Friday, November 16, 2018

Tennessee’s Turn-of-the-Century Automobiles

By Andrew McMahan

Automobiles gained traction relatively quickly in the United States. Tennessee was no exception. However, good roads were largely confined to urban areas in the Northeastern U.S. Like other southern states, Tennessee’s roads were largely insufficient to handle automobile traffic at the beginning of the twentieth century. In fact, rural southern roads were often ill-equipped to handle horse and foot traffic. The Tennessee State Highway Department did not yet exist. Instead, these roads were often overseen by county officials and badly maintained by convict or statute labor. Statute labor in the South involved local governments requiring citizens to provide labor for public works projects. This system was largely unsuccessful and resulted in poor quality of work. According to House Bill 839, passed by the General Assembly in 1899, all males between the ages of eighteen and fifty were subject to road labor for a period of four to eight days out of the year. However, Tennesseans subject to road duty were permitted to pay fifty cents per day they were required to work to the local commissioner, freeing them from the labor obligation.

A muddy dirt road near Cookeville, 1912. Library Collection.

The lack of good roads in the United States was not due to the absence of the means or expertise to build them, but because many people felt there was no real need for the improved infrastructure. Travel by railroad was faster and more economical than any form of highway transportation at the turn of the century. As a result, rural roads had long been neglected in favor of railroads. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Americans, especially those in rural areas, had grown tired of the railroad’s dominance of overland transportation. Farmers in the South were often isolated by their roads, which often only connected them to the nearest railroad station.

Lucy G. Drane in a Buick automobile on West Avenue in Clarksville, ca. 1909. Looking Back at Tennessee Collection.

Despite the poor state of the nation’s roads, Tennesseans and other Americans began purchasing automobiles. Technological advancements and developments such as Ford’s Model T made automobiles increasingly affordable, enabling more people to purchase them. The total production output for American automobile manufacturers in 1900 was 4,192 units, most of which were built by numerous small shops around the country. In 1908, the year in which the Model T was released and General Motors was founded, production rose to 65,000 units. Additionally, almost 400,000 automobiles were registered in the U.S. As more and more Americans purchased automobiles during the early decades of the twentieth century, the Federal and state governments began spending millions of dollars on new and existing infrastructure in order to accommodate increased traffic. This included large-scale road building projects such as the Dixie Highway and, eventually, the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

Automobile being washed in Kettle Creek, Clay County, 1924. Library Collection.

Many Tennesseans were already purchasing and driving automobiles during the first decade of the twentieth century. The Tennessee State Library and Archives houses the Secretary of State Automobile Registrations for the years 1904-1914 (Record Group 111), which is comprised of the earliest automobile registrations in Tennessee. These are organized by year and then by county. They reveal a wealth of information, including who owned automobiles and which counties had the most registrants. Additionally, the registrations record what each individual was driving. The Big Three (General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler) did not yet dominate the American automobile market in 1904. Instead, several smaller manufacturers competed for sales. In fact, both the Automobile Manufacturers Association and the Automobile Club of Michigan compiled a list of around fifteen-hundred manufacturers in the United States producing automobiles in the early twentieth century, though most of them were gone by the World War I. Perhaps your ancestor drove an REO, a Ford Model C, a battery-powered Runabout from the National Motor Vehicle Company, or a steam-powered 1904 Touring Car from the White Sewing Machine Company.

Automobiles manufactured by Marathon Motor Works of Nashville, 1910. Looking Back at Tennessee.

Edward C. Andrews' automobile registration. Record Group 111.

This particular registration was for Edward C. Andrews of Nashville and his 20 horsepower, gasoline-propelled Marmon, built by the Nordyke and Marmon Company. Because Andrews lived in Nashville, we were able to look up his name in the city directory for 1905. Andrews was an executive at the Liberty Mills Company, a manufacturer of flour, meal, and grits. As shown on the back of the form, Andrews transferred the automobile and registration to Goodloe Lindsley (of Lindsley Real Estate) in 1906.

Note transferring the registration from Edward C. Andrews to Goodloe Lindsley. Record Group 111.

This record group does not only consist of automobile registrations for individual citizens, but for companies as well. The following registration is for five gasoline-powered Runabouts built by the Ford Motor Company for the Cumberland Telephone and Telegraph Company (later purchased by the Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company, which was purchased by AT&T). These were among the first automobiles from the Ford Motor Company registered in Nashville as well as the State of Tennessee.

Registration for the Cumberland Telephone and Telegraph Company. Record Group 111.

These registrations can yield fascinating information. Come take a look and see where your ancestors fit in Tennessee’s automotive history. Also, for those interested in transportation, be sure to look at TSLA’s other collections, such as the Tennessee Department of Highways and Public Works Records, 1913-1972 (Record Group 84).

Sources Cited:

Tennessee General Assembly. House of Representatives. House Bill 839: An Act to Regulate the Working and Laying Out of Public Roads in This State. 51st General Assembly, 1899.

Secretary of State Automobile Registrations, 1904-14, Record Group 111. Tennessee State Library and Archives. Nashville, Tennessee.

Tennessee Department of Highways and Public Works Records, 1913-1972, Record Group 84. Tennessee State Library and Archives. Nashville, Tennessee.

Ingram, Tammy. Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South, 1900- 1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Rae, John B. The American Automobile: A Brief History. University of Chicago Press, 1965.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

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