With a reputation for durable construction, Peterbilt trucks are an icon on American highways. Yet the history of Peterbilt predates the system of freeways that connects the nation now. The brief but significant beginnings of the legendary trucks actually started in the steep hills above Morton.

Theodore Alfred “Al” Peterman, was born on March 22, 1893. Growing up to become a lumberman, Peterman had plenty of ingenuity. Needing logs for his Tacoma lumber mills, he came to Morton seeking timber and men to fell it. At Cottler’s Rock, now called Peterman Hill, he put residents of the area to work until 1940. The 100 or so employees said he was one of the nicest men.

It’s been said that the spelling of Peterbilt instead of Peterbuilt was an accidental misspelling that stuck. Another story says it came from doors that were manufactured at Peterman’s mills. Starting in 1953, the iconic red oval was displayed on the front of every Peterbilt truck. Photo credit: Roxanne Westman owner of Roxie’s Place Photography.

An excerpt from a 1977 article by Jim Larsen in The Morton Journal says, “He must have seemed like a white knight when he came to Morton in September 1934 to do a little logging. The Great Depression was taking its toll on the town of 750 people when suddenly a tall, rangy stranger named T.A. ‘Al’ Peterman rode into town in a Cadillac.”

Peterman looked to the automobile industry to improve efficiency over floating logs down the river or using horses. He started by modifying surplus military trucks and trucks from his mill. Eventually, he built log trucks from the ground up.

Setting up a small shop in the area of Backstrom Park in Morton, Peterman and his friend Ed Valentine went to work to build a better log truck. Valentine was an inventor type with mechanical aptitude. The pair tried many new ideas together.

In 1939, the first Peterbilt trucks were a dual-drive all-steel cab Model 334 and a chain-drive Model 260. On a mission to create a truck capable enough to handle steep logging roads, Peterman invented a gear-driven truck with a drive line to the rear end. Valentine developed a safer rib-cooled brake drum.

To counteract sharp curves of logging roads, these pioneers added rollers on the trailer for some give to the logs when the truck took corners. This safety improvement helped prevent trucks from being bunk bound and drug off roads. Eventually, air brakes were used over hydraulic brakes that overheated and posed the risk of a runaway truck.

Respected businessman T.A. Peterman carried a reputation as a mechanical genius with an adventures spirit. Once he even piloted a friend’s plane alone and, with no training, landed successfully. Photo courtesy: Sorenson Transport.

That first year in 1939 saw 14 trucks shipped from Peterbilt. The following year, 82 trucks hit the roads. The quality of Peterbilt trucks was well on its way to becoming legendary. Part of the company’s success was Peterman’s determination to find out what truck drivers wanted most by sending his engineers out on logging roads to talk with those behind the wheel. He even used plywood from his mills on interiors of the trucks.

After Peterman finished his logging operation in Morton, he relocated to Northern California and purchased failing Fageol Motors Company. Peterbilt expanded beyond logging with a Model 365 military truck manufactured for the war. In 1958, Seattle’s PACCAR acquired Peterbilt, but the enduring craftsmanship continued.

In 1980, Peterbilt moved to the company’s current location in Denton, Texas. This time saw the invention of cab-over engine trucks with the Model 362. In 1986, the Model 379 was created and is still the most popular owner-operator truck on the market.

Modern Peterbilt trucks are designed with efficiency and comfort. The company announced in 2018 they would produce an all-electric truck and tractor. Photo courtesy: Sorenson Transport.

Manufacturing 150 trucks a day, Peterbilt continues to operate in Denton. In January 2018, Peterbilt produced its one-millionth truck. It was a Peterbilt Model 567 Heritage, complete with customizations to celebrate the huge milestone. Without ever really knowing what his innovations did to improve overall safety of the log hauling industry or how massive the company would become, T. A. Peterman died of cancer at only age 51 in 1944.

Still favored among owner-operators and fleets, local companies like Sorenson Transport use Peterbilt trucks because of their dependability. “Our entire fleet is 100 percent Peterbilt,” says Vice-President Cindy Sorenson. “Peterbilt’s are lightweight, dependable, and driver acceptance is high, which is important. Our drivers spend a lot of their time in these trucks and we want them to be as comfortable and trouble-free as possible. Also, we ship refrigerated food mostly, so we don’t have time to be broken down. Our entire business depends on being on time and Peterbilt has done a good job of helping us accomplish that.”

Many truckers desire to own or drive Peterbilt trucks. With more styles and models, the company is still growing and producing revered Peterbilt’s 80 years later. Next time you see a Peterbilt on the road, remember how the renowned trucks originated in the little town of Morton. Also, recall T.A. Peterman, a pioneer in the log hauling industry who wasn’t stopped by rugged terrain or The Great Depression.

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