PLATTSBURGH — It was 1962, and 12-year-old Bruce Jarvis was exploring Schuyler Island near Port Douglas with his friend David Friburg.
What the pair found would become an invaluable connection between Bruce and his dad, Ralph.
“We were cutting across the island in an area that had been used as a farm and saw what appeared to be a tent,” Bruce recalled of that day more than a half-century ago. “What we found was the top of a root cellar.”
As the pair cleared away debris and entered the root cellar, they found an old motor vehicle that looked intriguing but was also in pretty bad shape.
“When I got home, I told Dad about it,” Bruce continued. “He knew at the time that the person who owned the island (New York Sen. George Eustis Paine of Willsboro) was selling the island to the state. He contacted Mr. Paine and inquired about buying the vehicle.”
TOWED TO SHORE
The owner agreed to sell the vehicle for $100, but it was up to the Jarvis family to find a way to transport it to the mainland.
“That was big bucks back in those days,” the elder Jarvis said as he listened to his son retell how the 1946 Willys-Overland JC2A Universal Jeep came to be a fixture of the Jarvis family.
There is no way of telling how long the Jeep may have been stored in the root cellar, but it was probably brought to the island in the late 1940s or early 1950s and used as a tractor on the island’s farmland.
“The tires were shot full of holes, and the motor was seized up,” Bruce said. “Our plan was to fix up the tires and bring it over (to the mainland) on the ice.”
However, Lake Champlain did not freeze solidly that winter, and the family had to look for another option. In early spring, they towed the family’s swim raft that they used for diving at their camp off Trembleau Point out to the island. Their plan was to place the Jeep on the raft and tow it back to shore.
Shortly after leaving the island, the raft overturned, dumping tools, farm attachments and other equipment 200 feet to the lake bottom below. The Jeep was securely attached to the raft with chains, however, and they were able to tow it to shore 2½ hours later.
The Jarvis family had a natural connection to automobiles: Ralph owned Jarvis’s Auto Body Shop in Keeseville, providing a location to store the Jeep and assistance in helping Bruce rebuild the historic vehicle, which they would use regularly once repaired until Ralph sold it and his business in 1976.
By 1995, the owners of the former Jarvis’s Auto Body Shop were again selling the property, and Bruce’s brother-in-law, Jeff Dengler, decided to buy the Jeep, now at a cost of $400. Over the next two years, family members again restored the vehicle, completing the project in 2001.
Bruce bought the Jeep back in 2012, and the vehicle has since retired with him to Florida.
JULY 4 PARADE
Ralph, who celebrated his 95th birthday in November, now resides at Meadowbrook Healthcare in Plattsburgh. Bruce has returned to the North Country for the summer, and has brought the Jeep back home as well, both to run in the July 4 parade in Jay, where it was first on public display during the Independence Day parade a decade ago, and to offer his dad some rides in the “family car.”
“I told him if he worked hard and did his exercises, I’d bring the Jeep up for the summer,” Bruce quipped as he and his dad prepared for a ride recently. “He’s doing very well. We’re proud of him.”
Bruce remains just as proud of the Willys-Overland, its forest-green exterior bright and shiny, its upholstery soft and comfortable. The vehicle has won recent awards in antique auto shows, he noted.
Ralph’s love for vehicles began when he bought a ‘32 Ford Roadster for $25. It was in that vehicle that he met his future wife, Agnes Beardsley, and it was that spark of interest in automobiles that directed his career options and eventually led to the purchase of the abandoned Jeep.
More than a half-million Jeeps were built during World War II as transport vehicles for the military during the war. In 1946, Jeep began manufacturing a civilian version of the Willys, which was a precursor to today’s Wrangler.
“It’s as much a memory for me as it is for him,” Bruce said.
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