Come away with me Lucille... - Glimpses of the Past with Karen Webster
… in my merry Oldsmobile. This ditty of 1905 vintage tells of the novelty of the automobile that was sweeping North America in that era. Many inventors and innovators are credited with making advances in creating a truly “auto-powered” vehicle, but Karl Benz of Germany was the first person to take out a patent, in 1886, for a “vehicle powered by a gas engine”.
According to Mary Milne, daughter of Dr. Milne in Blyth, John B. Kelly (J. B.) was quite ahead of his time. He was very mechanically minded as he had installed the first electric plant in Blyth using steam from the flour mill of his father, Patrick Kelly.
J. B. built an automobile in 1883 which used steam and coal oil for fuel. It had two seats and steering was done with a lever. He had obtained a boiler from Hamilton, a second-hand engine in Fergus and four wheels from Galt (artillery wheels with metal hubs and wooden spokes and tires made of iron). He didn’t need a horn!
The boiler was at the back under the seat and the engine was at the front and it used a chain drive. For some reason, J. B. did not take out a patent. Unfortunately, this contraption frightened horses and people, so he took it apart. He put the boiler and the engine in the elevator at the flour mill and used the rig to deliver flour and feed.
The first person in Huron County to buy an automobile was Mr. J. P. Tisdale, a banker in Clinton, in June of 1901. It was called a Locosurrey, and weighed 1,020 pounds. The cost was $1,200 (over $32,000 in 2023 money). The Locosurrey, from Bridgeport, Connecticut, was a two-seater that was steam-powered, had pneumatic tires and could reach speeds of 40 miles per hour, but only under the best road conditions.
A few years later, in 1904, Alexander M. Crawford, who owned a tobacco shop and pool hall, was the first person in Wingham, and second in Huron County, to buy a car: an Oldsmobile. Later, he became the “local and district agent for the Ford Motor Company” and ordered several cars because “he had people lined up to buy them”. His first dealership was on the corner of Edward and John Streets, but he later relocated to the corner of Patrick and Josephine Streets.
And what would a car dealership be without a salesman? William Logan of Blyth was among the first car salesmen in Huron County.
Following along with the trend, in 1906, a Blyth citizen entered into automobile ownership in the person of Isaac Brown, the owner of the apple evaporating plant there. In May of that same year, the Exeter Advance editor felt it was newsworthy to mention that the first automobile of the year had passed through that town (and that no horse runaways had been reported). This is likely because of the scarcity of automobiles at that time in history as well as the fact that early automobiles were not suited for Huron County winters. It would be a few more decades before the highways and byways would be maintained for winter travel.
In July of 1910, eight people from Toronto were completing an Ontario tour when their large vehicle flipped near Blyth, trapping all the occupants in it. They were able to crawl out, even though they had been soaked with gasoline. These tourists had their minor injuries attended to by Dr. Milne and then stayed overnight at the Commercial Hotel before returning home by train. The cause of the mishap was attributed to a ridge of gravel in the middle of the road and to excessive speed. Although several local farmers were asked to pull the wreck out of the ditch, all refused, citing their distaste for automobiles and also wishing the same fate to all such vehicles.
Keeping early automobiles running could be challenging. At first, gasoline was stored in drums and would have to be transferred into cars manually. Gradually, gasoline pumps came into use, but the first ones only dispensed a gallon at a time and were not available in all municipalities. The early drivers had to carry their own supply, as well as tools to keep their rides in commission. Perhaps this is comparable to the 2020s, when drivers of electric cars need to map out the location of chargers before they set out on a trip.
With automobile ownership increasing, a local auto club was formed by 1911 for social reasons and also to lobby for better roads. At that time, the cost of a car licence was $2. This licence was a piece of heavy rubber with large white numerals painted on it. The usual speed limit was 20 miles per hour and 10 miles per hour when going through an intersection.
Another indicator of the popularity of these conveyances was the advent of the automobile show and in 1913, The Blyth Standard reported that R. M. McKay, Wm. Johnston, E. G. McTaggart, B. Bainton, W Logan, I. Brown, W. Moore, Dr. McTaggart and Dr. Milne were off to Toronto to the automobile show there.
An enterprising fellow in Brussels by the name of Cleve Denbow was offering an automobile for hire in 1915.
It was common for folks of all ages to be attracted to the novelty of the “horseless carriages”. Mary Ames of Brussels was not one of the first to own a car, but, by 1918, she celebrated her 90th birthday by having her first automobile ride, courtesy of Jno. McDonald.
It is quite difficult for us to imagine a world without automobiles: likely, our forebears found it very difficult to imagine a world with them.