The Infamous Black Bird Southern Oregon History, Revised

The Motorcar Bug

The Motorcar Bug - Autos Sputter to Life
By Bill Miller
    The circus was back in town! Father in a derby hat walked arm-in-arm with mother, whose long and heavy dress swished over the wooden sidewalk. The youngsters raced ahead, looking for the perfect spot to sit. It was the summer of 1899 and the exotic parade was about to begin.   
    They had seen it all before, but it always seemed brand new. Clowns made faces at the children, while the marching band played martial tunes. Behind the bars of wagon cages, dangerous lions and tigers roared. Jugglers, acrobats and horseback riders filled the street with smiles and waving hands. The real surprise came after the calliope passed by.
     A sputtering automobile, the first ever seen in southern Oregon, was crawling up the dirt-covered avenue. For a moment, spectators stared in amazed silence. Then they flinched at a sudden engine backfire and began to taunt the driver as he struggled to restart the suddenly quiet machinery. "Get a horse!" they jeered. The engine clattered back to life, moved forward a few feet, then stalled again. The children squealed and jumped up and down, frantically pointing at the "carriage without a horsey." The adults just laughed. Anyone could see that this bucket of bolts just couldn't compete.
     Four years passed, and the smell of horses still filled the air. Each morning saddles were cinched and wagons were hitched, and nobody thought much about automobiles, except Elmer Elwood, a man with a dream. His auto arrived on the morning train, April 30th, 1903. It wasn't ready to move on its own yet, so Elmer and a bunch of the boys pushed it all the way home.
     "Jeweler E. D. Elwood is now enthusiastically employed in hitching up his machine and working it into harness," said the newspaper. Just a few adjustments, he thought, that's all it will take. It was the optimistic beginning to his summer of discontent. Day after day, with instructions in one hand and a wrench in the other, Elmer twisted, tapped and coaxed. Friends noticed a lot of mumbling under his breath, and when they stopped to tease him with their latest automobile joke, Elmer faked a laugh and went back to work. Officially, Southern Oregon's first privately owned automobile was a $1250 "Lambert Union," but around town, they just called it "Elwood's Pushmobile."

The inscription on this early snapshot identifies it as "E. D. Elwood's Baldner Car year 1903 first car in Medford."
Photo courtesy Ken Kantor collection.
     That summer, Elmer's life revolved around his obsession. If he could keep the motor running long enough, he thought, then wheels would rotate down the road, and all the snickering would end. It was a good plan, but since the engine never started, the laughter never stopped. A discouraged Elmer ordered a new engine and waited impatiently for yet another morning train.
     It was October before that motor arrived. This time, two machine mechanics volunteered to help, and within days the engine was purring. Elmer was tugging at the bit, eager to drive his "Pushmobile," but winter rains had come, and the roads were deep in mud. A reporter declared that Elmer's auto dreams would have to wait until spring. "The highways are in such a state," he said, "that you can't run an auto thirty feet in less than thirty days."
     Elmer couldn't wait until spring. Whether it was the constant teasing or simply a chance at drier weather, he put his auto on the train and the family moved south to Chico, California. Someone must have packed his persistent bad luck. In February, while hunting with a friend, Elmer tied the auto to a fence for safekeeping. By the time they returned, the machine had caught fire. Nothing was left but a charred metal skeleton.
     Southern Oregon's first automobile was gone for good, but not Elmer Elwood. After only six months in "sunny" California, he returned to Medford to reopen his jewelry store. Except for the good-natured teasing that followed him for the rest of his life, talk of automobiles was carefully avoided.
     Rogue Valley auto sales over the next few years were few and very far between. There were no garages or gas stations and, at best, the roads were in terrible shape. Buying a car and keeping it running was beyond the budget of almost everyone.
     A. C. Allen was wealthy enough to catch the motorcar bug and the first Valley resident to own two automobiles. When he bought his 1905 Oldsmobile he had planned to keep his 1904 model, but instead sold it to Carrie George, the first woman to own a car in the area. A year later, Allen tried to be the first to drive to Crater Lake. He managed 68 miles before deep ruts in the wagon road finally stopped him.
     A traveling salesman came to town in 1905 with a REO Touring Car. Clarence Hutchison was so impressed he not only bought the car, he bought the franchise, and opened an agency in the back of his clothing store.
     There were only twelve automobiles clattering around Jackson County in late 1906, but that didn't stop W. M. Hodson from opening the Valley's first garage. He had left Roseburg, he said, because "they just didn't have enough cars."
    A. W. Walker realized that this fad was really catching on. He decided it was time to hedge his livery stable investment with the region's first car dealership. Next to his livery business he set up a tent and hung a sign--"Medford Automobile Company." With three machines in stock, he was increasing the 1907 automobile population by 25%.

Medford Mail, March 6, 1908
     At the beginning of 1910 the horse was still king, but not for long. There were 250 motorcars in Medford, and by the end of the year, 100 more were sold. Southern Oregon had fallen in love and there was no turning back. The motorcar bug was very contagious.
Senior Views,
July 2004, page 10   Reprinted through the courtesy of Bill Miller.

Last revised March 2, 2010