The following article was selected by the editors from Volume 30 #1
of the Wisconsin Magazine of History (September 1946), pp. 69-77.
Copyright © 2000 by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
Difficult as it may be to imagine, there was a time when the state's highways were neither paved nor marked, and when the forty-mile trip from Milwaukee to Palmyra in Jefferson County might take a full day and involve the repair of a dozen "punctures." This delightful account of the early days of motoring in Wisconsin was written by Dorothy V. Walters, a social studies teacher at Lincoln Junior High in Kenosha. It originally appeared in Vol. 30 of the Wisconsin Magazine of History (September 1946), pp. 69-77.
By Dorothy V. Walters
Whether powered by steam, gasoline, or electricity, no matter what name experts were suggesting for the horseless carriage, those who did not own one of these new vehicles at the turn of the century had a name for them all: "devil-wagons." However much interest, amazement, curiosity, or dislike they stimulated, by 1900 the motorcars were finding their way into the Wisconsin scene more and more frequently. 1
Those hardy pioneers of the road who operated these first unpredictable horseless carriages had many strange and amusing experiences-often more entertaining both to us and to them four decades after the incidents occurred.
Legislators generally looked with abhorrence on the new machines, and almost universally they passed restrictive laws. In common with most states, Wisconsin legislation required the operator of an automobile to slow up when meeting a horse-drawn rig, and if the horses or driver were frightened, to stop altogether and to lead the horses past the devil-wagon which had caused all the trouble. This type of legislation served to satisfy the horseand-buggy man and placed the irritated motorist at his mercy. One of the early day automobile owners and drivers in Fond du Lac County recalls that on one occasion he slowed up in accordance with the statutes and called out to the oncoming farmer and his wife whether help were needed with the team. The man promptly replied that he could manage the team all right, but that "the Old Lady is pretty skittish." 2
The same motorist writes as follows:
I recall on a trip to Ripon seeing a horse-drawn rig coming down hill some distance ahead, with the passengers waving at me. I drove over near a fence, shut off the motor, and was ready to help them. Imagine my disgust to find a group of boys with an old "crowbait" which couldn't have run if there had been a bunch of firecrackers tied to his tail.
The annals of motoring in the first decade of this century are full of incidents about the passive resistance tactics used by those who did not approve of the automobile. One favorite trick which incurred the wrath of the motorist, bent on making all of fifteen or twenty miles per hour, was to let horses amble along a narrow road while the driver of the team either pretended deafness to the noise of the trailing automobile, or sat and grinned mockingly at the helpless driver.
Another and more vicious act was to put nails and wire in the wheel track. Mr. Walters recalls that one farmer in his vicinity fed his poultry in the public highway and plowed furrows across the road on each side of his buildings until required to stop this practice by action of the town board. 3
For women to drive was quite unusual, but in the summer of 1903 Mrs. George Rowe and Mrs. Nettie Hoyt drove from Beaver Dam to Milwaukee in a three-day trip. This feat received much publicity in Milwaukee papers of that day. The machine which they used is now in the possession of the Dodge County Historical Society. It was a Rambler purchased from the Thomas B. Jeffery Company of Kenosha. Like all but the de luxe early models, it had neither horn nor headlights, and like its contemporaries, it needed frequent repairs. 4
Roads were generally poor and cars were far from sturdy, which all added up to many backaches and boiling tempers among the motoring pioneers of forty years ago. Writers and the first motorists alike recall that often a car had to be backed up a hill whose grade was too steep for straight-ahead driving. Many early models had their gasoline tanks so located that the flow of fuel was shut off on too steep a grade.
Even in cities, motorists had their troubles. One of Milwaukee's pioneer owners and drivers of automobiles was W. A. Lewis, who recounts many anecdotes connected with driving his Oldsmobile, Maxwell, and other cars in the city and about the state. It seems incredible, but Mr. Lewis recalls that he once spent the better part of an afternoon trying to climb the slight hill which begins at Eighteenth Street and Grand Avenue (now West Wisconsin Avenue) in Milwaukee. The corner of what is now West North Avenue and North Forty-Seventh Street was the site of a very well remembered incident for this motorist and his brother Oscar Lewis. This stretch of what was then unpaved country road was very muddy, and try as he might, driver Lewis could not get his car out of the mire under its own power. So, heedless of a new tan suit, his brother climbed out to push and climbed back in after the job was over, his suit now overlaid with a hit-and-miss mud pattern several shades darker.
Another of Mr. Lewis's tales concerns his taking a minister and a deacon of a Milwaukee church on a fishing trip to Palmyra. It was Friday the thirteenth, and unbelievable as it sounds, the fishermen had thirteen punctures en route. After the fifth or sixth, the deacon came around to the rear of the machine, where Mr. Lewis was repairing the damage and urged, "Never mind the preacher. Say it, Bill!"
Despite his many mishaps, Mr. Lewis, like other true motoring enthusiasts, could not be stopped. One day a tire became detached and rolled merrily down a hill on the road between Watertown and Oak Grove, necessitating a drive of six miles on the rim. Another time he and his family set out for Sussex with a freezer full of ice cream for a family gathering. The party left Milwaukee at 9:00 A. M., and arrived, after delays for repairs, at 4:00 P. M., the ice cream having long since become fluid. Under such stress, many early drivers gave up and sold or even gave away their cars. Not Mr. Lewis! The next day he came to Milwaukee by train, got a tire, returned by train to Sussex, made repairs, and brought his family home in the horseless carriage. 5
As this incident suggests, filling stations and repair shops were not to be found at every crossroad. If the local blacksmith shop could not supply his needs, the automobile owner usually secured the parts from the manufacturer. Many early-day motorists informed the writer that they supplied their automobiles with gasoline from backyard storage tanks which were refilled from the companies' tank wagons on their scheduled rounds. When gasoline was bought on a trip, it might have been obtained from hardware stores or other neighborhood merchants.
Information for reaching one's destination was obtained from others who had been over the route. Sometimes one set his mileage gauge at zero at a given spot and proceeded to landmarks which were supposed to appear at stated distances. If a store burned down or an old oak tree were felled, it upset the calculations of the motorist. The result was that many a motorist found himself in an unfamiliar locality asking the way to the nearest crossroad or back tracking to the turn he had missed. W. W. Vincent Sr., of Kenosha, one of that city's pioneer makers and drivers of a motorcar, related that he invited a party of friends to drive with him to a concert at Ravinia Park, Illinois, and on the return trip became lost, some time after midnight, in Highland Park, Illinois. The group arrived at Kenosha in time for breakfast to learn that the worried family of his friends had telephoned police in nearby towns to watch for and to guide the wandering concert goers. 6
Not only were routes difficult to follow, roads were usually very poor muddy, rutted overgrown with grass, and narrow. Such roads were not only found in this state but throughout the nation. One narrator says that on a trip to Fond du Lac he and a party of four got into a deep rut, and as the car pulled out of it, the vehicle wobbled around and tipped over on its side. The passengers all slid out and after assuring themselves of no broken bones, they all took hold of the car and righted it. It was undamaged, and they went on to town. 7
As previously indicated, hills presented an especial challenge to automobile and driver alike. In an article appearing in Country Life in America it was stated that a touring car was to be judged by its behavior on hills. No car which could not climb a steep incline in its home territory was to be taken on a vacation in hilly country. Then, too, the height of boulders protruding out of the surface of the roads needed consideration if axles or transmission were not to be wrecked by those which were too large. A double quantity of gasoline was recommended as a "must" since hilly stretches of road consumed greater amounts of this hard-to-obtain commodity; recommended, also, was a set of "climbers" of stout leather and chains. 8
Wisconsin's present highway system had its inception in 1918, at which time the method of using numbers and letters to mark the highways was instituted and maps were issued to aid the motorists. A. R. Hirst was then state highway engineer. 9
According to the Motor Vehicle Department's information and the Wisconsin Statutes, an automobile owner was required to apply-in 1905-to the secretary of state for a certificate of registration. By paying a fee of $1.00 he received a certificate and also a number plate for his car. 10 In this first year of licensing 1,492 plates were issued in contrast to the 687,717 distributed in 1944. 11 The fee was increased to $2.00 by the 1909 legislature, and in 1911 the sum of $5.00 was required the license expiring there after on December 31 of each year. This, then, was the year that annual licenses were initiated. 12
Kenosha residents in the first decade of the present century had many opportunities to become acquainted with horseless carriages, for several people in the community were experimenting with these new vehicles. Sometime in 1900 Robert Symmonds, assisted by John Sullivan and Louis Larsen, made a motorcar in the Willard and Arnold machine shop. The cost was reported at $2,000. Steam pressure of 250 pounds was generated by a power unit located beneath the seat. The fuel used was gasoline. This is supposed to have been the first Kenosha-built automobile. About two years later it was sold to a buyer at Beloit. Later Mr. Symmonds became general superintendent of the Thomas B. Jeffery Company, which had been organized at Kenosha in 1900. 13
Charles F. Borkenhagen, president of the Kenosha County Historical Society, recalls that during this decade an Earl car was made in a former Kenosha typewriter factory. In an interview Mr. Borkenhagen stated that this car was a gasoline-driven vehicle with a two-cylinder opposed motor, set crosswise in the frame.
Another Kenosha inventor who was experimenting in the automobile field was W. W. Vincent, Sr. In 1909-1910 he made him self a very large machine about which he writes, "It was a large seven passenger machine with four (large) cylinders, aluminum motor jacket engine, and 41x5" tires. . . It was too powerful, however, and built much stronger and heavier than necessary. . . I never let it go full speed, but did go to 65 miles." 14
Since the Jeffery Company prospered and became the Nash Corporation in later years, much is known about its infancy and its product. Thomas B. Jeffery built his first automobile in Chicago, with the aid of John Bjorn, preceding their arrival at Kenosha. Begun in 1894 and completed in 1897, the car had a one-cylinder engine and a cooling device beneath the seat. Wheels were extra heavy bicycle wheels, with a specially fitted hub. The frame was constructed of gas pipe. 15
When Mr. Jeffery came to Kenosha in 1900, he and his associates took over an old bicycle factory and made bicycles for a time. The first Kenosha-made Jeffery car, called a Rambler, was shipped to its purchaser, a Binghamton, New York, doctor, by express, at the order of the impatient purchaser. 16 On October 26, 1945, the first postwar Nash, successor to the Rambler, came off the assembly lines, accompanied by a good deal of publicity. But among the newspaper stories of May 1, 1902, there is no account of that first Rambler which was the forerunner of the long line of those vehicles whose manufacture was to play so large a part in Kenosha's economy.
The Jeffery firm was capitalized at between $60,000 and $70,000. Its location was outside of the then existing city limits. The original models were one-cylinder, eight-horsepower machines.
Judged by present standards, the first car models of the several manufacturers in the early years were ludicrously simple and crude. It seems apparent that they were copied from carriage models, and many are pictured in publications of the time as having a tiller for steering. Open models were sold for years without a top, headlights, horn, or other accessories now taken for granted. These extras" were later sold at added cost to the owner. When head lamps were bought, they were acetylene lights which had to be lighted by hand. In 1904 the Pope-Toledo Company was criticized for including headlights as standard equipment on its cars. 17
When steering wheels replaced tillers, some cars had a righthand drive. In 1908 when Ford's Model T" was brought out, a change-over to the left-hand drive was noted. In the same year General Motors produced trucks with the left-hand drive as a featured innovation. 18
The early automobiles seen and manufactured in Wisconsin were no exception to the rule of copying carriage designs and omitting accessories. If one is to judge by snapshots in many a family album, Badger state motorists of that era dressed in dusters, visored caps or motor bonnets, gloves, and for the ladies, veils, as did their counterparts all over the nation.
Magazine advertising was at first limited to notices of from one to three column inches and carried no illustrations. Scanning the pages of the Scientific American, which contained a quantity of automobile advertising for 1902-1903, it is revealed that the maximum advertising space was bought on May 2, 1903, by the Cadillac Company, which splurged with a one-column, seventeen and one-half inch advertisement. It was embellished with a picture of a Cadillac climbing the steps of the United States capitol. In this same issue the Oldsmobile copy took up three inches, single column, the Winton, two; and the Haynes-Apperson, four. Somewhat larger advertisements appeared in other publications.
By 1904 the trend toward large, illustrated advertisements had begun, and the space of seven inches, two-column width, was becoming more common. An entire page of the January 13, 1906, issue of the Scientific American was divided between the publicity of four rival vehicles the Thomas Flyer, Peerless, Pope Hartford, and Welch.
As advertising increased, the tendency toward flamboyant writing kept pace. The copy turned out for the Thomas B. Jeffery Company by its advertising manager Edward S. (Ned) Jordan, was in keeping with this trend. 19 In the World's Work Advertiser of August, 1904, the machine was referred to as "the height of transportation achievement-the Alpha and Omega of road transportation. Every member of the Rambler family is clothed engagingly in dark red, graceful of line, but having a business like, sturdy air withal that begets confidence." At another time the dark maroon of the Rambler was named by Mr. Jordan, "English Purple Lake."
The company used a great deal of direct mail advertising to interest prospective buyers and received many amusing replies. A doctor showed apprehension at purchasing an automobile and wrote that the vibrations incident to driving a car might be harmful and interfere with his performing delicate operations. He would have none of these vehicles. 20
Besides his manufacture of the Rambler, Mr. Jeffery and a Mr. Gormely invented and patented the first clincher tire, which sold under the name "G. and J." 21
Another Wisconsin-made automobile, which was produced between 1906 and 1930, was the Kissel Kar, manufactured at Hartford, by the Kissel Motor Car Company. The Kissel Company stock was entirely Wisconsin owned, chiefly by the Kissel family. Not long after the founding of the firm, the Kissels bought up all stock which was owned outside of the family group. The last president of the company was G. A. Kissel.
The Kissel Kar was originally a four-cylinder, gasoline-powered, open touring car, with a telescope type body. The first was sold to a Mr. Wilson of Milwaukee. This was, however, not the first motor car made in Hartford, since James Favour had a homemade two-cylinder car earlier. The first factory-made cars owned in the community were White Steamers and belonged to George A. Snyder and Louis Portz.
It is claimed that the Kissels were the originators of the all-year or enclosed type of motorcar body, but evidence that several companies were producing enclosed models in the higher price range group by 1906 seems to cast doubt on this claim. 22
From an innovation, looked upon with amused tolerance or actual apprehension by most Wisconsinites in 1900, the motorcar has come to be accepted and to challenge the existence of those Wisconsin industries which in 1910 were still supplying the needs of the horse-and-buggy era.
1.Despite arguments roost writers award the title of "Father of the Automobile Industry" to Charles E. Duryea, Springfield, Massachusetts.
2.0. J. Walters, uncle of the writer, in a letter to her, dated Oct. 12, 1945.
4.Milwaukee Journal, July 9, 1944.
5.All information from W. A. Lewis was obtained in an interview.
6.W. W. Vincent Sr., in a letter to the writer dated Nov 2, 1945.
7.Walters letter, Oct. 12, 1945.
8.W. A. Babson, "A Motor Car in the Wilderness," 8:247-48 (June 1905).
9.James R. Law, chairman, State Highway Commission, in a letter to the writer, Oct 29 1945 According to C. R. Conlee promotion and research manager of the Milwaukee Journal, much credit for the adoption of the numbered highway system must go to the late W.W. Rowland. "Brownie" Rowland toured Wisconsin as the Journal's automotive editor and in mapping areas of the state made use of numbers instead of names for highways. Later he agitated in the state legislature for the use of numbers to designate highways. Conlee letter to writer, Nov. 3, 1945. See also William F. Raney, Wisconsin: A Story of Progress (New York, 1940), 334.
10.B. L. Marcus, commissioner, State Motor Vehicle Department, to writer, Oct. 25, 1945; Wisconsin Session Laws, 1905, pp. 467-68.
11.Marcus letter, Oct. 25, 1945.
12.Wisconsin Session Laws, 1909, pp. 627-28; 1911, 781-82.
13.Information from the lecture notes of C. E. Dewey, late president of the Kenosha County Historical Society. Lecture notes in that society's files.
14.Vincent letter, Nov. 2, 1945.
15.Dewey lecture notes.
16.Kenosha Evening News, July 29, 1936.
17.A Chronicle of the Automotive Industry in America, 1892-1936 (Cleveland, 1936), Published by Eaton Manufacturing Company to commemorate its silver anniversary. The Pages are unnumbered, but the material is arranged in sections by years.
19.Later manufacturer of the Jordan car, at Cleveland, Ohio.
20.This material was obtained in an interview with Mr. Borkenhagen.
22.All information on the Kissel Company was contained in a letter to the writer from H.J. Thoma, Hartford, Nov. 21, 1945.