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Automobiles come to Texas in 1899 — and forever change the culture

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Posted: Monday, August 4, 2014 4:30 am

TEMPLE — Driving would be great if it weren’t for all those other cars on the road. Where did they all come from, anyway?

The first automobile came to Texas in 1899, and the state’s landscape and the culture changed forever.

According to a 1913 issue of the Temple Daily Telegram, Sears & Roebuck shipped an electric car to Temple to promote its mail-order business. Yes, Sears sold everything through catalogs — including cemetery monuments, house kits and cars.

The new raucous conveyances were at first secondary to bicycles and streetcars as transportation of choice. After all, the Blackland Prairie’s muddy thoroughfares were not conducive to speedy transit. It took nearly two decades before state laws caught up with the new way of moving from here to there.

Records are unclear about who owned the first automobile in Bell County. Folklorist Kenneth W. Davis in his essay, “Watch the Fords go by: The Automobile Comes to Old Bell County,” claimed that among the county’s first car owners was Henry L. Perkins (1865-1934), of Bartlett, who took great pleasure in piloting his mechanical wonder across uncharted pastures. Some accounts say the first automobile arrived in Killeen in 1908.

Dr. Raleigh R. White, co-founder of Scott & White, may have been the first Temple resident to own a roadster in about 1902, according to the Temple Times.

“Dr. White has broken into the conservatism of the town with an innovation in the way of an automobile,” reported the Times. “It is said to have cost the Dr. about $1,000, but if it don’t cost the citizens several thousand, we’ll be fooled. For beauty and grace, compared with a nice horse and buggy, it’s not in it, but it’s novel and that makes people want to ride in it. People will get sick and send for the doctor just to see the thing come up and stop like a thing of life.”

White, no doubt an early adopter, followed the national trend by owning an electric car. In 1900, of the 4,192 registered vehicles in the country, steam and electric cars outnumbered gas-powered vehicles by about 3 to 1. The main reason electric won over gas power: Few service stations. When White purchased his car, highways and road construction were still in their infancy. Not until 1916 and the creation of the Federal Aid Road Act did Texas actually begin improvements.

Davis’ essay describes the socio-economic shift that occurred when transportation switched from horses’ hooves to wheels. “The arrival of the automobile in old Bell County was important in matters of determining social status. Then, as now, you were what you drove. There were Ford people, Oldsmobile people, Cadillacs, Packards and so on,” he wrote in his chapter included in the book, “Folklore in Motion: Texas Travel Lore,” edited by Kenneth L. Untiedt (University of North Texas Press, 2007).

Simply put, those four-cylinder models could be categorized as “good mud cars, fast road cars, splendid courting vehicles and those which doubled as runabouts hauling feed and seed,” he added.

Pretty soon, others followed Perkins’ lead. Travel began improving as soon as the muddy Austin-Temple road was graveled for the convenience of motorists.

“In old Bell County, the arrival of mechanized transportation brought Model T Fords, Saxons, Maxwells, Buicks, Cadillacs and a host of other brands now perished, bone with the exhaust fumes and the dust of unpaved roads. Among these many kinds of automobiles, there were some which attained the status of folk objects for their stamina, their contrariness, their comfort or for their near-epic feats of whatever sort,” Davis said.

By May 1909, the Bell County Automobile Club organized to promote and appreciate these new-fangled moveable feasts. Texas reported some 14,286 vehicles operating in 180 counties in 1910. With the introduction of Henry Ford’s Model T, even hard-scrabble farmers could afford to own them, repair them and deliver their produce to market.

By 1915, auto races were regular attractions at the October Bell County Fair.

“Hundreds of visitors in Temple, Belton and other towns of Bell County make daily trips to the fairgrounds to view what has been declared by racers to be one, if not the very best racing course in the state,” the Telegram reported. That year, a grandstand to accommodate 4,000 viewers was ready for the opening race.

Automobiles were a boon for business diversification, too. By 1912, Temple had four auto dealerships, and more on the way. Oliver Henry Sappington (1877-1969) in a 1950 newspaper interview claimed to be among Texas’ first auto repairmen, opening up his mechanic shop in Temple in 1904 and retiring in 1925.

The auto also may have helped catapult Bell County’s favorite son into the governor’s mansion in 1914. Banker Jim Ferguson, of Temple, won the state’s highest office by stumping 11,500 miles across the state, with 2,000 of them traveling by automobile — a novelty for the times. Ferguson appreciated the auto’s growing market and realized the importance of its potential in generating more tax revenue.

During his administration, he pushed for the creation of the Texas Highway Department (today the Texas Department of Transportation) in 1917 and for requiring vehicle registration fees to generate road funds. In its first year, the department registered 194,720 motor vehicles.

Cars also get credit — and blame — for catapulting Texas’ oil and gas industry into a major powerhouse and the decline in rail service. By 1929, one in every 4.3 Texans owned an automobile.

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