As the nineteenth century ended, the story of five men is the story of Fort Worth—and of America in general: In the 1890s Henry Cromer was selling Rambler brand bicycles in downtown Fort Worth. 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. 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. 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 1913) became Fort Worth’s first motorist when he bought a “gas machine” (a Rambler, naturally). By 1914 Ewald Henry Keller had converted his wagon works to an auto works, repairing, upholstering, and painting horseless carriages. And the bottom ad—by that same Dallas dealer—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.”
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.
And how was law enforcement to handle the newfangled contraptions? In 1904, when Fort Worth had perhaps fifteen cars, the city council passed a speed limit of ten miles per hour. One councilman lobbied for a more prudent eight miles per hour.
In 1911 repeat-offense fines for lead-footed autoists were increased.
Handed the new responsibility of stopping speeders, the police department 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.)
Tomorrow: Once Upon a Flivver Fever (Part 2): Abilene or Bust!