Pierce-Arrow Society Feature Article
Miss Helen's Pierce-Arrow
When my neighbor and I came through the gates at the annual Kruse Auction in the fall of 1998, I had no intentions of purchasing a vehicle. When I walked into the RM Classics tent though, that's when fate stepped in. Looking rather drab next to a newly restored dual cowl Lincoln was a 1926 Pierce-Arrow Series 80 Town Car in remarkably good original condition.
As I approached the car, I noticed another gentleman looking her over. Not knowing much about Pierce-Arrows at the time, I asked if he knew anything about them. Turns out he was none other than Pierce-Arrow Society past-president Marc Ralston. Striking up a conversation with him, we proceeded to look the car over from top to bottom. He was amazed at how original the car was and commented that "If I did not already own several cars myself, I would buy this car!" Intrigued by his words, and wanting to buy a unique car myself, I made an offer to the representatives and a price was agreed upon.
Upon delivery of the vehicle, I discovered a paper bag in the back seat which contained some tools and some small spare parts. But most important was a very old and brittle piece of paper that contained a small paragraph dealing with the history of the vehicle. The paper stated that the car was purchased from the original owner's chauffeur. The original owner was a Helen S. Jones of McLean, Virginia.
Checking out the title, I found the name of William Pettit of Louisa, Virginia. Upon speaking to Mr. Pettit, I was told he had traded two Plymouth sedans on the Pierce from the original owner's chauffeur in 1952. Unfortunately, he could not remember the man's name. He also told me that Helen Snow Jones was never married, nor did she have any children. One of the last things he mentioned was that the chauffeur did have a young daughter at the time of the trade.
When a letter to the Virginia Secretary of State failed to find any past records of the Pierce's ID number, I decided to put my computer to work. I managed to find the Fairfax County Historical Library web page and called them to see if they could help. I spoke to a wonderful woman named Anita Raymos who, after hearing my story, became just as fascinated as I was in finding out about this woman. Two days later, she called me to tell me she had found Helen's obituary in the library archives. When I called Mr. Pettit to inform him of my research, he informed me that he had found a letter he had received several years ago from Helen Lee Fletcher, daughter of the car's original chauffeur.
I immediately called the Virginia information operator and they found the number. After saying hello and introducing myself, my first question was "Did your father own a 1926 Pierce-Arrow town car back in 1952?" After what seemed like an eternity of silence on the other end, she responded with "Why?". When I told her I was now the owner of the car and that I was looking for the chauffeur's daughter, she was delighted that I had called her. Her father named her Helen after his employer, Helen Snow Jones. Her father worked for Miss Helen for over twenty years as her chauffeur. We immediately became fast friends and she even sent me photographs of Miss Helen and her brother Edgecombe Lee Jones, and of her father, George Southall, Miss Helen's chauffeur. After two years of on again, off again searching, here is the story of Pierce-Arrow town car #801488:
Helen Snow Jones was born in 1872 in Cook County, Illinois. Her family was very wealthy in real estate dealings throughout Chicago and even owned a burlesque theatre on State Street. Helen moved to McLean, Virginia with her brother Edgcombe Lee Jones in 1921. Edgecombe was a longtime friend and card-playing associate of President Woodrow Wilson. They had a mansion built along the banks of the Potomac River at 1261 Crest Lane. The mansion and grounds are still extant today. Helen and Lee also owned property in Bar Harbor, Maine known as Foxwood Estate. In 1947, Foxwood estate burned to the ground in a great fire that almost consumed the town of Bar Harbor. A school now occupies the ground where the mansion stood.
The car was delivered to Miss Helen's estate in 1926 from the Pierce-Arrow dealership at 1114 Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C. The car's body was custom built by Derham Body Works of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The body ID is 1964. Miss Helen ordered the smaller Series 80 chassis as opposed to the larger Series 33 chassis. She specified she did not want whitewall tires on the car. Upon delivery, she was not satisfied with the color of the body, feeling that it was too light. She immediately sent the car back to be factory to be repainted. Miss Helen kept the car for over twenty-two years until her death in 1948. Helen and her brother are buried in Edgelawn Cemetery in Bar Harbor, Maine.
Upon her death, her will specified the car was to be given to her longtime chauffeur, George Southall. Mr. Southall kept the car until 1952 when he traded it to William Pettit of Louisa, Virginia on two Plymouth sedans. It remained there in his private collection until 1997 when it was sold at auction by Christies. RM Classics, a sales and restoration facility of collector cars in Ontario, Canada, bought the car and put it up for auction at Auburn, where it was purchased by its current owner in 1998. The car retains its original paint, upholstery, top, and side curtains. Miss Helen's initials are still clearly monogrammed on both back doors. It is complete will off of its original features and identification tags. Aside from new valves and springs installed in the engine in 2001, this car has never been restored.
Arrangements were made with Helen Lee to come see the car in Buffalo, NY at the Pierce-Arrow Society 100th Anniversary Meet in July 2001. Upon seeing the car again, she was so filled with emotion she broke down and cried. A flood of memories came over her as she remembered every detail of the car, even noting the initials still painted on the back doors. She was awestruck at the idea that she would be riding in it again for the first time in over 60 years. On the first part of the tour to the Pierce-Arrow factory, she rode in the back with her husband while I played chauffeur. Leaving the factory, she rode in the front seat where she used to ride with her father while Miss Helen sat in the back. She had a wonderful time! She told me before the left that she had never been with a group of people who were as friendly and outgoing as the members of the Pierce-Arrow Society were towards her. She felt like she was among family. It was an event she will remember with joy all of her life. Over 60 years of memories were brought back in a single day.