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Sunday, 14 March 2021

Lowell Yerex: Flying Ace the Son of a Typewriter Gun

Somebody has, with a great deal of justification, put up the idea that there should be a film made about the New Zealand-born aviator Lowell Yerex, the Indiana Jones of the Central American skies. There are already at least two books out there about Yerex (pronounced “Yerks”), A Kiwi Conquistador by his late nephew David Yerex, and Aviator of Fortune by Erik Benson. If the movie ever gets made, and I hope it does, it should reveal some of the story of Lowell’s father, George Manley Yerex, which Benson failed to do. George Yerex, you see, was a typewriter dealer. Trading in the heart of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, from 1889 until 1909, George Yerex imported and sold Yosts, Hammonds, Crandalls, Nationals, Blickensderfers, Pittsburgh Visibles (which he said were “late Daughertys”), Elliott and Hatch book typewriters and Manhattans.

Obituaries published for George Yerex after he died in Tahiti in 1930 claimed his great-grandfather was a German prince who settled in what is now the American state of Georgia, when it was a British crown colony in the mid-18th Century. In truth George had much less grandiose origins. He was descended from Dutchwoman Christina Styntje Jansz, who arrived in what became Westchester County in New Amsterdam (now New York), in 1641. The surname Yerex came from Christina’s grandson Isaac Jurckse, who with his son William (George’s great-great-grandfather) was forced at the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1776 to flee from their farm in North Castle, Westchester, and seek refuge on British-held Manhattan. As United Empire Loyalists determined to remain under British rule, in 1783 the two left New York with Peter Van Alstine’s Associated Loyalists for Sorel. In 1789 William settled in what was then known as Upper Canada, in the Prince Edward county township of Hallowell, on West Lake, Lake Ontario, named after Loyalist Benjamin Hallowell, Commissioner of Customs in Boston at the time of the infamous Boston Tea Party. William established his own settlement, two miles north-west of Picton, called Yerexville, and it was there that George Manley Yerex was born in 1856.

George Manley Yerex (1856-1930)
George left Canada via the US for Australia in 1883 and was based mainly in Brisbane, representing a Canadian company. Boozers were his primary concern, however, and after five years of lecturing up and down the Eastern Seaboard against the pitfalls of alcohol, the Wesleyan gave up on Australians and decamped for New Zealand, perhaps believing it to be a more temperate country. Finding that not to be so, in 1889 George looked for avenues of some steady income. First he tried selling books, such as The Family Doctor and, in many instalments, Andrew Garran’s Picturesque Atlas of Australasia. But while New Zealand was not short of its own intoxicating beverages, or of books, it didn’t have much in the way of typewriters. George saw an opening for lucrative trade – he would very soon be a very wealthy man.
In a “Merchants of Wellington” article in the
New Zealand Mail
in May 1903, George outlined his rise to success. “About 14 years ago,” the article said, “[Yerex] landed in Wellington a total stranger, with but a few pounds in his pocket and with very indifferent health. After a few months he started in business on his own account, importing small American inventions such as patent lamps, cameras, cheap typewriters etc … He was almost the pioneer in introducing typewriters into New Zealand. His clear eye early saw that the typewriter was some day to be the necessary and indispensable adjunct to every well regulated business office. How fully this dream has been realised is well known to all, and not only is the typewriter today employed in every business capacity, but thousands of private individuals use the machines in their homes for their private and general correspondence; while to the teacher, the minister and the professional class it has become an absolute necessity.”

George did so well so quickly from selling typewriters that before the turn of the century he was twice able to travel back to the US to look first-hand at the latest models. The first trip in 1893-94 took in the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he saw the Blickensderfer launched. George was unable to secure the New  Zealand rights to this machine, as they had gone to the de Renzy-Reed New Zealand Typewriter Company, based first in Auckland and then in New Zealand’s financial hub, Dunedin. Nonetheless George Yerex was able to sell them in the national capital and surrounds. As well, in Chicago he won the agency from the National Cash Register Company of Dayton, Ohio. George’s second trip to the US was in 1898-99. In between the overseas trips, in 1895 George took on a partner, a typing teacher called Ernest Broderick Jones (1867-1901), and the pair operated from a large building on Victoria Street, Wellington. After Jones’s premature death, George joined forces with English-born John Heaton Barker (1867-1947) and the expanded company moved to Cuba Street opposite the Town Hall. They took on a third partner, Northern Ireland-born John Beck Finlay (1862-1943).

One of George Yerex’s first major investments with his typewriter profits was to build a large home in the American Queen Anne style at 125 Western Hutt Road, Tirohanga, Lower Hutt, on Melling Hill on the slopes of the Belmont hills. It was called Keewaydin (later Lochaber) but nicknamed ‘The Wigwam’. It was here on July 24, 1895, that one of George's sons, Lowell Yerex, was born. In 1909 the typewriter importing company of Yerex, Barker and Finlay was liquidated, but George Yerex remained far from broke.  In 1906 the Yerex family had moved to a large farming property at Kelston on the Wairoa River at Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty.

Lowell Yerex (1895-1968)
In February 1912, Lowell, aged 16, and his brother Lincoln Abraham Yerex were sent to the US to attend the then Methodist Valparaiso University in Indiana. Lowell graduated in 1916, was a headmaster in North Dakota, and in 1917 joined the Royal Air Force in Canada, becoming a flight-lieutenant and squadron leader in France. In October 1918 Lowell was shot down over Germany and reported missing, presumed killed. In fact he had been captured, had tried to escape by diving through the glass window of a railway carriage, and had spent four months in a prisoner-of-war camp. Upon release, he returned to the US and applied his skills to barnstorming and wingwalking in a “flying circus” in California.

Lowell moved his aerial services to Mexico City. In 1931, with £11 in his pocket, but, owed wages by the two young owners of a 200hp single-engine Stinson Reliant, he took possession of the plane and formed Transporte Aéreo Hondureño. By December that year it had become Transportes Aéreos Centroamericanos SA.

Guy Moloney
During the Honduras uprising in 1931-32, Lowell had flying shotgun for him the American soldier of fortune General Guy R. “Machine Gun” Moloney (1884-1972), a former New Orleans police chief. Moloney was the Central American agent for Samuel Zemurray (“Sam the Banana Man”, born Schmuel Zmurri, 1877-1961) at the United Fruit Company in Panama. Lowell was again employed by Honduran Nationalist forces during an uprising against President Tiburcio Carías Andino in January 1933. While on a bombing raid over positions held by rebels under General José Maríe Reina, 25 miles outside the capital Tegucipalga, Yerex was shot in the face, the bullet penetrating a wing, ricocheting off the fuselage and taking out his right eye and fracturing his skull. Moloney held him in place and stemmed the blood flow until Lowell was able to land in Tegucipalga. A few days later he went to New Orleans to have the socket cleaned out and a glass eye inserted. A grateful Carías appreciated the effort and put Lowell in charge of a fledgling five-plane air force and military aviation school in 1934. In 1937 Lowell signed a contract with Wrigley to fly chicle (the milky latex of the sapodilla tree, once chewed by the Aztecs and now used to make chewing gum) out of the Petén jungles in northern Guatemala. By 1938 Lowell owned 35 planes and TACA covered Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, almost 160,000 square miles. In 1945 Lowell lose control of TACA and its new owners moved the airline to El Salvador. Lowell had invited Transcontinental & Western Air and other US investors to buy into TACA and the new majority stockholders, TWA and investment trust Pennroad Corp, elected Pennroad president Benjamin Franklin Pepper as chairman of TACA's board. Pepper put wartime air force commander General Thomas O. Hardin in charge as president of TACA.

Lowell Yerex had founded British West Indian Airways in Trinidad and Tobago in 1940 and in 1941 Aerovias Brasil in Rio de Janeiro. After several mergers and acquisitions, the successor companies were eventually acquired by VARIG in 1961. Lowell died of cancer in Buenos Aires in December 1968, aged 73.


Bill M said...

Two quite successful gentlemen. Another of your in-depth wonderful posts.

Unknown said...

Robert, are you able to advise who in Sydney may be able to repair a 65 year old Remington typewriter which currently does not leave an imprint on the page when typing ?