Duncan Putman Trucking Photography - Cool Photos of Cool Trucks

Truck of the Month

December 2019
Hauling Grapes with Bill Culver and his 1982 GMC Astro
Bill Culver's 1982 GMC Astro
  • Duncan Putman
  • Duncan Putman

I retired recently and moved to the Finger Lakes region of Central/Western NY State. While this area has been producing wines for well over 100 years, it’s in the last several years that the Finger Lakes wine region has, many times, been named the best, or nearly one of the best, wine producing areas in the country by polls and surveys from wine experts.

Grape growers and wineries need to get their product to the wineries immediately after harvest and trucks play an important role during the harvest in September and October. Because of the expense of purchasing and maintaining an expensive truck and trailer, few wineries, if any, do their own grape transporting.

Bill Culver's 1982 GMC Astro

Early on during this year’s grape harvest, I kept seeing a “phantom” cabover pulling a flatbed loaded with grape bins driving past or near my house. As I am a COE fan, I was very intrigued; I could hear it, but, every time I tried to identify the tractor I missed seeing its front so had no idea what the truck make was. After several weeks of trying to ID the tractor, I finally saw its front and grille; it was an Astro. A couple days later, I was driving down a road less than a couple miles from my house and there it was, parked by a willow tree facing the road, between a house and a barn. Mystery solved!

On an overcast but not very rainy Saturday morning, I spent some time with Bill Culver, who is a grape farmer and truck driver. Bill owns a 130 acre farm of which 6 ½ acres are grapes. Bill’s father bought vineyards “all over the place,” which Bill maintained but has since sold many of these plots. He still rents or owns vineyards totaling 57 acres. Located near Penn Yan, at the north end of Keuka Lake, the vineyards that Bill deals with produce Concord, Elvira, Ives and Niagara grapes.

Bill’s 1982 GMC Astro originally had a Cummins Formula 300 Big Cam but was changed to a Big Cam 400 which runs through a 9 speed Fuller RT 11609A. Bill lent me some of the original paperwork including the build sheet and operating manual which was very helpful. The truck was bought in August 1981 for use as a North American Van Lines tractor and was first painted in official NAVL colors. It’s a model D9L064 and is 142 inches long with an 86 inch aluminum cab. The rears are Eaton DS-380 with a ratio of 3.7. After changing hands a few times, the tractor ended up in New York. The Astro’s previous owner hauled grapes with it and then stored it in Bill’s barn. The owner decided to stop driving and sold it to Bill in the mid-90s.The original grab handles weren’t in very good shape and because replacements were quite expensive, Culver opted to customize the handles.

Bill Culver's 1982 GMC Astro
Bill Culver's 1982 GMC Astro

Bill has two trailers: one is a 44-foot 1979 drop deck Fontaine that was originally used to haul plastic pipe. It generally hauls up to 22 grape bins usually weighing between 25 and 27 tons. His other trailer is a straight 40-foot 1975 Fruehauf that he acquired from his father who had sold the trailer very soon after purchasing it, but, got it back after the buyer defaulted on the loan.

There’s a nice dedication to Bill’s father, Chet, painted on the back of the cab as well as the names of his wife, Hilary, and daughter, Meg on the passenger door. Bill’s granddaughter, Jade, has recently spent some time in the co-pilot’s seat, so her name, “Jade Girl” will soon be added to the door. The Jimmy was painted in ’99 with “Ford Electric Crimson Red” which Culver said cost more than other color options. Back then, few farmers had names for their farms. Bill thought it would be good to put Bill Culver Farms on the compartment door. He had “Whoopee Shit” painted as well, as he didn’t think it was a big deal to have the name on the door.

I met Bill, a few miles from my house, as the last couple of bins were being loaded onto his trailer, parked along a very steep and narrow country road. These were Concord grapes and were destined to produce grape juice, not red wine. They were going to be turned into “Amish Juice,” meaning it’ll be grape juice sold to the Amish community.

Bill Culver's 1982 GMC Astro
Bill Culver's 1982 GMC Astro
Bill Culver's 1982 GMC Astro

Bill skillfully maneuvered the Astro up the steep hills with a load of 16 bins and headed for Swedish Hill, a winery located between the northern ends of Seneca and Cayuga Lakes, roughly an hour’s distance.

We were a little early arriving at the facility so had a short wait while meeting some of the winery staff. Two guys with fork lifts soon appeared and started unloading the bins onto a row on the ground next to the building. First, each bin was weighed and then brought over to a large tank to be dumped into. From there the grapes went through separators and the waste was sent to a large holding tank while the juice was pumped into tanks inside the building. The empty bin was then reweighed and the other fork lift operator removed it and reloaded it onto Bill’s trailer. Each bin weighs about 225 pounds empty and can hold about 1 ¼ tons of grapes. They’re about 4 feet by 4 feet by about 3 ½ feet. This load weighed in at about 32,000 pounds.

During the unloading, Bill was on the phone with the harvesters back in the vineyard where this load originated. Bill had plans to return to the winery with one more load the following day which would be his last for the year. There was a limited amount of juice that the winery could process and he had to make sure he didn’t pick too much. Following today’s unloading at Swedish Hill, the plan was to haul this drop-deck trailer back to Bill’s farm and then proceed, only a few miles, to where his other trailer had been loaded. Bill would hook up to that trailer and haul the load home for the night.

Bill Culver's 1982 GMC Astro

Bill, 68, has been driving 47 years and the only other truck he’s ever owned was a 1969 Brockway 358 that he bought from his father. For a while, Culver worked for Penn Yan Boats and hauled 10-foot-wide vessels to New York City. He’s hauled other loads including apples and the other major NYS commodity- milk. He now prefers to keep to the Finger Lakes region and doesn’t see a need to haul long distances anymore. He and wife Hilary live in an old farmhouse where Bill lived as a child and have one daughter. He collects guns and has a sizeable toy truck collection along with other antiques as his mother was an estate antique dealer. A good amount of time is spent maintaining the vineyards such as trimming and tying branches which keeps Bill quite busy when not hauling grapes.

  • Special thanks to Bill Culver for sharing his GMC Astro with our readers!
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