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Charles Todd at the recording machine

[Detail] Charles Todd at the recording machine

Primary Source Set C: Americans and the Automobile


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This is an excerpt. The full text version of Transportation is in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

... {excerpt begins}

TITLE Connecticut Cleckmaker

WRITER Francis Denovan

DATE 1/5/39

Thomaston, Connecticut


... "I had a lot of fun on that old bicycle . Guess I told you about some of the trips I took didn't I? When I got through with that bike I sat down and figured up my mileage, and I found out that I'd been clear around the world, if I'd gone in a straight line.

"Yessir, I'd been over twenty-five thousand miles. Went over three hundred and sixty-five miles one week. Never did a century run, though I could've, easy as not. Some fellers used to see how many of them they could run up. A great trip was up to Springfield and back. That's fifty miles each way. You were supposed to make it same day, of course.

"I got out the shop one day at four o'clock. At twenty-six minutes after, I was down in Dexter's drug store in Waterbury, drinkin' a sody. How's that for scorchin'?

"Lots of fellers used to try to make Plymouth hill, that used to be an awful steep hill before the new bridge went in.

..."Great times, great times, on the bicycles. Then the automobiles come along. Of course it was a long time before everybody got to ownin' them too. Most any one could have a bicycle. I remember when they was seventy five of them over in the sheds by the Marine shop every day.


"But automobiles was a different proposition. Jack Coates used to have a job testin' em for the Pope Hartford Company. He used to ride 'em all over the state. They'd tell him how many miles to go and they didn't care where he went. He'd just rig up an old seat on the chassis and start out, no windshield or nothin', and come back when he got the mileage made up.

"That's how I got my first and fastest auto ride. I was goin' to Springfield and I was hikin' along over towards Terryville to get the trolley and Jack come along and I flagged him. I was late. I says, 'Jack, can we make the trolley,' and he says, 'Sure,' and how we did fly. We made it all right.

"The different cars they used to be. I used to keep a list of 'em. There was the Pope Hartford, and the Stevens Duryea, and the Locomobile, and the Peerless and the National, and the Saxon, and the Metz--I can't remember them all.

"Billy Gilbert, that used to live next to me here, he had a Stanley Steamer. He was an engineer. He's out in Californy now. Spent all his life on the railroads and he swore by steam. Wouldn't have a gasoline engine.

"After he moved to Californy he wrote me a letter. Said there was a big hill out there beyond San Francisco nine miles long. Said ten tow cars was kept busy on that hill all the time. But that steamer of his just ate it up.

"You'd ought to be able to remember when they used Plymouth Hill for testin' cars. It was quite a trick for a car to go over there in high. Good many of 'em would start off in high, then shift to second, then low, then they'd get stuck. But it's a damn poor car that won't go over in high these days. Man wouldn't buy a car that wouldn't make it in high.

"Well, I got to go down town, but I ain't goin' to give you no lift today. I'm not goin' to take the car out, I feel as though the walk will do me good. So you just wait till I put the cat out and fix my fires and we'll walk down together."


  • What forms of transportation did Mr. Botsford use before he had a car? What were his feelings about these forms of transportation?
  • What evidence can you find that Mr. Botsford likes or does not like automobiles?
  • What evidence can you find that cars are different today than they were in Mr. Botsford's time? How might these changes be important to people's lives?

Go to the complete interview from which this excerpt was taken.