Trucker of the Year 2010: Cowboy spirit

Todd Dills | February 01, 2010

Crawford roams with pride through the company’s state-of-the-art driver facility in Springfield, a sort of cross between a health club and shopping mall. It offers owner-operators, employees and their families a basketball court, full-service weight room and workout area, showers, massage and spa parlors, post office, a doctor’s office and more.

man-and-dog
Mike Crawford was hospitalized in December with H1N1 flu at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center in Mattoon, Ill. Hospital security guard Carl Daniels took care of Crawford’s trucking companion Fred (pictured here) while he recovered. For that kindness and the superb care he received, Crawford says, “God sent me to the right place.”

Crawford’s 97-acre, aptly named Odd Acres Ranch in rural Long Lane includes three horses, a mule and five donkeys, Goober the turkey, geese and ducks; a former blacksmith’s shop built in the 1870s; and a farmhouse built in the 1940s. He lives there with Phyllis – the backbone of his business and home life.

“I can show you the fence that she’s done,” Crawford says. “I can show you her three chainsaws. I’ll show you what used to be wooded land and such that she cleared. I have a wife who takes care of this place, takes care of her grandkids, takes care of me, and without her, I’d be nothing.”

They met in 1963 at a movie theater in St. Louis and later married. After time in the Marines, Crawford worked as a policeman. During his next job, as a fireman in St. Louis, Phyllis saw him “on the news being dragged from a burning building” and recommended a move to Colorado, where she had family.

They moved in the early 1980s, living first with Phyllis’ sister Becky in Fort Collins, where Crawford landed a job hauling reefer freight as a company driver. But being more the “outdoorsman type,” he says, he found work on Carl Judson’s Phantom Canyon Ranch north of Livermore, Colo. “Part of that ranch is in one of Louis L’Amour’s books, ‘The Cherokee Trail,’ ” he says of his favorite author. “I’ve read every one, some two or three times.”

Working the cattle on the 54,000-acre property atop a horse, Lady, that he still owns, was a dream come true for Crawford. When on the job, he lived near an old stagecoach stop, while the family had a house in Fort Collins.

man-and-tractor
Phyllis Crawford got her CDL in the late 1990s and for a short time drove team with her husband before deciding she was more at home caring for animals on their farm.

After Judson sold most of the acreage to developers, Crawford decided to leave. With their children grown and “back in Missouri,” Phyllis says, she and Crawford considered moving closer to their roots and family. The family explored the potential for a cowboying job in the Show Me State with no luck.

“We did eventually find this place,” he says of the ranch he lives on today, selling everything they could spare for the down payment.

He tried driving again, this time for Waste Management. That ended when a hydraulic piston burst and injured him. After knee surgery, he worked for a swimming pool company, cut firewood – did everything he could to keep up with the mortgage on his land. “The Jehovah’s Witnesses always say that heaven is going to be here on earth – well, it was already here for me,” he says.

Next he went to work for Springfield-based Steelman Transportation as a company driver. He got paid 25 percent of every platform load, making $400-$500 a week. His work ethic quickly made him one of the top five producers within just a few weeks, he says.

Then fate intervened. While on a long driveway into a steel facility in Utah, he noticed a winch that had dropped from another truck’s trailer. He picked up the equipment, the first piece of trucking gear that he could call his own. He told himself, “I wish I had my own truck to go with this.”

Days later, he ran into a Prime owner-operator in the flatbed division. “He told me the kind of money he made,” Crawford says. “So I went on toward home and, along the way, drove by Prime to see about working there. Their standards were tougher for hiring than most – they were a little more finicky.” At issue, mainly, were the many different jobs he’d held since his cowboying days.