A Car Story from the Early 1920s

This is another photo from the collection I scanned up at my grandparents’ place two weekends ago. My grandfather thinks this photo was taken before he was born, which would date it prior to 1924. There is a small possibility that he’s the little boy second from the left whose face is in shadow, which would put the photo somewhere around 1928. Either way, it is a very old picture. Working from the assumption that it predates Murray Anderson’s birth, those would be my great uncles Bruce, Graydon, Henry and Clarence sitting on the running board, along with my eldest great aunt, Margaret. The face sticking out of the driver’s side doesn’t look much like their father, Elmore Anderson. It might be the neighbour, Mr. Monaham (who has a story of his own worth putting up here), but I think we’ll just have to leave him unidentified.

When my grandfather saw this photo, his eyes lit up, and he told me a story that has been often repeated at Anderson family gatherings for the last eighty years and more. It took place a couple of years before this photo, but that is the car, and those are (some of) the kids. This is the story:

Driving a car in the early 1920s was a very different experience than today. My great-grandfather would wear goggles to protect his eyes from the dust and bugs, and a drive in the country was a cacophony of noise, for engines were not the quiet and efficient machines we know today. To make matters noisier, Elmore and his wife Agnes had a large family piled into the back, and there were no seat belts. Any parent will tell you what it’s like to have little children in a car. Imagine five or six or seven of them climbing all over each other, screaming and shouting and pinching and punching one another. Between that and the engine noise, my great-grandparents quickly learned to shut off their ears on long trips.

The Andersons lived in Riverside, Ontario, a town that would become an eastern neighbourhood of Windsor in 1966. One hot summer day the whole family piled into the car and drove out into the country to visit a family friend. Very few roads were paved back then, and this was not one of them. The car’s shocks and suspension were rudimentary at best; the wind and dust whistling over the heads. The top was down, for driving with it up under the beating sun was a recipe for disaster. The children were acting up, crying out for their parents to pay attention to them. They were, of course, ignored. It was the only way to preserve my great-grandparents’ sanity.

The car came to a railway crossing –which was even less automobile-friendly in those early days than they are today– and Elmore gunned the engine to climb the incline and clear the tracks with a mighty double lurch.

Young Henry, aged somewhere between three and five at the time, must have been standing in the back, and crossing the railway bed cost him his footing and threw him high into the air, clearing the car’s awning and tail gate to leave him in an untidy pile on the train tracks as his family drove away.

The children howled –for decades they insisted they howled– for their parents to stop the car. “We’ve lost Henry! We’ve lost Henry!” But the wind muffled the exact words the little ones were trying to shout over one another, and the Anderson adults tuned their kids out, just as they had for the entire journey. It was only when they pulled over for petrol at a crossroads some miles further on that Elmore turned around in his seat to see that his children were crying, and one of them was missing.

“What’s happened?” He asked.

“Henry fell out of the car!” They wailed.

Elmore started up the car again and tore back up the road to the distant railway crossing. Before he reached them, however, a farm truck coming the other way flagged him down and then blocked the road. The farmer got out of his truck, leaned into the back, and scooped out a dusty young Henry. “Did you lose something?” He asked.

“Oh, yes! Thank you!” Elmore said.

“I knew he didn’t belong out there…”

Little Henry, having no idea where his family was going or how to get back home, had started walking aimlessly until the farmer had spotted him. Even in the early 20s, little boys did not go wandering the countryside without supervision, all dressed up for a family outing. The farmer scooped him up, put him in a truck, and started driving. Henry was too little to know his last name or his address, so really his only hope was that the farmer would run into the family out looking for their lost member. There weren’t a lot of roads out there, but you figure there’s two ways to go on every one of them, and every crossroad is another possibility. Little Henry was very lucky he didn’t end up an orphan.

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One Response to A Car Story from the Early 1920s

  1. [...] grandfather, Murray Anderson, who I’ve mentioned before at least in passing here, here, here, here, here, and here on this blog, passed away last Sunday. He was a few months shy of his eighty-sixth [...]

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