In a few days we will strip another page from the calendar and suddenly realize that the old timers who recall life in the 1890s are growing more and more rare. More common are those of us who can well remember the early part of the 1900s, when the horse and buggy and railroad were the only choices of travel. The new-fangled motor cars were long considered a novelty that would never last, and the airplane was but a wild theory ("Fly like a bird? Never!"). Old Darris Green tried it from the roof of his father's barn and ended up in a heap of canvas, bamboo, and turkey feathers. Greek mythology recorded the predicted demise of the daredevil and would-be astronaut, Icarus, who flew too near the sun and, when his wings of wax melted, plunged to the sea below.
Glenn Curtis brought the first airplane to be seen in the county of my birth. It was a three-winged, chain-driven twin propeller "pusher" that visited Lawrenceville during the 1915 Soldiers' Reunion. Curtis flew this pusher in wide circles over Lawrenceville and drew quite a crowd when he landed, just outside of town. The pilot's seat was an oilcloth-covered chair, well out in front of the two square-ended, chain-driven propellers in the back. My father must have asked permission, for I got to sit in that chair and act like I was a birdman. That was the same day a huge Stanley Steamer motor car failed to climb the original north courthouse steps, although it struggled valiantly, amid clouds of steam, with a flood of condensation and oil flowing down the steps.
This, however, was not the very first automobile I remember seeing. The first was a buggy-like, curved-dash Oldsmobile with no steering wheel. Instead, it had a tiller such as was used on sailboats. The one-lung engine coughed and sputtered and smoked to high heaven as it carried Perry King and his oil-lease speculator buddies from farm to farm, making themselves and landowners wealthy. Beginning in mid-1906, dozens – no, hundreds – of holes were being punched into the ground, seeking unbelievable wealth from the "Black Gold" that the internal combustion engine of the automobile and airplane demanded.
Gasoline, which a few years before had been discarded as a hindrance to the illuminating gas business, was suddenly in demand. It was not uncommon for wells to flow 1,500 oil barrels or more at 60 cents a barrel, every day. Even with a royalty of one-eighth, many men went to bed on a strawtick, only to awaken to uncountable riches; a wealth that was very likely first spent on a "motor machine."
Mrs. Hyneman bought a Detroit Electric and sat haughtily, but queen-like, in its glassed-in royal coach body, guiding it softly and silently through town on solid rubber buggy tire-equipped wheels.
Within a few short years, giant V-16 cylinder Cadillacs, sporty Stutz Bearcats, and huge three-ton Mormans would be common on the streets of towns like Bridgeport and Applegate.
Despite rumblings of war in Europe, I grew up tasting the "good life." That was when farmers enjoyed a never-again achieved "parity" with their city cousins and Henry Ford brought out the Model T, built on an assembly line by men working but 10 hours for the unheard of wage of $5 a day, and then every man could afford a car. Suddenly America was on wheels.
Soon came a glossary of automobiles, whose names ran the alphabet. Apperson, Buick, Chandlers, Dixie Flyers, the Everybody, and Falcon Knight. The Gardner, Hayes Apperson and the Interstate all found a few buyers. The Jeffery, King and Lexington were all built in Indiana, as was the Morman. The Nash, Oakland, Packard, Queen and Reo came and went, as did their sister car, the Simplex. The Thomas Flyer won the first great cross-country race while the Union, Virginian and Willeys had their followers with the Xenia, Yellow Knight and Zimmerman close behind.
Roads were of dirt: mud when it rained, and stone-hard ruts when it froze. Len Small was elected Illinois governor on a Good Roads program, and he delivered. Farm-to-Market strips of road were built outside many towns, including Paris. There the one lane on the right was paved so a farmer could roll into town with his loaded wagon, and go home on the unimproved side.
Boys wore overalls (or pantaloons) that buckled below the knees, with long, Black Bear-brand stockings, held up by a panty waist. Girls wore their hair braided or in pigtails, adorned with foot-wide satin ribbon bows. Their mothers' gowns swept the ground and the wearers blushed prettily when, by chance or design, an ankle was exposed. Women wore hats a yard wide that were often times covered with flowers and bird wings, and none dared to venture out without elbow-length kid leather gloves. Men kept their ankles warm with pearl grey spats, and their heads with Hombergs and bowlers. Their brocade vests held huge key-wound watches, with gold chains balanced with elk and moose teeth.
Copper-toed boots were just being phased out and the square brogue was replacing the pigeon-toed shoes. Shoe strings had made the button hook an antique, although few knew it. Even though Tom Edison's phonograph was in its heyday, an Italian by the name of Marconi was building wireless stations and predicting music would soon be sent through the air. My, my, how people dreamed.
On the farm, noisy gasoline tractors were making the horse and mule market skittish, and Delco Light Plants were bringing electric lights to country homes where coal oil lamps had reigned for nearly 50 years. Mothers were warning their children to avoid looking at the lights "else they might become blind."
The Horse Show would draw 300 entries and more, with the accompanying carnival side-show featuring Sumner's own Charley Tripp, the armless wonder. Each year's Old Soldiers' Reunion parade found the ranks thinner and the Blue and Grey uniformed participants more feeble, but with many still able to stride side by side to the beat of the drum, united under the same flag.
What a thrill and privilege it was to sit at the feet of those old veterans (and there were many still around in those long-ago days). Most any afternoon they could be found hanging around one of the barber shops, spinning yarns and debating the battle tactics at Bull Run and Chickamunga back in '63, only to have some young buck interrupt with "Heck, you fellers should have been with us in '98 at San Juan Hill, now that was some charge. Yes, sir! Old George Pickett's Gettysburg fiasco couldn't hold a candle to our Teddy ..." Ah, those were the days. FC
The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.