When Lizzie Came to Town

by Mary Ducharme  (February 2017)

Crowds flocked to Huntingdon in 1908 to see the new buzzing sensation, and to run their hands along the shiny metal wonder. They stepped back when after adjustments to the throttle, spark advance, and choke, the four cylinder engine cranked to noisy life. Horses bucked in protest in their traces at hitching posts.

The Model T took only 93 minutes to assemble in the factory, and in a few years Ford did a remarkable thing: he slashed the price from $850 to $260, making this auto affordable for everyday people. By 1923, a government traffic census at St. Philomene showed a week’s average of 538 automobiles compared with only 196 horse drawn vehicles.

Ross McNaughton in his article “Automobiles and Garages” in 200 Years of Hope and Challenge states that Dr. Walter de Mouilpied had the first car in Hemmingford, a 1916 Model T Ford. But it was not practical in winter when he reverted to his faithful white horses Dolly and John to make his rounds. His successor, Dr. Auguste Abran, bought his Ford in 1923, extending his territory by 30 miles. Other early autos were owned by the George Orr family who delivered mail from the train station to the post office and to rural households. Orr’s Garage sold Ames Holden Tires, “positively the best tires at any price. About 300 individuals in the region were employed in the auto industry as reported by The Gleaner in 1924. The Model T was selling as fast as the factory turned them out, and it stood on its record for over a century as the car most sold in North America.

In front of McKough Store, Fred McKough in car, note New York license 1917

The Model T was coveted but not always convenient. Early rural routes were typically deeply rutted quagmires and though Ford’s suspension was crafted for this, the passengers could not expect a smooth ride. Horse lovers smugly hauled the Tin Lizzies out of the muck with the advice to “get a horse.” After all, a horse had “horse sense” to go around mud holes. In winter the family auto was put up on blocks in the barn until spring. Even in summer cars were thickly coated with dust or mud, and the cars emitted fumes of oil, gasoline, and kerosene. Horseshoe nails on the road caused numerous flats and some Auto Haters smiled when the breakneck speed of 20 or even 40 miles an hour ended with a blown tire. Villagers experienced unwelcome new hazards and noise because narrow streets and sharp corners were not fashioned to accommodate automobiles.

While Ford produced interchangeable parts, the places to buy them were few in rural areas. Brake cables and pedals were heavily used and often broke; cylinders cracked, tires blew. Knowledgeable mechanics were rare who could deal with more complex issues of overheating engines or transmissions. Hemmingford was fortunate that Thomas McClatchie on Frontier Street (now the location of Witsend Pub) installed the first gas pump, and Gus Miller from 1910 to 1930 became the first mechanic. Progressive thinkers took advantage of the new technology and the Tin Lizzie found itself pulling hay rakes and farm wagons. If a wheel was removed, and a pulley fastened to the hub, a flat belt could run a bucksaw, thresher, conveyor belt for corn, or a water pump.

The Tin Lizzie signalled vast changes in rural areas. Employment was available in a wider range including neighbouring urban centres. Improved roads opened opportunities to market local milk, cheese, apples and other agricultural products. Even garbage pick-up was easier as reported in The Gleaner of 1924 on May 8: cars were out on the roads, their civic-minded owners volunteering to haul away garbage accumulated in the winter.

Criminals also enjoyed new opportunities, including car theft, so much that in the 1930’s the first car alarm was invented that blared out “Stop thief!” An activity, winked at because of its economic benefits, was the transport of liquor over the border during Prohibition. Local folklore is full of stories of false floors installed, and false gas tanks full of liquor. The Tin Lizzie is now relegated to museums, and in a century, grandchildren will be laughing at the silly old autos of 2017 that we now think are so wonderfully modern.

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