Automobile Culture | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Automobile Culture

Wisconsin and the Invention of the Car

Automobile Culture | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeHead and shoulders portrait of Rev. J. Wesley Carhart of San Antonio, Texas.

Reverend J. W. Carhart

Head and shoulders portrait of Rev. J. Wesley Carhart of San Antonio, Texas. View the original source document: WHI 91657

Detroit is known today as the home of the automobile industry in the United States. But Wisconsin — particularly Milwaukee — made many contributions to the industry in its earliest years. More than eighty different makes of cars and trucks have been manufactured in Wisconsin since 1900. In 1873, the first steam-powered, self-propelled vehicle in the United States was designed and operated by Reverend Dr. J. W. Carhart of Racine. Two years later, the Wisconsin Legislature offered a $10,000 prize to the winner of a race between Green Bay and Madison in an effort to find a "cheap and practical substitute" for horses. Gas-powered automobiles began to appear in the state by 1899.

Wisconsin Automobiles

Edward Joel Pennington was one of the first Wisconsin manufacturers to produce automobiles. In 1895, Pennington joined Thomas Kane and Company in Racine to build the "Kane-Pennington Hot Air Engine." The company soon failed. Thomas B. Jeffrey made scientific instruments in England. He came to Chicago and built bicycles called "Ramblers." Jeffrey experimented with automobiles in his free time. In 1900, he sold his business and moved to Kenosha. He produced 1,500 automobiles there in 1902, calling them "Ramblers" as well. Jeffery sought to provide quality automobiles for the average American family. The Jeffery family sold the business in 1916 to Charles W. Nash. 

In 1917, Kenosha's Rambler plant began producing the Nash. Additional plants were soon built in Racine and Milwaukee, and Nash negotiated a contract with the U.S. Army that made the Nash Motor Company one of the largest producers of trucks in the nation.

William Harley and the Davidson brothers designed a motorized bicycle with a two-cylinder engine that became the trademark of their company. They produced 18,000 motorcycles to meet the needs of the military during World War I.

In Racine, successful wagon-maker Mitchell-Lewis began building cars in addition to wagons. By 1911, the Mitchell-Lewis Motor Company had become the city's largest employer; it took 2,000 workers to build the company's fashionable touring cars. The company was bought by the Nash Motor Company in 1925.

Hardware dealer Louis Kissel started making automobiles in 1906 in Hartford. His automobile, the Kissel Kar, attained international renown for its classic design and outstanding performance. During World War I, the Kissel firm began producing trucks for the Army and employed as many as 1,400 workers. But the company suffered severe financial losses during the Depression and ended production of the Kissel Kar in 1930.

William Besserdich and Otto Zachow of Clintonville invented the four-wheel drive in 1906. Their Four Wheel Drive Company helped make Clintonville a center of heavy truck production. Their trucks reached an international market during World War I. The company produced 14,473 trucks for the U.S. government.

Roads and Tourism

EnlargeWalter Davidson and the motorcycle.

Walter Davidson and His Motorcycle, 1908

Walter Davidson and the motorcycle with which he won the two day endurance run from Catskill, New York to Brooklyn and Long Island, New York on June 28-29th. View the original source document: WHI 2546

Despite the number of automobiles being produced, development and maintenance of Wisconsin's roads was a low priority for the government. Trains remained the most popular form of transportation. State funding went to creating rail lines. The government sought to improve road conditions with the 1890s Good Roads Movement. The initiative was aimed at helping farmers rather than drivers. Wisconsin's shoddy roads made it difficult for farmers to maneuver their wagons to market. After the State Aid Road Law passed in 1911, the state began paving roads with gravel. By 1916, the State Highway Commission established a system of highways throughout the state.

One of the most popular vacation routes was Highway 13, which ran from the Illinois border near Beloit to Ashland and the Bayfield Peninsula. Resort owners called the highway "Lucky 13" and promised tourists that they could find anything they wanted along the highway. Business owners sent pamphlets out to encourage tourists to travel the highway. In 1941, the federal government published "Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger State." The book promoted the fun and excitement of driving along Highway 13.

In 1918 General Motors bought the Samson Tractor Company in Janesville. The first GM tractor rolled off the line on May 1, 1919. Within a year, production the factory produced 150 tractors a day. The factory started making Chevrolet cars in 1923. The plant continued growing through the 1920s. The plant was temporarily closed during the Great Depression in 1932. Approximately 200 out of work GM employees assembled cars at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair that year. Production of Chevrolets resumed in 1934. In 1942, the Janesville plant stopped making cars and began producing 105mm artillery shells for the war. The factory made 16 million shells during the war.

Automobiles played a major part in the growth of Wisconsin's economy in the twentieth century. Automobiles brought jobs to the state, encouraged tourism and transformed daily life.

Learn More

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vols 3 and 4 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004)]