbell said. “It was quieter here then, and the roads weren’t very good. Sometimes you could leave when you wanted to, and sometimes it took a while to get out.
“In 1993, there was a blizzard, and I skied down the road behind the house.”
In 1988, the Campbells tore down the original cabin and built a stone-and-timber cabin – with air conditioning.
Shortly after the blizzard, the truck went into storage. The years passed, and Campbell occasionally spoke of getting it running again.
One day last year, Campbell’s son Tommy sent a video to his brother Danny that showed the truck running with Campbell driving it. Danny hatched a plan to have the truck towed to Cockrell’s Body Shop in Daphne and told his father he was going to have it painted.
“The real craftsman here is a guy at Cockrell’s named Marty Miller,” Danny explained. “He researched the VIN number and tracked the record back to find the truck’s original color, and he got it as close as he could.”
The extent of the work remained a secret, with Campbell thinking the truck was just going in for a paint job. In truth, Danny stripped it down and did a frame-off restoration behind his place of business. When Campbell visited his son’s business, Danny had hidden the truck parts around the yard, so his father wouldn’t recognize them.
One afternoon, Campbell told Danny that he thought he might add seat belts to the old truck when he got it back again, as the original did not include them.
“I went home and ordered seat belts,” Danny said.
He also added air conditioning and plans to put blinkers on the truck.
And on that bright, warm Sunday morning at Kowaliga Restaurant on the shores of Lake Martin – 57 years after he first got them – the keys to the ’54 Chevy pickup were handed to Campbell for the second time, but this time, it was brand new and all the family and friends gathered in the parking lot to celebrate a long and happy history at the lake.
“I don’t mind admitting that I shed some tears that day,” Campbell said. “I couldn’t believe it.”