Each day, thousands of people traveling along U.S. Highway 25-70 between Marshall and Hot Springs unknowingly whiz past one of the most unusual cemeteries in the country.
Amid heaps of rusting cars, on a grassy knoll lined with a steel-post fence, brake drums and tire irons, lies the grave of the “Old Mountain Wrecker Man.” Howard Allen, remembered by many locals as “Three Dollars,” owned and operated Allen’s Junkyard for more than 50 years before reaching his final resting place.
While some may find burying a loved one smack-dab in the middle of rusting junk a little peculiar, it just seemed natural to the Allen family.
Linda Ramsey, Howard’s youngest daughter, says they decided to bury daddy in the place he loved the most — the junkyard.
Charles Allen, Howard’s only son and heir to the business, agreed on the spot. According to Charles, their daddy is buried only a stone’s throw from his birthplace.
Born at home on Aug. 12, 1923, Howard Allen spent his life towing cars and helping people out of jams. Ramsey recalls an incident just before Christmas one year when a trucker lost control of his rig.
Their daddy not only brought the stranger home for Christmas, but gave him $100 to make up for lost pay.
For many years, the Old Mountain Wrecker Man charged folks a mere three bucks for a tow. If they didn’t have any money, he didn’t charge them anything. “If they didn’t pay, he didn’t care,” Howard’s granddaughter Stephanie Stills remembers.
In 1985, about a dozen semi-trailers wrecked while trying to negotiate hairpin curves during a rockslide on Interstate 40 near the Tennessee/North Carolina border. The rigs were routed through Hot Springs and Marshall via old U.S. Highway 25-70.
Traffic became so tangled that the highway patrol and sheriff’s department had trouble even getting to the wrecks. Wreckers were called in from half a dozen cities to assist, but it was the Old Mountain Wrecker Man who went from wreck to wreck, telling operators how to get the job done.
One of Howard’s tricks involved “greasin’ up” around the wrecked rigs — meaning he’d pour oil around a stuck vehicle instead relying solely on horsepower to put it upright.
With a shock of gray hair and piercing blue eyes, the Old Mountain Wrecker Man, in his homemade wrecker, caught the attention of the Greenville Sun during the rockslide mayhem.
Sun staff reporter Bob Hurley wrote later, “Howard never owned a giant wrecker like the ones that came from Asheville and Charlotte, but he knew the mountains and knew that horsepower alone would never get this kind of mess cleared.”
After working a mere two weeks at a regular job, the 17-year-old Howard knew his future: He would spend the rest of his life working for himself. Not only did he do what he planned, he never even bought a commercial wrecker. Howard built his own wreckers (his first wrecker project was a 1936 Ford truck).
In the days before EMS and first responders, the highway patrol would call Howard when they reported a wreck. Most of the time they called him collect. “It used to be friends helping friends,” muses Charles, looking out the shop window into the vast expanse of deteriorating cars.
Charles remembers many nights when he slept in the wrecker while his father dealt with injuries at the scene of an accident. “It was just part of growing up,” he explains.
Brenda Satterfield, Howard’s oldest daughter, remembers people trading goats, donkeys — and even a monkey once — for car parts. “When I think about my dad, I think about his kind heart,” she says.
Linda echoes that sentiment: “If daddy got a call in the middle of the night, he would go like a bat out of heck to help somebody.”
But as a child, Linda was embarrassed by the “family car.” In order to keep her classmates from calling her “Junkyard Dog’s Daughter,” she would ask her father to let her out of the wrecker some distance from school.
“When I was a little girl, I’d get out of the bus and all the kids would say, ‘bye-bye Junkyard Dog,’” she explains.
But these days, Linda has a new perspective on the junkyard: “I’d rather ride in a wrecker than a limo. This junkyard has provided a service to Madison County for over 60 years.”
Some folks have complained about “the growing cancer on U.S. Highway 25-70,” but Linda and Charles contend that without the junkyard, Madison County would be littered with junk cars.
“You couldn’t get through this county if it wasn’t for the junkyard,” argues Charles.
They also see the business as a form of recycling.
“My daddy was recycling before some of these environmentalists were in diapers,” Linda declares.
And for his part, Charles started trying to learn the tricks of the trade when he was barely out of diapers. On a recent rainy Sunday, which also happened to be his birthday, Charles took a break from “pullin’ cars” to reflect on the days he spent in the wrecker with his daddy.
“We were together almost every day,” Charles says, recalling one time, “as a little guy,” when he was trying to hook the wrecker chain and cable up to a truck. He says he was so small that he had to tackle the job in two trips: one trip to carry the chain, and another to carry the cable.
While hooking up the truck, however, Charles got hooked himself, and he’s been towing cars ever since. Besides “lovin’ to pull cars,” Charles reports that, to be a wrecker man, “you’ve gotta be a little bit crazy.”
On the night of his father’s death, Charles was driving in a race at the Asheville Speedway. Stephanie was with her grandfather at the race when he had a heart attack in the stands. She says her 71-year-old grandfather had raced her to the speedway in his wrecker that night, boasting, “You can’t beat me. I’m the Old Mountain Wrecker Man!”
With a long history of helping folks in a jam, Howard amassed many friends in his lifetime. By the time he finally left the seat of his wrecker for good, hundreds of people knew him. More than 500 of them signed the book at Bowman-Capps Funeral Home in Marshall. It was one of the county’s largest funerals.
Instead of riding a hearse to the top of the hill in the junkyard where the Old Mountain Wrecker Man is buried, the Allen children rode in an old Toyota with no doors, no windows and no muffler. “That is what daddy would have wanted us to ride in to his funeral,” Linda avows.