Hal Roth - June 2009

Old News from Delmarva:

The 1909 Auto Show

by

Hal Roth

   Throughout the spring of 1909, Delmarva was buzzing with talk of the Denton Automobile Show, the first exhibition of its kind on the Peninsula. And why wouldn’t our ancestors have been excited, since the motorcar had then “almost reached perfection,” according to the April 3 edition of the Denton Journal.
   “Next week will be a gala time for the automobile owners and all those who like the wonderful twentieth century riding machine, which in point of comfort, safety and speed has almost reached perfection,” the Journal boasted. “Announcement of the show to be held at the Denton Garage on April 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th has been made in the press of the Shore and in the cities, and many of the leading manufacturers will send men here with their machines.
   “As the first automobile show held on the Peninsula, it will afford a rare opportunity to many owners and intending purchasers of cars, as well as the general public, to compare the various machines. Models deemed to be especially suited to the roads of the peninsula will be exhibited, including different styles of Buick, Cadillac, Ford, Franklin, International, Maxwell, Overland, Regal, Reo, Schacht, and others, the tests and demonstrations of which will be thorough. More than fifty of these fine cars, representing many thousands of dollars, will be on exhibition, and beside these, James G. B. Davy & Co., of Baltimore, will have a large display of auto supplies.
   “Robinson’s Orchestra, from Wilmington, will give afternoon and evening concerts daily at the garage, and refreshments will be served. The building in which the show will be held is 54 by 80 feet and has all the features of city garages. Low rate excursion tickets, 2 cents a mile and good for four days, will be sold by the M. D. & V. Railroad, and from the interest already manifested, a large attendance from all parts of the Peninsula is expected. In view of the widespread interest being taken in motor vehicles for commercial as well as pleasure uses, the Denton Automobile Show is timely.
   “Expert Automobilist Carris, of New York, who holds the great record of driving from San Francisco to New York in 15 days, will be one of the visitors at the show.”
    In the same edition the following mini-ad was posted: “Automobile hats and veils at Mellvaine & Sister’s.”
    Next, an April 10 newspaper headline trumpeted: “AUTO SHOW A GREAT SUCCESS – Hundreds of Visitors See the Beautiful Display:
   “The automobile show, which was opened on Tuesday last and closed yesterday, was a great success, reflecting credit upon its enterprising promoters and upon the town, which is the first on the Peninsula to attempt the holding of such a fair. Hundreds of visitors were attracted to the spacious and beautiful bazaar of fast-traveling machines. Among those present were a number from each of the leading towns of the Shore and of Delaware, and even many of the smaller towns were represented. The garage, which is the largest one between the bays, presented an inviting appearance, the decorations and general arrangements being very pleasing to the eye. Many thousands of dollars worth of automobiles from the various factories, and of many sizes and colors, were in the exhibit, as well as motor accessories of every description. Robinson’s Orchestra from Wilmington furnished good music, and the visitor was always pleased at the display and the entertainment. On Wednesday evening a part of the floor space was cleared and a large number of young folks enjoyed a dance for a couple of hours, and on Thursday evening the Western Maryland College Glee Club gave a concert.
   “Among those present and exhibiting were E. McNeal Shannahan and J. L. Hughes, with the Buick and Regal; P. E. Corkran, with the Reo; F. Gemmill, Charles H. Burgess and F. A. Davis, with the International; O. W. Downes and E. L. Hoffman, with the Franklin; Dr. P. R. Fisher and T. Fred Towers, with the Overland and Ford; Moses Seachrist, with the Schacht; R. E. Smith, with the Cadillac, and H. S. Mahyer, with the James G. B. Davy & Co.’s auto supplies.
   “Some of the machines sold during the show were a Franklin touring car to Mr. Harvey L. Cooper, and another to a party whose name has not yet been given out; a Ford roadster to Mr. William Fleckenstein, of Talbot; an Overland touring car to Mr. D. K. Crouse; an Overland roadster to Dr. Percy Kemp, of Kent Island; a Buick touring car to Mr. A. J. Messick; a Ford runabout to Dr. Barber, of Harrington.
   “The show at Denton leaves no doubt that the people of this section are taking a deep interest in the automobile, and it seems probable that the trade in these machines will grow even faster than ever as a result of the event here.”
On other pages of the Journal there was additional news of the show: “On Friday afternoon, the last day of the Denton Automobile Show, two International machines were sold, one to Mr. George T. Adams, of Trappe, and another to a gentleman who did not wish his name disclosed.
   “A Reo touring car, for which Mr. P. E. Corkran, Easton, is district agent, made the run from Wilmington to Denton during the recent show in three hours and thirty-five minutes.
   “Mr. O. W. Downes took Judge Adkins, General Seth, Colonel Mullikin and Messrs. Mason Sheehan and Ernest Cooper to Easton [from Denton] Saturday in an automobile in thirty-two minutes.
   “Mr. George E. Saulsbury has a new Overland roadster.”
    The Easton Ledger posted this news: “During the big Auto Show the Reo car, under the skillful hand of E. S. Weatherlow, made daily trips from Easton to Denton, carrying quite a number of our citizens. The trips both ways were made in fast time and without accident to mar the pleasure of the ride.”
    But another excursion to the show did not end as well: “A touring car from Milford to the automobile show, with four passengers, while passing through Burrsville on Thursday, struck a wagon, turning it over. The occupant of the wagon, Mr. John Smith, fell under it, and his left leg, between knee and ankle, was broken. The physician of Burrsville was not at home and Dr. Fisher went out and set the limb.”
    A report posted the following week indicated that Mr. Smith was “doing as well as can be expected.”
    As the automobile gained in popularity a century ago, courts across the country were faced with making decisions in cases that had no precedent. An April judgment by the Supreme Court of New York decreed that the owner of an automobile could be held for damage done by reckless or fast driving, although he may not be present in the car when the accident occurs.
    As newly purchased automobiles were being added to the traffic on Delmarva roads, it was only natural that interest in road improvements would quickly follow.
   “There is a quarter of a mile of the principal thoroughfare in Denton over which travel is exceedingly heavy, and on which in winter and early spring the mud is quite troublesome, to say nothing of the dust in summer, which is kept down only by a liberal use of the town’s water supply. These conditions, it is claimed, would be effectively and permanently remedied by surfacing the street with a layer of crushed stone, about four inches thick. The material could be procured cheaply, our facilities for transporting it being the best. For the space designated, for a 12-foot track, the stone could be delivered for less than three hundred dollars, it is said. The street-bed, which is full of shells, forming an admirable and durable base already constructed, could very easily and at trifling cost be made ready for the stone covering. This work has been done in some of the Peninsula towns, notably Milton, with results very satisfactory to the people, and such an improvement is being made on Railroad Avenue, Greensboro.”
   “Use a drag after every rain,” another article began. “This is the advice that is being given at good roads meetings all over the country. The chief fault in our road system is in the maintenance, not the making. The grader makes the road, and after that it should be let alone. Many roads are spoiled by using the grader on them after they are once made. The principle lies in the hard baking of the earth. Farmers do not plow after a rain, for they know the sun will come out and bake their earth hard. A road will harden, too, so after the rain, as soon as possible, get out a drag, go over your roads as far as possible and wait the result. The drag smoothes the road until there is no place for the water to stand and make a mud hole. The sun comes and bakes this smooth, wet road into a hard surface. The repetition of this treatment will bring about a smooth road with a hard baked upper coating upon it. This simple method has been tried with excellent results.”
    Not everyone, however, saw the need for road improvement. Consider this near-sighted statement offered in a Baltimore journal: “On the Eastern Shore the roads, which are natural, are so excellent that no artificial roads will ever, perhaps, be required.   They are covered a few inches deep with a light sand, so that when rain falls, it almost instantly sinks into the earth.”
    For some, disinterest in better roads was a matter of cost. The following editorial was published after a bid of $10,000 per mile was posted for a new highway.
   “Roads costing ten or twelve thousand dollars a mile are not wanted in the rural districts of Maryland. The Road Commission has no doubt given the subject much study and consideration, and we suppose the matter has been carefully considered in every phase. We do not know just on what specifications the bids were made, but $10,000 a mile is very much more than we ever supposed any roads we were to have would cost. We have always advocated the building of good and permanent roads, believing the saving in time and energy would justify the expenditure. We had no idea, however, the commission would find it necessary to spend so much a mile. While around the cities the character of road proposed may be the proper one to build, we do not think our country districts need them. We believe our roads can be build to serve every purpose with the material at hand at a cost of about one-fourth the estimate for the kind proposed by the commission.”
    But this was a pivotal time in the science of road construction across the nation, and officials in Annapolis were planning to move ahead with new technology: “President J. M. Tucker, of the State Roads Commission, and Mr. William D. Uhler, of the engineering department, were in Denton on Monday last and walked over the route from the crossroads, just north of Piney Grove, to the Bureau. This is the section of the State Highway first to be constructed in Caroline County under the law passed by the last General Assembly. Perhaps it will be the first road built in the state under the act. Bids will be asked for very soon and the road will be completed this year.
   “It now seems possible that the State Roads Commission may follow Massachusetts in making highways where the soil is sandy by mixing sand and gravel with coal tar and asphaltic oil. This material is talked of as suitable for the road from Piney Grove to the Bureau, says engineer Crosby. ‘Asphaltic oil, producing as it does [a] bitulithic surface, is, in my opinion, better than the coal tar preparation, in that it is more durable, so the question of deciding between the methods will resolve itself largely into a matter of cost, with due consideration to the time element.’”
    But as Delmarva residents began to show an interest in the new, rubber-wheeled mechanical wonders and state engineers pondered new techniques for road construction, Salisbury’s Cranston A. Pollitt remained committed to a more traditional means of transportation. With the Denton Auto Show in its final hours, Pollitt put the finishing touches on his new, horse-drawn wagon, forty-one feet six inches long by ten feet wide and fitted out with a shop, a kitchen and sleeping quarters.
    The following announcement appeared in an April 24 journal: “With a home and shop combined on wheels, Cranston A. Pollitt and family on Saturday started to trek to Texas, San Antonio being their destination. Father, mother and year-old child will make the entire journey in their wagon. Pollitt expects to pay expenses by working at horseshoeing and repairing for farmers along the way and reach San Antonio in the fall.”

You can reach Hal Roth at nanbk@dmv.com