Once Upon a (Life)time
Automobile Days
Automobile Days

Mildred learned to drive in a Model T Ford.

I had not yet started to school when we left the homestead at five o'clock in the morning with the horse and buggy to meet my Grandpa Johnson at the O'Keefe trestle, which was the end of a navigable car road up the O'Keefe Canyon. We were going with him in his car to visit our great grandparents at Charlos Heights, eight miles south of Hamilton in the Bitterroot Valley. Starting at daylight we could make the trip, have a couple hours to visit, and still be home before dark. (And, I was told, I would get to play with my sister!) We looked at Grampa's machine in wonderment.

"She'll go twenty-five miles an hour," Grandpa Johnson said, and my aunt looked startled, wondering if she wanted to go through the world that fast!

Grandpa's Model T had no lights but finally someone invented carbide lights for automobiles, even though they had to be lighted with a match and managed to go out at the most inopportune times. Grandpa took a kerosene lantern along to hang in front on such occasions. If you drove slowly you could just follow the glimmer along the crooked and narrow old road that bumped its way up the Evaro Canyon.

The Model T had become one of the family and was affectionately called "My Tin Lizzie" or maybe just plain "Henry" in honor of Mr. Ford. Accoutrements included a measuring stick that was put down into the gas tank after removing the seat cushion to see how much gasoline there was left. An inch meant a gallon. There was also a can of tire patches, rubber cement and a tire pump that caused wear and tear on the whole family. The hotter the day, the more wear and tear. The gas buggy, as it was sometimes called, was fitted with side curtains that didn't stay fastened, and in winter we took our blankets, hot rocks, jugs of hot water or anything that would keep our feet from freezing.

Grandpa had driven horses all of his life and was inclined to holler "Whoa!" when he got into a tight place. I have seen him use a string of gunny sacks laid out in front of the machine. He would drive over these, then gather them up and repeat the process to get Lizzie over a snow drift. The old Ford was moody and sometimes had to be coaxed or even shanghaied. If she refused to climb a hill forward Grandpa was just as likely to turn her around and go up backwards. Being a rancher, he always had baling wire and rope along. The latter he wrapped around a hind wheel to act as a chain to get him up a slippery hill. The Ford of yesteryear wasn't pretty by today's standards. It was engineered to last. This particular one had survived a trip to San Francisco to the 1915 Worlds Fair over what served as roads of that day.

Pickups and trucks were not yet developed, so Lizzie often came home with small calves or weaner pigs in the back, after which we were obliged to scrub the vehicle out with a broom and soapy water. By the early 1920s gear shift cars had come to western Montana and Grandad decided that he ought to have one. McCullough Motors of Missoula dealt in Chevrolets, and were they ever fancy! Massey Mccullough took Gramps and I out for a spin as a matter of persuasion, for he had to teach Gramps to drive the thing in order to sell it. My Grandpa had gotten so used to the simplicities of the poor old Ford that he had a terrible time manipulating the foot feed, gear shift and clutch all at the crucial time.

"You'd better show her," he said, nodding toward me. So, after we'd both had a couple of driving lessons, Mr. McCullough headed us toward Evaro and home. Gramps was in the driver's seat. "Tell you what," he said. Maybe we can drive this thing together. When I say 'now' I'll step on the clutch and you shift gears." We made it up the canyon and reached home as darkness began to set in. Gramps had discarded the lantern and was enjoying his new headlights. He slowed to turn in the gate. "Now!" he said, and put his foot on the clutch while I shifted gears. The Chevy lurched forward, Grandpa hollered "Whoa!" and together we took out the gate post.

Grandma Mary had been mad at both of us for wanting a new car. She wouldn't even go to town with us to bring it home. Now she wasn't only mad, she was mad and disgusted and she wouldn't set foot in "that contraption" until the cupboard went bare and she had to go to town for groceries.

About that time, travel conditions began to improve. The county commissioners directed Grandpa to hire someone with a team of horses to drag the road. He hired a twelve year-old boy whose mother was a widow with a houseful of youngsters. John was small, even for his tender age, and had to put a big rock on the grader to make enough weight to be effective. The county paid him five dollars a day for him and his team.

I learned to drive on that old Model T and like most of my other experiences I cranked it up and took it out when no one else was home. I made it down to the depot in Evaro and around the circle there. Real pleased with myself I decided to go once more and in the other direction. There was a hill where my aunt and family lived and I made it there and got turned around, all the time running in low gear because 1 didn't know how to get it into high. Going down the hill was another matter. I didn't know how to control the speed, the brake and the steering wheel all at one time so I ran off the road and over the end of a culvert. It made an awful bang and the engine died. Somewhat shaken, I got out and cranked it up again. I got it back on the road and herded it home, but every few yards the steering wheel would jerk out of my hands and the machine would try to switch ends with me. When I finally got back in the yard I turned the thing off and headed for the house. Grandpa came in the yard on horseback and it must have been quite a shock when he took hold of the steering wheel and poor old Lizzie took off in the wrong direction. Unable to stand the suspense, I looked out the window to see him lying on the ground looking up under the machine. After a session of hammering and whatnot, he came to the house. I had bent the steering rod.

"You'd better come with me," he said. "It's time you learned to drive!" I think I would have felt better if he had gotten after me good and harsh, but he never did. Looking back to those early beginnings I can't remember anything to surpass the fun of "speeding" down the road at twenty-five miles an hour, leaving the horses and buggies in our dust, the wind in our faces and pigtails flapping in the breeze. Somewhere the older girls around town picked up a parody of the popular song, "When You Wore A Tulip, A Big Yellow Tulip and I Wore A Big Red Rose." It went:

When you drove a Buick, a big yellow Buick
And I drove a little tin Ford,
You passed right by me, you both tried to guy me,
But your insults I ignored.

I climbed the Big Hill but that's where you stuck, Bill,
Your engine just puffed and roared.
And I pulled your Buick, your big yellow Buick,
Behind my little old tin Ford.

It so intrigued us young ones that the parody died a slow death only after the Model T had almost disappeared.