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Horses to Horsepower - Automobiles in Wisconsin History

June 29, 2006 marks the 50th anniversary of the interstate highway system. Even more remarkable than the thousands of miles of highways paved since 1956 years is the fact that it took only the previous fifty years for the automobile to develop from a mere curiosity to a defining factor in American life and culture.

During the early 1900s, automobile inventors perfected the operation of the new vehicles and extended the application of internal combustion engines to other vehicles such as trucks, buses, and fire engines. An entirely new industry grew to manufacture cars, tires and other necessary parts. Automobile manufacturing initially took place in many locations around Wisconsin, but it gradually consolidated during the 1920s and 1930s at locations in Clintonville, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, and Racine. So great was the automobile industry's effect on Wisconsin during this period, that as early as 1925 the value of automobile-related products manufactured in the state was greater than the value of the products of the dairy industry.

The growing use of automobiles required improvements in roads and road building technology. At the turn of the century Wisconsin roads were not much better than the dirt and plank roads of territorial days. In Wisconsin the state Highway Commission, which would become a national leader, took on the role of planning, constructing and maintaining the new road system. Even the system for identifying and marking highways, which is still used today, had to be created. A new tax on gasoline established a segregated fund for highway construction.

Farmers were among the first to benefit from automobiles and improved roads, as motorized vehicles allowed them to deliver their produce to market more quickly. Their children were better educated because rural one-room schools could be consolidated. Public health services were brought to people in remote locations.

Blacksmiths who had been an essential part of the horse-based economy virtually disappeared as an occupation, but new jobs evolved relating to the new technology. The automobile industry was among the first sectors of the economy in which efficient assembly-line construction methods were applied, a change which dramatically altered the nature of manufacturing work. Another important shift in the work environment occurred during the 1930s when the United Automobile Workers Union assumed a leadership role in organizing industrial unions. Hints of the important economic role of tourism were apparent as early as the 1920s, when improved roads opened all parts of the state to the automobile and travelers needed places to eat, sleep and fill their gas tanks,

During World War II rationing of gasoline and tires limited personal automobile use, but the end of the war brought a new wave of changes. More and more families moved to the suburbs and commuted to work by automobile. Interstate highways and local expressways further encouraged the trend. At the same time many stores and businesses relocated from central shopping districts to suburban shopping centers where customers could easily find parking. Domestic architecture changed, too, in response to the automobile. Garages, which had been small, detached barn-like structures during the 1920s, evolved so that the garage, often containing two or three cars, eventually dominated the front facade of many homes.

American enjoyed a love affair with automobiles from introduction at the beginning of the 20th century and the reasons for that love say much about the American character. By the close of that century, however, the drawbacks of the nation's automobile-based culture were becoming increasingly apparent. Although the future of the automobile is uncertain, it will surely continue to affect us all for decades to come.

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