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Feature on automobiles. Topic: TRANSPORTATION & INDUSTRY
Written by Rich Wallace in April, 1998

EARLY AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY IN SIDNEY, OHIO


Sock and Buskin's production of 'Camping with Henry and Tom' directed by Sherrie Casad-Lodge promises to bring back many vivid memories of the early automobiling days for those attending themanwithautomobilestuckinmud.gif (66806 bytes) show and viewing the Shelby County Historical Society’s transportation exhibits. The play coincides with national publicity concerning the 100th anniversary of the invention of the automobile. The Ford Model T that is a centerpiece of the play evokes images of an era of romance and adventure for many Shelby Countians.

Certainly no other product has so revolutionized our lives. It is quite difficult to imagine life with horses as the only source of transportation, let alone the magnitude of the transition from the horse-drawn to the motorized era. As people, we adapted to the automobile, and as a community, we made more than our share of contributions to this fabulous new industry. This story will provide a glimpse of the early days of the auto in our county. As the industrial hub of the county and all of west-central Ohio, Sidney has always been on the cusp of industrial change. That was certainly the case in the transportation business. Several large manufacturers in town produced wagons and buggies. Piper Wagon Works and the Rupert Wagon Shop were established in 1847 and 1850, respectively. James Crozier, later partnering with his son, made a high quality buggy here for almost 60 years, beginning in 1860. The firm of Miller and Smith rounded out the list of buggy manufacturers. Thomas Miller of that firm would later play a key role in a dark chapter of Sidney's auto business.

Another notable buggy and carriage maker in the early days was the Bimel Buggy Company. Former St. Marys resident seatpanelsadvertisement.gif (26489 bytes)Lorenzo Bimel built a plant at 218 South Ohio Avenue, and produced several models, including the 'Storm King' which provided the occupants protection from the winter winds. Much more would be heard about the name 'Bimel' in the horseless carriage days that would follow. Along with the thriving buggy business, Sidney was the home for several companies that produced the necessary vehicle accessories. The Underwood Whip Company was the largest manufacturer of buggy whips west of Massachusetts.

Jonathan Dann operated a spoke and wheel business on Ohio Avenue. Enoch Anderson, J. N. Anderson and Cyrus Frazier formed Anderson-Frazier Wheel Works in 1881 to make wooden wheels and wheel parts.

One local company that made a successful transition to the automobile industry was the Tucker Wood-Work Company.

J. B. Tucker moved to town in 1901, bought the assets of John Loughlin's school furniture business, and began to make wooden bicycle rims. After the advent of the automobile, he converted part of the plant to produce wooden steering wheels and auto frames for cars. In 1915, the company produced 75,000 steering wheels. Quaintly, the company noted it was located in "Sydney, Ohio, U.S.A."

After the abrupt death of Mr. Tucker, Edward Mull took over the business. He was previously employed by the Willys-Overland Company, where he was responsible for assembling the first Overland vehicle for the firm. He renamed Tucker's business the Mull Wood Work Company. His operation grew rapidly, becoming the second largest maker of wooden steering wheels in the country.

History unfortunately does not record the reaction of our county residents when the first noisy, smoke-belching, horseless carriage rolled slowly down the streets. It must have been greeted with laughter and a bit of derision. The author of Ohio People and Transportation recalled: "For a decade, the automobile was more to be jeered than cheered...a rich man's plaything that scared horses, belched smoke and often broke down.

Locally, it is believed the honor of purchasing the first car went to George Haslup. The manager of Sidney's water works purchased a Pope-Toledo Steamer in 1903. The vehicle was steam powered. The steam was produced by a gasoline fired flush-tube boiler located under the front seat. Monarch employee Daniel Toy bought it a few years later.

The shape of the first automobiles was derived directly from the horse drawn vehicle and offered no protection from the elements, as they did not have windshields. Sidney drivers, including Dan Toy, wore an apron which covered their body and offered some protection from the weather. Protection was also needed from a peril of another sort. Ann Sayre Fazzini recalls riding with her tobacco-chewing grandfather in an open car: "There was the rush for seats which were not in the probable trajectory of Gramp's tobacco juice." 'Closed cars', as they were first known, which provided a closed-up interior, were not common until the mid 1920s. Early ‘covered’ models were ungainly, expensive and top heavy. In 1925, the closed car outsold the open vehicles.

Very common, however, were Fords. By 1919, almost half of the cars in America were Fords, or 'universal cars', as they were called. Locally, the first Ford dealership was situated at Fair Avenue and Walnut Street, where Yendis Furniture was located. The Ford tradition is now carried on by Sidney Ford-Lincoln-Mercury automotive dealership, a sponsor of "Camping With Henry & Tom."

Perhaps the first auto dealer in the county was F. A. Wentz of Anna, who opened up a dealership in 1914. One of the oldest gas stations in the nation is now owned by York's Auto Repair. It is located at the corner of Poplar Street and Walnut Avenue in Sidney.

In an interview given in 1953, Daniel Toy recalled operating the Pope-Toledo Steamer. Because there were no gas stations, he had to carry cans of gas and water with him. Passing horses and buggies proved to be interesting. The law required the motorist to pull over, if signaled, get out, and lead the horse past the noisy vehicle. A November, 1953, issue of Monarch's Shop Talk magazine reported the experience of one driver: A motorist was stopped one day by the violent wigwagging of an elderly lady seated in a buggy next to the male driver. "You want me to get your horse by for you?" the motorist called out. "No, no!" the old man answered. "You get maw by. I'll have no trouble with the horse."

County and city roadways alike were not made for autos. Usually mud-covered and filled with holes, they made even the shortest of drives an exciting and sometimes lengthy adventure. R. C. Davis, a Jackson Center resident, told of a trip he took to Dayton. It took a full day to get there and a day to return. Davis took six spare tires with him, and used four before he arrived home. Apparently, auto pioneer Albert Pipe agreed. He once remarked: "The American who buys an automobile finds himself with this great difficulty: he has nowhere to use it!" Bicycle-style tires were first adapted for use with cars, but keeping the required sixty pounds of pressure in them proved very difficult. The most common problem was constant flat tires. Dan Toy recalled filling the hole with rubber bands and adding a little cement. The creation of more durable balloon tires by Harvey Firestone in 1923 helped immensely.

After Henry Ford perfected the techniques of mass production that made the automobile affordable to a larger portion of the population, many people began to consider the possibility of owning such a machine. Interesting purchase considerations were included in a brochure titled 'Automobiles of 1904.' The reader was cautioned: "Do not purchase a machine because of its speeding ability." The author noted that there were no traffic deaths in the entire country between 1895 and 1900, when the desire for speed first developed.

The prospective buyer was also warned that: "The weak point of the gasoline machine is the mechanism which produces the spark necessary... A certain amount of muscular effort is necessary in the 'cranking' or turning the wheel which starts the gasoline engine." Anita Ditmer of Sidney remembers her father cranking the starter on their Ford Model T. "When my dad cranked it, it would kick back. Less fortunate people suffered broken arms." Charles Kettering of Dayton developed the self-starter in 1911. Virtually every new car maker had abandoned the crank starter by 1916 except for Henry Ford and his Model Ts. He must have been a brilliant, but stubborn man. Stubborn but also practical. Henry Ford actually said that "Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants so long as it is black." Ford knew that black paint dried the fastest. As the sales of cars exploded after about 1910, the time consuming painting process became the biggest bottleneck in production. After the introduction of a new lacquer by Dupont Chemical in 1923, drying time was reduced from one week to hours.

During Sidney's own 'industrial revolution" in the 1890s, when local leaders aggressively sought to attract businesses from other areas to move here, William Bimel, who had taken over the Bimel Buggy Company from his father, was contacted. He agreed to relocate from St. Marys to a just-completed structure on Miami Avenue south of the canal feeder in 1897. He re-established Bimel's good name in the transportation business. The horseless carriage quickly outstripped horses in popularity, and Bimel's buggy business faded from Sidney's scene with Crozier, Miller and Smith, and the rest. The name 'Bimel', however, would rise again.

Local industrialist and community leader W. H. C. Goode, of course, noticed the trend, and decided to enter the auto business. He purchased the assets of the defunct Bimel Buggy Company with a group of local investors, and the Sidney's only venture into the automobile business was born. Thomas Miller of Miller and Smith joined the management team. After starting operations manufacturing auto parts in February of 1915, company officials decided to make their own machine. The rights to a vehicle were purchased from the Elwood Iron Works in Elwood, Indiana.

This four cylinder, 30 horse powered gasoline vehicle was known initially as the 'Elco 30'. It sold for $500, and was equipped with electric lights, starter and horn, and an ignition system. Ads boasted a 'one man top', and a frame hung on 'semi-elliptic springs'. The Elco 30 seated five people. Almost three hundred cars were produced in 1915, with deliveries as far away as Cuba. Another local concern, the Sidney Manufacturing Company, produced bodies for the cars. Times were good in Sidney!

The next year the company changed its name to the Bimel Automobile Company, began limited production of a six cylinder vehicle, and changed the name of the 'Elco 30' to the 'Bimel 4'. Sidney resident George Bayley gave the company some unexpected publicity on March 30, 1915. While test driving an Elco 30 for some out of town visitors, he was arrested for speeding. The headline in the "Sidney Daily News" read: "CHARGED WITH EXCEEDING SPEED LIMIT." Unfortunately for the company, its troubles with the law were just beginning.

By the end of the next year, the company began experiencing financial problems. The firm needed cash, and the board of directors decided to sell stock to local investors. Bimel's general manager, Thomas Miller, paid a visit to many prospective investors, including Turtle Creek residents Anna and Ethel Jelley on December 28, 1916. Anna later testified Miller told her "The company has no debts," that Bimel "was a safe place to invest your money" and that "It was better than a bank." Cars cost only $35 to build, and the rest "...was clear profit." The sisters bought $2,000 of Bimel stock. Within six weeks of the Jelley sale, the Bimel Automobile Company was taken over by a receiver. Its debts totaled over $175,000 and its assets did not exceed $50,000. The company's assets were sold in May of 1917 for $15,000.

The indictment of Miller for fraud rocked the community. Not only a respected businessman, he was a pillar of the Methodist Church and a five year member of the Sidney Board of Education. The trial, held in December of 1917, was one of the most widely publicized in Sidney's history. Prosecuting attorney Mills was pitted against local attorneys Wicoff and Emmons, who defended Miller. Embarrassed company officials including W. H. C. Goode and E. J. Griffis were subpoenaed to testify. Lima Judge Klinger was assigned the case. The trial went on for two weeks.

The jury found Miller guilty. Judge Klinger sentenced him to three years in prison, but then shocked the crowded courtroom and infuriated the prosecutor by giving Miller an immediate parole. Miller moved out of town. Thus ended the saga of the Bimel automobile in Sidney.

Sidney's role in the automobile business was headed for happier days, however. The October 24, 1923, edition of the Sidney Daily News carried the headline: "New Manufacturing Plant Organized." Local industrial heavyweights L. M. Studevant, A. J. Hess, E. J. Griffis, W. P. Anderson and Frank Thedieck took over the assets of the modeltfordpamphlet.gif (45760 bytes)Sidney Mfg. Company and formed Anderson Body Company. The business manufactured auto, hearse and bus bodies of wood and metal. It was located at the corner of East Avenue and Short Clinton Street. This company helped Sidney make a lasting mark on the automobile industry.

Gathering experienced employees from the Sidney Manufacturing and the Mutual Wood Work Company, Anderson Body was an immediate success. It had secured an order for hundreds of the Anderson 'brougham' bodies from Dodge Brothers in Detroit within six weeks. By Christmas of 1923, Anderson was running day and night.

Longtime employees Robert Van Horn and Vernal Eiler recalled their experiences in a Daily News article on June 26, 1975. "We made more Dodges than anything else...We made so damn many different ones I can't remember them all, but Dodges were the biggest," recalled Mr. Van Horn. Knowing a good thing when he saw one, he left his previous job as a buggy seat maker to work for Anderson. Mr. Van Eiler was a door hanger with Mutual, but quit to work on the construction of the Big Four Bridge. After nearly falling off the structure, he accepted work as a door hanger at Anderson. "The Dodge body was the first closed car I ever worked on. They paid us at the rate of $7 per car, and we could do one or two a day," Mr. Eiler remembered.

The Anderson brougham body was a hit at the 1924 New York and Chicago auto shows. It was acclaimed as "The best designed four-passenger four-door brougham car at either show." After the wooden frame was built, metal panels were fastened on with nails or screws. Eventually, Finnish immigrants were brought in to operate special electric hammers which were used to shape the metal. Peak production was ten car bodies a day.

Anderson also made many styles of bodies for the Hudson and Studebaker vehicles. Several of these are still in existence today. One Studebaker model had a golf bag door on the right side! Toward the end of the 1920s, Anderson's fortunes foundered. Some Detroit auto makers started making their own car bodies. Locally, the problems were worse. One of the founders of the company, and its namesake, W. P. Anderson, left to form his own business, the Pioneer Body Company. It was located at 421 Park Street. Pioneer Body competed directly with Anderson, making car bodies for Hudson, Studebaker and Dodge Brothers.

By 1932, local investor C. D. Beck had taken over the plant and its assets and formed the Beck Bus Company. Mr. Beck produced bus bodies and fire trucks. He eventually moved to a new location on Russell Rd., where CompAir Leroi is now located.

Fred D. Clark of Sidney was a financial backer of the new Bremac Motor Car Corporation in 1932. The project was a radical new idea in automobile construction. The Bremac had no chassis frame and, as described by the company, seating in the five-passenger sedan was the reverse of the usual, three passengers in front, two in the rear. In mid-October, 1932, Bremac announced that its first prototype was under construction in Sidney — and that the company expected to complete three cars of different model body design for exhibition at the New York Automobile Show the following month. It never made it to show.

 

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