As expected (less than a day after Hostess claims a strike made their decision to close, they dumped a several hundred page winddown plan on the bankruptcy court’s counter), Hostess has shut down and parked their fleet. Hostess management plans to sell off their bakeries, depots, and fleet in little pieces while cash buyers for the whole kit and caboodle stand by in the wings… There are even rumors of machinery being trucked out of a bakery. Fortunately, the interesting (for collectors) older part of the fleet will probably never haul bread again and will be up for sale at bargain prices… The resale value of old cabover tractors and step vans tends to move in lockstep with the going price for scrap aluminum.

But before we pick over the carcass of Hostess, let’s pause a bit to honor the clever logisticians who designed Hostess distribution network and rolling stock a half century ago. Noting that gas engined step vans are, well, gas hogs, they talked Ford into bringing over a British Ford diesel engine for them and installing it in Ford’s P series stripped chassis. Then noting that steel bodied step vans all too quickly return to the earth via rusting, they got the bodybuilders to build them aluminum bodies. In the world of big rigs, Hostess logisticians were just as innovative… Noting that baked goods tend to be light and fill up a trailer long before the load gets anywhere near the weight limits, they standardized on cab over engine tractors so they could use the biggest trailers the law would allow. And noting that there were practical as well as legal limits to how long a trailer could be, they set up most of the company’s facilities so they could load and unload from the side door, eliminating the need to take a set of doubles apart to load and unload out the rear doors. Seemed strange, but even at bakeries like Minneapolis’ that never saw double trailers side door loading had it’s advantages- You could split the trailer into quarters and unload one quarter while you loaded another quarter. This really paid off in the smaller depots and thrift stores where there was no where near enough floor space to put a full load. Saved a lot of work on the longer runs too- we actually had a transport run that originated in Indianapolis and turned around in Sauk Center, Minnesota with stops at up to a handful of bakeries along the way. In the early hours of the morning in Sauk I’d load empty cake trays on the left front of the trailer for the Schiller Park and Indy bakeries that provided us with cupcakes and HoHos and put the empty bread trays on the right side by the door where they’d be convenient for the Minneapolis bakery to unload. Add a “drom” freight body on the tractor and/or a second trailer and you could play a tune on the dang rig.

Of course, this sort of clever logistics couldn’t last forever, and in the mid ’80s less sophisticated management took over and decided that there’d only be one trailer and it would be loaded from the rear and pulled by a boring conventional tractor. But vestiges of the legacy logistics system lingered on, in fact in the pacific northwest the cabover tractors hung on to the end, then lived on in california after Hostess closed the bread bakeries in the PNW and southern california. And those old diesel powered aluminum bodied step vans? Still hanging on, as Hostess hasn’t bought new trucks in darn near a decade and the shops were reluctant to junk even dead trucks that they might need to cannibalize for parts later.

So looking beyond the long auction lines of worn out step vans and cookie cutter Volvo and Freightliner conventionals at Hostess, there’s a veritable treasure trove. The step vans may be old, but there’s as many as 10,000 of them and no doubt a few have led sheltered lives or maybe gotten a factory rebuilt engine just before the shutdown. And heck, there may even be a few rare freaks like the low profile step van that I suspect had a German Ford Taunus front wheel drivetrain that I spotted at the Seattle Hostess bread bakery.  Want cabovers? Hostess probably has the biggest fleet of cabover tractors in America, with probably at least a hundred Freightliner Argosy (last cabover tractor built in America) and another hundred of more of the older FLB models. That’s just the bread and butter cabovers- at least a couple dozen have “drom” cargo boxes and there may be some “freaks” out there too like the 70s KW cabover last seen in Tacoma, the legendary 60s Mack Western F model last seen in Dallas, and who knows what else. Couple years back Hostess auctioned off some surplus trucks in southern Cal, and a ’50s round front Ford step van and Detroit Diesel two stroke powered GMC Astro were on the sale bill… Who knows what may be hiding on Hostess back lots? So truck collectors, get ready to break open the piggy bank and pounce!

Back to my welding and machining skills deficit… Surfing through Minnesota’s tech colleges web site I happened upon a few hopeful signs… A three credit basic course in welding  a “mere” 50 miles away and  some fine print noting that citizens 62 or senior can take courses for free, with a few miscellaneous charges of course. BTW, they seem to hide the actual tuition charges well, directing potential students to financial aid applications and hiding the real costs of education… They’ve clearly been taking lessons from the car dealers! The bill starts at around $170 a credit in both MN and neighboring SD, so a student can easily run up a $10k tab on tuition alone whilst completing a common two year program. That’s a bargain compared to most for-profit schools bloated costs, but none the less the schools should be a fair bit more upfront with the students about just how deeply they’re going into debt. ‘Specially since newly minted tradesfolk out here are often underpaid to the tune of hourly wages in the teens…

Bit more surfing revealed that the elusive basic welding course is listed in the brochure, but not offered at present. But there are some interesting online programs, like one called “Windsmith”, which out here on the Wind turbine dotted Buffalo Ridge might come in handy. But next quarter only one course in the program is being offered. Meanwhile, upmarket from the Tech Colleges, some very prestigious universities are offering “MOOC”s, an acronym for Massive Open Online Courses where masses of ordinary folks can sit in on college courses online from their homes, libraries, whatever. Now imagine applying that to learning basic welding- having completed the classroom learning online, a bunch of budding welders gather at a local shop on a  saturday and under the watchful eyes of a previous graduate and online instructor complete the “lab” portion of their training. At the end of the day, at low cost, they’ve become basic welders… And they and the nation are better off for it. Motorcycle training is almost there already with MSF rider training and the airhead’s weekend transmission tech schools.

Heck, given some affordable online learning I might even go back and get the engineering degree I mistakenly let a counselor talk me out of four decades ago!