The Fort Worth Register printed this feature on the advent of the automobile in 1899. “In this age of applied science our old equine favorite is passing away. The electric gong of the automobile has sounded his deathknell, and now no matter how old fashioned cavaliers may struggle against the tide of current events, the horse, as a piece of locomotive machinery, is bound to go.”
As the nineteenth century ended, the story of five men is the story of Fort Worth—and of America in general: (top ad) In the 1890s Henry Cromer was selling Rambler brand bicycles in downtown Fort Worth. (middle ad) Ewald Henry Keller had come to Fort Worth as a blacksmith in 1873. In 1876 he opened a stable. Then he began making carriages, wagons, and buggies. (bottom ad) Up in Indiana, brothers Peter, Clement, and Henry Studebaker had begun making wagons in 1852. The bottom ad shows what a Studebaker looked like in 1899.
Then came the new century and a new invention. Fort Worth, like the rest of America, soon got a whiff of gasoline. And it liked what it smelled. Flivver fever! In 1902 Rambler bicycle dealer Henry Cromer (top photo, from 1909) became Fort Worth’s first motorist when he bought a “gas machine” (a Rambler, naturally). By 1914 Ewald Henry Keller (middle ad) had converted his wagon works to an auto works, repairing, upholstering, and painting horseless carriages. And the bottom ad—by that same Dallas dealer in the 1899 ad—shows what the Studebaker brothers were turning out by 1908.
In 1904 A. B. Wharton, the man of the house at Thistle Hill, opened the city’s first “auto livery,” selling and renting Winton, Columbia, Franklin, Hayes, and Elmore automobiles.
There were no service stations in the early days, of course. Gasoline and oil were sold on the shelves of grocery stores. And there were precious few auto mechanics. A motorist whose horseless carriage broke down might have to seek repairs from the nearest blacksmith. Oh, the ignominy!
Such a drastic transition—from ol’ Dobbin to Dodge (or Essex or Hupmobile or Maxwell)—was not always easy. Henry Cromer recalled that when his was the only car in town, he carried a gun for protection against angry horsemen and farmers who complained that Cromer’s car frightened their animals. Children threw rocks at his car as it passed. But many people also stopped him as he drove by to ask him “how the dadgummed thing worked.”
Henry Cromer was issued the first auto registration in Fort Worth in 1904. His 1902 Rambler was “No. 1.”
Henry Cromer had been a trendsetter in 1902. But six years later he lamented that his 1902 Rambler did not have the “modern” appearance of the new 1908 models. His 1902 Rambler was still on the road in 1909.
In 1904 local enthusiasts staged an “automobile parade,” wisely choosing to start from Wharton’s Fort Worth Auto Livery and not from the White Elephant Saloon and proceeding to Fort Worth Country Club.
And how was law enforcement to handle the newfangled contraptions and those wild-eyed “autoists”? On May 20, 1904, when Fort Worth had perhaps fifteen cars, the city council approved a speed limit of ten miles per hour. One councilman lobbied for a more prudent eight miles per hour. Clip is from the May 21 Telegram.
Daredevils such as Barney Oldfield did not worry about speed limits. In 1906 Oldfield set a world auto speed record at Fort Worth’s driving park when he raced his Green Dragon at about sixty miles per hours. A. B. Wharton offered a $500 purse. Clip is from the April 28 Dallas Morning News.
In 1911 repeat-offense fines for lead-footed autoists were increased. Clip is from the July 27 Star-Telegram.
The police department, handed the new responsibility of stopping speeders, briefly considered using lariats. The “scheme” was this: Upon seeing a speeding car approaching, a policeman would stretch a double-strength rope between telegraph poles on opposite sides of the street. (Police officers of “sufficient avoirdupois,” the thinking was, could simply bulldog the speeding car to a stop.)
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