Horseless

The first and only horseless carriage ever shown in Pennsylvania will be on exhibition at the Indiana Fair.  It travels along without any other motor than that which the carriage itself supplies.  It will be worth a day’s visit just to see this unique conveyance!

Thus spoke the Weekly Messenger in 1896.  Alas, the announcement turned out to be premature;  Delos and Dick Hetrick’s one-of-a-kind vehicle would indeed make its public debut at the Fair, but not until the brothers had worked out its transmission problems three years later.  Their gasoline-powered “automobile wagon” wasn’t exactly greased lightning – it couldn’t outrun most humans, let alone a horse – but those who saw it realized that it marked the turning of an age.

The second car hereabouts was seen by few, stopping in Blairsville on its way from Greensburg to Cresson.  But oh, the third…!

J.R. Stumpf’s steam car took Indiana by surprise on a Monday morning in 1901.  The five-horsepower Mobile had travelled from DuBois in just five hours.  Everyone stared in astonishment as it sped down Philadelphia Street; horses tethered along the hitching rail jumped onto the sidewalk, and small boys sprinted after it in a pack.  The elderly Mr. Stumpf would use that attention to his advantage for the next several years by making the steamer his Five & Ten Cent Store’s delivery vehicle and symbol.

The automotive revolution had actually been underway in Pennsylvania since 1893, when Philadelphia’s EMV Company launched its Electrobat.  Duryea Power made our first “gas buggy” in 1895, and the Crouch Company of New Brighton rolled out its steamer two years later.  In all, some 130 models were invented and/or manufactured in our state during those early days – forty of them in 1908 alone.  A Pennsylvanian even bought America’s very first mail-order car.  We couldn’t get enough!  The new century was off to a roaring (and hissing and humming) start.

horseless
Winton was one of several makes with “agents” here.

Cars quickly worked their way into our popular culture and language.  We spoke of “flivvers” and “Tin Lizzies,” and children behind on their chores were said to be “slower than a Morris going uphill in a snowstorm.”  Standard dress for an outing on our unpaved roads included hat, gloves and a “duster” overcoat…which the fashion industry quickly caught on to.  McLaughlin’s Clothing Store in Indiana carried a ladies’ coat called The Automobile, and toiletries like Fel’s Naptha were advertised as “a necessary part of the man’s motoring outfit”.

But despite their popularity, the number of autos here increased more slowly than in most other parts of the state.  Our middle class was small; until prices dropped dramatically in 1913, few but the well-to-do could afford to “go horseless.”  Our dirt roads were less suited to autos than to wagons (especially from December through April), and our preference for tradition over innovation may have put on the brakes as well.

Early on, many of our cars were ordered from elsewhere and shipped by train or driven cross-country to the buyer.  The first Indiana County “agents” – dealerships – opened about 1908, typically representing many manufacturers at once.  The two largest were Clymer Motor Car and Indiana Motor Company.  The latter offered everything from the economical Pope (no Popemobile jokes, please!) to a top-of-the-line Buick for five times as much.

Competition between the different engine- and chassis-types continued through the mid-teens.  Three-wheeled autocycles like the Keystone were popular as early delivery vehicles; J.M. Cunningham’s steam-powered Locomobile became our first horseless taxi in 1901, and long before today’s Tesla, quiet electrics like the Owen Magnetic found favor with the county’s horse-owning majority.  But in the end, gasoline engines and the closed touring sedan won out with their greater range and comfort.

Automobiles even popped up in our newspapers’ social columns.  When, where, and by whom most cars were purchased was noted, and the phrase “by automobile” was often added to items about out-of-town visitors.  Accidents, on the other hand, always made Page One.

The first auto accident in Indiana County happened outside Blairsville in the summer of 1900.  Like most during that era’s first decade, it didn’t involve two cars; Roy Gerard and his wife were injured and their buggy shattered when a car spooked their horse.  The Johnstown Toll Pike was closed to autos in 1905 because so many motorists failed to slow down when approaching horses as required.  Newspaper accident-reports came to resemble editorials, with one opining in that “someone will be killed, and then a penitentiary sentence will instill caution in careless drivers.”  Yet by 1920, most papers also featured a weekly section devoted to more positive auto-articles, advice columns and ads.

Blacksmiths and machine shops got our business when the family car broke down.  Liveries and wagonworks soon began adding auto repair to their repertoire.  Among those who failed to adapt was the Indiana Carriage Company, sold at Sheriff’s bankruptcy auction in 1910.  In that same year, our first cars-only repair shop was opened by (appropriately) Delos and Dick Hetrick.

As with the automobile itself, auto-friendly roads were in short supply here at first.  Our relative isolation and railroad-dependence had encouraged a casual attitude about the dirt we drove on well into the new century.  The Automobile Association of Indiana led the push for road improvement; it didn’t hurt that many members were influential citizens!  Starting in 1913, they employed Homer City’s E.B. Griffith to make county-wide inspections, and from his reports created a map of road conditions for use by the county government.  By the late 1920s, many borough streets and most wagon roads had been paved – a boon much appreciated by rural mail carriers, who in those days used their own vehicles.

The old saying “If it moves, tax it!” took on new meaning at Harrisburg in 1906.  Whereas our county had charged a one-time, fifty cent fee for combined license and registration, the new State Department of Highways separated the two, doubled the cost of each and charged them both every year.  The license number (painted onto the body before plates were introduced) functioned as the VIN of its day, staying with your car when you sold it.

The last stand for horse advocates came in the late 1920s.  Citing an increase in tack sales and the economy of horse-drawn delivery vehicles over trucks, the Gazette asserted “Old Dobbin Is Back.”  But few of us yelled “Get a horse!” anymore, and our theaters were showing something closer to the truth – a soundie called First Auto: a Romance of the Last Horse and the First Horseless Carriage.  What was once a novelty had become a generation’s norm.  There was no turning back; by the early 1930s, there was one car for every five of us.  Like the trolley, the horse was history.

What happened to Pennsylvania’s auto industry?  Economies-of-scale made possible by Ford’s introduction of the moving assembly-line in 1913 meant only the most heavily-capitalized manufacturers could compete.  American Austin, our last make still in production as of 1929, closed its plant in Butler a few weeks before Pearl Harbor in 1941.

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hgsic

Through a broad range of activities, The Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County seeks to promote a greater appreciation of the Indiana community's rich heritage and a better understanding of life today.

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