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Every Wednesday at 6:45 a.m., 8:45 a.m., and 5:45 p.m., we turn back the clock on WXPR with local historian Gary Entz to find out what life in the Northwoods used to be like. This is part of a new initiative by WXPR to tell the history and culture of northern Wisconsin.You can keep track of A Northwoods Moment in History and all of WXPR's local features on the WXPR Local Features podcast, wherever you get your podcasts.

Rhinelander’s Parking Meters

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Many people in small towns take parking for granted. Except for the height of tourist season, finding a parking spot in most Northwoods towns is not a problem. But it was not so long ago that parking in small town business districts was regulated by parking meters. Historian Gary Entz has the story.

Parking Meters are a useful way to regulate traffic flow in areas where parking is at a premium, but in recent years they have disappeared from many urban districts. Although no parking meters remain in downtown Rhinelander, they are still in use at the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport. Nevertheless, the story of how they came and why they were removed remains relevant.

One would think that parking meters developed alongside of the automobile, but that is not the case. While the first commercial automobile appeared in 1886, the first parking meter did not appear until much later. During the automobile’s early years, parking really was not an issue since most people could not afford a motor vehicle. All that changed in the 1920s as more people had an income level that allowed them to purchase a new automobile. Also, the used car market became a growing business for the first time in the 1920s, and this made cheap cars available even to low income earners. By the 1930s traffic in downtown districts was becoming congested, and in many cases employees of downtown businesses were occupying parking spaces all day long and blocking customer access.

The parking meter was invented in Oklahoma City in 1935, and the idea proved so effective that it quickly caught on across the nation. In October 1941, the Rhinelander City Council considered installing 250 penny/nickel parking meters on Brown, Davenport, and Stevens Streets. Of course, the U.S. entered World War II less than two months later, so the idea was postponed for the duration of the conflict.

The parking meter proposal was revived as soon as the war ended, and in the summer of 1946, they were installed and put into operation. Downtown retailers readily accepted the meters, as they encouraged a quick turnover of cars and increased customer traffic. Motorists, however, took a dim view of them.  Indignant drivers considered paying for parking as a violation of their rights. Opponents said that meters forced drivers to pay what amounted to an extra tax on their cars.

Despite the grumbling, the meters remained in place, and more were added over the years. Many residents continued to believe that the meters represented a nuisance on their rights as drivers, but the reality was that they helped regulate the smooth flow of traffic through downtown and ensured that customer parking would be available for businesses. Fee collection was secondary, and parking fees were used for meter maintenance and infrastructure improvements.

There were obvious benefits to parking meters, yet every subsequent decade the city council gave serious consideration to proposals that would remove the devices from downtown. Nothing ever gained traction until the 1990s when a bypass was finished around Rhinelander and big box stores started pulling trade away from downtown.

Regulating downtown parking became less of a concern, yet in 1998 when a referendum was put to the voters, Rhinelander residents chose to keep the meters. In the end it made no difference. By 2001 the meters were pulled out, and today downtown shoppers no longer have run out to the street to feed the meter.

In addition to being a historian and educator, Gary R. Entz serves on WXPR's Board of Directors and writes WXPR's A Northwoods Moment in History which is heard Wednesdays on WXPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.