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Getting a Car

8/10/2004:

People who bought automobiles in the early years were in for a bigger experience than they bargained for. Each car came with a set of tools, but if the owner couldn’t figure out how to use them, there was no mechanic to help him out; the closest thing was the town blacksmith.

The first cars used in North Dakota could rarely drive after dark, because the headlights were nothing more then oil-wick lamps, or carbides, that were nearly useless. There were also no fuel pumps – gravity was the only thing that got gas to the engine, and many drivers could climb hills only by driving in reverse. And horse power? Most early cars couldn’t climb the hills that horses could, and as late as World War I, many drivers had to avoid hills that were steep or long.

Roads were another problem. They were mostly wagon tracks, and many drivers’ first instincts when they needed to stop was to say “whoa!” Historian Erling Rolfsrud wrote in The Story of North Dakota, “One farmer, as late as the Twenties, built a spring-equipped bumper in the front of his garage to help him halt his Model T.”

A reporter for the Minot Daily Reporter had a great deal of fun at the expense of one car-owner when he wrote the following article: E. H. Stenvick has traded for an automobile... Wednesday was his first day with the machine. He had never operated one before, but after getting a diagram of the levers, cranks, (and) switches, he pasted it on the dashboard and invited Ben Bradford to take a ride with him.

When the twain were squared away in the front seat, Sten pulled the throttle, grabbing the seat with one hand and the steering gear with the other, and the way he went down Main Street was not slow. After climbing over two piles of lumber in front of the new Masonic Temple, he turned up a side street and left a string of crippled dogs, overturned vehicles and frightened pedestrians in his wake...

About this time, the article continued, Ben made up his mind that Sten was either a mighty reckless driver, or very much inexperienced. “Stop!” shouted Ben. “I think we killed a man!”

But with his eye on the road ahead, Sten...replied, “I don't know how to stop the bloomin’ thing!”

“What?” shouted Bradford, and he stood up to pick out a safe place to jump. As he did so, he stepped on the “high speed” button, and the way that Rambler rambled was a caution. Keeping one hand on the steering wheel,” the article read, “Sten fingered all of the machinery in the front end of the rig. Finally, after taking down a picket fence, fricasseeing a flock of chickens and breaking up a lawn party, he found the brake and the machine came to a sudden stop, smash up against a telephone pole.

The boys had become so accustomed to going straight ahead, however, that neither stopped. Ben went one way and Sten the other. One lit in a bed of daisies, and the other on the front porch of a suburban residence.

Ben go up, the article read, took an inventory of himself, and then looked for his friend. Sten was reclining in a half-sitting posture, his eyes glued on the Rambler with a gaze of admiration. “...she’s a hummer, isn’t she?”

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm