“The best commentary on the road between Santa Fe and Albuquerque is that it took us less than three hours to make the sixty-six miles, whereas the seventy-three miles from Las Vegas to Santa Fe took us nearly six.” Emily Post, By Motor to The Golden Gate, 1916. The first coast to coast trip by automobile occurred in 1903. In 1909 factories in America manufactured more than 825,000 horse drawn vehicles compared to 125,000 automobiles. And yet in 1915, the year that Emily Post and Edsel Ford followed the National Old Trails Road to see the scenic wonders of the southwest on their journey to the west coast, more than 20,000 people from outside the state of California arrived at the Panama Pacific Exposition by automobile. Needless to say, it was an era of rapid transition.
In this photo from the Don Gray collection you can see both the Sparton sign and the NOTR sign west of Williams, Arizona.
For a number of years I have been gathering information on the infancy of the American auto industry, the rise of the Good Roads movement and the named highways with the intention being the writing of a book about this period of dramatic societal evolution. That was the subject of a presentation made last October at the site of what I had been led to believe would become the Hackett Auto Museum in Jackson, Michigan. And as Jackson and the surrounding area was at the heart of an industrial boom that included more than 25 automobile manufacturers during the first decades of the 20th century, the trip was also about research.
One of the contacts made during this trip was Russell Rein who has been documenting the history of the named highways for many, many years. He is also a passionate student of the history of a leading manufacturer in Jackson, Sparks-Wirthington. This company was the largest manufacturer of automobile horns in the world during the teens, and later became a leading producer of radios and pioneer in television development as well as manufacturing. In 1915, Clifford and Harry Sparks, sons of one of the company founders, set out from Chicago to San Francisco in a new Ford truck putting up road signs that were a public service as well as an advertising campaign. The signs read, “Safety First – Sound Sparton.”
Fast forward to this past Friday. For several years I have been in discussion with Don Gray, a fellow with an interesting family history. The chapter of that history that spans the period 1910 to 1930 is chronicled in an extensive collection of family photos. Yesterday we finally had the opportunity to meet and to peruse his collection during a visit with Andy Sansom, the archivist at the Mohave Museum of History & Arts in Kingman, Arizona.
All of the materials in his collection were fascinating. As an example, one photo was of his grandfather, on a Michaelson motorcycle at the Padre Canyon Bridge that was under construction at the time. That would be 1914. And then we came to a photo taken on the National Old Trails Road between Ash Fork and Williams, Arizona. One lady in the photograph was standing next to a Sparton sign!
Needless to say the new presentation about the National Trails Road developed for spring and summer 2020 will be revised before its debut in Needles, California on February 7. And it looks like a new chapter in the 5 Minutes With Jimaudio podcast series about the National Old Trails Road has been added.
Meanwhile the search continues. I will be meeting with Don Gray again son. And I will be returning to Jackson this year for more research and a series of presentations that is in development.
Before I40, before Route 66, people got their kicks on the National Old Trails Road in the southwest. That is a story that needs to be told. It has adventure. It has adventurers like Edsel Ford, Emily Post and Ezra Meeker. It has famous and colorful people like Buffalo Bill Cody, Harry Truman and Louis Chevrolet. It has auto racing, serial killers and pioneering automobile manufacturers giving their vehicles a bit of real world testing.
The National Old Trails Road at the Colorado River. Photo Mohave Museum of History & Arts.
The Cartercar was a manifestation of unique and innovative automotive engineering.
The Cartercar, not to be confused with the Cartermobile manufactured in Hannibal, Missouri or the Cartermobile manufactured in Hyattsville, Maryland, was promoted in marketing campaigns as “The Car of A Thousand Speeds” and “The car with no gears to strip, no clutch to slip, no universal joints to break, no shaft drive to twist, no bevel gears to wear and howl, no noise to annoy.” It was an innovative car, to say the very least. It was the brain child of Byron J. Carter, a visionary career was cut short after an accident that led to the development of the electric automobile starter.
Carter was born during the American Civil War on August 17, 1863, in Jackson County, Michigan. In 1885, Byron Carter established the Steam Job Printing and Rubber Stamp Manufacturing business in at 167 Main Street in Jackson, Michigan. Jackson. In 1894, to capitalize on the tsunami of interest in bicycling, Carter, with his father, started a bicycle sales and repair company on the corner of Courtland and Jackson streets. Two years later, he launched the United States Tag Company, a printing business.
Even though there was still tremendous national interest in bicycles, it was the automobile that was the primary subject of interest among entrepreneurs, tinkerers and investors with vision. Carter had developed a working knowledge and interest in steam engines during his tenure with the Steam Job Printing Company. One of his first patents, in 1902, was for a three-cylinder steam engine. This was to be the cornerstone for the Jackson Automobile Company.
Buffalo Bill Cody at the tiller of a 1903 Michigan. Photo Jim Hinckley collection.
His first automotive endeavor was an experimental car with a gasoline engine that he built in 1899. His second endeavor was the Carter, a steamer built by the Michigan Automobile Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As an historic footnote the first automobile purchased by Buffalo Bill Cody was manufactured by this company.
In July of 1902, Carter returned to Jackson and entered into discussions with George A. Mathews, owner of the Fuller Buggy Company and the director of the Jackson City Bank, and Charles Lewis, president of the Lewis Spring & Axle Company as well as Union Bank. A partnership was formed and the Jackson Automobile Company was born.
On display at Ye Ole Carriage Shop in Spring Arbor, Michigan is the oldest existent vehicle manufactured by the Jackson Automobile Company of Jackson, Michigan
The first model produced by the company was the Jaxon, a steam powered car that used Carter’s patented engine. This was a one year old model but the company would manufacture gasoline powered cars, and trucks, including four-wheel drive models, for two decades. The cars would be marketed with the slogan “No hill to steep, no sand to deep.” Carter’s association with the company and his position as manufacturing superintendent was short lived as he was unable to sell his partners on the merits of his friction drive transmission.
In 1905, Carter organized the Motorcar Company in Jackson but relocated the enterprise to Detroit shortly afterwards after securing investment capital. Shortly after relocation the company was reorganized as Cartercar but before serious production could commence, manufacturing was transferred to the former Pontiac Spring & Wagon Works in Pontiac, Michigan. The car received positive reviews in the press, and owners offered glowing testimony.
Cartercar production showed slow but steady growth; 101 cars in 1906, 264 in 1907 and 323 in 1908. What might have been can only be conjectured. The Cartercar would soldier on until 1915 as a part of General Motors. However, Carter’s visionary talents were cut short when on April 6, 1908 he died after developing pneumonia that resulted from injuries sustained when the hand crank on a car he was attempting to start on the Belle Isle bridge near Detroit spun backwards striking him in the face.
Fittingly, Carter’s death would inspire automotive innovation that transformed the industry. We find the story in a biography of Charles Kettering, the man behind leaded gasoline, the air cooled Chevrolet debacle that led to the first automotive recall and the electric starter. “In the summer of 1910 a woman driving an automobile across the old Belle Island Bridge in Detroit, stalled her engine…. A man who happened by just then stopped and offered to crank the woman’s engine for her. He was Byron J. Carter, maker of the automobile called the Cartercar. Unfortunately the spark was not retarded. So the engine kicked back and the flying crank broke Carter’s jaw…. Carter was not a young man, and complications arising out of the accident caused his death. Now, it happened that Carter was a friend of Henry Leland, head man at Cadillac. Soon afterward, in Leland’s office, Kettering remarked that he thought it would be possible to do away with the hand crank, sometimes called the ‘arm-strong starter,’ by cranking cars electrically. In Leland’s distress at the loss of his friend Carter, he took up the suggestion at once.”
Old Michigan Avenue near Grass Lake, Michigan. Photo copyright Jim Hinckley’s America
An argument could be made that U.S. 12 in southern Michigan, the former Chicago-Detroit Road and before that the Sauk Trail is the oldest road in America. There is evidence to indicate that its origins were a game trail, a path through the nearly impenetrable forest used by herds of bison. Then it served as a Native America trade route. That trail was used by early French and British explorers, and later American pioneers that came to crave homesteads from the wilderness. Father Gabriel Richard, the Michigan Territory’s first delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, began petitioning Congress to appropriate money for the construction of the Chicago-Detroit Road in 1825. In 1827 a military survey team traveled 263 miles as they designated the course for the new road, and construction crews followed. By 1833, at a cost of $87,000, the road was complete. As an historic footnote, shortly afterwards the road was often referenced as Michigan Avenue.
Remnants of this long and colorful history abound all along U.S. 12 and Michigan Avenue in southern Michigan. One example is Walker Tavern that began life as a large farmhouse in about 1832. As it was located at the junction of the Chicago-Detroit Road (U.S.12) and the Monroe Pike (M-50), Calvin Snell, the owner, began operating the facility as a tavern. In 1838 he leased the property to Sylvester and Lucy Walker, pioneers that had recently relocated from New York. In 1842 the Walker’s purchased the property, renamed it Walker Tavern, and managed it as an inn as well as tavern. It is purported that Daniel Webster and James Fenimore Cooper were guests. Today the tavern is the focal point of a state historic park.
An exhibit at the Lost Railway Museum in Grass Lake, Michigan
I never tire of driving this old highway. Aside from the scenery, especially during the months of October when the shade dappled roadway is boarded by brilliant displays of fall color, I find the old towns and villages to be refreshing. As a bonus, even though my association with this historic road dates back more than a half century, I make new and fascinating discoveries on every trip. This year was no exception. A tangible link to the infancy of the American auto industry was found in Jonesville, a nearly forgotten railroad history was discovered at the Lost Railway Museum in Grass Lake, and we met a craftsman with extraordinary talents was met at Circus Farm.
Before relocating to Jonesville and establishing a blacksmith shop in 1857, Jacob J Deal had apprenticed in New York. He had also worked with a partner on the construction of carriages, a skill set he put to use in his new home with the manufacture of lumber and heavy wagons. In 1865, Deal sold the blacksmith shop and established a company for the manufacture and repair of wagons, buggies, carriages, and on occasion, a sleigh. In 1887 the company produced 1,200 carts, 300 wagons and carriages and several hundred sleighs. By 1890 the company was prosperous enough to warrant construction of a modern, factory, a red brick building that still stands on West Street in Jonesville.
The Deal on display at the city offices in Jonesville, Michigan is one of only two cars known to exist.
The following year Jacob’s son, George joined the company and it was reorganized as J.J. Deal & Son. Shortly before 1900 experimentation began on a new product, an automobile, and a small number of motorized delivery trucks were manufactured in the years that followed. In 1908, automobile manufacturing became an integral part of the company and as with the wagons, the Deal quickly developed a reputation for being a quality product.
Automotive trade journals and related publications of the era gave the vehicles manufactured by the Deal Motor Vehicle Company favorable reviews. Still, as with many pioneering automobile manufacturing companies, the Deal automobile was a short lived affair. Production ceased in 1911, and wagon manufacturing was suspended in 1915, the year the company closed its doors.
From Barbie doll accessories to automobiles, the fascinating Deal factory in Jonesville, Michigan.
That isn’t the end of the story. In fact there are two more chapters, but these will have to be shared in next weeks post. At that time I will also introduce you to Ken Soderbeck, a man who restores fire trucks, trolleys, and the occasional vintage truck, and take you back to a time when an expansive network of electric interurban railways connected small towns like Jonesville with the main railroad line in Jackson.
The old family homestead along Route 66 in western Arizona is slowly being reclaimed by nature
I credit Ed Edgerton, founder of Ed’s Camp, and John Lloyd Stephens, the pioneering Central American archaeologist, for igniting a life long fascination for forgotten civilizations, lost city’s, stories of lost treasure, and a passion for exploration. We had recently relocated from Michigan to the wilds of Arizona. For a young boy transplanted from Michigan, and the hills of Tennessee everything about our new home on the pre 1952 alignment of Route 66 in the shadow of the Black Mountains was wild, wondrous and strange, especially the fascinating and colorful characters that inhabited the vast and inhospitable desert.
For reasons never understood, the weathered old proprietor of Ed’s Camp took a shine to me, offered me a job, my first, and began sharing his vast knowledge of the desert in northwestern Arizona. He also began loaning me books such as Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán written by John Lloyd Stephens. It was an education that I was to young to fully appreciate.
Author Jim Hinckley at the airport in Frankfurt Germany. Photo courtesy Sylvia Hoehn
Fast forward fifty years. My curiosity and fascination with the empty places, the forgotten history, and lost civilizations is unabated. And even though I never fulfilled the childhood dream of becoming an archaeologist, and have yet to explore the ancient city’s hidden in the jungles of the Yucatan, I have had some pretty amazing adventures and exploits; trying my hand as a saddle bronc rider, exploring the ruins of castles on the Rhine in Germany and cliff dwellings on the Gila River, hands on study of the National Old Trails Road and Route 66, and countless road trips. Best of all, for 36 years, these adventures have been shared with my dearest friend.
There is tremendous satisfaction in the making of new discoveries, and sharing those discoveries with people who have a fascination for forgotten history, a cornerstone at Jim Hinckley’s America. It was research for the presentation series In The Beginning that I debut at the Hackett Auto Museum in Jackson, Michigan on October 12 that led to my latest discovery, a forgotten company that was once a leader in communications technology, and the manufacturer of appliances that were Art Deco masterpieces.
The company that would evolve into Sparton opened in the last months of 1900 as a subsidiary of Withington, Cooley & Co., a Jackson, Michigan based manufacturer of farm implements. The parent company was started by Civil War General William H. Withington. The next stage of the company’s evolution was the hiring of William “Cap” Sparks as a bookkeeper, and reorganization of the company as Sparks-Withington Co. As Jackson was a hub of automobile manufacturing with several companies hardhearted in the city, it was only logical that Sparks-Withington Co. would develop automotive components. In 1909 the company started making radiator cooling fan assemblies, and two years later introduced the first electric car horn under the Sparton name which was adopted by the Hudson Automobile Company. By 1920 more than 45 manufacturers used horns manufactured by the company.
An early Sparton radio advertisement – Wikimedia Commons
During WWI the company produced an array of military equipment including gas alarms and steel helmets. Then, in 1919, Sparks-Withington turned its research and manufacturing resources to an embryonic new industry – radio. In 1926 the company introduced the first push button radio and “electric eye” tuning. Business boomed that the company leased space in the long dormant Jackson Automobile Co. factory on Horton Street and E. Michigan Avenue. The following year the company acquired the former manufacturing facilities for the Briscoe automobile. By the dawning of the Great Depression, the company was the largest employer in Jackson, a small city with dozens of manufacturing companies.
Throughout the hard economic times of the 1930’s, the company continued to dominate the home radio market. In addition to the manufacture of quality products, the company produced stylish pieces that were more than mere appliances. They were artistic masterpieces created by gifted industrial designers such as Walter Dorwin Teague. Today pristine examples of the mirrored Nocturne Model 1186 manufactured in 1935, and the model 558 “sled” command high prices from passionate collectors of Sparton products.
In 1939, Sparks-Withington, as they had in 1919, turned their focus toward development of an exciting new technology. The company was a pioneer in the technology and field testing of television receivers, and after WWII, Sparks-Withington initiated full-scale production of black and white televisions by 1948. Color sets followed five years later. In 1956 the company reorganized as Sparton, and began focusing entirely on fulfilling a variety of military contracts. In 2009, the company that had branched into medical equipment abandoned its roots, and relocated to Florida and Vietnam. It was truly the end of an era. It was also another milestone that marked the end of a civilization.
The Sparton “sled.” Wikimedia Commons
For almost a century the small city of Jackson had been a center of diverse industrial manufacturing. The companies headquartered there were leaders in technological development. They provided fertile ground for legions of inventors with vision. Thousands of workers held steady jobs for decades. Many were first generation immigrants that embraced their new home, and the opportunities made available to them. They bought homes, frequented the neighborhood taverns, paid taxes, raised families, went on hunting trips in northern Michigan and the UP, and retired with pensions. They belonged to lodges and bowling leagues. Their sons followed in their footsteps. In some instances their grandchildren worked in the factories that had opened in 1910, 1920, or 1930, factories that had played a role as the arsenal of democracy in WWII.
Is the Sparton Nocturne manufactured in 1935 the ultimate Art Deco radio? Wikimedia Commons
For better or for worse, the Jackson and the America of the early 21st century bears little to no resemblance to what either one was in the first decades of the previous century. The America of that era is a lost civilization. Perhaps that is the root of many of our ills today. We have forgotten that in city’s like Jackson in 1919, its citizens and workers were well aware of their past, but their eye was on the future. They embraced and fueled changing times, they adapted. They learned new skills and held firmly to traditions.
I am honored to be kicking off the fall speakers series at the Hackett Auto Museum in Jackson. I do hope that this fledgling museum will succeed in its goal to preserve Jackson’s rich industrial heritage. I do hope that this complex will inspire a new generation of dreamers, of visionaries, and of entrepreneurs.
With a population of just over 2,200 people Jonesville, Michigan is little more than a wide spot in the road on US 12. The scenic road is old. Before the arrival of Europeans it was the Sauk Trail. Then it was a road for pioneering immigrants looking to carve a life from the Michigan wilderness. Then it was a stagecoach road that connected the village of Detroit with Chicago. Jonesville is old. It was established in 1828. One of the towns founding residents was Benaiah Jones who settled with his family on the Saint Joseph River. Throughout the 19th century, and into the early 20th century, it remained a small, progressive agricultural village. It was here that the first “Free School” opened in Michigan and was the first school district with a defined curriculum. Vestiges from those times abound today.
The streets of Jonesville are lined with historic homes including a Victorian mansion, once owned by Ebenezer Grosvenor, Lieutenant Governor of the State of Michigan. Grosvenor was a member of the state building commission that oversaw the construction of the Capitol in Lansing. His stunning home has been meticulously maintained and is now a museum. Here is a bit of trivia. The Andrew Mack Brush Company and Jonesville Lumber are family-owned business that opened in the 1890’s. Powers Clothing is another family owned business in business for more than a century. This store is also the oldest Carhart clothing retailer in the United States.
By 1910 astute businessmen in Jonesville and communities throughout the Midwest were turning their attentions toward the manufacture of automobiles. Counted among these men was Jacob Deal, owner of the Deal Buggy Company that was established in 1865, and his son George. In 1905 George motorized a buggy, and built a few for local customers. In 1908 the Deal Motor Vehicle Company was organized. It was a short lived endeavor. George died late in the year, and the company closed its door in 1911.
The story of Jonesville and its brief attempt to become a center of automobile manufacturing was a common one during the first decades of the 20th century. Adrian in Michigan had ten manufacturers. Hillsdale also in Michigan had five. Port Huron had four. Holland had two.
With a population of more than 30,000 people, Jackson was not exactly a village in 1910. Still it was to small to be classified a city. And yet during this period Jackson was a leading manufacturer of automobiles, ancillary components, and products associated with the auto industry. David Buick launched his automotive career in Jackson. Between 1902 and 1930 more than twenty different manufacturers produced cars including the Reeves, Jackson (and Jaxon steam powered car), CarterCar, Argo, Briscoe, Hackett, and Standard Electric. Hinckley-Myers became of the largest manufacturers of specialty tools and garage equipment in the nation. Then there was Sparton.
Sparks-Withington was another company that operated in Jackson, and that is largely forgotten today. The well established company began manufacturing automotive components in 1909, specifically radiator cooling fan assemblies. By 1912 the required a larger facility and so a new factory was constructed on North Street in 1912. The first in a long list of innovations introduced by the company was the electric car horn introduced in 1911. The horn was adopted by the Hudson Automobile Company as standard equipment and within two years more than 30 other companies followed. Sparks-Withington named its products Sparton – derived from a combination of the Sparks and Withington names.
After WWI, Sparks-Withington used its expertise in electronics to branch out into another fledgling industry – radio, and in 1926 introduced the first push button and “electric eye” tuning radio. In 1926, the growing radio department moved into leased space in the old Jackson Automobile Co. factory on Horton Street and E. Michigan Ave., now known as the Commercial Exchange Building. In 1927, Sparks-Withington again needed more space, so it bought the former Brisco and Earl auto factory at what is now 2400 E. Ganson St. In 1939, Sparks-Withington again took a chance on a new product when it began field-testing TV receivers.
I share all of this as a preamble to a new chapter in the Jim Hinckley and Jim Hinckley’s Americastory. Last year I was privileged to speak about the early auto industry at a fund raiser for the Hackett Auto Museum in Jackson. I have been asked to return this year and in October will be speaking on Jackson’s rich automotive history at another fund raiser for the museum. And there are now discussions about me serving on an advisory committee for the museum, and to working on a variety of projects associated with harnessing the towns automotive history as a catalyst for tourism development.
Full circle. As noted on previous occasions my family has a long association with Jackson and its automotive heritage. I lived in Jackson for a few years and left for Arizona after graduating from Vandercook Lake High School and Jackson Area Career Center. Now here I am returning, sort of. I can’t imagine trading my beloved desert southwest for Michigan winters.
This Jackson based company became a leading manufacturer of specialty tools and garage equipment.
Life is full of twists and turns. I have to admit, when I set out on the road to Arizona and a new life so long ago, I never imagined that that road would one day take me back to Michigan.