At the turn of the last century, driving was an adventure with triumphs and tragedies

— Photographs from the Guilderland Historical Society

Few women took up driving in the early days since automobiles had to be cranked to start. Here a member of Dr. Cook’s family posed in an early automobile, date and model unknown, and she may have been one of the few spunky females locally who learned to drive at that time. The Cooks summered on the farm that is today Altamont Orchards.

— Photographs from the Guilderland Historical Society

Local Brush owners posed in 1910 in front of Sands Bottling Works in Altamont. The Brush Runabout was produced from 1907 to 1912.

— Photographs from the Guilderland Historical Society

Touring cars, pictured on a postcard showing “Road To Helderberg Mts.,” would have been the type of high-priced car driven by wealthy Albanians heading to their summer cottages or to the Helderberg Inn, formerly the Kushaqua.

Martin Blessing’s cry, “Hurry out! A horseless carriage is coming by,” alerted family members to rush out front of their farm on the turnpike in Fullers. Frightened by the commotion, his small daughter peeped out from behind her mother’s skirt as the strange contraption rolled by.

Anna Anthony, recalling this event in her old age, never forgot her first sight of a car. Perhaps it had been the Locomobile Steamer Arthur Barton, living on a farm a few miles west on the turnpike, remembered as his first car, describing it as “a whooshing, bouncing carriage-like affair careening ‘madly’ down the old plank road in a cloud of dust and steam.”

Even those who had not yet seen an automobile were aware of their development after reading articles such as “The Horseless Carriage” published in a September 1899 Enterprise. As the first decade of the 20th Century unfolded, more and more attention was given to local automobiles and their owners in the pages of The Enterprise.

Owning a car in that era was not for the faint of heart. City folk seemed to become car owners before those in more rural areas and it seems out-of-towners were the first to pass through Guilderland. In 1904, Mr. and Mrs. Tompkins of New York City stopped by in Altamont while on their way to their summer home near Berne, disgusted that rain delayed them in the mid-Hudson area when the normal running time between New York City and Albany would have been only 12 hours.

A year later, they arrived with another couple in a second car headed for Berne. When, as they climbed the steep hill out of the village (now Helderberg Avenue), the Tompkins’ auto stalled, its brakes failed, and the car began rolling backward. The wife jumped out, and the husband ended up partly overturned against an embankment.

Neither were injured, the car was righted, the engine was cranked up, and these hardy motorists were on their way.

That same year, George Crounse was intending to visit his sister Mrs. E.H. York of Guilderland Center, when his car’s engine died in Gallupville, causing the humiliation of having to hire a farmer and team of horses to tow him to Altamont where he had to telephone to Albany for “a professional” to come out to fix the problem.

Not only was driving an automobile an adventure, it was an expensive one!

Early automobiles had to be hand cranked to start (electronic starters were in the future); had limited horsepower; were forced to travel for miles on wretched roads, causing frequent flat tires; and, outside of cities, there were very few places to buy gasoline or find mechanical help. A few of the very early cars operated on steam power, which had its own set of problems.

The identities of the very first car owners in Guilderland are unknown, but by 1906 drives by Altamont’s Charles Beebe and W.H. Whipple were noted in The Enterprise. There were surely others. “Auto parties” were noted at that time, passing through on their way to enjoy the amenities of the Helderberg Inn.

Sands sales

Eugene and Montford Sands got it right when they stated, “the automobile is here to stay” in one of their Sands Sons’ advertisements. Already successful Altamont grain and coal merchants, the two entrepreneurs opened an auto agency in 1907.

An early offering included, for $275, a Success runabout (a two-passenger open car) featuring a “powerful” 4-horsepower engine with wheel steer (several very early cars had tillers for steering); for $600, a Federal runabout with a 15- to 18-h.p. engine; or for a big spender willing to part with $1,250 the Model, a 2-h.p. two cylinder automobile with a removable rear seat that could carry five persons — “a wonder for the price.”

During the early automobile years, there were many companies manufacturing cars with brands that within a few years were out of business, making the brands unfamiliar today. Among the automobiles acquired by local men were Reo, Overland, Locomobile, Columbia, Brush, and Great Western.

Sands advertised others such as the Success and Model and it’s assumed that they were purchased by local drivers. Fords and Buicks were also locally owned as well.

By 1908, the popularity of the automobile was firmly established, appearing on local roads with increasing frequency. Sands Sons cleverly whipped up enthusiasm for the new technology not only with announcements and advertising in The Enterprise, but by exhibiting automobiles at the Altamont Fair where the brothers touted the merits of the new 1909 Great Western five-passenger touring car to over “200 prospective” buyers during Fair Week.

The Village and Town column in The Enterprise announced that Messrs. Clickman  acquired one of them. Earlier in May 1908, the two car salesmen had focused attention on the trophy won in Menands, their Great Western coming in first for the fastest time its class for five-passenger, $1,250 cars in a steep hill-climbing contest.

Soon they were promoting a new $1,600 Great Western 30-h.p. model, which had the advantage of being converted into a gentleman’s roadster by detaching the tonneau and substituting a rumble seat. Their sales pitch ended with, “Watch out for this car as it will create a stir among auto enthusiasts.” And the really affluent man with an extra $3,500 could drive away from their dealership in a 50-h.p Great Western.

Aware that only a limited number of local men were wealthy enough to purchase a large touring car, Sands Sons introduced a two-passenger Brush runabout, claiming the runabout not only had gas mileage of 25 to 40 miles, but that a woman could drive it easily.

These two car salesmen assured prospective buyers this “very neat and easy running car” was capable of climbing any hill in the area, announcing an Albany dealer had plans to drive a Brush up the Capitol steps. New York State authorities put the kibosh on that publicity stunt and it never happened.

Many years later, it was recalled that sometimes the Brush ran well, other times the engine made a hill climb sputtering, “I think I can, I think I can, I thought I could, I thought I could ... I can’t!”

Erecting a big tent at the 1910 fair, Sands Sons continued to push the Brush, assuring would-be buyers that, if they made a purchase during Fair Week, the Sandses would give them a “special figure.” Current Brush owners were invited to use the tent as their fair headquarters.

Two people who at some point purchased Brush runabouts were Eugene Gallop, who was the mailman on a rural route, and Irving Lainhart, who delivered groceries in his Brush until 1918 when he traded it in for a Ford.

In addition to selling cars, Sands Sons also advertised that they had supplies of batteries, lubricating oils, gasoline, etc. for automobile owners and chauffeurs.

Dangers and delights

Automobile owners of the era were a versatile group, changing their own tires and dealing with simple mechanical problems, but for things more serious a mechanic was needed.

The demand was quickly met in 1907 when Mr. James Bradley opened up shop in the rear of Lape’s Paint Store in Altamont, advertising himself as an experienced mechanic who could repair automobiles.

At this time, Guilderland’s large population of upset, unhappy horses (and their owners!) were usually terrified when approached or overtaken by these noisy, smelly behemoths, especially since the roads were very narrow, putting car and horse in close clearance of each other.

Guilderland Center’s F.C. Wormer ended up painfully, but not seriously, hurt when his horses, spooked by a passing car, took off, dumping the unfortunate F.C. in the road.

As Dr. Fred Crounse was driving his auto to Meadowdale, he began passing Cyrus Crounse whose skittish horses became so terrified by the car, they rushed toward it and one ended by jumping on part of the car, “smashing some of the fixtures on the driver’s side. A few dollars in repairs made the machine as good as new,” but no mention was made whether they were Dr. Crounse’s dollars or Cyrus Crounse’s.

As automobiles proliferated, another problem became obvious. As early as 1907, the Guilderland Center correspondent wanted to know why there was no speed limit out in the country, claiming that the previous Sunday morning “there came tearing down through the Centre an auto at a velocity of speed that would put a western cyclone to blush,” showering people on their way to church with dust and grit and endangering the children.

On another occasion, an auto driven “wildly” through Guilderland Center struck and killed Seymour Borst’s pet dog. Again a call was made for more strict laws against those “speed fiends who rush madly down our streets.”

Automobiles had become a permanent part of childhood experience. Marshall Crounse, 9-year-old son of Dr. and Mrs. Fred Crounse, ran in front of a car while on vacation with his parents in Florida and was knocked down with at least one wheel rolling over his legs just below his hips. Miraculously escaping serious injury, Marshall was fine by the time of his family’s return to Altamont.

Ten other children had a more positive experience when Mrs. David Blessing, their Sunday School teacher, arranged for Montford Sand to cram all 10 into his big touring car for a drive to a picnic at Frenchs Hollow.

The danger of fire became evident. A very expensive touring car driven by summer-cottage owner Gardner C. Leonard’s chauffeur burst into flames a mile-and-a-half east of Altamont.

The chauffeur threw himself out of the car just in time, for when the fire was out, the only thing left were the two front wheels. The frames of those early cars were of wood, causing them to burn rapidly once the gasoline was ignited.

When another auto fire destroyed a vehicle on the Western Turnpike in what is now Westmere, it was noted the owner had insurance.

“Death in Auto Accident” headlined the most tragic fire in 1911 when Mrs. William Waterman, out with her husband for a drive near Altamont’s Commercial Hotel on Main Street, suddenly screamed she was on fire. Her light summer clothes quickly blazed up, resulting in her death the next morning.

Although The Enterprise said the cause of the fire was gasoline, the car itself didn’t burn. Many years later, a recollection of the incident claimed the car was a Locomobile Steamer, an early car where paraffin or naphtha provided the fuel for the fire to heat the water to make steam to power the automobile. These impractical cars quickly went out of production.

One August 1911 morning, William Whipple, driving the Sands’ autotruck, pulled out of Altamont carrying Montford Sand in the passenger seat. While traveling down “church hill” past the entrance to Fairview Cemetery (now Weaver Road), the autotruck encountered two women approaching in a horse-drawn buggy.

The skittish horse panicked, jumped into the ditch, and overturned the rig, throwing the women out. Seeing their plight, Sand immediately leaped out of the autotruck, stumbled and fell, striking his head. Unconscious, he was carried back to his Altamont home where he died hours later.

The automobile by 1911 was an everyday part of local life whether for pleasure or for work. The dangers of automobile ownership had already become apparent and it was a tragedy that Montford Sand, one of the brothers who did the most in the very early days to popularize the automobile in Guilderland, died in an automobile-related accident.

Joan Kappel's picture
Joan Kappel
Joined: 03/03/2017 - 00:13
Early Autos in Altamont

Delightful article! Some of the people in it were alive when we moved to Altamont.