Local man relinquishes the past
When the situation was dire and the fate of the allies early in World War I was uncertain, the French were forced to make a stand that would prove pivotal to that war.
For a Canby man, keeping the memory of the sacrifices made during the Battle of the Marne wasn't just an ideal, it was a tangible responsibility. It's a responsibility he is, at last about to relinquish.
Don Downing has been the keeper of the history of a wonderfully important side note to that Battle at the Marne River more than 100 years ago. It has been a task he has both loved for nearly 40 years, and is saddened by as he hands over a treasure trove of information to the next generation.
"The Germans were on their way and so the French government commandeered all of the taxis in Paris and used them to transport troops to the Marne River, where they held," explained Downing. "Then, those taxis brought back wounded troops from the battle."
So important was the army of small taxis to the success of the battle, it became an important symbol in the fight. When the war was over, it became important to preserve that symbol. That's where the story of the 'Marne Taxi' begins and years later would wind up in the loving arms of the 77-year-old Downing, himself a veteran with three tours in Vietnam between 1963 and 1974.
Downing explained that The American Legion was formed in 1919 as a result of World War I, but a year later another organization within the Legion was established – the Voyagers. And Voyager 25 was created, which Downing is a member of. It's a group you have to be invited to join, Downing said.
That group, fronted by Byron Beattie, decided that one of the Marne Taxi's would be an important heirloom of the First World War, so they went about acquiring one.
"A gentleman sold him the taxi in Paris, but the French government had to give him permission to transport it to America," said Downing. "The French felt it would help relations between the two countries to let them bring it to America."
The car made it to the States, but just barely. Downing said that as the ship it was on was transporting it around the Horn of Africa, a violent storm almost tossed the prized acquisition in the water. Fortunately, it was saved and made its way here.
Through the years it had been a prized possession of Voyager 25. In the early 1980s, the mantle of care, restoration, and documentation fell into Downing's excited hands. And with it, the chance to not only chronicle the car's past, but also to oversee its upkeep and enjoy the pleasure of driving it at many Oregon events.
"When I was given the opportunity to do this, I was about the proudest son of a bitch in the world," said Downing. "I walked around with my chest puffed out – I was so proud to be part of it."
The taxi is a 1910 Renault and still carries the bullet holes it received during its duty at the Marne River during WWI. Downing said there was never any question about mending those, as they lent an air of authenticity to the war the car had seen.
With the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I upon us in November, Downing thought it was important to share the story of the 'Marne Taxi' as a way to honor those who fought and died within it, as well as those who cared enough to save it.
It's also the culmination of Downing's duties with the car. The actual taxi is up in Vancouver, Washington now, in the care of another Legion Post. Soon, all the documentation that Downing has collected about the car and its history – from official documents to newspaper stories - will find its way up north as well.
"I'm going to give this information to someone else," he said, citing health issues as a reason to make the change. "I think it's time for someone else to take over. I have heard, but don't know for sure, that the Legion up there has it on display.
"It's kind of like giving up a part of you," he added. "I have enjoyed this for so long, but the information needs to get to the resting place of the taxi."
As the years carried on, Downing and other Voyager 25 members began to wonder if their little Marne Taxi was the last of its kind. Through painstaking research and tracking down rumors and leads, Downing says with understandable pride that this Marne Taxi is the last of its kind – a true one-of-a-kind item.
"I'm kind of presenting this as a tribute to a man named Cecil B. Taylor, who is the man that got me involved with the Marne Taxi," said Downing.
There's also something else that's unique about the Marne Taxi and its relationship with Downing. He said that Voyager 25 had kind of an unwritten rule that no women could ride in, or drive, the Marne Taxi. However, Downing and his wife, Corrine, had worked hand-in-hand in restoration and care of the taxi. So much so that Voyager 25 accorded her the honor of being the only woman allowed to drive or ride in this piece of history.
"I was so proud of that, when we got that plaque," said Downing.
But now, with the telling of the story, the last vestiges of his relationship with the Marne Taxi are about to be concluded.
"It has been a wonderful feeling to care for the car and all this information," he said. "Talking about this vehicle is a wonderful thing."
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