During the 1800s and early 1900s, many American farmers were extremely conservative and disliked innovation and the unconventional. This was especially true when the first automobiles appeared on country roads about 1900.
The first cars were bought by more or less affluent individuals who mainly lived in towns and cities and who headed for the open country roads to try out their new toys. Many rural dwellers hated these city slickers who sped along the country roads frightening horses and raising clouds of dust.
In 1904, the Breeder’s Gazette decried the speeding cars with blaring horns, “driven by a reckless, blood thirsty, villainous lot of purse-proud crazy trespassers upon the legitimate avenues of trade. A fear spread, paralyzing men, women and beasts.”
Many farmers believed that horses could never be trained not to panic when meeting an automobile on the road, apparently disregarding the fact that horses had been trained to work around farm and railway steam engines for decades.
Some rural counties passed laws banning autos from the local roads and farmers strung chains or cables or dug ditches across roads to block or wreck cars, or scattered tacks and broken glass to puncture the fragile tires of the day.
A city car owner wrote a letter to a newspaper proposing that nervous horses that couldn’t face a car should be put down. The letter raised the hackles of a farmer, who wrote in reply that when a country boy goes to town on a Saturday night, gets to feeling good in the saloon and emits a few hollers, he’s immediately clapped into jail. However, when the “auto fiends hit the roads at forty miles an hour, leaving death at every turn,” the farmer must say nothing, but must “break his horse’s neck.”
Some farmers thought the auto craze would die out due to the expense of owning a car, as
expressed in the following verse:
“He owned a handsome touring car, to ride in it was heaven,
He ran across apiece of glass …. the bill, $14.97.
He started on a little tour, the finest sort of fun,
He stopped too quick and stripped the gears …. the bill, $90.21.
He took his wife to town to shop, to save the horse was great,
He crashed into a grocery store …. the bill, $400.88.
He spent his pile of cash, and then in anguish cried,
I’ll put a mortgage on the house, and take just one more ride!”
Breakdowns and flat tires were frequent with the early cars, and mud roads caused much delay and grief to “autoists,” as drivers were then called. Some of the anti-automobile faction thought this would spell the demise of the car.
The following poem appeared in the Ford Times, of all places:
“Father, dear father, come home with me now,
The clock on the dashboard strikes one.
Don’t fuss with the car any longer papa,
You’ll never get the old tub to run.
The cylinder’s cracked and the timer won’t work,
And mother’s been waiting since ten.
So tether the car to a post, father dear,
And come home on the street car with me.”
Doctors who serviced rural areas adopted the automobile with enthusiasm however, and these medical men could hardly be classed as lawless, goggled, insolent brutes tearing up the roads and terrorizing the locals.
A North Dakota doctor began using a car in 1900 and related that he had successfully driven through hub-deep snow to reach remote farms. An Illinois doctor began using a car in 1903, and took exceptional care of the machine: he jacked it up twice a week to give the tires a rest, and used a stove to heat the engine before starting it in cold weather.
Another physician spent 45 minutes oiling and tuning his auto every morning. Every six weeks he took it to a mechanic who cleaned the engine and tightened all the bolts. Another doctor hung a piece of canvas under his car to catch any nuts and bolts that fell off. Once, when needing to perform an emergency operation on a dimly lit kitchen table, the doctor removed one of the acetylene headlights from his car, rigged a long piece of tubing from the acetylene tank on the running board, and had plenty of light for the surgery.
Around 1910, the rural attitude toward the motor car had changed dramatically as more and more farmers bought cars of their own.
Henry Ford’s inexpensive Model T had made its appearance and was priced low enough that most anyone could afford it. Soon farmers began to look upon a car as a necessity; an Ohio farmer wrote to Edsel Ford in 1938, saying that Henry Ford had done more than any other person to free farm families from isolation and the monotony of farm life.
He wrote, “Until your father provided low-cost transportation, the vast majority of (farm) families had scarcely been five miles from home.”
Rural people used their cars to go to town and church and for pleasure rides. They hauled milk, produce, feed and even livestock in their flivvers.
Cars were used to pull farm implements and, with one rear wheel jacked up, to power pumps, grist mills and even clothes washing machines.
Folks took longer trips, to places they could only reach by train before the automobile, camping beside their cars along the way. During harvest season, the car eliminated long delays due to broken machines by enabling the farmer to quickly run to town for repairs.
Ranchers used cars to ride fence and even to herd and rope cattle. One farmer said his Model T could do everything except rock the baby to sleep or make love to the hired girl.
So, during a period of only a few years, rural attitudes about the automobile did a 180-degree turn around.
A city dweller once expressed amazement to a farm wife about the fact that her family had a car but no indoor plumbing.
The wife replied, “Why, you can’t go to town in a bathtub!”