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First Auto


The first automobile to enter the state of North Dakota made its grand appearance on this day in 1897. The auto, a German-built Benz-Velo, appeared at Grand Forks to advertise a St. Paul firm that sold Carnation Cigars. The next day, the Grand Forks Plainsdealer reported, “A horseless carriage was one of the features observed last evening and today. The machine is propelled by a gasoline motor and has seat room for two persons. It is fitted with heavy cushion tires, and makes a speed of from twelve to fifteen miles per hour on good roads. It seems to be easily handled and can be turned inside of a very small circle.”

The earliest cars were actually horse buggies with a means of locomotion – leading to the very accurate term “horseless carriages.” In fact, one company that produced horse buggies, simply switched to manufacturing automobiles – that was the Studebaker Company.

The first cars were not equipped with many of the refinements that cars boast today. There were no closed cabs, windshields, electrical headlights, heaters, or even doors. Instead of the air-filled tires of today, small, hard, rubber tires with wooden spokes made for a very rough ride. To keep warm, passengers often brought along heated stones or bricks, just as they had with horse-drawn sleighs. Headlights consisted of small kerosene lamps that had to be lit with a match.

The speed of early cars (around 15 miles per hour) was startling at first, and many “debated whether or not the human body could withstand such speeds as 50 miles per hour.” Livery stables were also not keen on the idea of the automobile, and rightly so, as the advent of the car later drove stable owners to convert to service stations and auto garages.

At the time cars first appeared, bicycles were all the rage, and the idea of a “horseless carriage” seemed a bit farfetched to most North Dakotans. In fact, the news from that same week in 1897 is full of articles on bicycle repairs, sales, and races.

The Grand Forks Herald was advertising its own book, “The World on Wheels”, which contained special “hints and instructions for the beginner, the lady rider, and the tourist.” The book was touted as “a valuable acquisition to any cyclist’s library” and featured popular bike routes, advice on wheel repair, training suggestions, and “medical advice on healthful cycling.”

One Herald article reported Earl Kiser of Dayton, Ohio had won the “Thousand Dollar Bicycle Race” in Philadelphia. A thousand dollars was a small fortune at the time, and more than 8,000 cycling enthusiasts attended the spectacle.

Many areas of North Dakota were far from suitable for either bicycles or automobiles. In 1895, the Kupitz stage brought two bicycles to Fort Yates, and Charles Kupitz declared the town had the largest proportion of bicycles per square inch than anywhere else in the country.

Not surprisingly, many greeted the auto with an air of skepticism and distrust. North Dakotans who actively embraced the foot-powered bicycle thought the gasoline-driven automobile seemed a bit ridiculous. However, the Grand Forks Herald reported the car that came to town that day in 1897 was proving “quite a novelty.” The writer realized the machine’s potential, noting, “In the not very far distant future it is quite likely that the horseless carriage will be a common every day affair.” Eventually, as predicted, roads improved, state finances increased, and cars became commonplace – making travel a much more dependable and comfortable affair.

Sources: The Grand Forks Herald. June 23, 27, and 30, 1897.

The Grand Forks Plainsdealer. June 29, 1897.

South of the Cannon Ball: A History of Sioux, the War Bonnet County. Hinton, May E., Washburn Printing Center, Grand Forks. 1984.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm