In 1903, Eagle Lake’s Dr. F.O. Norris and Mr. John Matthews introduced the “Horseless Carriage.” They were the proud owners of the first motorcars in Eagle Lake. The cars were modeled after Henry Ford’s first automobile in 1896, the ‘Quadricycle,’ named for its four bicycle wheels.
Little did we know in 1903 that Eagle Lake’s world was about to change.
It had rained ‘cats and dogs.’ Water was everywhere. Wagons came into town from the river bottom and the prairie covered in mud from the soggy trails the rain had left behind. Horses and mules wore a new coat of muddy color, pulling hard as the big wagon wheels rolled along Eagle Lake’s Main Street tossing mud everywhere.
The soft tracks deepened into grooves as wagons traveled in and out. Rice straw was sometimes added to prevent ‘bog downs.’ As the mud dried, the grooves became permanent; that is, until the next rain. Travel was not easy.
The familiar horses, wagons, and buggies were hitched to the rails along the town square. Farmers, ranchers, and businessmen came to town to trade at the Frank Stephens Store, and visit the bank. Women slightly raised their long skirts as they made their ways across the planks laid for them over the muddy holes to allow them to visit the Balas Butcher Shop and Landa Grocery for their families. The friendly Mr. Max Conner assisted the ladies and children. Downtown was a busy place.
On one fine day in 1903, life along Eagle Lake’s Main Street permanently changed. Dr. F.O. Norris and land owner John Matthews moved along the square slowly driving the first ‘horseless carriages’ in Eagle Lake. All eyes were on these new-fangled conveyances, as they sputtered and leapt forward rounding the square. They were just delivered by railcar behind the Frank Stephens store.
As the proud owners drove up Main Street to the Norris Building, the horses’ eyes at the hitching rails on the square grew large with fear as their tie ropes were snapped, and some broke away. Others pulled back trying to break free, as nearby men and boys raced to calm them.
The townspeople were equally surprised. They hurried out to see the gasoline mechanical wonders. In the first car was Dr. Norris. In the second car was Mr. John Matthews with Mr. George Vick at his side. That day they made history, which forever changed life at the prairie’s edge in Eagle Lake.
With these new conveyances, Dr. Norris could travel conveniently to see his patients; and Mr. Matthews, who farmed several miles away around the village of Matthews, could easily travel to and from town.
Many residents saw the advantages in the new gas-powered vehicles; and before too many years, the gas motorcars served both farms and families.
These first two Eagle Lake “horseless carriages” were patterned after Henry Ford’s first automobile in 1896, which he named the “Quadricycle.” It was so named because it ran on four bicycle tires. Ford built it himself at home. It had a frame but no body. It had an electric bell on front and a bicycle lamp on the side. The tank could hold up to three gallons of gasoline. The weight was about 500 pounds, and it had only two speeds, 10 and 20 mph, with no reverse. It captured local and national interest.
The Quadricyle car improved and was renamed the 1903 Ford Runabout Model A, and served Dr. Norris and Mr. Matthews well. They bought these first automobiles known to Eagle Lake just after Ford founded the Ford Motor Company in 1903. With dreams of the future with gasoline-powered conveyances on the prairie, ideas of their use in farming soon became realities.
The design of this first motorcar was fragile for the farmlands, which had few easily passable roads. By 1908, Ford produced the more durable Model T Ford, made for unpaved roads, which families who could afford it bought. Numerous other car companies produced models, which were also seen in Eagle Lake in the mid-1900s. The McCormicks, Andersons, Thomases, Seaholms, and other local farm families drove the popular Ford Model T’s. Many humorous stories were told as these modern conveyances sputtered through the countryside..
While having motorized vehicles was helpful, the challenges of nature still prevailed. Many Model T’s and early cars had to be pulled out of ruts and ditches by the ever-faithful mules and horses. Low water bridges over local creeks were the norm, which meant no crossing in high water. Even approaching the few wooden bridges there could be ‘washouts’ before, which meant further delays.
Flat tires were frequent along the dusty roads, and to repair one meant hard work, taking out the inner-tube, and repairing and replacing it. Eagle Lake blacksmiths turned their attention from farm equipment and machinery to repairs of the new-fangled motorcars. Gasoline pumps were few and far between. On frequent occasions these ‘horseless carriages’ needed the assistance of the faithful horse to pull them from the mud or ditch.
When farmers began to use the Model T’s, they picked up others along the way. They parked on an area at a Rice Camp near Lissie called “Jitney Ridge.” On a given workday the old “jitneys” could be seen lined up at Jitney Ridge, while the farmers worked the land, thus the name.
The old touring cars ran as fast as 20 mph along the country roads. On Sundays, families piled in, went to church, and visited neighbors in the afternoons. Smaller cars carried farmers such as Captain William Dunovant through his sugar cane fields to inspect them and to observe his field workers.
As local motorcar use spread, the roads around Eagle Lake were improved, as were the vehicles which were now expanded for farm use. Early gasoline pump stations such as Epps, Hanley, and others took on brands such as Magnolia, Mobil, and Gulf. These “filling stations” also provided tires, air, water, equipment parts, and repairs to assist the drivers.
Local motorcar dealerships began providing a new service to Eagle Lake. T.L. Smith; McClanahan and Steormer; Brosig and Harbert; and A.L. and Edgar Baring were among the early dealers. Hayes Stephens and B.S. Field began the Ford Service Station, which became the Universal Motor Company. O.E. Sinclair and Ben McElhinny and later Simon Sinclair were early owners of Universal.
These first “horseless carriages” in Eagle Lake paved the way for a new industry, which served the community, farms, families, and created new businesses from the beginning. Who would have thought that a motor, a frame, and a four bicycle wheel design could have rolled in to make history on the square in Eagle Lake!