Horseless Carriages Come to Ventura County, excerpts from "Old Timers' Tales of Fillmore" by Edith Jarrett
Lou Henry and his Studebaker EMF
Excerpts from “Horseless Carriages Come To Ventura County” by Edith Moore Jarrett in Old Timers’ Tales of Fillmore. Edith was a Filmore native and founder of the Fillmore Historical Museum.
In March 1916, Fillmore’s weekly newspaper proudly proclaimed, “1510 AUTOS OWNED IN VENTURA COUNTY!"
Ernie Smith, like all young fellows, could tell you the make of anything on wheels, so after he read that item one Sunday afternoon, he went out to the road by his home east of town, sat down under a tree, and tallied every auto that passed. A total of 134 when by in 4 hours, and guess which model scored the highest. Yes, the Model T “Tin Lizzie” with 46.
See if you can remember (2021 - or every heard of) the other models he saw that day. There were 18 Dodges, 10 Maxwells, 9 Buicks, 8 Studebakers (the company had retooled from buggies to cars; remember the “E M F” – Every Morning Fixit?), 6 Cadillacs, 6 Chalmers, 4 Overlands, 4 Hupmobiles, 3 Reos, 3 Chandlers, and 2 Regals. Those who got honorable mention for one each were Grant, Lexington, Locomobile, Paige, Winton, and Apperson (the “Jackrabbit,” remember?).
By 1915, John Deere had moved his plows and cultivators over, to manufacture the “Bilt-Well Six” in four models: A 2-passenger roadster “with mohair top,” A 4-passenger “Chummy Roadster,” A 5-passenger touring car at $1295, and a seven-passenger model at $1800. George young sold them, with headquarters at the Elkins Ford garage. He also sold Maxwell roadsters “with one man top” for $655 that he said got 21.8 miles per gallon, and five passenger models for $725. But he sold Dr. William Manning a valley “Bilt-Well six” roadster for his house calls.
in 1912, Harvey Smith was selling Paiges and Hudson's, advertising that “all have self-starters.” the Moore’s Rio didn't. We bought it from a fellow who sold it just to get the 1913 model with self-starter. He was smart. We cranked that big thing, a quarter turn at a time, for nine years before we got a Chevrolet with a starter.
Of course, my folks had to get drivers licenses. I was only 14, so didn't think I was old enough to need one. I just drove and no questions asked. The license was printed on an eight by eleven sheet of paper which stated that the applicant was certified as a driver for life. Mama showed hers to the CHP just for fun when she was eighty-seven and still driving and threw the whole office into a tizzy. Of course, she had had the new kind all along, too.
We didn't push a button to turn on the lights of that 1912 Rio. There was a brassy looking tank of Prestolite, a fuel sort of like propane, on the running board, and we turned in the whole thing when we needed a refill. Turning on the headlights was a family affair, and we all got out of the car to watch.
First, the kid elected to stand by the lamps had to unscrew the latches of the brass-bound doors of the headlights, swing them open on their hinges, and hold a lighted match ready.
Then the kid stationed at the running board with a wrench - after he found it in the toolbox - was supposed to give the valve on the Prestolite tank a slight turn. Since it always stuck, he’d turn it on too much, and if it didn't blow out the match, the gas would flare up and singe the match holder.
“Turn it down!” we'd all yell, the wrench operator would jerk it clear off instead, and they'd have to start over. Usually, it took several matches before they got synchronized.
When Papa said, “We'd better start home now. Have to milk cow before dark,” we knew he was really thinking about getting there before we had to turn on those little lights.
John Opsahl's Studebaker Dealership in the 1920s
It took a little while for people, to get used to cars. Several have told us how Judge Elkins started proudly down Central in his new 1912 Model T, forgot how to stop it, and rolled along yelling frantically, “Whoa! Whoa!”. Somebody should have told him, “Just step on any two pedals.”
Later on, John Opsahl sold the Judge a Dodge with four on the floor, but he still had a problem. When he took the family to Santa Paula, they all dreaded that short climb up Atmore Hill, just west of the present Rancho Sespe bunkhouse. It was pretty steep until the road was cut down in 1916 to be paved. Few cars could make it up in high gear. The judge solved that one. He’d stop at the foot of the little grade, order family out to push if necessary and drive up in low. He didn't find out for some time that he could shift those gears back from high to second or low while he climbed.
There was another hill that no sane driver would ever think of trying to climb with a car. That is, no one but John Opsahl, our first wheeler dealer. The Big Hill started up the Little Sespe to the oilfields from the boardinghouse at the foot where teamsters could get extra horses and a lunch before they started up that 34 % grade dirt road. But in 1916, John made it with his Dodge demonstrator and showed off “some whirligigs at the crest,” as the Herald put it. After that he advertised, “Dodge, the Car That Climbs the Big Hill Any Time.”
John could have sold sand to the Sahara. Two Elkins brothers, Carl, Jr., and Reed had the Ford garage and advertised “enough Ford parts to assemble a complete car.” And you know what John did? He sold Judge Elkins and sons Carl, Jr., Bill, and Hess, each a Dodge the same week. Only Reed could resist the fast talker.
John was always showing off in his Dodge demonstrator. Beyond the Sanitary Dairy, the old road had two unbanked right-angled corners on property boundaries. One corner had a water tank for the sprinkling wagon. John bet some fellows he could make both corners at 60 miles an hour, and, collecting a gallery of witnesses, away he went. Well, the Doge got around the first corner but took with it just one leg of that water tank tower. John lost his bet, but at least he got a free shower.
Two young men-about-town. Joel Schwartz and Hub McCampbell, heard about it and decided to give their dates a scare. One evening Hub aimed his Maxwell right at the leg of another water tank, planning to swerve at the last second to miss it. He did. But the rear end of the car swung around, hit that leg, and down came the whole tank just behind them. The girls weren’t the only ones scared.
Well, the hitching racks have disappeared. Model Ts and a lot of other models are collectors’ items, and these days we just move our housework into a self-contained RV and think we’re on vacation.
“Horseless carriages killed Buckhorn, which was about to become a town,” Harry Felsenthal said, “because people could get to Fillmore with their cars.” Horseless carriages brought the oil workers’ families down from Torrey Hill and eventually put the Southern Pacific’s passenger trains and a lot of freight cars out of business.
Horses and cars have switched places as a status symbol. If you can support a horse or two, you’re landed gentry. As J. P. Morgan said about yachts, “If you have to ask about the upkeep, you can’t afford one.” But there probably more horses loafing around the county now that the 1,510 autos the Herald bragged about in 1916.
Frank Howard and his team on the "Big Hill"