There may be no one left who remembers a time when automobiles were rare sights on Haywood County highways.
Having lived here more than 30 years, I have been fortunate enough to interview a number of people who remembered the amazement, the wonder, of the early vehicles. Those folks are mostly gone now, and the generations that remain are so used to automobiles that they cannot imagine a world where transportation was mainly on foot, by wagon, or, for those who could afford it, by train.
Folks back then wondered about those first automobile owners in Haywood County. Why buy a vehicle that you couldn’t drive except on the very best of roads – and then only in dry weather? There were places in Haywood County where even wagons had trouble getting through. The late Joe Medford of Iron Duff told how, when his family would ride to town, the kids would often get out and follow the wagon rather than endure the beating of a rutted road. In the early days of the automobile, motorists were limited mostly to the main road from Asheville through Canton and on to Waynesville, which roughly followed the railroad and a few other well-traveled routes, including Pigeon Gap from Bethel. Even those roads couldn’t always be managed. Early drivers who ventured beyond there risked the humiliation of rounding up a farmer with a team of oxen, mules or horses to pull their car out of the mud or a deep rut.
Rather than the roads defeating the cars, however, the cars actually forced the issue of road improvement, though not with some, (ahem) bumps and ruts along the way.
First west of Asheville
C.G. Logan claimed to have owned the first automobile in North Carolina west of Asheville, bringing it home to Haywood in 1899. He was photographed in the vehicle with Robert Love, a descendant of Waynesville founder Robert Love, and 107-year-old Federick Messer, the man whose life spanned three centuries. Logan was so taken with the automobile that he formed the first dealership in Haywood County around 1909, selling Ford, Overland and Willis-Knight cars.
The first Haywood County Fair, held in 1905, featured an automobile, which led the fair parade to the opening ceremonies. At another fair, in 1913, visitors could pay 10 cents apiece for a ride in the car.
A lady drives to town
One of the earliest automobile owners in Haywood County was a woman, at a time when many considered it improper for a woman to drive, and many women were forbidden from riding astride a horse. Margaret Stringfield won her car in a 1908 contest conducted by the Asheville Citizen. Described as a “popularity” contest, it apparently was in fact a competition to gather subscriptions. On Aug. 20, Stringfield, accompanied by B.J. Sloan, went to Asheville to get her car, a $1,000 Buick Roadster. Because the main road from Asheville was impassable by car due to weather, they had to circle toward Bethel and back through Pigeon Gap to Waynesville, a trip that took 2.5 hours, according to newspaper accounts from the Asheville Citizen and the Waynesville Courier.
“Sunday afternoon about 5:30, those who were standing on the streets saw a spanking new automobile with three occupants (the third being Eugene Sawyer of Asheville), coming into town as a good rate of speed,” the Courier reported.
Was it only coincidence that less than three weeks later the town of Waynesville passed a new speed-limit ordinance? On Sept. 9, the town board enacted a ordinance that stated “no person shall ride or drive any horse or other animal in any street of the town at a rate of speed greater than five miles per hour or in a reckless manner… nor shall any person run an automobile or other motor vehicle in any street of the town at a greater speed than eight miles per hour.”
Not made for rubber
There were other concerns about automobiles, about the damage the rubber tires could cause to macadam roads. By this time, Waynesville could boast its four major thoroughfares were “macadamized.” Macadam roads, named for the Scotsman who developed them, involved compacted layers of small stones which, worn by wagon wheels, created a rock dust that settled and created a binding layer on the top.
The problem, according to an article reprinted by the Courier in 1908, was that the rubber tires of motor vehicles did not create the rock dust and pack it back into the road. Instead, the rubber tires sent the dust into the air, where it dispersed elsewhere, breaking down the road. Studies by the Department of Agriculture showed “the fast-moving motor car is the greatest menace to macadam roads that has ever made its appearance,” the Courier reported. That problem would eventually lead governments to pour tar, and later asphalt, on macadam roads.
By 1911, the Courier reported that “it will not be long until they (automobiles) are as numerous on our streets as wagons.”
Waynesville took additional steps to regulate automobiles in 1913, creating a Board of Motor Examiners, “whose duty it shall be to examine any person applying for a license to operate an auto or motorcycle within the corporate limits of Waynesville.” The exam cost $1, and a tax on autos would cost an owner $5 per vehicle, per year. Three violations of the town’s driving rules would result in a four-months suspension of a license. Any driver staying in Waynesville for more than 30 days was required to have a license. The town also issued “license pads,” (tags) for vehicles, each beginning with the letter W followed by three numbers. Each automobile was required to have a muffler. If the car was driven after sunset, it was required to have two headlights and a rear signal light.
Every bicycle or motorcycle operation was required to have a “bell, horn, gong or other instrument for warning persons of their approach.” But it was also illegal to use such warning instruments without cause. Nor was any motor vehicle operator permitted to create an “unduly mount of visible steam, smoke or products of combustion.”
Another motor novelty was seen on the streets of Waynesville in November 1912, when a group of men and their dogs set off to join a bear hunt at Vanderbilt Lodge. “It is the first time the streets of Waynesville have ever witnessed dogs and men piled into an automobile for a bear hunt, and it created quite a sensation,” the newspaper article stated.
Jobs, roads on the rise
The development of Champion’s pulp mill in Canton provided a number of steady paying jobs, which, in turn, fueled the growing automobile industry. William F. Bell opened Canton Motor Company in 1914, locating his business close to the Pigeon River bridge. Former train engineer Samuel Felmet opened Felmet’s Garage in 1916, selling Ford automobiles. Felmet claimed to have sold almost 30 cars between May and December of that year. Felmet also dealt in used vehicles, and in 1916 had for sale a five-passenger Marathon, which, the newspaper said, he was willing to “exchange for corn or produce.”
In 1915, the Waynesville Auto and Repair Company joined Logan’s as a dealer and repair service, selling Fords, Hudsons, Buicks and Reos. The Richland Wagon Company expanded its service about the same time, offering automobile as well as wagon repair. And by 1916, the Hyatt and Bramlett Livery Waynesville was offering automobiles for hire as well as buggies, wagons, carriages and horses.
The increasing number of cars created a need for better roads and helped prompt the Good Roads Movement in the early years of the 20th century. In other words, more cars meant better roads, which meant more cars, which meant more roads …. You get the idea. We’re still in the cycle.
Haywood County’s 1916 Industrial and Resort edition of the Waynesville Courier declared “It is due more to automobiles than to any other one contributing factor that the roads of Haywood County are undergoing a transformation for the better. Every man who buys a car becomes a convert for good roads.”
Few of Haywood County’s country people forgot their first sight of an automobile.
Laura Burgess reached the age of 105, living in her home on Rabbit Skin until her death in 2013. She grew up on nearby Cove Creek, where she attended the two-room Cove Creek School. She told Mountaineer writer Julianne Kuykendall that one day, while walking home from school, “Me and Lonie saw something coming down the road just a’ flying, not with a horse or mule or anything hooked to it but just going by itself, and we were scared to death.” The two girls tore home and told their mother they had seen something that “made the awfulest racket.”
“Mama didn’t know what it was, either,” Burgess said, adding they later found out it was a Model-T Ford, purchased by a man in Iron Duff.
Alice Hawkins Haynes, who grew up on Fines Creek in the early 20th century, wrote about the ironies created by the automobile in her book Haywood Home: Memories of a Mountain Woman.
“Nowadays people jog for exercise and then drive their cars to the grocery store,” she wrote in the book, printed in 1991. “When I came home for visits from Iotla or Cullowhee when I was in school, I’d catch the train to Clyde and walk, with my suitcase, the 12 miles from Clyde to Fines Creek.”