Across the Country in a Chalmers Touring Car

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Reading old farm and automobile publications can turn up some strange tales – like this one that appeared in the July 1918 issue of Auto and Tractor Shop magazine.

In 1916, a man named Abraham Toube lived in Portland, Maine, and had eight children, a sick wife, a well-worn 1909 Chalmers touring car and $300 in cash. In order to improve his wife’s health, Toube was determined to pack up the family in the old Chalmers and move to the West Coast.

Before leaving Maine, Toube had converted the touring car’s body into a large truck-like box that served as “sleeping compartment, dining room, play room, reception hall and general living quarters,” for the family, which included eight kids ranging in age from a 15-year-old son to a 5-month-old daughter. We are told that “except where impossible on account of the weather, the father and eldest son slept on the ground on cots, while the interior of the machine, which was generally enclosed at night by the side curtains, was used by Mrs. Toube and the younger children for sleeping.” All the boxes, cans, and bundles required for their necessary supplies and their household effects were tied onto the car’s running boards and anywhere else feasible.

The Toube’s long journey began around Christmas of 1916, as the first accounts of it appeared in the spring of 1917, and although the three different newspaper stories I turned up varied as to the family’s final destination, they agreed on most of the story.

The family took time to see the country on their way west as we are told they traveled some 6,000 miles and journeyed by way of Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Omaha, St. Louis, Kansas City, etc. They camped along the road or, when in town, on a likely looking vacant lot, while Mr. Toube and his oldest boy worked at various odd jobs to eke out the $300. The old Chalmers was adorned with signs declaring the Toube’s mission: “Maine to California” and the tourists were “the object of interest in every state and town they visited.”

The 1909 Chalmers touring car and the Toube family. Photos from the July 1918 issue of Auto and Tractor Shop magazine.

In those World War I days, the newspaper reporters made sure to point out that Mr. Toube was a native of Russia, and that his missus had been born in Germany. The couple’s ethnic origins would seem to have no bearing on their story, unless to subtly point out that no “real American” would have been crazy enough to do what they did.

This was shortly after Czar Nicholas had abdicated the Romanov throne during the Russian Revolution, so naturally a reporter had to ask Mr. Toube for his thoughts on that event. According to the account, Toube replied, “I don’t care what they do with the Czar. I am an American today, at least at heart. And I, with my five boys when old enough, will rally around Old Glory any time we are needed.”

Two of the newspaper stories pointed out that the Chalmers was run the whole way on “ordinary coal oil or distillate,” which was cheaper than gasoline, and Mr. Toube claimed to get nearly the same mileage on distillate as when burning the more expensive fuel.

As would be expected, all sorts of weather was encountered during the journey, including at one point hail stones “large enough to smash the thick glass of the headlight,” according to one account, while another quoted Mr. Toube as saying that the weather “included rainstorms, snow-storms, blizzards, sleet, mud, etc., but notwithstanding all these we were making it fine until the big mishap occurred.”

The “big mishap” was just east of Needles, California, on the National Old Trails Route when the Toube party lost track of the poorly marked trail and took the Parker Cutoff. While attempting to return to the National Trail, Toube got the Chalmers stuck while fording a creek, and in trying to get out he lost all three forward transmission gears!

Well, reverse still worked so Toube managed to back out of the stream and probably sat there for a few minutes muttering a few choice Russian oaths. But, the pilgrims were too close to their goal to give up, so a better fording spot was found and the Chalmers was backed across the creek and then the 10 or so miles into Needles. Here he found that transmission repairs were far beyond his limited means, so “get back into the car, kids, by the beard of the Czar; we’ll back our way into LA!”

And, that’s just what they did, all 315 miles in reverse gear!

At this point the Toube saga becomes somewhat muddied. One account seems to indicate that the wanderers settled in Los Angeles. Another tells us they pulled into San Francisco, “and after reconnoitering for the best-looking vacant lot, settled down for the night. While here in San Francisco the father and the oldest boy accepted employment of a general character.”

Then, in their June 10, 1917, issue, The Sunday Oregonian of Portland, Oregon tells us, “A 1909 Chalmers automobile which has been in continual use since it was purchased years ago in Portland, Maine, is now in Portland, Oregon, ready to be converted into a farm tractor that it may do its bit in cultivating Oregon fields, thereby boosting the world’s food supply.”

So apparently the peripatetic Toube clan ended up in Oregon and became involved with farming. The old Chalmers car had quite a history, and it would be so interesting to know how the Toube children and their descendants fared. I wonder too, if Abraham Toube ever got the krick out of his neck from looking back all those 315 miles.

– Sam Moore

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