By KEN BECK, The Cannon Courier
READYVILLE--Raised in Oklahoma in the midst of the Dust Bowl days of the Great Depression, 88-year-old Tom Tilford reflects gently on a lifetime of hard work, spent mostly in timber and trucking.
While he enjoyed nothing better than driving one of his big rigs across the U.S.A, he still pines a tad for a career that could have been spent in the Navy.
When his father called him back home to Readyville after serving in World War II, Tilford answered and found himself to be quite the entrepreneur as he succeeded at about everything he put his hand to.
Born June 25, 1926, to Fannie and Henry Orville Tilford, in Anadarko, Oklahoma, the "Indian Capital of the Nation," Tom spent the first 10 years of his life there with his parents and three sisters.
He recollects they relocated to Tennessee in 1936, returning to his father's roots. The reason behind the move?
"The windstorms come along and blew all the topsoil away. Daddy was trying to farm. You just couldn't make it. Daddy decided to come back to Tennessee, back to Kittrell," said Tilford.
"He came here to start farming and cutting cedar logs. He hooked me at the end of a crosscut saw when I was 10 years old to help him cut logs," he recalled of his early days in the Kittrell community, where he entered the fifth grade.
At the age of 17 with America deeply entrenched in World War II, Tilford At 17 years of age Tom Tilford joined the U.S. Navy. During World War II he was stationed at the submarine base at Pearl Harbor. joined the Navy, serving as a quartermaster at the submarine base at Pearl Harbor.
"I didn't get to come home for 27 months, and during that time Daddy had bought this place up here [in Readyville,]" said Tilford, who mustered out of the Navy in March of 1946. "There was a sawmill down in Murfreesboro where Shoney's used to be on Broad Street. Daddy bought that sawmill and sent me down there to run it in 1949.
"When they put that new Broad Street through there, they tore out all that area for the new highway. I went back in the Navy in 1951 during the Korean War for 16 months, and during that time they had moved the sawmill and had two sawmills up here.
"I fully intended to make a career out of the Navy when I went back in, but Daddy wanted me to get out, and I did. I come back and he sold me an interest in the business."
In between his two Navy stints Tilford married Jewel Arnold of the Donnell's Chapel community. The two eloped in one of his father's logging trucks. They were husband and wife for 49 years until her death at the age of 70.
Tom's father opened Tilford's Grocery store in 1946. Later, Tom would transform the store into a building supply business, expand the sawmill and create a trucking company. When his businesses were at their peak, he employed 100 people including his sister Jeanette, who worked in the office.
"We had one truck that we used for delivering lumber from the sawmill. In about 1960 I bought another tractor and leased it to an outfit called Prefab Transit, and I hired a driver. It was just sort of a side thing," said Tilford, whose father as a young man had run a freight wagon between Murfreesboro and Woodbury at the same time as Grand Ole Opry star Uncle Dave Macon.
"After I got it to going, I bought another truck and then another one and another one, and at one time we was running 65 tractor-trailer trucks. At that time we had done grown up and got rights to haul for any and everybody. Sara Lee was one of our big customers," he says of his freight line that had drivers trucking across the highways of America and Canada.
Tilford even took a big rig out a couple of times a year and traveled to almost every state.
"I loved to drive trucks. I'd take a trip every time I could see fit to get away," he smiled.
"I was out in California in the desert one time on the interstate coming back, and another truck was going west, somebody that knew us. When the driver saw us, he got on his CB radio and said, 'Hey, who we got in that Tilford truck over there?' I said, 'Thomas E.' He said, 'Are you kidding me? He ain't out here in one of them trucks,'" Tilford recalled the story with a laugh.
Operating the trucking company from 1960 until 2000, he had one driver, the late James Qualls of Murfreesboro, who drove for him 35 years. Tom's son Randy began driving for him in 1972 and started his own freight line, R&B Carriers, out of McMinnville in 1992.
"I'd say the sawmill was probably the lifeline of our business," says Tilford as he shares a cherished photograph that shows one of the last loads of lumber, shipped out January 20, 1997, to Murphy Manufacturing Corporation, in Jasper, Alabama, a Tilford customer since 1949.
When asked which he liked most between the timber business and trucking, he answers candidly, "I enjoyed Navy most. I just liked the Navy."
As for his service during WWII, he says he saw no action.
"When I got to Pearl Harbor, it was March of 1944, so the war had done moved on down south. I went to submarine school at New London, Conn., and then was sent to Pearl Harbor. I was put on an old boat, a World War I sub called an S-28. I didn't do anything but patrol around Pearl Harbor and play war games with surface craft," he said.
"I stayed there until the war was over with and was in Pearl Harbor when the war ended. It was three in the morning and all the horns and whistles and bells came on. I was on the USS Alabama for five months from the time the war was over with until I got out," he recalled.
"After the war the battleship New York came to Pearl Harbor, and I rode back to Los Angeles on it. Everybody that had a uniform on was a hero whether they done anything or not. When we come into Los Angeles Harbor, why all the small boats came to meet us, and I can remember they had one large tour ship, and [Tennessee pop singer] Dinah Shore was on that boat and singing over the loudspeaker to all us heroes," Tilford said, laughing of the moment that took place nearly 70 years ago.
Tilford lives with son Randy and daughter-in-law Becky in the house his parents built close by the sawmill and store in 1954. Tom, his wife and son moved into the house after his father died in 1968.
Randy, 65, says quietly behind his father's back, "I've never known my Dad to tell a lie. The best lesson he taught me was to do what you say you'll do. Stand behind your word."
Most days are quiet now for Tom, who remains modest about his accomplishments and was reluctant to do this interview.
"I don't never get out of the house except to go to church and to the doctor and I go up to Woodbury twice a month every other Saturday to play Rook," he says.
But every afternoon around 2:30 a neighborhood mutt named Chip charms his way into Tilford's kitchen for a hot dog. Tom will howl at Chip and the dog howls back. "He's talking to me," says Tom.
Years ago the businessman took a teacher from Middle Tennessee State University on a tour of his site on a day when things were humming along like a beehive. After showing the professor a view of his place from the hill behind the mill, he says the man told him, "You've got a little kingdom here."
Today, from the same vantage point Tilford surveys the scene below, stilled by time, and says poignantly, "Now it's just like a cemetery."
"All my life was work. When I got on a truck and took off that was what I called a vacation," said the trucking and timber king of Readyville, Tennessee, a man who tried to do everybody right.