Travelstead Auto Supply on E. Hickory in Denton, TX. Owner Bob Storrie in doorway.
Outdated V-belts hang like Mardi Gras beads from hooks and nails on the walls and rafters. From other hooks and nails hang head gaskets stocked decades ago for big block V-8s and even tractor engines. Parts shelves are still full of remanufactured starters and air conditioning hoses for cars no longer on the road. Some day, these items will be a “New Old Stock” treasure trove for a parts buff. But today, they’re a reminder of a Texas auto service business pushed into the shadows by advancing technology and the auto parts big boys.
Small engine repair is their business today, unsticking and cleaning out neglected carburetors, mostly. Every morning, Bob Storrie, now in his 83rd year, unlocks the padlock that holds the chain run through the well-worn holes in the wooden frames of the shop’s double doors. He pushes some lawn mowers out of the shop and into a line along the sidewalk. He’s been pulling that chain through those holes in the doors since 1952. Conservatively, he’s unlocked and locked that shop 15,000 times.
“My dad bought this place from Mrs. Travelstead (by then Mrs. Massey) and her partners in 1946,” says Bob. “He didn’t change the name. He always told me, ‘People know the Travelstead name and they know where the shop is, so we’re not changing it.’”
A 1939 view of Travelstead from the county tax rolls.
Thank goodness for us. The name “Travelstead Motor Company”, 215 E. Hickory St., Denton, TX is on the list of Austin dealers published in a recent edition of AABC Club News. Since Denton is about 20 minutes from my home, I thought I’d Google the name and address, and to my astonishment, “Travelstead Auto Supply” is still in business at that address! So then I looked at the Google Maps street view, only to find a very ‘20s-looking building facade still in place. Are you kidding me? Before I knew it, I was heading up I-35E toward Denton to see just what remained of the place.
Bob Storrie knew a lot about the history of Travelstead. But he didn’t remember any Austin stories. So I went to the library in search of local archives that would link Travelstead to our marque. And voilà! The August 29, 1930 Denton Record-Chronicle, right beside the announcement of a showing of the Marx Brother’s new movie, “Animal Crackers”, carried a small article about Travelstead entitled “Bantam Car Comes to Denton.” (Even though the Bantam name wasn’t the American Austin’s official moniker, Bantam was used informally from the outset of the American Austin marketing campaign to convey the car’s compact size).
The article went on to say, “...the Travelstead Motor Company, Denton County Distributor for the American-Austin Car, advising that the Bantam Car is here, and they have invited the public to visit their show rooms on East Hickory Street, Saturday, Aug. 30th, from nine a.m. until ten p.m., at which time a special showing of this much talked-of car will occur.”
I burst forth in jubilation at the discovery, and judging from a few raised eyebrows in the room, failed to use my library voice. Before leaving town, I stopped by to see the fine folks at the Denton County Courthouse who provided a 1939 photo of the Travelstead shop.
I then returned to my old friend, the Internet, to fill out some of the stories Bob had told me about the man Travelstead.
He was born Ulric Clyde Travelstead in 1893, but by the time he was a young merchant in Denton, TX, he was publicly known as U. C. Travelstead. His friends called him Trap. His entry into the auto parts and service business in 1921 was humble. His job in Denton was to shuttle people back and forth to Dallas in a Model T bus. Folks would ask him to stop by a parts store to pick up auto parts while he was in town. Within a few years, he could afford to have his own parts inventory and a shop, so he moved into a former Cadillac-then-Chevrolet dealership at 215 Hickory Street. There, by 1928, he was advertising the buying and selling of used cars, and offering gasoline and oil for Denton motorists. And since then, the name Travelstead has remained on the building for more than eight decades, despite U.C.’s untimely death.
Ulrich Clyde Travelstead died at Baylor University Hospital in Dallas on December 10, 1936, six days shy of his forty-third birthday. His widow, Etta, was well known in Denton’s social and business circles. Her name appeared at least as often as that of her husband in the pages of the Record-Chronicle. Etta, together with U.C.’s business partners, Walter and Tom Bolton, carried on the business through the remainder of the Great Depression and through WWII, until Bob Storrie’s dad bought it in 1946. Although Etta remarried, she is buried next to U.C. in Denton County’s Old Hall Cemetery. She lived until 1986. Bob Storrie served as one of her pall bearers.
Etta and U.C.'s headstones in Old Hall Cemetery, Lewisville, TX
Bob Storrie reveres his dad’s memory. “He could fix anything, fabricate anything, make anything run,” Bob says. “I wish I would have worked with him more than I did. A brain tumor took him in ‘85.”
“After the War,” Bob remembers, “this country was full of cars that were worn out. Dad’s shop had all the work we could handle. We did it all...full machine shop, sleeving blocks, pistons, rings, you name it.”
Some parts were in short supply. “We had a good business rebuilding generators. One thing you couldn’t get was bearings in races. So we found these guys who re-turned old races and put oversize bearings in them. We used them when we rebuilt generators. Those bearings worked better than new ones...in fact a lot of people would buy them even after new ones became available, because even if you didn’t get them in exactly straight, they wouldn’t bind.”
Bob graduated from Texas A&M in 1949 with a Mechanical Engineering degree and immediately joined the Air Force, becoming a jet pilot for a three-year stint. In 1952, he came home to Denton with his new bride and began working in the family business. Business was good for many years. Like always, Travelstead was the place to take your car, your truck, your tractor or your generator. But in more recent times, things have changed. “If I had to blame one thing,” Bob reflects, “I’d say it’s the roller tappet cam shaft. When they started putting those in cars, it put a whole group of machinists and parts shops out of business. With a flat tappet cam shaft, things wear out and you have to take the engine apart. Now, some engines can go 200,000 miles without having the heads off. The lubricants are better, too.”
While the roller tappet cam shaft is not a new idea, it was set aside by Detroit when it wasn’t needed. “I have a 1928 Cadillac, and you know, it has a roller tappet cam shaft,” says Bob. “But they didn’t need them, so they didn’t use them after that. When the imports came in with them in the ‘80s, Detroit had to put them in, too.”
“Another thing is that whatever business was left went to the big boys,” Bob adds. “You can’t compete with the Walmarts and Auto Zones of the world.”
Today, Bob and his son Rob man the shop, fix small engines, and spend whatever time their customers need to talk out the issues of the day.
Given the pace of growth in North Texas, I can’t help but wonder how Travelstead Auto Supply can still be here. Well, before too long it may not be. Bob’s under pressure to sell. Travelstead Auto Supply sits on some prime retail real estate, right along a retail corridor the city planners have in mind to link the soon-to-come light rail depot with Denton’s historic downtown square.
But Bob’s not selling. There may come a day when he won’t have much choice, but until then, Travelstead Auto Supply stands as a near-century-old time capsule, stubbornly holding on to memories of cylinder sleeves, flat tappet camshafts and American Austins.
Travelstead with the author's '33 British Austin Seven Saloon parked out front, February, 2011. Bob's son, Rob Storrie, in doorway.