By Diane Pflugrad Foley and Mark H. Jones SPRING 2008
“The beginning of the 20th century marked a great change in the life of the American people. The horse was definitely on the way out and the automobile had come to stay” begins William J. Hickmott, Jr.’s memoir, Where’s Your License? (Century House, Watkins Glen, N.Y., 1950). Though his memoir is a charming tale of his interest in automobiles dating back to 1902, when his family owned one of the few cars in his Hartford neighborhood, Hickmott’s six logbooks, in which he recorded the details of his auto tours between 1905 and 1917 (in the collection of the Connecticut State Library), give a more immediate and visceral sense of the adventure of the early days of the automobile.
The Hickmott clan was a well-to-do Hartford family. William Hickmott, Sr., a long-time employee of the Connecticut Mutual Insurance Company, passed his enthusiasm for photography and automobiles to his son William Jr., born in 1889. Hickmott Jr. graduated from Hartford Public High School in 1907 and took a job with the Aetna Insurance Company in 1908. That same year he joined the Hartford Automobile Club, which he characterized as “an association of the sporting men who owned a horseless buggy and indulged in an afternoon nip at the club bar. . . .” Hickmott founded Aetna’s Automobile Claim Department in 1911 and later started the company’s automobile repair shop, the Hartford Salvage Company.
In the early 1900s, the automobile was still so novel it drew crowds in small towns; it was not a dependable machine; and road conditions varied dramatically. According to the new State Highway Commission established in 1895, that year there were 14,088 miles of road in Connecticut: 463 were stone or macadam, 1,896 were gravel, and the “preponderance, 11,729 miles, were still dirt roads.”
By 1901, the increasing number of automobiles in the state caused Connecticut to enact the first automobile traffic law in the country. The speed limit was set at 15 mph outside the city and 12 mph in town. In 1903 the state began to require registration of automobiles, and in 1907, licenses for drivers. In 1903, the state had about 1,600 licensed drivers and 1,353 registered cars. Hickmott Jr. recalled that his first license plate “was made by the local harness shop and was a thick pad of patent leather bearing a silver letter C for Connecticut followed by the granted number, in our case 115.”
Though the U.S. lagged behind Europe in automobile production until the 1910s, Hartford’s Pope Manufacturing Company, manufacturer of the Columbia cars Hickmott drove, was one of the industry’s most important innovators. In the excerpt from Hickmott’s log book presented here, he and a friend traveled in a stripped-down Columbia chassis that Hickmott ordered from the Hartford factory for the trip. This was nearly the last gasp for the Columbia Motor Car Company, though. It had been acquired by the United States Motor Company in 1910 and then went into receivership in 1912. [See The Horseless Era Arrives, Spring 2005].
The photographs and entries shown here detail a trip Hickmott and a friend took over six days in July 1911 through the White Mountains. Like legions of car-owners past and present, Hickmott named his car. The one featured here he named “The Tar Baby,” a name likely derived from one of Joel Chandler Harris’s popular Uncle Remus tales published during the 1880s and 1890s. “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story” and other Uncle Remus tales were based largely on traditional African-American animal stories, filtered through white journalist Harris’s retelling of slave narratives. Wildly popular in their day, they fell out of favor for what came to be viewed as inappropriate use of black dialect and stereotypical characterization. Today the term “tar baby” is considered by many to be offensive.
After the first cool night of the trip, the town of Weirs [on Lake Winnipesaukee]was left and a course laid “over the hills and far away.” …Up, up and up again and the road a close resemblance to a hump of the bumps. Meredith passed & Center Harbor came along without any excitement. “The fair dirt roads” (extract from the Blue Book), continued, not forgetting the bumps until the “Crew” threatened to mutiny, and still the old “Tar Baby” kept plugging away climbing stiff grades on 3rd, worse ones with the help of 2nd & surmounting the mountain trails, with the road filled with young boulders…. But better was coming, and at Conway a fine gravel road coaxed the speedometer above 20 for the first time since Portsmouth. At Conway we stopt [sic] the Constable and bought some doughnuts from him. This being such a benefit to his trade that he kindly warned us of the watchfulness of the constable in the “Town” ahead. A glass of milk and a [illegible]further on finished up our dinner.
By this time we were in the heart of the mountains & the scenery was beyond description. [We drove] thru the woods where the trees were so thick that it was nearly too dark to see the road clearly. Many poor wooden bridges lined the way and there were bad holes every few feet. Stops were made to remove rocks from the road & repair the poor bridge. … We raced a fast freight [train]through several crossings & finally left it far in the rear. We must have averaged nearly 15 miles per hour. All this time we were climbing higher and higher, with fine mountains on each side, until it seemed as if we would surely get the altitude record. But worse was coming and we got it in the shape of “Tug O’ War Hill.” …From 3rd to 2nd & then to 1st, we shifted back & forth, but we kept sticking & bye & bye we roared up thru the notch & over the top of the hill with colors flying. Here we stopped for a picture & feeling of the radiator found it cool. Another pat on the back for the “Tar Baby.” Just beyond we came upon the Mt. Washington standing off in the valley with high mts all around and lighted by the setting sun. It was a picture never to be forgotten.