Below top: ELECTRIC VEHICLE: In 1895, the United Opinion predicted that electric-powered vehicles would be "the fad of the future." One of the first automobiles in Bradford was this electric vehicle registered in 1909. Despite less vibration, less odor and less noise than gasoline-powered autos, the electric models were eclipsed by Ford's Model T soon after this photograph was taken. (Bradford Historical Society)
Driver Leslie Welch and brother Robert F. Welch pose for a photo with the Bradford-Waits River Stage auto truck around 1917. Providing daily rides and mail service, this Studebaker was decorated with an advertisement for Ladd's Cream Bread.(Bradford Historical Society)
Frank Brigham (left) and Fred H. Bickford show off Brigham's Stanley Steamer. Twin brothers Freeland and Francis Stanley began producing steam-powered vehicles in 1897 and formed the Stanley Motor Carriage Co. in Newton, MA in 1902. In 1899, a Stanley was the first automobile to ascend Mount Washington's carriage road. (Bradford Historical Society)
Journal Opinion, November 22, 2017
“The model horseless carriage will no doubt come in time, but before it can come into general use in this country there must be vast improvements in the common roads” The United Opinion, Nov. 8, 1895
The observation from The United Opinion published just before the first automobiles appeared in northern New England. This column describes the first two decades of the transformation that accompanied their arrival.
Information for this article was taken from period newspapers, local town histories and on-line sources. Several quotes are taken from a series of interviews of local elders conducted in the 1980s by my U.S. History students at Oxbow High School.
The idea of a horseless carriage was explored for many years prior to their introduction into Europe in the 1880s.
Three Yankee inventors were among those who explored the horseless carriage during the 19th century. In 1826, inventor Samuel Morey of Orford received a patient for an internal combustion engine. Morey correctly prophesied that the engine would “greatly change the commercial and personal intercourse of the country.”
A decade later, John Gore of Brattleboro created a carriage with a steam engine. It was reported that this “whizz wagon tore up the roads.” Around 1869, Springfield, NH native Enos Clough built a steam-powered vehicle that he displayed in the region. His vehicle, as with the two mentioned above, proved too much for their drivers and ended up wrecked.
In 1895, Charles and J. Frank Duryea of Springfield, MA established the first American gasoline car company.
The first appearances of horseless carriages locally came in 1896. The late Bernard Crafts told his student interviewer that the first one, driven by a Frenchman, drove through Bradford that year. When, in 1899, the first auto passed through Pike and according to one town history, “it created much interest”
For many, the first opportunity to see what became known as an automobile was at a circus or fair where it was part of the curiosities. Others may have attended auto races held around the country for their first glimpse at the vehicle..
For the first few years, automobiles were seen as the play toy of wealthy men from down country. Because of the frightening impact on pedestrians and horses these “devil wagons” were not welcomed locally.
One elder recalled that those she knew considered them to be “a luxury and a nuisance.” She went on to say “Rich folks from Massachusetts drove you right off the road.”
Dr. J. H. Lindsley of Burlington may have owned the first Vermont automobile. It was a one-seat Stanley Steamer. Charles C. Warren of Waterbury was the first Vermonter to register an automobile. In 1899, this auto enthusiast purchased a Haynes-Apperson.
Dr. Adrian Hoyt of Penacook was not only the first person to own an automobile in New Hampshire, he actually built it. He went on to briefly manufacture both steam and electric vehicles.
The local residents who owned the first automobiles were usually professionals or businessmen. By 1905 that included: John Stevens and Dr. Henry Lee of Wells River. They owned a 1903 Oldsmobile Steamer and a Stanley Ste4amer, respectively. W. T. Jackman of, Corinth had a 1904 Oldsmobile with a steering lever. Dr. Henry Stearns of Haverhill Corner drove a Orient Buckboard made by a Waltham, Massachusetts company. The United Opinion editor Harry Parker of Bradford had a Maxwell Runabout. Dr. Walter Gustin owned the first automobile in Thetford. But the newspaper only described it as a “red car.”
Other early adopters included Paul Lang of Orford. Nellie Smith and brothers George and R. H. Symes Brothers of Wells River had automobiles So did Hial Cotton and James Whitcomb, both of Post Mills. Dr. Ezra. C. Chase and his son Dr. Daniel R. Chase purchased an automobile for professional calls.
Soon after the automobile’s introduction, several businessmen offered autos for sale or rent, provided chauffeur services and made winter storage available.
According to 1980s interview with local seniors,, many thought these purchases were a waste of money. There continued to be the fear that automobiles would frighten horses. The late Helen Carr of Bradford recalled that one man’s horse was so frightened of Harry Parker’s auto that he would call the editor to see when he would be out and about so that he could avoid a confrontation on village streets.
Across the nation there was anti-automobile legislation. In Vermont, this was encouraged because most drivers were from out of state and sometimes intoxicated. From the very beginning of automobile’s appearance on the state’s roads, there was a movement to limit their access to public roads. Automobile opponents advocated for the construction of highways specifically for their use, much as railroads had done.
In 1894, an act was passed by the Vermont Legislature that required those in charge of steam-propelled vehicle using a public street or highway to have a person at least one-eighth of a mile in advance to “notify and warn all persons…and at night such person shall, except in an incorporated village or city, carry a red light.“ This law was repealed in 1900.
A leader of this anti-automobile movement was Joseph Battell, owner of the Middlebury Register. He used his newspaper to highlight his views. Accidents in which automobiles injured pedestrians and carriage passengers were referred to as “the homicidal orgy of the motor car.”
Battell encouraged local governments to prohibit automobile traffic from their roads. Apparently, he owned much of Camel’s Hump and offered to give it to the state if automobiles were banned from the area’s roads.
In 1904, there was legislation introduced that limited access to public roads. Corinth’s representative supported this legislation, saying, “It is not safe for a woman to drive a horse in the highway, when one of these devilish contraptions came along.” It did not pass.
Throughout the period, many were ready to make jokes or derogatory remarks about automobiles. Driving his horse past an auto mired in mud up to the body, a Vermonter might say “get a hoss” or “I’aint all pie with one of them things.”
In 1904, the Vermont Legislature passed a law calling for auto registration. New Hampshire passed a similar law in 1905. Both required a small registration fee and, several years later, added a license plate requirement. That first year there were 373 vehicles registered in Vermont and 532 in New Hampshire.
Newspapers of the period reported on the number of registrations annually. Nation-wide, in 1915, there were 3.6 million registrations, an increase of 1.06 million in just one year The number reflected the phenomenal growth and vigor of the new industry.
Following are some of those reported figures for Vermont: 1907-1400 vehicles; 1909-1658, 1912 4,283, 1914-8,262, 1915-11,499, 1916-15,350. By this time, Vermont was one of the leading states in the number of automobiles per capita.
New Hampshire experienced similar increase in the number of registered vehicles growing to 10,819 by l915. In both states the figures included a small number of motorcycles and later trucks.
There was an attempt to regulating speed. In 1909, New Hampshire set the limit at 8 mph in urban areas and 20 in rural. Vermont’s limits were 10 and 25 for the same areas. Both still has rules regarding the horses, with New Hampshire requiring that auto drivers “must stop upon signal from horseman and stop engine upon request.”
Automobile enthusiasts organized the Granite State Automobile Club in 1900-1902 followed by the American Automobile Association in 1902 and the Automobile Club of Vermont in 1903. These organizations promoted the rights of automobile users, provided maps, held road contests and rallies and “maintained a social club devoted to automobilism.”
Events were held to encourage automobiles. In 1899, the first “climb to the clouds” was the an auto trip up Mt. Washington. In 1903, Burlington auto enthusiast Horatio Jackson, accompanied by a mechanic and a pit bull, completed the first transcontinental trip in a two-cylinder 20 HP Winton nicknamed “Vermont.”
Auto shows were held in St. Johnsbury, Montpelier and Burlington. Glidden and Munsey automobile tours visited local communities These introduced the public to the wide variety of vehicles available.
Automobile organizations also promoted road improvements. Dirt roads got dusty in the summer, muddy in the spring and impassable in the winter. The organizations, joined by cycle groups, lobbied both state and the federal governments for funds for road construction.
Good roads were important to farmers anxious to get their products to market in a timely way as well as an attraction to tourists. Newspaper articles indicate that, for a time, New Hampshire devoted more funds to tourism than Vermont. In 1916, the Federal Aid Road Act was passed giving funds to states for road improvement.
Several attempts were made to manufacture automobiles in the two-state area, but failed. In fact, during the period the number of automobile manufactures in the nation began to drop dramatically from a high of 253.
While familiar vehicles such as Olds, Overland, Maxwell and Buick were owned locally, it was Henry Ford’s autos that became popular. In 1903, Ford introduced the Model A and over the next several years marketed other models.
In 1908, he introduced the Model T, the first really popular car for the general public. Initially offered at $850, Ford’s use of the assembly line allowed the price to drop within the reach of the average working man. By 1915, more Fords were registered in Vermont than any other make.
As the price of automobiles dropped and their uses became more evident, Vermonters began to purchase new or used vehicles. Improvements such as headlights, pedal controls, steering wheels, running boards and improved motors making vehicles more reliable, safer and easier to operate.
In 1916, installment sales were introduced by the makers of moderately priced cars. One Newbury column read “Several of our staid and dignified citizens have the automobile bug buzzing, and are contemplating purchasing a machine.”
As automobiles became more common, support businesses began to appear. Hotels catered to the motoring public. Railcars hauled new vehicles to local dealers. Garages for repairs and fuel opened. Steam and electric powered vehicles were largely replaced by gasoline and there were many dealers who provided this fuel to the motoring public.
A typical news item appeared in The United Opinion in 1912 announcing that Harry E. Davis had opened the Bradford Auto Garage and was “prepared to do all kinds of repairing and has for sale gasoline, oil accessories and supplies.” Local stores and catalogs offer goggles, hats, dusters and other items needed by the motoring public.
Local farmers stood ready to help motorists mired in mud. My Dad told me that one enterprising farmer in Central Vermont made sure that a dip in the road near his farm remained muddy well beyond the normal mud season. He offered assistance to swamped travelers for a small fee.
Local newspapers carried news notes describing when citizens purchased an automobile especially when it was one of the first in the community. Items mentioned family visits, business trips and tours of the White and Green Mountains by locals and tourists. They also described accidents involving automobiles and horses or railroad trains or when one “turned turtle” on a sharp curve.
Elders who were interviewed recalled some of the first automobiles in the area. While their families did not purchase an automobile until years later, many recalled experiencing their first auto ride by 1908.
They recalled rushing to the home or school windows to watch cars go by, maybe as often as twice a day. Gladys Jesseman said she was “afraid of the contraption,” whereas Fannie Eastman loved them as they “opened up a grand new area for me.” Alice Hood said that the Model T was “wonderful” and could get her from Corinth to Bradford more easily.
Others tell stories of those who, use to handling a horse, would shout “whoa” instead of applying the brakes on their vehicle when they wanted to stop or slow down. In Fairlee in 1912, 100-year old Sallie Wilson, “active for her years,” went for her first auto ride in her nephew Lyman Robie’s “buzz wagon.” Going along smoothly, she began to realize it was a new mode of travel and kept saying to her nephew “Lyman, where are the horses?”
The first mention of an automobile in a Vermont newspaper was in 1895. It predicted the “passing of the horse.” Twenty years later that prediction was coming to pass. In 1901, a Barre newspaper editor wrote “Automobiles may be practical sometimes, but at present a man can travel about as comfortably and certainly more cheaply on foot than he can in a horseless carriage.”
Ed Peters of Bradford, whose family had raised Morgan Horses for decades, told my student interviewer that the arrival of the automobile devastated their business. Local harness and wagon makers faced the same challenges.
As society is confronted by new technological advances, there will always be those who predict that eventually come to pass and those that will not. There will be those who embrace the new and those who resist. Likewise, new innovations bring new challenges, especially to those whose occupations are tied to the outmoded practices. It was so with the early automobile and it will continue to be with future innovations.