The First Cars in Two Small Towns

W. Paul Reeve
History Blazer, October 1996

On October 14, 1899, William McKinley, riding in a Stanley Steamer, became the first U. S. president to use an automobile. About a year later the first such newfangled machines were seen in Utah. However, the high cost of the early autos kept the fresh technology out of the hands of most Utahns. By 1909 Utah’s 370,000 residents owned only 873 cars and trucks. Not until 1913 did Henry Ford perfect the assembly-line production of his famous Model T, making cars affordable for the average American; by 1930 factory workers had churned out 20 million Model Ts. It did not take long for Utahns to become caught up in the national car craze. Even so, due to what historian Charles S. Peterson termed “rural lag,” it took several years for some areas of the state to first encounter the curious “horseless carriages.”

Townspeople in the small agricultural community of Enterprise reportedly got their first  glimpse of a car in July 1910 when William Perry, the U. S. mail contractor, came “chugging” into town. “It came right along without anything to pull it,” Orson Huntsman recalled. For some in town it was the first car they had seen and they looked on with curious amazement. In 1912 Walter W. Bowler bounced home over rough roads in this new Studebaker, becoming the town’s first proud car owner. Within a year others had followed Bowler’s lead, prompting Huntsman to record that “automobiles are getting quite common now days.” By 1916 seven cars could be seen rolling down Enterprise streets.

The desire to own one of the popular vehicles notwithstanding, the early autos proved extremely unreliable. Bowler, in fact, nicknamed his first car “Steady Breaker.” He recalled, “Whenever we went anywhere we would hitch the [horse] team to the white topped buggy and took them along with us so if we had any trouble we wouldn’t be stranded. I remember one time we went to Modena and had trouble with the car, it just wouldn’t go so we went on [to town] in the buggy. On our way back we towed [the car] back to the ranch.” Bowler soon traded his Studebaker for a “brand new” Oakland with lights. But this car, too, proved troublesome. On one trip to St. George the car’s lights went out and Bowler was forced to finish the trip in the dark. Before long he traded the Oakland and wrote: “from then on it seemed like I traded cars all the time.”

Joseph (Doad) E. Jones was another early car owner in Enterprise. Caught up in the excitement of the new technology, he and his brother, Fred, traveled to Cedar City to buy an automobile. Their return trip in the unfamiliar vehicle proved adventurous. According to family tradition, “on the way home over twisted, rutted roads, the riding was pretty rough. They were going along at a pretty good speed (for those days) and Fred said, ‘That’s fast enough for me,’ and Doad, with his hands gripping the wheel, and eyes straight ahead, said, ‘That’s fast enough for me, too, but I can’t stop the darned thing.’ On the next return they rolled the car over but no one was hurt and they did finally get the car home.”

Charles Henry Barnum had similar difficulty with his first car, a Model T. He ran into several ditches and many gates learning to drive but eventually became adept at handling the car. Perhaps it was the fear of having similar experiences that kept some Enterprise residents from joining the growing number of car owners. Bartlett C. Farnsworth is one example. In 1922 he was elected to the Washington County School Board, which required monthly trips to St. George. He served in this position for the next sixteen years, yet never owned a car. Each month he hired someone, usually his neighbor, Lee Platt, to drive him to St. George for $5.00 a trip.

In Hurricane, another rural southern Utah town, it was not until around 1915 that residents reported seeing their first automobile. According to young Alice Isom Gubler Stratton, it came roaring, popping, and chugging into town “laying a trail of dust [and] puffing clouds of smoke from its rear.” The auto “made terrible noise, and smelled awful, but it ran without horses….The wheels had wooden spokes, were smaller than wagon wheels and had rubber tires.” It was driven by Mr. Fox who “had a mole on his right cheek with three hairs sticking out”; he offered rides for ten cents a mile. Alice’s grandma gave her a dime and she hopped in the front seat by Mr. Fox. When the short-lived adventure was over, Stratton remembered, her biggest thought was: “My how I wished I had another dime!”

The coming of the automobile meant more than ten-cent rides to Hurricane’s businesses. Entrepreneur Charles Petty responded by installing “a new gasoline tank in front of his store to be used for the refilling of automobiles.” It was not long before “quite a number” of Hurricane residents owned their own horseless carriages. Eighteen such vehicles jolted along the city streets by 1918. With the tourist travel also “streaming” through town, Walter Stout and Stanley Bradshaw felt it was time to provide Hurricane with repair services. They opened a garage which, according to the county news, quickly became “a credit to the town.” In 1919 Stout expanded the garage to offer new cars for sale. Of his initial shipment of Chevrolet cars, all but one sold within the first week and Stout promptly ordered more “to meet the growing demand for the snappy car.” So popular were automobiles in the U. S. that in the late 1920s Americans owned more cars than indoor bathrooms. In southern Utah, the story was no different. While car ownership continued to climb in Hurricane and Enterprise, outhouses prevailed even into the 1940s.

Sources: Clifton Daniel, ed., Chronicle of America (New York: Chronicle Publications, 1989); Dean L. May, Utah: A People’s History (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987); Charles S. Peterson, Utah: A History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1977); W. Paul Reeve, A Century of Enterprise: The History of Enterprise Utah, 1896–1996 (Enterprise, Utah: The City of Enterprise, 1996); W. Paul Reeve, “‘A Little Oasis in the Desert’: Community Building in Hurricane, Utah, 1860–1930” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1994).

See: James R. Swensen, “Utah: 800 Christine Armbruster’s Photo-Essay and the Continuing Documentation of Small-Town Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly 86, no. 7 (2018),