Visionary or Eccentric?

Visionary or Eccentric?

The line between visionary and eccentric is often one that overlaps. Among the many things that make the formative years of the American automobile industry fascinating are manifestations that blur that line.

On the visionary side of that line would be the optional swing away, electrically heated steering wheel available on the 1917 McFarlan. An example of the eccentric side would be the exceedingly odd eight-wheeled Octauto, or six-wheeled Sextoauto, devised by Milton O. Reeves.

Straddling the line would be the automobiles built by Benjamin Briscoe in Jackson, Michigan. The 1914 Briscoe models sported a single Cyclops headlight mounted dead center in the upper radiator shell and featured laminated papier-mâché body panels on wood framing “to ease with repair.” The 1916 models were sold with four cylinder engines and a promotion proclaiming, “Buy the Four. Use it a month. If then you decide you want the Eight, simply pay the difference and a small installation fee.”

Often, what appears as manifestations of eccentricity today was representative of innovative technology during the first decades of the industry.  Promoted as, “The Friction Drive Car” was the 1907 Lambert, a vehicle that capitalized on the patented developments of Byron Carter.

Carter’s Cartercar received rave reviews from the automotive press and was the vehicle heralded as the future with promotion billing that proclaimed, “The car of a thousand speeds!” The companies’ slogan was, “No Clutch to Slip, No Gears to Strip.” Lambert and Cartercar were not the only automobiles to utilize the intriguing system devised by Carter. Other manufacturers included Metz, Petrel, Simplicity, and Sears.

For a very brief moment in time, the friction drive system with its paper fiber transmission rims seemed to represent the future of automotive engineering. Exemplifying this would be the purchase of the Cartercar Company by William Durant, the founder of General Motors, in 1909.

Then there are those innovations that simply defy any semblance of reason, even in the context of the times when built. Case in point; the 1913 Duck, a four-passenger touring car with the drivers’ seat being in the rear of the car!

The speed of technological advancement during this period quickly relegated the visionary developments of one year into a manifestation of eccentric oddity the next. In 1911, compressed air starters were among some of the most innovative options available on luxury automobiles. The McFarlan of 1912 offered an in house designed and built unit as standard equipment. This system was operated by a four cylinder Kellogg pump and a pressurized canister that stored air at 200 pounds of pressure.

In 1912, Cadillac advertisement promoted the new models as, “The Car That Has No Crank.” By 1914, the electric starter introduced by Cadillac two years previously had rendered the automotive compressed air starter system an historical artifact.

Often the innovative features of an automobile became its claim to fame in advertisement and promotion. Here too, the transformation of a company’s image from innovative to quirky happened quickly.

The Premier of 1918 was “The Aluminum Six with Magnetic Gear Shift.” Two years later the company that had manufactured automobiles featuring overhead valves, sliding gear transmissions, and shaft drive in 1904, was in its death throes. The troublesome magnetic gearshift proved to be the companies undoing.

The hill climbing prowess of a Cartercar is put to the test.

On occasion, visionary and innovative thinking leapt ahead of the technological capabilities of the time. The first automotive recall in the United States, and the development of leaded gasoline, stemmed from of an engineering equivalent of getting the horse before the cart.

The air-cooled Chevrolet debacle of 1923 began with experimentation by Charles Kettering, the innovative genius behind the development of the electric starter that appeared on the 1912 Cadillac.  It culminated with a rush to production fueled by a power struggle for control of General Motors.

Perhaps the most intriguing technological innovations from the formative years of the industry are those that were literally decades ahead of practical feasibility. The Woods Dual Power of 1916 was a hybrid featuring many of the engineering principles found on the Prius.

The first automotive endeavors of Studebaker were an electric powered vehicle designed by Thomas Edison. The initial offering by Knox in 1902-featured finned cylinder jugs that facilitated air-cooling, which were uncannily similar to those that appeared on the Volkswagen Type 1.

To be a visionary or eccentric requires independent thinking. From that perspective, during the formative years of the American automobile industry independent thinking reigned supreme.

Well, That Was Interesting

Well, That Was Interesting

Few things in life serve as milestones to mark the passing of time better than a visit to the old homestead of my youth. The house is now empty. Its windows broken and the door is standing wide with sand dunes spread across the floor. The roof on the cavernous garage has collapsed, and the rest of the building isn’t far behind.

What a rush of memories! This past week while filming an episode of Legends of Route 66, a program on the Fast TV Network, about Route 66 in western Arizona a scene was shot at the old homestead.

Pa mustered out of the service in the late spring of 1966. After sailing the Pacific during a stint in the navy during WWII, and years spent on the Great Lakes while serving in the Coast Guard, he was obsessed with living in a drier climate. And so he set his sights on the southwest and was enticed to buy several acres in a planned community west of Kingman, Arizona.

As it turned out the only plan in the planned community was to fleece buyers. The wide paved streets, utilities, shopping center, recreation center, parks and even water department existed only in the colorful brochures. And the land company had no plans to provide any of these amenities. Their priority was to fill the pockets, and high tail it before the law or a lynch mob of angry buyers caught up with them.

I can only imagine pa’s surprise when he gazed upon his acquisition. On our initial search for the property he buried the ’64 Ford Fairlane in soft sand and it took most of the day to get the car back to the main road, Route 66. So, being rather resourceful, he went with plan “B” and rented a house in Kingman. Then at a tax sale he bought the “model home” for the proposed planned community which was located along a section of Route 66 that had been bypassed in 1952.

Filming an episode of the Fast TV network program Legends of Route 66 at the old homestead. Photo Mike Lee

The house was a shell. So, he set to work to make it livable. Suffice to say, as a kid from Michigan that had spent summers on family farms in Alabama and Tennessee my impression was that Kingman was the place warned about in Sunday school. As it turned out I was wrong. Our new house was the place warned about in Sunday school.

We had electricity but no running water, at least in our first few months. Pa soon rigged up an innovative system but it required hauling water from the site of the long abandoned Fig Springs Camp at the bottom of the valley. Not long afterwards, even though I was still years away from being old enough to qualify for a drivers license, one of my chores was to haul water every Saturday morning.

The garage was an interesting project. Pa an I tore down the old Episcopal church on Spring Street, and two houses, one on Maple Street and one on Grandview Avenue. The lumber and other components including sinks, toilets and bathtub were recycled and used in building the homestead.

I helped hand mix the concrete for the garage footing. As it turned out my pa would have saved a lot of trouble if he had hired a surveyor. The footing extended five feet into neighboring property. It remains as mute testimony to pa’s stubbornness and his steadfast refusal to pay anyone for something he felt he could do himself.

Well, we got the footing right and built the garage, the same one that is, one strong wind from falling down. And we finished the interior of the house, sort of. Chances are that circa 1890 it would have been considered luxurious. In 1970 not so much.

We heated with wood. We had concrete floors. For cooling we had fans and wet strips of burlap. And then later a small evaporative cooler in the living room. The unit required the hauling of water twice per week. It kept the living room moderately comfortable, and the rest of the house about 15 degrees cooler than outdoors. That meant during the months of summer it was often 90 degrees in the kitchen or bedroom.

I learned to ride a bicycle on the broken asphalt out front of this house. I learned to drive on that road. My little sister broke her arm climbing on the pile of used building materials. The first time I killed a rattlesnake was on the back porch. My first encounters with scorpions were in my bedroom. The first time I helped my pa bleed the brakes and tune up the ’53 Chevy truck were in that garage. I learned to saddle a horse at the homestead.

Sharing a bit of this story during filming unleashed a flood of memories. Some were good, and some were bad. And some were simple reflections on the passing of time, of age, and of changing times. There were thoughts of my little sister who passed away in the winter of 2010, just ten days after ma. And of course there were thoughts of my pa who passed away last February.

In the blink of an eye almost sixty years of life has zipped past. And that thought alone brought me up short. I now have to squint hard to see sixty in the rear view mirror, and seventy is looming at the top of the hill.



Inspiration, Road Trips & Interesting Discoveries

Inspiration, Road Trips & Interesting Discoveries

On May 2, 1915, 26-year-old Effie Hotchkiss set off from her home in Brooklyn, New York, for the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, with her, quote, “rotund” 52-year-old mother, Avis, in the side car. For two women to drive a car on such an adventure would have been amazing. This was truly astounding.

But it was only part of the story. Effie was obsessed with motorcycles and with speed. She had been ticketed for cruising at 35 mph on Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway. In another incident her speed was estimated to be in excess of 70 mph. Her mother tagged along on the trip to California to keep her daughter from getting in trouble.

Aside from the friends made, and the fascinating people met along the way, the greatest joy derived from developing the various Jim Hinckley’s America programs is the research. I make the most fascinating discoveries. Sometimes they are inspirational. Sometimes they are unsolved mysteries. But they are always interesting.

The intrepid Effie Hotchkiss is one such discovery. I stumbled on her story while preparing for an episode about epic road trips on Coffee With Jim, our live stream program on the Jim Hinckley’s America Facebook page.

There are two primary components that underlie everything we do at Jim Hinckley’s America. Telling people where to go through shared adventures. Adding depth and context that brings history to life. Encouragement comes from comments such as this one from Tammy Garrett-Rutherford. “I honestly could listen to the history you tell all day long!”

As frustrating and maddening as modern technologies are, social media, Zoom, YouTube, Vimeo and the swirl of available options to share adventures are near endless opportunities for bringing history to life. Even though it is my preference to make presentations before an audience, in recent months using Zoom it has been possible to share the Route 66 story, tales of inspiration and stories about the origins of the automotive industry with a diverse audience. In recent months I have made presentations for the Rotary Club of El Paso, a garden club in Spokane, a car club in Europe, and a seniors group in Prescott, Arizona.

Is such a pleasure to share stories about people such as Erwin “Cannonball” Baker. If the name doesn’t sound familiar let me give a bit of a teaser.

Baker was legendary during the first decades of the 20th century.  He was a showman of extraordinary talent. In 1905 he earned his living as a bicycle racer, and in an acrobatic vaudeville act where he beat punching bags with his hands, feet, and head.

in 1906 he purchased an Indian motorcycle and became a stunt rider. Two years later, at a Fourth of July picnic in Crawfordsville, Ind., he entered his first race and won. By 1909, he was a member of the factory Indian motorcycle team and competed at the first motorized competition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Aug. 14, 1909. Then he launched a series of publicity grabbing stunts such as racing passenger locomotives from town to town. George Hendee, co-founder, and president of Indian, staged a South American tour for Baker in 1912. It was a resounding success, as Baker logged 14,000 miles through South America, Jamaica, Cuba, and Panama. In the same year Baker became the first man to cross the United States on a motorcycle. I profiled Baker in a recent story for MotoringNZ, and included a few of his exploits in the Coffee With Jim episode about epic road trips.

Recently I added a new facet to Jim Hinckley’s America, a video project with The Bee. It is in the pilot stage as we seek sponsors but the series of short videos will highlight attractions and the history of Mohave County in Arizona. To date we have completed short videos about Beale Springs, site of territorial era Camp Beale, and the trail system at White Cliffs Wagon Trail. The latest episode is a tour of the historic Bonelli house with a bit of the fascinating history beyond the home and family. It is an exciting new way to tell people where to go, to share adventures, and to provide road trip inspiration.

So, what’s next for Jim Hinckley’s America? Stay tuned. We have some exciting new projects coming down the pike.


The Mine Field

The Mine Field

I was vaguely aware of the horrendous 1917 race riot in East St. Louis, Missouri before commencing with research for the book Murder and Mayhem on the Main Street of Route 66: Tales from Bloody 66But as I studied the incident one question began to dominate my thoughts. How can a tragedy of this magnitude be so obscure?

The answer was relatively simple. History had been censored. It had been expunged from the historic record. It was an ugly truth that did not fit into the acceptable narrative of the era. It was a national embarrassment.

And so it was not included in the text books used by students. As a result, with the passing of years and of the witnesses to the events, it this national tragedy became a forgotten footnote to history.

If in school you had been taught about the heinous atrocities committed during an event know as the Fort Pillow Massacre, would your perception about what the Confederate battle flag represents be different? Would this education have fostered a less romanticized view of the Confederacy?

If you knew that poor Irish immigrants that had died during construction of the railroad had been buried without ceremony in a mass grave in Funks Grove, Illinois, would your views about the settlement of the west be different?

How would your perception of manifest destiny and the settlement of the American west have been altered if you knew of the conflict between the Yavapai and Hualapai, or how the Apache warred against other tribes?

When we censor history because it is uncomfortable, because it is offense to modern sensitivities, we stifle progress. We also deprive future generations of context. Even worse, we become a society that feels honor bound to protect future generations from offense. As a result we become a colorless society. We become a people without comparatives.

The recent uproar over Dr. Seuss books makes for an interesting case study. Some titles in a series of books that have helped generations of children learn to read, and to make memories with parents that read to them, have been deemed offensive. And as a result they are to removed from view. Perhaps they should be burned to ensure that people do not have their sensitivities offended in the future. Obviously I am being facetious.

Yes, some images in the books are racist and insensitive when viewed from modern eyes. But this modern ability to recognize racism or offensive imagery was derived from historic context.

The demand for removal of statues and memorials to heroes of the Confederacy are another example of our increasing hunger to sterilize history. These memorials should never have been erected, but they were. Removing them will not correct the offense. It will, however, deny future generations of needed context.

Would we not be better served if the monuments, the statues were transformed into educational tools that help us better understand why they were erected, who these people were, the decisions that they made, and why they fought to maintain the institution of slavery? Then these memorials would become an instrument of long overdue healing rather than tools for the fostering of divisions. Then they would become milestones that measure our progress as a people.

History must be taught as it was. It must be taught with context. And it must be taught with sensitivity, a respectful awareness that what was once deemed socially acceptable is often now offensive. But how do we know that behavior of the past is offensive? It is because we have context. We owe it to ourselves, and to future generations, to preserve history, no matter how painful.



In The Shadows

In The Shadows

It was a very odd story. On the evening of October 4, 1919, about twenty-five miles west of Seligman behind a small hill along the National Old Trails Road, a shepherd tending a flock made a startling discovery: the smoldering body of a man. Yavapai County sheriff department investigators determined that the victim had been shot in the back of the head with a .38-caliber pistol, wrapped in a blanket, dragged about a hundred feet from where a car had been parked, doused with gasoline, and set afire. Though the body was badly charred, officers determined that the victim was wearing a military uniform with insignia indicating that he was a member of the Twentieth Canadian Battalion of Infantry. Tracing the serial number of the military insignia, Canadian authorities helped identify the deceased as Arthur De Steunder.

Nostalgia and the perception of simpler times may underlie the popularity of Route 66, but for many enthusiasts there is also an interest in its history. Occasionally that interest is tinged with a bit of morbid curiosity.

In the era of Route 66 renaissance where the old road is viewed as America’s longest attraction there is a myopic view that often centers on neon lit nights, tail fins, and I Like Ike buttons. It is easy to forget that this highway was marketed as the Main Street of America for more than five decades. Even more obscure is the origins of that moniker. Judge Lowe of the National Old Trails Road Association penned that slogan in about 1913 to promote that pioneering coast to coast road.

Today iconic Route 66 may be a living, breathing time capsule, a destination for tens of thousands of enthusiasts seeking the romanticized image of an authentic American experience. But before being replaced by the interstate highway system it was a corridor of commerce, legal and illicit. It was traveled by vagabonds and vagrants, vacationing families and serial killers, movie stars and murderers, escaped convicts and people simply seeking a better life in the promised land that was sunny California. It was known as bloody 66, and not just because of the staggering number of traffic fatalities.

Route 66 also served as the backdrop for countless headline grabbing tragedies, disasters, and industrial accidents. Even though Nat King Cole crooned about getting your kicks on Route 66, Todd and Buzz cruised it in search of adventure, and Lucy and Desi followed it west to California in a series of comedic episodes on their popular television program America’s most well known highway had a dark side.

Blink and you will miss Budville, located a few miles west of Laguna, New Mexico. Budville never amounted to more than a garage, service station, and store complex with a roadhouse across the highway, the Dixie Tavern & Café—but this tiny service center is linked to several murders. Many enthusiasts are aware of the story about the murder to the trading posts founder and owner. But there was another bloody incident a few miles to the west.

On January 10, 1956, Ralph Henderson Rainey, a forty-six-year-old butcher from Santa Monica, was found dead along Route 66 just west of Budville. He had been shot twice in the head, and his body run over by a car. Weeks later an incident in Las Vegas, Nevada led to the arrest of Rainey’s killer and unveiled a string of murders along Route 66 and in Nevada.

Shortly before dawn on January 23, 1956, Police Sergeant Dick Barber was on duty in North Las Vegas near the Nellis Air Force Base and stopped a Buick with California plates. He estimated that the car had been traveling at more than seventy miles per hour. The driver, a man of about thirty-five with wavy brown hair, responded politely when asked for his driver’s license, which identified him as Kenneth Short of Burbank, California. Unbeknownst to Officer Barber, Kenneth Short was listed as a missing person last seen in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Then, without warning, the driver of the Buick fled the scene, and Barber pursued at high speed.

Order your autographed copy today!

On East College Street, the driver of the Buick lost control, rolled the sedan, crawled from the wreckage, and vanished into the residential neighborhood. Soon a massive manhunt was underway, but the driver had taken shelter—and a hostage—in the home of Loren E. Tracy. For several days the driver eluded police, but on January 24, the man who had identified himself as Kenneth Short was apprehended in Caliente, Nevada. By this time police had learned that the real Kenneth Short was an electrical engineer who had purchased a new Buick in Michigan in early January and headed west to meet his wife, Mira, in San Francisco. He had been due to arrive on January 21.

In Caliente, the mysterious driver introduced himself as Samuel Stuart and claimed that he suffered from amnesia. When pressed during interrogation in Las Vegas, he said, “I got this darned amnesia. Now I recall finding this car of Short’s parked in the hamlet of Santa Rosa in New Mexico. Any papers you found in it must have been there when I drove it off.”

On January 26, the FBI reported that Samuel Stuart was actually David Cooper Nelson, whose lengthy record included six years served in the Montana State Prison for armed robbery. Additionally, his fingerprints matched those found in Ralph H. Rainey’s blood-spattered, abandoned car. Agents then discovered that Nelson had cashed travelers’ checks belonging to Short in Lowe, Utah, and Santa Rosa, New Mexico. Nelson steadfastly stuck to his claim of amnesia until February 6. Though he would later recant the confession, Nelson outlined a trail of murder through several states.

Rainey had picked him up hitchhiking near Flagstaff, Arizona, on January 9. They later argued, according to Nelson’s testimony, over his refusal to drive, and Rainey ordered him from the car near Grants, New Mexico. Nelson said, “Then I reached in the back seat and took my gun from my suitcase. Then I took over the wheel and put the gun between my legs. At one point Rainey reached over for the gun and I hit him in the wrist with a judo blow. I told him not to goof off again. Later he reached for the gun again and I used a judo blow and hit him across the nose with the edge of my hand. Then I got a little mad and shot him in the head. I guess I had driven about fifteen miles when Rainey moaned, ‘Why did you do it?’ It was then that I fired the second shot.”

It was more than horrendous car wrecks that gave U.S. 66 its recognition as Bloody 66. Photo courtesy Joe Sonderman

While making the confession, Nelson was unaware that police had recovered the .38-caliber revolver used to murder Rainey. When confronted with evidence of his involvement with the murder of Short, Nelson again claimed amnesia. Then, as with Rainey, a few days later he launched into a rambling confession about killing Short west of Tucumcari and dumping the body in an arroyo along US 66. Nelson said, “Kenneth Short picked me up up hitchhiking near Sapulpa. Oklahoma. Some twenty-five miles west of Amarillo he parked the car on a farm road. I slept in the front seat, Short in the back. I overpowered Short while he was sleeping. I tied his hands in front of him. He opened his eyes and asked what I was doing. I told him I needed the car and if he did what I said nothing would happen to him. Then I thought, they can’t hang me any higher for two than they can for one. So, I shot him in the back of the head with the .38.”

Then Nelson dropped another bombshell: “And I also killed a fellow named John Valente on January 4.” Police listened intently to his story, as Valente had been found in the bathroom of his home at Pioche, Nevada, on January 5. Investigators had been working to determine if his death was a murder or suicide.

Before the trial for the Rainey murder, Nelson disavowed his confessions. Then, at his first trial, Nelson maintained an insanity defense, but after evaluation was found sane and guilty. At the second trial, the confessions were disallowed, but he was again found guilty. After his conviction, before pronouncement of a death sentence, Nelson tried to escape from prison. Prior to his execution, he requested that Warden Cox provide two prisoners in the cells next to his with special meals after his death. Nelson was executed in the gas chamber at 12:20 on August 11, 1960.

These are just a few of the macabre stories uncovered while conducting research for the book Murder & Mayhem on the Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66. The dark side of Route 66 is also the subject of the next episode of Coffee With Jim, our live stream program on the Jim Hinckley’s America Facebook page. And soon I will be sharing more true crime stories on a special pay per view program, the first in a new series of Jim Hinckley’s America programs that highlight unique chapters in Route 66 history.