The Dangerous Automobile Age

Apr 10, 2019

It remains uncertain when the first automobile appeared in the Northwoods, but what we know for sure is that they were not welcomed with open arms.

Gary Entz has the story for this week's A Northwoods Moment in History.

The gasoline-powered carriage, or automobile, has been commercially available since 1886 when Karl Benz in Germany patented his Benz Motorwagen.  In the United States the first successful commercial car company was the Duryea Brothers of Massachusetts, who started selling cars in 1893.  Except in the large cities where their utility as taxis and service trucks was recognized, most people outside of major metropolitan areas in the 1890s saw motorized vehicles as a novelty that would never replace the horse.

It remains uncertain when the first automobile appeared in the Northwoods because railroads were deemed sufficient and the building of roads was a low priority for state and local governments.  Nevertheless, news of their development was certainly making a splash.  As early as 1899, the Seig Manufacturing Company of Kenosha, Wisconsin, announced that it would discontinue the manufacture of bicycles and instead focus its attention on automobiles.  In 1900 the Western Automobile Company of Chicago announced plans to open manufacturing plants in Stevens Point, and of course by 1902 Thomas Jefferey was manufacturing and selling the famous Rambler automobile out of his Kenosha factory.

Still suspicions remained high in Wisconsin.  In 1901 one commentator remarked that the “bicycle is dangerous enough to innocent bystanders, but it isn’t a patch on the automobile.  Strict regulations governing the latter ought to be enforced.”  In 1902 when the regulations did not come and individual motorists began flaunting their new machines, another anti-automobile advocate offered “a thousand dollars to be used in the organization of a troop of minute-men armed with rifles, who shall stand on street corners and pick off automobilists as they pass.”  By 1903 the speed of the automobile was seen as the greatest threat because they could “whiz about at nearly 20 miles an hour,” and such dangerous velocity needed to be regulated.

The noisy internal combustion engines frightened horses and other livestock, so a few farmers and other rural residents decided to take matters into their own hands.  No one ever formed a militia of minute-men to pick off drivers, but what they did do was just as deadly.  In several places across the state, farmers strung wire or rope across a rural road.  Vehicles in those days were open carriages, and the wire was placed at a level just high enough to catch the driver and passenger.

Despite the cynics, the automobile fascinated Northwoods residents.  Stories of automobile races and new manufacturing plants made the news regularly.  Automobiles may have shown up earlier, but they were definitely in the Northwoods by 1904.  In that year, Harry Colman purchased a new automobile in Minneapolis then drove overland to Chippewa Falls, Wausau, Rhinelander, and finally Eagle River.  He averaged between 12 and 14 miles per hour and did not encounter a single surly farmer.  The automobile age had arrived.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The photo above can be found on Wikimedia Commons here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.