By Catherine C. Brooks
When I reached fourteen months of age, my maternal grandparents felt I should have a professional photograph taken. During his vacation time, Granddaddy and Granny Richardson took Momma and me to Norfolk for the photography in his new Model T Ford. Since I remember nothing about the trip and only have copies of the photograph to affirm I went, we will dwell on travel history during those days.
One can only imagine Henry Ford’s dreams before he began to experiment with internal combustion engines in 1890—the same year the Europeans produced their first automobile. Although George B. Seldon of Rochester, NY, applied for a patent to cover his idea of applying an internal-combustion engine to a self-propelled vehicle in 1872, nothing came of it until several others applied. Henry Ford was among this number.
Ford’s first vehicle, completed in 1893 still exists and sits in Dearborn, Michigan. One wouldn’t recognize it for its intended use. The body looks like a small crude wooden box with a single seat above. It has four bicycle wheels, a lever for steering and an electric bell on the front. The cylinder of the engine was made from an exhaust pipe from a steam engine, and the fly wheel of wood. However this crude vehicle ran and still runs today if one is allowed to start it.
From this simple beginning, he organized the Ford Motor Company in 1903. Under his presidency, it became the largest manufacturer of automobiles in the world. He standardized the production to a simple design, reducing the price of Ford automobiles to the point that they produced close to 2,000,000 a year in a short time. He also let people buy on credit, allowing the working class to purchase cars they couldn’t afford otherwise.
Early in 1914, Ford announced that the company would share its profits with the employees. Their share for the first year would be $10,000,000. Every employee over 21 years of age, regardless of position, would be paid $5 a day for eight hours instead of the nine hours that they had been working. In September 1919, Henry Ford and Edsel Ford purchased all the outstanding small stock in the company for $12,000 a share according to existing records.
More than one thousand automobile companies failed between 1900 and 1938. However, the Buick, beginning in 1903, the Chevrolet introduced in 1911, the Dodge introduced in 1914 and the Oldsmobile beginning in 1896 remain today. Cadillacs, first manufactured in 1902, were always high quality cars. From 1920 on, the companies are too numerous to mention in this article, and you may be driving a make not mentioned here.
Styles of automobiles varied as they do today. There was the touring car, the runabout, the coupe, the sedan and the four-door sedan through 1925. By 1920 one in every thirteen Americans owned one of these. One might purchase a mass produced Ford for as low as $290 in 1924. Speeds began at 6 miles per hour with an average of 20 miles per hour on the highways. When you drove anywhere for work or pleasure in 1919, you enjoyed the open air as only 10 per cent of cars had a cover over them. This improved until 1927 when all manufacturers enclosed their automobiles.
Errol McCutcheon tells that you didn’t have a heater or defroster in the Model T. His father carried a lantern on the floor and a little bag of salt for rubbing the windshield. In winter he would rub the salt on the windshield every now and then, making about an inch of eye space to see through.
Mary McCutcheon tells that in the 1920’s her parents had five children. They would pile in the Model T with Mumma and Dad would crank. They just sat there and held their breath while her Dad would crank and crank and crank. “After awhile the motor would start up and everyone would holler and cheer.”
In the eastern United States, early settlers made what they called ‘cow paths.’ They proved wide enough for the horseback rider and even a wagon pulled by a horse that could pull into the field if they met another. However, when one car met another, space didn’t allow passing. If a man met a woman, he pulled off on the best side, hoping he could pull back into the road successfully. When a woman met a woman, it could end in a boisterous verbal conversation. If a man came upon them, he solved the problem. Otherwise they would finally came to an agreement as to who would pull off.
Muddy or dusty roads with deep ruts proved more of an inconvenience than the crank starter or lack of heater and defroster. Drivers got into ruts made during rainy days in their cars with their narrow wheels. They found the horses handy to pull the cars out with tow chains before they drove off to their destination. Before the automobile, to supplement main roads, private citizens cut turnpikes (unlike today’s six lane highways) with a toll gate every five to ten miles. By the late 1800’s, automobile owners demanded dustless, mudless and rutless highways between and in the cities. In 1933 the United States had more than 3,000,000 miles of highways, not including city streets. More than 700,000 miles had been surfaced with gravel, macadam (crushed stone) or concrete. Man and horse labor had straightened, widened and leveled Indian trails and cow paths. Most rural roads remained in poor condition for some years. I lived on a state dirt road in our rural county, without a lane, in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. If we raised the windows on a hot summer day when it hadn’t rained, one found dust on any furniture within a short time.
Thankfully, though we may struggle with pot holes in winter and swelling tarred roads in hot summer, most of our state and county roads make driving a pleasure today. Next time, we will discover where our early roads led us
© 2001 Catherine C. Brooks All rights reserved
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