Photo: Model T Ford, ca. 1920
A Model T Ford at Eastburg, Alberta, c1920, from the Collection of the Provincial Archives of Alberta, Edmonton (A8996).

Wisconsin, Erstwhile Auto Capital

When a young industry is in the invention instead of the production stage, factors like raw material or transportation facilities or labor supply are for the most part irrelevant. The inventor works in his back yard or in a barn or in a small garage, and his project calls for a solo effort. By 1914, however, there were 1,258,000 registered automobiles in the United States, and Henry Ford alone was striving to produce 300,000 cars a year. It was inevitable that the whole automobile industry should gravitate in some direction and find a center. Cincinnati, because of the many types of carriages manufactured there, was an applicant, and Cleveland was an up-and-coming town which offered access to the Great Lakes. Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Detroit were the other main candidates.

Though Detroit and its satellite neighbors are today the home of the automobile industry, Wisconsin and Milwaukee had much to offer the business. Many pioneers of Wisconsin will tell you that more than eighty different makes of cars and trucks have been manufactured in Wisconsin since 1900, although now there are only two corporations making pleasure cars and four making trucks exclusively in the state. Wisconsinites will tell you that the first successful steam car driven on any highway in the United States was made in 1872 in Racine by Dr. J.W. Carhart, and that the first practical gasoline-powered car in the nation was built in Milwaukee in 1889 by Gottfried Schloemer, a mechanically inclined barrel-maker.

They also claim that Duryea or Winton did not sell the first automobile in the United States but that A.W. Ballard, an Oshkosh bicycle repairman, made a car to order for a physician living in Wausau, Wisconsin, in 1895. They contend, too, that the first automobile race in the world was in 1878 between two steam wagons that raced from Green Bay to Madison. One of the steam cars is said to have completed the distance at an average speed of 6 miles per hour. This race was an effort to win a $10,000 prize put up by the legislature for the first practical self-propelled highway vehicle.

More than four million automotive vehicles have been made in Wisconsin. The two biggest Wisconsin companies (were) Chevrolet (an assembly plant) and Nash. Other famous cars once made in Wisconsin include the Case and the Mitchell of Racine; the Kissel Kar of Hartford; and the Lafayette of both Milwaukee and Kenosha. Less-known Wisconsin makes were the Hayberg, an air-cooled car that sold for $2,000; the Monarch; the Pennington; the Merkel, built by Joe Merkel, who later built the Merkel Motorcycle; the Superior, a single experimental car manufactured in Milwaukee by S.E. Briggs and H.M. Stratton from manufacturers' units; the Kunz; the Pierce-Racine; the Earl; the F.W.D. Battship at Clintonville, using a four-wheel-drive principle; the Petrel friction-drive car; the Ogren, made in Milwaukee from 1919 to 1922; the Badger "30"; the Vixen Cyclecar; the Johnson Steamer; and many others.

From 'Treasury of Early American Automobiles 1877-1925' by Floyd Clymer. Published by McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York, 1950.
Rev 2000-02-18 [Return to Diary]