WOOSTER – Gene Varns has never been one to shy away from adventure.
A lifelong Wooster resident, the 70-year-old Varns still skis at least once a week on a variety of slopes each winter.
Now retired after a long career as a machinist, he maintains an active repair shop in a stand-alone structure behind the home where he and his wife, Joyce, have lived for 34 years.
Gene can fix just about anything, from lawnmowers to classic cars, and his penchant for automobiles took him on a remarkable journey more than 50 years ago — one that united him with another love of his life — second only to his wife, children and granddaughter — a 1948 Pontiac Silver Streak, which he looks after and occasionally drives to this very day.
It all began in the fall of 1969, when Gene’s grandfather, Clifford, was preparing to make a cross-country trip to Pierre (pronounced “pier”), South Dakota, to purchase calves for his buffalo herd, which resided on Flickinger Hill in Wooster for many years.
Clifford and his wife, Lucille, had made this trip numerous times in the past, beginning in the 1960s. Years before that, back in the 1930s, they traveled even farther — to Montana — to purchase feeder lambs from Christopher and Anna McRae for a separate operation.
Family friends in Montana were looking to sell their 1948 Silver Streak
In 1948, the McRaes sold their ranch. That same year they purchased a brand new Silver Streak Straight 8 after moving into the town of Terry, Montana. Over the years, they maintained a close friendship with the Varns, even visiting each other every few years. In 1969, the McRaes were looking to sell their 21-year old Silver Streak, and asked if Clifford’s twin grandsons – Gene and Dean — might be interested in purchasing it.
Not surprisingly, the two brothers, who were seniors at Triway High School at the time, jumped at the opportunity. They had worked on neighboring farms in Wayne County, including the Burkey Farm, owned by Walter Jones, on state Route 83, where the Hampton Inn sits today. Their labors enabled them to earn enough money to pay the $550 price of the car, with each boy contributing $275. They were able to get out of school for four days simply by explaining where they were going and what they were planning to do.
Clifford and Lucille owned a Ford F-350 farm truck with a bench seat in the cab — clearly not enough room for four people on a 1,250-mile journey. So Clifford asked Harry Dilyard to fabricate a tin roof that could be attached to the top of the livestock rack on the truck. Then he had Wooster Lumber construct an arched headboard for the front with a plexiglass window and added a used bench car seat that he bolted to a sheet of plywood and set on top of several bales of straw, giving the twins a panoramic view of the road ahead.
The journey began on the afternoon of Sept. 30, 1969, as the four Varns headed west on Route 30 (because Clifford, who was quite frugal, did not want to pay turnpike tolls). They drove for about eight hours that day, stopping somewhere past Chicago for the night before heading out the next day, subsisting on sandwiches packed by Lucille.
Finally, they arrived at the Pierre Motel on Oct. 1, and settled in for the night. Early the next morning, they piled into the cab of the F-350 and headed north on state Route 83 to Onida. After a stop for breakfast at Clifford’s favorite local restaurant, the Varns headed west of town on a gravel road to the Sutton Buffalo Pasture along the east side of the Oahe Reservoir.
By this time, cars, trucks, trailers and cowboys on their horses had gathered for the 9 a.m. roundup, which would separate the adult buffalo from the calves, and was quite a spectacle. After that, the Varns headed south to Okabojo Creek Park where they enjoyed a picnic lunch. Gene remembers the solitude and beauty of the site where the only sound was the rustling of the wind through the prairie grass.
Varns take plane from Pierre, South Dakota, to Terry, Montana
Upon arriving back at the Pierre Motel, the Varns made their way to the local airport where Clifford had chartered a twin-engine plane for the nearly three-hour, 416-mile flight to Terry, where they spent the night with the McRaes.
The next morning they took pictures in front of the Silver Streak, and prepared to head back to Pierre on the desolate roads of Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, where, according to Gene, there was nothing but grain bins and a few gas stations along the way.
Among the highlights of their journey from Terry to Pierre was a junction that crossed the Oahe Reservoir into Mobridge, not far from the grave site of the legendary Sitting Bull. Soon after, however, there would be trouble. A screeching noise from the right rear of the car forced the two boys to pull over and remove the right rear tire where they discovered an issue with the brake drum. Unfortunately, they did not have the proper tools to remove the drum, so they sat by the road contemplating their next move when a Good Samaritan pulled over and offered to help.
After assessing the situation, the man said he would have to go home (about four miles away) and gather up the necessary parts, while Gene and Dean waited patiently for his return. The Good Samaritan did, indeed, return, and helped the boys make the necessary repairs.
Safely back in Pierre, the twins shared the details of their adventure with their grandparents while sitting in the motel lobby, when the office phone at the motel rang. It was the Good Samaritan calling to make sure the boys had made it. Gene and Dean then planned to drive through the night to get back to Wooster … until fate intervened.
Just before they left, a young woman named Chris, who happened to be the daughter of the motel owners, appeared in the lobby and asked her mother for a ride to her high school homecoming dance that night.
Varns twins from Triway High School attend school dance at Fort Pierre High School
The Varns twins quickly stepped in, stating that they were headed that way and that they would be willing to drive her to the dance. Her parents gave her permission, and the three of them set out for the dance at Fort Pierre High School.
Along the way, Chris invited the boys to the dance, so they dropped her off at the door, scrambled to get some suitable clothes from their suitcases and proceeded to enter the gym, proudly wearing their Triway High School jackets, causing the crowd inside to halt what they were doing and stare in wonderment.
In the gymnasium, Gene and Dean connected with Chris, who introduced them to her friend, Pat, who happened to be the homecoming queen and had just broken up with her boyfriend. So Dean paired with Pat and Gene hung out with Chris at the homecoming dance, some 1,200 miles from home. How lucky can two farm boys from rural Ohio get?
After the dance, the four of them exchanged phone numbers and addresses with the hopes of staying in touch. They then went their separate ways, although Gene and Chris still keep in contact all these years later through Facebook.
At that point, Gene and Dean hopped back into the Silver Streak and resumed the long journey home, traversing Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and more than half of Ohio all in one very long night and day before arriving at their home on Heyl Road right around midnight on Saturday, Oct. 4.
The long journey had come to an end, but the memories would last forever. Ultimately the Silver Streak became the property of Gene, and his relationship with that car continues to this day, more than 50 years later. Needless to say that the boy and his dream machine are living happily ever after.
This article originally appeared on The Daily Record: 1948 Pontiac Silver Streak has been with Wooster resident since 1969