When autos were still only toys for the wealthy

E. Watson Gardiner’s 1909 Chalmers-Detroit, like the recently-auctioned example show here, was described by one authority as “light and nimble with a great engine” and “one of the best all-round tourers of their day.” (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

The year is 1909. Average life expectancy is 47 years. Only 14 percent of American homes have bathtubs, perhaps partly because many doctors advise that bathing in metal tubs isn’t healthy.

There are only 144 miles of paved highways. Average blue-collar annual income is between 200 and400 dollars, 500 tops. Most women wash their hair monthly using egg yolks for shampoo, and Canada has just passed a law prohibiting poor people from entering the country.

With the exception of Ransom E. Old’s reasonably inexpensive ‘curved-dash’ buggy-like auto, built 1901 through 1907 retailing for $650, almost all automobiles are still priced considerably beyond the hopes and pocket books of average families. So far, every engineer trying to create a low-priced car for average wage-earners has failed.

The oft-printed statement that early automobiles were ‘playthings of the rich’ until Henry Ford’s super-cheap Model T started rolling off the assembly line in October 1908, is easily proven by scanning the makes of high-priced chariots and their wealthy owners who participated in the Amsterdam Evening Recorder’s Saturday, July 10, 1909 “Sociability Run” from Amsterdam to Lake Luzerne. This 42-mile event, a pioneer example of early automobile endurance trials, is best described in the paper’s own excerpted account.

“The Recorder Sociability Run was a great success. A most gratifying feature was that there were no accidents, and every car leaving Amsterdam arrived at Luzerne’s Wayside Inn in safety. There were but two punctures, remarkable considering the sandy roads. C.B. Machold’s and Miss Elizabeth Nader’s Cadillacs both punctured a tire, but were soon repaired, and both cars reached their destination in time to win prizes. At every village and hamlet, crowds of men, women and children gathered to see the gaily-decorated cars pass by, each greeted with the waving of flags and cheers. One farmhouse near Day Center exhibited a pennant stating, “Hurrah for the Sociability Run.” The villages of Hadley and Luzerne were decorated, and a large crowd gathered to witness the finish. Above the word ‘Finish’ was draped a large American flag. The Sheriff of Warren County with a large megaphone called out the car numbers to the timer. The last car to leave Amsterdam carried the starting time list. Prizes were awarded by Amsterdam Mayor Jacob Dealy on the Wayside piazza.”

A photograph of these super-expensive brass-era cars on the hotel’s lawn would be wonderful to see today. There were no humble Model T Fords among them, nor working-class owners.

The Recorder bragged, “It was an exhibition of motor cars that Amsterdam might well be proud of, handsome, big touring cars and snappy roadsters of the best-known makes. A conservative estimate of their value is $100,000.” Make that five or six today.

Picture the scene: The first car appears, a few minutes later another, then more and more, until all 34 arrive.

“The first car, Karl Isburgh’s Stevens-Dureya, finished at 2:35, John Kellogg’s Oldsmobile roadster arrived next at 2:47, Mrs. Helen Greene’s chauffeur-driven Pope-Toledo, followed at 2:55. Machines continued chugging in at frequent intervals until Miss Nadler arrived at 5:16. The only lady contestant, in spite of the punctured tire, she crossed the finish line to the cheers of the crowd in time to win the 16th prize.”

The race, however, wasn’t won by the first car arriving, but rather by the car making the best overall time in spite of any stops from start to finish. First prize, an engraved silver cup, went to prominent Amsterdam knit goods manufacturer E. Watson Gardiner, piloting his Chalmers-Detroit, his chauffeur-mechanic at his side, a living insurance policy in case of trouble. It should be mentioned that in our old times, many wealthy automobilists, when purchasing a suitably-snobbish motor chariot, acquired a chauffeur-mechanic along with it, not only to drive them about town, but also to oversee the mysteries of its innards.

Regarding the ‘sociability’ element of the event, names of the wealthy participants today read like a who’s who of successful Amsterdam merchants and factory owners. Even early female driver Elizabeth Nadler, whose various early motoring adventures are frequently mentioned in the Recorder, was a member of the Nadler Brothers Dairy family, the remnants of whose buildings one still passes while climbing Route 29 just south of the city. Milk sales apparently could provide Cadillacs.

What brands transported all these Amsterdam society people over forty-two miles of bad road with almost no problems one hundred and ten years ago? Numerically, there were eight Cadillacs, four Packards, three Pope-Toledos, plus two each of Chalmers-Detroits, Stevens-Dureyas, and Mathesons. There was one each of the following makes: Buick, Haynes, Oldsmobile, Royal Tourist, Mitchell, E.M.F., Pierce Arrow, Maxwell, Austin, Mercedes, Great Western, and Rickett. Rickett?

Besides Watson Gardner’s silver cup, many of the lesser prizes were practical and motoring-related: thermos bottles, inner tubes, quarts of oil, driver’s gloves, a dashboard clock, a folding water bucket (for carrying water from a stream to a thirsty radiator), auto wax, a Kodak camera, and a folding drinking cup were all practical acquisitions for those early motoring days. Of the local firms donating prizes, only Fownes Brothers, which donated a pair of ladies silk gloves, survives.

Was Fulton County mentioned at all, in as much as the cars all passed through it on their northern trek? Only once, when the Recorder noted, “Broadalbin was prettily decorated in honor of the occasion.”

By Patricia Older

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