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.

“The Tire With a Mission”* 

At the corner of Ninth and Church Streets in Indiana, is the beautiful townhome of Harry McCreary, the house is currently the home of the Law Office of Myron Tomb and the Law Offices of Thomas A. Kauffman. Mr. McCreary is most notably known for his role as the Owner of McCreary Tire and Rubber Company; however, he was also a pioneer in the development of the coal and coke operations in Indiana County.

Harry McCreary was born on October 30, 1863 in Leechburg to Hiram and Ruey (Orris) McCreary. As with most children of that time, Harry was educated in the public school and then later completed the course in the Utica, New York, Business College. He was later employed as an instructor at the Business College until the spring of 1883, at which time he was employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company at Huffs Scales, near Greensburg. After a few months with the Pennsylvania Railroad, McCreary entered the employment of J.W. Moore, of Greensburg, an extensive coal operator in the Connellsville coke region, who was at that time engaged in the manufacture of coke at the Redstone Coke Works, Brownfield station, near Uniontown. After the plant near Uniontown was sold, McCreary built two large coke plants for Moore, near Mount Pleasant. Again, these plants were sold, and once again two more plants were built at Graceton, it was here that McCreary developed a process for washing coal and its success was one of the chief reasons for the prompt purchasing of coal in that whole section of the country.

Mr. McCreary disposed of his various industrial interests in Indiana County and moved to California and Nevada for a period of four years from 1902 until 1906. Upon his return to Indiana County, he again became involved in the coal business until 1914.

Ground Breaking and Commencement of Production at McCreary Tire and Rubber

It was in June of 1914 that ground was broken for the McCreary Tire and Rubber Company just southwest of Indiana. Construction of the plant moved rapidly, and the plant was quickly in operation.

Those present at the ground-breaking ceremony were Mr. and Mrs. McCreary and their two sons. The ground-breaking began around 6:30 in the morning; Mrs. McCreary read the First Psalm and Mr. McCreary gave a short prayer in which he asked the blessing of God on the new enterprise. Following, Mrs. McCreary swung the first pick into the ground and then Mr. McCreary shovel the first dirt, followed by their sons doing the same.

McCreary Tire and Rubber Co. Plant in Indiana, PA

Mr. McCreary stated three reasons why they were embarking on this new venture, and he listed them in order of importance. First, was for the glory of God and furthering His Kingdom through the profits earned by the new industry. Second, that honorable work with good wages and working conditions be provided for citizens of Indiana and the vicinity; and then he would be kept busy in a worthwhile project for the remainder of his life. Finally, that his two sons would be busily employed after he passed on and not dissipate any inheritance that he would leave.

It was in May 1915 that the first tires were produced, which were probably experimental and test operations as actual production of products for sale didn’t begin until the middle of June. At the time of the plant’s opening there were only twelve employees, including Mr. McCreary, a sales person and a secretary. The original building was 48 x 215 feet, with power provided by a huge 250-horsepower steam engine with an 18-tone flywheel.

The production at the plant tended to be seasonal, with a falling off during the fall and winter months. That seasonal production continued until McCreary’s death. Throughout the summer, the employee numbers increased to 27, but declined to only 3 by November, those three included the salesperson, secretary, and a watchman. That first year, 1915, production was 500 tires, with a guarantee for 2,000 miles and sometimes the tires did not last that long.

Mr. McCreary devoted much of his time to the development and operation of his company. His sons, Ralph W. and Harry C. McCreary were associated with their father in the operation of the business and continued in the leadership role of the company. McCreary Tire and Rubber was eventually sold, becoming Specialty Tire of America.

Apart from his business ventures, Mr. McCreary was also active in civic affairs, and was the most liberal subscriber to the erection of the YMCA building in Indiana in 1912, and he served as president of the “Y” Board of Directors. Further, he was a member or Zion Lutheran Church, and taught men’s Bible Class for many years and was secretary of the church council.

Mr. McCreary was united in marriage on May 16, 1894 to Lizetta M. Work, of East Mahoning Township. Mrs. McCreary died in March 24, 1923. Mr. McCreary continued working in his business up to his death on August 16, 1930.

The McCreary Home

At the time that Mr. McCreary had the home on the corner lot, Indiana was split between the East and the West, so the home was located on First and Church streets (today it is Ninth Street). At the time, the visitor would notice the unique front porch that, at the time, extended all along the front of the house. There was also an artistic and spacious porch along the rear of the house.

mccreary house
The McCreary Home

Inside the home was as eloquent as the outside. The house contained a reception hall, with a fancy stair case finished in oiled hard wood. Located on the first floor, beside the hall, were a parlor, library, dining room and kitchen. There was a back stairway leading from the dining room to the second floor. Adjoining the kitchen was a pantry and connected to the dining room was a china closet. The second floor contained four bedrooms, a bathroom, closets and a linen room. The third floor was finished, containing one room that was used for storage.

The next time you go by this eloquent home, remember the innovator who once lived in the home. Mr. McCreary was an important member of society and the industry that he created is still a staple in the Indiana community.

*Title comes for the company slogan. 

Harry C. and Ralph W. McCreary remembers ground breaking printed in the Indiana Evening Gazette, Nov. 1952.