James “Ernie” Sowell was born 7 miles south of the Kentucky border in Adams, TN on December 15, 1912. One of eleven children, Ernie grew up a tobacco sharecropper in the Red River bottomland of The South. His schooling lasted only until the 4th grade. With a wife and newborn son at the age of 17, Ernie felt destined to do more with his life. Deeply religious, he put his faith in the Lord and decided to hop on a freight train and head out west with $5 in his pocket. Arriving in Berkeley, CA completely broke and close to death with Malaria in 1929, he was nursed back to health by a woman named Mrs. Patterson whom he cared for until her death. He started out knocking on doors doing handyman work until he found a job at a jam factory where he saved up enough money to buy a flat bed pickup truck.
A natural businessman, Ernie’s start in the moving business began when he convinced a piano store owner to allow him to deliver the merchandise. Word spread around town of his hard work and fair pricing so he decided to officially open his own moving company. In 1935 he retrofitted the flat bed truck into a box van, got a business license, and named his company Ernie’s Express. At this time he was well on his feet so he began to bring his family out to California from Tennessee one by one. A few years later he purchased a large portion of the city block between 6th and Virginia Street in Berkeley, CA and built a large warehouse to accommodate his growing fleet. His company name was changed permanently to Ernie’s Van & Storage.
Ernie ended up having a large family of his own; seven boys and two girls, all of whom had a helping hand in the business growing up. Three heart attacks forced Ernie into an early retirement when he handed the company over to his oldest son. Ernie retired on a large portion of land in Grass Valley, CA where he lived out the second half of his life and laid roots just as strong as the ones he left in Berkeley.