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Early North Dakota Automobile Adventures

Posted by Bill Vossler 10/31/2016 3:19:16 PM

That day in 1914, Chester P. Hallett of Casselton had to feel pretty good as he entered the dusty last stretch of the two-mile race in his 10 horsepower cyclecar, ahead of the motorcycle. As the Cass County Reporter said, "On the last mile just as Hallett was turning into the home, he pulled his steering post out of its place and his car went over," ending the race.


Frank Jaszkowiak of Bismarck built a gasoline runabout in 1902, and on its maiden voyage promptly smashed into a tree, the state's first auto accident. A doozie too, as the April 7, 1902, Bismarck Daily Tribune said the auto "was capable of making eight to ten miles an hour on good level road."


Jaszkowiak's wife didn't appear enthusiastic about her husband's efforts. When he was gone for a day, she objected to the personal property assessment on Jaszkowiak's vehicles, saying "They were of no practical value."


New England's William Newton Jones installed a stationary gasoline engine in a double buggy in 1910, equipped it with chain drive, and drove it around the community for several years. When his cows needed water, he drove out to the pasture, removed the engine from the car, installed it to pump water, and when he was finished, reversed the process, and drove home.


Make Your Own Autos


If you lived in North Dakota at the turn of the 20th century, and desired a newfangled horseless carriage - a.k.a. automobile - you were basically out of luck. Not only were they expensive at a time when cash money was difficult to come by - about $600 each ($15,000 today), but you couldn't just drive one off the local showroom floor. There were no showrooms in 1900, and the wait for a new Peerless, Baker Electric, Locomobile, or other auto was over a year.


None of this daunted the mechanical-minded North Dakotan, however. Who needed to buy a Knox, National Electric, or White steamer? Heck, he'd just build his own.


Up through 1914, 45 different makes of automobiles were manufactured right here in the Flickertail State  - depending on your definition of "manufactured." Aneta led with four, Grafton three, followed by Carrington, Chaffee, Dunseith, Fargo, Jamestown, and Milnor with two each.


Early Autos By Year of Appearance

William Farrell of Jamestown made an auto patent drawing in 1894, but apparently never built the vehicle. So Sam Holland's 1898 auto was probably the earliest in the state. The Park River man certainly made the greatest number of them, for his blacksmith shop employees, neighbors, and himself.


He built a steamer, several gasoline high-wheelers, (with four huge wagon-like wheels to gain ground clearance), and two low-wheeled runabouts made of angle iron, that were about five-and-a-half feet long. None impressed the Park River Gazette-News, who pooh-poohed them.


Until 1904, when Holland's chain-driven vehicle with two radiators had the paper crowing that the car "was used winter and summer and its thorough tests have proven it to be one of the most practical runabouts made."


Excluding gas and oil, that car cost $16.50 for one year, $14.50 of it for a new tire. Holland used 29 gallons of gas for 1,000 miles in warm weather, 31 for 1,000 in cold.


Holland's motto was "Patronize home industry. If you don't, you ought to."


Jim Benjaminson in the May-June 1984 Antique Automobile said Holland built at least 10 automobiles, one using compressed air.


In 1899 State Senator George D. Brown of Fargo built the Brown automobile. In A History of the Automobile in North Dakota to 1911, author Carl F. W. Larson noted, "A speed of ten miles per hour and carrying capacity of 800 pounds was claimed."


When it worked. The leather drive belt often slipped off, and rain altered its size. But, "the vehicle was apparently not running by June 1900, when Fargo's mayor had to import a Valley City-built automobile for a local parade."


Brown supposedly bought machinery to make autos. The Fargo Forum added that "Mr. Brown expects to engage more or less extensively in the manufacture of automobiles in the future - both gasoline and electricity."


Instead, Brown became the first automobile dealer in the state, selling not Browns, but Locomobiles.


Auto builders in 1900 took advantage of their new flivvers to make money. For $750 Ora Beeman of Valley City, with jeweler William N. "Punk" Allen, built the Beeman, a four-seater with curved dash. He drove a veterinarian to Oriska "to perform an operation on a sick horse," the Valley City Times-Record said. It added that "the machine bucked and doc had to sleep in a boxcar and then walk home."


When asked to run in Fargo's Fire Festival, Beeman obliged, charging spectators 25 cents per ride. Unfortunately, said Beverly Rae Kimes and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., in Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942, repeated cranking bruised Punk‘s hand badly, requiring amputation of his middle finger.


Six months later Beeman traded his automobile.


It was 25-year-old William T. Davidson of Mayville who built his own 500-pound auto entirely that year, except for its three-horsepower gasoline engine. The Grand Forks Herald wrote, "A wager of $25 was placed that a five-mile run would be less than 20 minutes. This was taken by Mr. Davidson."


It took only 11 minutes, Davidson's moment of fame. Nothing more is known of his vehicle.


In 1902 the first of Aneta's four automobiles were built. "Home-made autos are all the rage," opined the Aneta Panorama. It said Albert Brager "tried to build a car of a gasoline engine, buggy parts and other miscellaneous items." It was declared "too light" and "not much good."


The Building Continues


William L. Walton of Neche was frugal. He added a gasoline engine to a horse buggy chassis, making his "Auto Buggy." On August 2, 1902, The Neche Chronotype wrote, "W. L. Walton has begun to make some long trips with his automobile, and he reports that the machine performs admirably."


The newspaper did not say when the chassis vibrated to pieces. Walton added the same engine to another buggy. Perhaps he tired of the process, for when he moved to Bantry, he bought a Ford Model T.


Julius Hammer of Maddock was a poster boy for bad luck. He was smart in mechanics; not so much in electricity. In 1904 he patented "a new idea in gas engines," and demonstrated a vehicle made from a farm wagon, and "some belts and pulleys."


He suffered a badly bruised nose from the crank, and a nut came loose inside the engine, pulverizing one of the cylinders. His career ended when he attempted to change a light bulb while standing in a puddle of water.


Grafton Builds Three


Robert McKellar's 1904 car was odd - it had two engines; the second to be used, as he said, "If the first engine goes bump." It also added power to go up hills around Grafton.


In 1907 George LaMond built and painted his auto, called "A credit to his ingenuity," by the Grafton Daily News and Times. He licensed it in 1911.


Steamfitter George Loos of Grafton built a 12-14-horsepower runabout in 1907.


In 1907 the Aneta Panorama wrote, "Halvor Omlid is nearly through with his auto, and he will go some when he gets it ready."


Harry Long of Aneta built two cars, for his brother Leo, and himself in 1908, one a 12- and the other a 14-horsepower. Kimes wrote, "... it's likely Harry kept the more powerful one. Neither exists today."


About the same time Manley Rustan of Aneta added a one-cylinder gasoline engine to the rear of a buggy with a binder chain for transmission. It was started by pushing or rolling it down the hill, and steered with the feet. Unfortunately, Rustan was killed shortly after completing his car when a tractor tipped over on him.


1908 Onwards


Souris blacksmith August Frykman built the first North Dakota car with a steering wheel; the others had tillers. Frykman bought a 12-horsepower engine, and with brother Victor, began building the car.


The Souris Messenger wrote of the vehicle's progress from January 24, 1908, until April 17, when it was completed. On May 8, it said the Frykman high-wheeler and a Buick owned by Clem Halter had raced, and the result was "a dead heat."


Frykman was granted at least five patents: for piston rings, for tire chains, as well as an attachment that automatically shut off the headlamps when his car stopped.


Benjaminson wrote that Tom Nichol's daughter said she learned to drive the high-wheeler when she was 12. "I wasn't strong enough to crank it, so a neighbor and I made the rounds of the cook cars at threshing time delivering fresh meat ... Many times the chain would come off and we'd have to back down and put the chain on ..."


Sixteen-year-old Clarence Cummings of Carrington built a one-passenger jitney in 1908 out of odds and ends from old machinery, using a purchased gasoline engine. The Carrington Independent said it was "rather an ingenious contrivance for a boy to get out."


The Dakota


Surprisingly, nobody built a Dakota car, although automobile dealers Alexander and John More of Wimbledon ordered a trainload of De Tamble Model B automobiles in 1909, manufactured in Anderson, Indiana, fitted them with 36-inch solid-rubber tires instead of factory-installed 30-inch pneumatic tires, and sold them as Dakota automobiles at $675, $50 more than De Tambles. "The Dakota was not popular," wrote Larson. Only around seven were sold.


Charles Bishop built Fargo's second car in 1910, a four-passenger touring auto converted to a two-person runabout by removing the back seat. The car was entirely driven by two foot pedals, had electric lights.


The Fargo Forum wrote in July, 1910, "The unexpected has happened. Fargo has an automobile manufactured within its borders and hereafter North Dakotans (can spend) their money on a home-made product, one that is bound to be a success, too."


Only one was made, but it lasted at least until 1914, a long time for a home-made vehicle.


Enter Henry Ford


By 1912, much of the frenzy of build-your-own cars had died down, as automobiles became common with the 1908 production of the Ford Model T. But in 1912 mechanic Ellis Holst of Dickinson rebuilt a Hupmobile engine, and made his own 1,100-pound car with a long narrow body and no fenders. He and a friend drove it to Kansas City and back, 2600 miles in 13 days, at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour.


That pretty much ended the experimentation of automobile manufacturing in North Dakota, a quaint time when automobiles were still in their infancy, and ordinary North Dakotans showed their good old fashioned grit in building themselves an automobile instead of buying one.   


Bill Vossler is a Wishek, North Dakota, native, who, following 14 years as an English teacher, now writes feature stories from his home in Rockville, Minnesota. He can be reached at

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