The Automobile Comes to Indiana County

The shiny black Model T Ford clattered down the rutted road, making a racket audible a mile ahead. Started horses drawing a wagon became skittish and had to be pulled off the road until “that infernal machine” sputtered past. Children in one-room schoolhouses left their desks to catch a glimpse of one of the rare automobiles, and heard the frustrated wagon driver’s cry of “GET A HORSE!” go unheeded by the oblivious motorist fast disappearing in a cloud of dust.  The scene could have taken place almost anywhere, around the turn of the twentieth century, and is probably a fair representation of the coming of the automobile to Indiana County.

Rural Western Pennsylvania was not far behind the cities in adopting this newest product of modern science.  Two enterprising brothers, Richard and DeLoss Hetrick of Church Street, built what is thought to be the first auto in the county before any auto dealerships were established.  Clarence R. Claghorn of Wehrum registered his Locomobile auto at the County Courthouse on August 22, 1903, to become the first official driver in the area.  The Claghorn auto was one of eight vehicles listed in the county’s Register of Automobiles before the state of Pennsylvania took over the registration process in 1905.

The most popular of the early automobiles was Henry Ford’s Model T, unveiled in 1908 and costing $850.  Thanks to the introduction of the assembly line, by 1916 a Model T could be purchased for $360, a price within reach of families of modest income.  Like the Studebaker, the Oakland and other touring cars, the Model T had a collapsible canvas top with isinglass curtains, running boards along the sides, and spoked metal wheels with thin rubber tires. The hard-roofed, windowed Model T sedan introduced in the early 1920s stood seven feet talk and could reach the astonishing speed of forty miles per hour propelled by its four-cylinder, ten horsepower engine.  The motorist had to turn a metal crank at the front to start the engine, and doctors treated many cases of “starter’s arm,” a broken forearm caused by a starting crank that kicked back.

Buying a car was an event worthy of note on page one of the Indiana newspapers, even into the second decade of the century. In July 1916, it was reported that “Squire Simon Anthony of Jacksonville bought a new Ford automobile, and accompanied by Dr. W.L. Shields he headed for Clarksburg intending to learn all about the ‘critter’ on the way.”  Accidents involving automobiles were also front page news, and by September 1915, they had apparently become so common that the editor’s irritation was discernible in the terse opening of one accident report: “Carless auto drivers are making news items these days. Somebody will be killed, then a penitentiary sentence will do more to instill caution in the heads of careless drivers, than any other deterrant.”

An automobile ride was a first-rate treat, and sometimes a harrowing experience. In 1907, children and teachers from the Saltsburg Presbyterian Church were rewarded for prompt attendance at Sunday School with a ride to Clarksburg and back. Walter Jackson, writing in the Indiana Evening Gazete in 1958, recalled a “hair-raising ride” in Alex Stewart’s “sweet little, two cylinder, red Maxwell” down Seventh Street to the Fairgrounds and back, at a speed that “could not have been less than 30 miles an hour.” Jackson also described the automotive antics of J.R. Stumpf, owner of the first five-and-ten store in Indiana, who drove his new Stanley Steamer in circles in front of his store at about 10 miles per hour to attract business.

Some Indiana borough streets were paved with brick or cobblestone even before the automobile became common, but country roads were so rutted and treacherous that car owners usually put their autos up on blocks for the winter and resorted to a horse and wagon or sleigh. Many times farmers were asked to hitch their horses to cars mired to the axles in mud, and summer motoring required dustcoats, gloves, goggles, and hats (and veils for the ladies) for protection from the dust. The paving of major roads in Pennsylvania began with the establishment of the state Highway Department in 1906, but the big push did not come until the mid-1920s.

Indiana’s John P. Elkin, state Supreme Court justice, spoke before a 1913 state Good Roads Convention in favor of a $50 million bond for improving and rebuilding Commonwealth highways. Another advocate of better roads and favorable legislation for the motor-owning public was the Indiana Auto Club, established in 1914 and chartered by the American Automobile Association in 1928. Officers of the organization in 1916 were C.M. Lingle, president; C.K. Sutton, secretary; and J.R. Richards, treasurer.

In 1925, there were 1,600,000 licensed drivers in Pennsylvania, and nearly as many registered motor vehicles. The move was on nationwide for more and better roads, and the Indiana Democrat published a regular column headed “Good Roads” which featured items with titles like “Prosperity Will Follow Improved Road System.” Hard-surfaced roads were built to outlying communities, and because of better roadways county farmers found it easier to send milk, wool and other produce to Pittsburgh by the mid-1920s. Unimproved roads, however, remained in a deplorable condition, and the problems they sometimes caused motorists supported the argument for better roads. In 1925, a salesman reported that he had to be hauled out of mudholes five times in one trip form Marion Center to Punxsutawney, at a total cost of $18.

By the 1920s several auto dealerships had been established in Indiana, and they offered a wide variety of makes and models.  Among the earliest was the Indiana Motor Company, and later R.H. Fleming Buick, which, when it began business in 1908, was one of the first Buick dealers in the country.  Sutton-Miller Ford, today’s McGill Motors, opened in 1911 on South Sixth Street, and Indiana Sales and Service sold Studebakers.  The Essex, the Franklin and the Hudson could be bought from R&S Motors, while the Indiana Whippet Garage advertised the Willys-Knight touring coach for $995. As roads improved and people began to see that the automobile was useful for more than a summer touring vehicle, the sale of closed models – sedans – increased, and more automobiles were out and about in all weather.

Once the automobile was purchased, maintaining it and keeping the gas tank full were not as easy in the early years of the century as they are today.  Opportunities to buy gasoline were few and far between, so many motorists kept an extra can full of gas with them.  Before gas stations became common in the mid-1920s, auto dealers, in addition to serving the autos they sold, sold oil and pumped gasoline from rolling carts.  The 1926 Indiana City Directory carried advertisements for several gasoline retailers, including Stewart’s Gasoline – Service Station, near the Fairgrounds, which sold Pennzoil products.  The West Indiana Service Station, at 1501 Philadelphia Street, sold not only Sinclair gas and oil and Firestone tires, but also ice cream, soft drinks and tobacco.  And the C.H. Shaw Hillcrest Service Station on Marion Road urged customers who had never had one of their “barbecue sandwiches” to “drive out and get one.” By this time gasoline was available at 27,000 retailers across the state, and a gallon of Atlantic high test could be had for twenty-seven cents. The average motorist spent $101 annually on fuels and lubrication, according to a state survey.

Public use of motor vehicles kept pace with private use. In 1925, a bus service was initiated between Indiana and Punxsutawney, with the trip taking one and a half hours. The Indiana Express Agency, which delivered railroad freight, switched from horse-drawn wagons to motor trucks in 1930. The Indiana Fire Company bought a Federal motor fire engine in 1915 and a Packard in 1918, while the Clymer Fire Company paid $12,500 for a 750-gallon Seagrave Pumper Truck in 1923.

With heavy trucks, buses, and more automobiles than ever traveling the roads, the need for improved roadways became urgent. The late 1920s and early 1930s saw a boom in road construction, and M. Bennett and Sons of Indiana was responsible for many miles of improved roads in Pennsylvania. Michael Bennett and his five sons had begun their construction business in 1903, and they were the recipients of some of the first contracts let by the state Highway Department: Saltsburg Road, from Indiana borough running toward Saltsburg, and the Creekside Road beginning at Ninth Street. Under Edward Bennett, Sr., the firm completed more than 100 paving projects in Pennsylvania, as well as several in New York and Maryland, and it was at one time the largest construction company in the State. Bennett, who later became a state senator, was instrumental in bringing the state District 10 highway barns to Indiana in 1928-30.  By 1931, the five counties in District 10 boasted 3,025 miles of improved roads, and hundreds of miles of macadam “Pinchot roads” were laid in the area by the Bennett firm under Governor Gifford Pinchot and his successor, George Earle.

With the 1930s came the Great Depression, but roadbuilding went on and auto owners kept driving. State figures showed 1,419,484 automobiles registered in Pennsylvania in 1933, with 10,930 in Indiana County. The Indiana Patriot noted in June 1930, that “Indiana’s parking problem, while not a problem yet, will certainly assume large proportions before long. . . . Limited parking time on Philadelphia Street would be a present move in the right direction.” The city fathers decided in 1940 to try parking meters as a means of controlling congestion downtown; the experiment worked so well that meters became a permanent fixture after that time.

The automobile’s increasing dominance meant the decline of other, older institutions in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1936, the Robinsteen Collar and Leather Company, which had made horse collars at Third and Philadelphia Streets for many years, was closed. At its peak it employed sixty-five men, and in 1929 did $65,000 worth of business. Better roads, mass production of automobiles, and the Depression made inevitable the closing of the Indiana Street Railways trolley company in 1933 after twenty-six years of operation; the same factors heralded the departure of the last Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train from the Indiana depot in April of 1940.

Sinclair Gas Station, Clymer, PA, 1950s

When the automobile’s good points are weighed against its bad points, the result is nearly even, and people have learned to live with the disadvantages in return for the convenience. The same paved roads that hastened the decline of the blacksmith and the passenger train gave the newly mobile public better access to business in town and helped the farmer get his produce in for sale. The automotive age has brought traffic accidents and has increased air pollution, but at the same time it has brought economic benefits, some of which can be seen here in Indiana County: the McCreary Tire and Rubber Company (now Specialty Tire) was established in 1915, has grown into an important manufacturer of automobile tires and other rubber products employing several hundred persons. The automobile is the vehicle of a faster-moving lifestyle, a way of life that has left the horse and buggy driver behind in a slower time, helplessly shaking his fist as the Model T rattles on down the road.

Published by


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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s