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Automobile Culture

Although Detroit is known today as the home of the automobile industry in the United States, Wisconsin - - and the Milwaukee area in particular - - made many contributions to the industry in its earliest years. Since 1900, more than eighty different makes of cars and trucks have been manufactured in Wisconsin. 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 more regularly in the state by 1899. Driving provided a new experience for Wisconsin citizens and proved a boon to the state's economy, as Wisconsin developed into a regional center for the automobile industry.

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." Unfortunately, the company soon failed. Bicycle manufacturer Thomas B. Jeffery was a far more successful businessman, building an automobile company that became one of Wisconsin's most successful. Trained in England as a maker of scientific instruments, Jeffery came to Chicago where he built bicycles called "Ramblers," experimenting with automobiles on the side. In 1900, Jeffery sold his business and moved to Kenosha, where, in 1902, he produced 1,500 new Ramblers, borrowing the bicycle name for his automobiles. Anticipating Henry Ford, Jeffery sought to provide quality automobiles for the average American family. The Jeffery family sold the business in 1916 to Charles W. Nash who quickly made the Kenosha plant the largest producer of automobiles outside Detroit.

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.

Bicycles also played an important part in the development of the Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee. William Harley and the Davidson brothers (William, Walter, and Arthur) designed a motorized bicycle with a two-cylinder engine that became the company trademark. During World War I, they produced 18,000 motorcycles to meet the needs of the military, which used them for dispatch work.

Other Wisconsin companies joined the race to produce automobiles before 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, employing 2,000 workers to build the company's fashionable touring cars. The company was later bought by another Wisconsin auto-maker, the Nash Motor Company, in 1925.

In Hartford, hardware dealer Louis Kissel moved into automobile production in 1906, producing one of Wisconsin's most prized custom automobiles. His automobile, the Kissel Kar, attained international renown for its classic design and outstanding performance. During World War I, the Kissel firm began to produce trucks for the Army, employing as many as 1,400 workers. The company suffered severe financial losses during the Depression, however, and ended production of the famous 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 that reached an international market during World War I. The company produced 14,473 trucks for the U.S. government.

Despite the number of automobiles being produced in the early years of the twentieth century, the development and maintenance of Wisconsin roads remained a low priority for government officials. Trains continued to be the most popular mode of transportation and funding went to create additional rail lines. The Good Roads Movement of the 1890s and early 1900s sought to transform the condition of the roads, but was aimed at helping farmers rather than drivers. The poor condition of Wisconsin's roads made it difficult for farmers to maneuver their wagons to market, and Good Roads promoters campaigned for state-financed road improvements. After the State Aid Road Law passed in 1911, roads began to be paved with gravel. By 1916, the State Highway Commission recognized the needs of the automobile and so began to establish a system of highways throughout the state the following year.

Automobiles and improved roads also helped the tourist industry, especially in northern Wisconsin, which enthusiastically promoted its small towns. 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 its path. Brochures and pamphlets were sent out to encourage travel along the highway, highlighting various sites in each of the towns. In 1941, the federal government published Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger State, which promoted the fun and excitement of driving along Highway 13.

In 1918 General Motors (which had been founded in 1908) decided to branch out into farm vehicles by buying the Samson Tractor Co. in Janesville. After enlarging the factory, the first GM tractor rolled off the line on May 1, 1919, and within 12 months production had picked up to nearly 150 tractors a day. Chevrolet cars began to be produced in 1923 and the plant expanded steadily through the 1920s. When the Great Depression temporarily closed the plant in 1932, about 200 Janesville employees went to work at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair to assemble cars. Production of Chevrolets resumed in 1934 and continued until 1942 when, as part of the WWII war effort, the Janesville plant produced 105mm artillery shells (16 million of them).

Automobiles played a major part in the growth of Wisconsin's economy in the twentieth century. From jobs to tourism, automobiles transformed daily life, presenting new and exciting opportunities to Wisconsin motorists.

[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)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: The early days of driving in Wisconsin  The early days of driving in Wisconsin
Link to article: An 1897 bamboo bicycle  An 1897 bamboo bicycle
Link to article: La Crosse's first motor-bike, 1900  La Crosse's first motor-bike, 1900
Link to article: The automobile population of Madison in 1903  The automobile population of Madison in 1903
Link to article: A Racine pastor invents a horseless carriage in 1873.  A Racine pastor invents a horseless carriage in 1873.
Link to article: The great Green Bay to Madison automobile race of 1878.  The great Green Bay to Madison automobile race of 1878.
Link to artifacts: An original "Big Boy" plastic sculpture from a Marc's restaurant, ca. 1971  An original "Big Boy" plastic sculpture from a Marc's restaurant, ca. 1971
Link to book: The Pneumatic, a progressive monthly paper for cyclists  The Pneumatic, a progressive monthly paper for cyclists
Link to book: The making of a Mitchell Car, 1911  The making of a Mitchell Car, 1911
Link to book: The newest automobile from Kenosha's Thomas B. Jeffery Company  The newest automobile from Kenosha's Thomas B. Jeffery Company
Link to book: A 1910 automobile travel guide to Wisconsin  A 1910 automobile travel guide to Wisconsin
Link to book: A Tourist Brochure for Marinette Co., ca. 1923  A Tourist Brochure for Marinette Co., ca. 1923
Link to book: A Tourist Brochure for Shawano and the Menominee Indian Reservation, ca. 1925  A Tourist Brochure for Shawano and the Menominee Indian Reservation, ca. 1925
Link to book: A Guide to Wisconsin Automobile Routes, 1916  A Guide to Wisconsin Automobile Routes, 1916
Link to collections: The evolution of gas stations in Wisconsin  The evolution of gas stations in Wisconsin
Link to images: Harley-Davidson's first factory  Harley-Davidson's first factory
Link to images: Images of the Winther Motor Truck Company  Images of the Winther Motor Truck Company
Link to images: Photographs of automobile manufacturing in Wisconsin, 1905-1968.  Photographs of automobile manufacturing in Wisconsin, 1905-1968.
Link to manuscript: A Wisconsin sailor recounts the attack on his ship at Pearl Harbor  A Wisconsin sailor recounts the attack on his ship at Pearl Harbor
Link to places: Walworth Avenue, Delavan's brick road  Walworth Avenue, Delavan's brick road
Link to places: A 1920s thematic gas station  A 1920s thematic gas station
Link to places: The nation's first unified electric power utility in Milwaukee  The nation's first unified electric power utility in Milwaukee
Link to places: Oatman Filling Station  Oatman Filling Station
Link to places: Car ownership helps to create a Madison suburb  Car ownership helps to create a Madison suburb
Link to places: The Kissel Motor Car Industrial District  The Kissel Motor Car Industrial District

Primary Sources Available Elsewhere

Link to article: A cross-country drive in 1914  A cross-country drive in 1914
Link to artifacts: A radiator emblem from Hartford's Kissel Kar Company  A radiator emblem from Hartford's Kissel Kar Company
Link to book: Wisconsin Blue Books  Wisconsin Blue Books
Link to images: Blue Mound Road, Wisconsin's first divided highway  Blue Mound Road, Wisconsin's first divided highway
Link to images: A 1915 ad for a motor scooter  A 1915 ad for a motor scooter
Link to images: An ad for the newest Rambler model rolling out of Kenosha, ca. 1914  An ad for the newest Rambler model rolling out of Kenosha, ca. 1914
Link to images: Automobiles transform the Wisconsin Dells  Automobiles transform the Wisconsin Dells
Link to images: Historic postcards of Milwaukee  Historic postcards of Milwaukee
Link to images: Out for a drive in 1903  Out for a drive in 1903

Related Links

Discover classroom resources available from our Office of School Services
Search our catalogs for materials on this topic that aren't yet available online.
Borrow books about this topic through our interlibrary loan service
Borrow manuscripts about this topic through our Area Research Center network.
Learn about other topics from our new book, Wisconsin History Highlights
Explore early automobiles at historic sites, museums, and race tracks
Visit the Harley-Davidson Museum Information Center
Read more about the history of bicycling in Wisconsin from the DOT
Learn more about the history of rest areas along Wisconsin roadways
Take a driving tour of the Dells/Baraboo region
Read about the history of transportation in the La Crosse River Valley

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