Ask the average European – or actually anybody who is not from Texas – for his or her take on the southern United States and chances are their summary will be peppered with stereotypes like big trucks, western hats, barbecue and baseball. Instead of bucking that seemingly clichéd vision, Chevrolet invited us on a road trip that embraced some of the stereotypes that play a role in the Lone Star State’s proud culture.
The day before the Texas road trip, General Motors dropped off a 2019 Chevrolet Tahoe Premier in the driveway and this three-row hauler would be my transportation and safe haven for the next three days. The first leg of my journey stretched from Houston to the Highland Hilton hotel near uptown Dallas; the perfect opportunity to experience the spacious comfort of one of the most popular full-size SUVs on the American market.
All packed and with a commanding view of the road, I depressed the accelerator and the optional 6.2L V8 firmly pushed the beefy SUV up to speed to merge with the fast-moving stream of traffic heading north on I-45. I settled at a relaxed 75 mph for the next 200 or so miles, slightly more than the distance it takes to cover the Netherlands – where I was born – from the southern border to the northern coastline.
The next morning a small convoy of Chevy Tahoes and Suburbans invaded the parking lot at the unexpectedly small and unassuming Nokona ball glove factory in Nocona. Inside, we were greeted by executive vice president Rob Storey, grandson of one of the men who founded the leather-goods company in 1926. He started by explaining why the company name is spelled with a K. Turns out their 1934 application for a trademark was denied to avoid conflicting with the town’s name, so his grandfather came up with the alternative spelling. The Great Depression dictated diversification, so Nokona started producing sporting goods and in 1934 the first baseball gloves were made.
Storey took us to the work floor where the entire process — from cutting the first piece of leather to the final detailing — can be observed within a matter of a few dozen paces. With a team of about 35 people, Nokona can produce up to 40,000 gloves a year priced from $180 to over $800. “We are not Nike when it comes to profits, or Rawlings, Wilson or Mizuno when it comes to sales, but we are proud to offer authentic American-made products as we have been doing for almost 100 years,” said Storey.
Later that night we enjoyed a Texas barbecue at one of the most famous places in the state, the Southfork Ranch in Parker. Located near Plano, the ranch became globally known as the home of the Ewing clan in the hit TV series Dallas that ran from 1978 to 1991 and was aired in 95 countries. Contrary to what most — probably non-native Texans — might believe, Southfork is not a working ranch — all its animals are for fun and effect. Another myth busted: no footage was shot inside the “Ewing mansion.” Only the exterior shots were taken in the Dallas area; the interior scenes were shot in California studios. As these studio sets were much bigger than the actual quarters of the Southfork mansion, everything looks smaller than expected on the outside. The ranch is open to the public for tours, offering an interesting perspective on its history from the moment Lorimar Productions contacted the first residents. The tours are also spiced up with juicy facts about the series and actors.
Lucky to avoid the worst of Dallas’ traffic the following morning, Garland was our next stop. One of Texas’ most iconic items is made in this town, the western hat. Hatco, Inc. is the umbrella company for the Stetson and Resistol brands, but it also makes hats under the names of Charlie 1 Horse and Dobbs.
With the charisma and posture of a southern gentleman out of central casting, Dan Brown, Hatco’s vice president, signalled us to follow him into the factory where his drawl was almost drowned out by the machinery. “In our facility in Longview we make the hat bodies from raw fur and they are shipped to this location to be blocked, sanded and finished,” he said. It was only in 2004 that the production of Stetson hats came to Garland, but Hatco acquired the brand back in 1987. With Stetson’s history dating back 150 years and the Resistol brand approaching its centenary, there’s a Texas-sized load of history and tradition within the company. It takes over 200 processes to make a hat, and the workers pride themselves on doing most steps by hand. And that is not just for the felt hats, it’s also for the straw hats that are made in an adjacent building.
After a lunch stop at a Whataburger, a staple in the Texan (fast) food chain, it was time for the Tahoe to make a pilgrimage. Only a few months before, our loyal travel companion came into the world at General Motor’s assembly plant in Arlington, where GM not only produces the Tahoe but also the larger Suburban, the GMC Yukon and Yukon XL and the Escalade and Escalade ESV Cadillac derivatives.
Unfortunately, but understandably, we were only allowed to see the last part of the production line, as the rest of the factory was strictly off-limits as GM prepares and re-tools for the upcoming fifth-generation 2021 Tahoe and Suburban. Starting in the fall and going into next year, General Motors will roll out the newly designed and engineered editions of the full-size SUVs, which will be based on the new GM T1 platform that debuted on the 2019 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra. The scale and magnitude of this operation are hard to grasp, especially when you realize that every sixty seconds a new vehicle leaves the 5.75-million-square feet site! GM says it employs over 11,000 people throughout Texas and apart from supplying the state’s 318 dealerships, it also ships their Texas-sized SUVs to 31 countries around the globe.
This story was written on behalf of the Houston Chronicle. It was published on www.chron.com and in the Sunday edition of June 2, 2019 with a circulation of 1.4 million copies.
Photos by Mike Stone for Chevrolet and the author.