When automobiles became widespread in the Great Plains, it was nothing short of a revolution. Out east, with smaller states and closer communities, the social change was not quite so drastic. But around here, it meant people could go to church, visit friends, and do business in a far larger area. It helped isolated farmers combat feelings of loneliness, and boosted their revenue as their trading area grew larger. In 1913, North Dakotans owned 13,075 automobiles, by 1920 that grew to 92,000, and in 1930, North Dakotans owned 183,000 cars. This was one for every 3.7 people, while nationally there was only one car for every 5.3 people. 87% of North Dakotan farmers were automobile owners. Despite the hard times, the state spent nearly eight million dollars constructing highways connecting major cities, and these cities began to see chain stores previously not found here. For example, the first JC Penny store in North Dakota opened in 1912, and there were 33 in the state by 1935.
It was an exciting time in North Dakota, but there were some unforeseen costs that came with the automobile’s alluring new mobility. In the first seven months of the 1918, 30 North Dakota soldiers lost their lives in the First World War. But in the first seven months of 1928, 47 North Dakotans were killed in automobile crashes. In fact, the first North Dakota death by war and the first North Dakotan death by automobile crash were almost exactly eleven years apart. When reporting these sobering facts in an August 1929 series, the papers worried that “the perils of peace” could be “greater than the menace of war.” Of course these were archaic cars compared to those we drive today, and there have been many new developments in car safety, but the reasons cited for the crashes are eerily similar: drunkenness, inexperience, recklessness…and more Americans are still killed in automobile accidents each year than in armed conflict. So folks, especially those of you listening in your cars right now, never drink and drive, be alert, and always wear your seatbelt.
Dakota Datebook written by Leewana Thomas
History of North Dakota by Elwyn B. Robinson-The Automobile Revolution
The Fargo Forum, August 4th, 1929 “Perils of Peace Exceed Menace of War Times”