Ned, You Ought To Take Me in Your Auto

The story of the first auto­mo­bile in Danville

Ned Pettengill’s lit­tle red car, the first in Danville, sits in front of the Bad­ger black­smith shop on what is now Route 2.

By Mark R. Moore

Ancient Roads. When I first heard of their exis­tence, I had visions of a myth­i­cal high­way hid­den under the soil and stones in some cor­ners of the Repub­lic of Ver­mont. Soon I learned it was a mat­ter of old, faded charts and the rec­ol­lec­tions of long-time res­i­dents. But even the maps and mem­o­ries get fuzzy with the pas­sage of time. The roads become ruts, the ruts get filled in, and the road becomes not an obscure ram­ble through the forest.

Yet the doc­u­ments at the Danville His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety set me on a clear path where I met the image of the first car and first car owner in Danville–the recently mar­ried 24-year-old owner of a red tour­ing auto­mo­bile, Ned Pet­tengill. But first, let’s review a bit of his­tory of the auto­mo­bile in Vermont.

The early 1900s were a time of fas­ci­na­tion with the auto­mo­bile in Amer­ica. It was a love affair that entranced song­writ­ers, like the author of the slightly altered 1905 music title to this arti­cle, and actual design­ers and builders like Charles and James Duryea, who estab­lished the first auto­mo­bile man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany in 1893. Much like the cell phone and com­puter, the infat­u­a­tion quickly spread to Ver­mont. Even though there were no cars (much less neatly paved roads) in 1894 the leg­is­la­ture, under pres­sure from var­i­ous inter­ests, passed the state’s first law gov­ern­ing the oper­a­tion of a car in the pro­gres­sive Green Moun­tain State

The owner or per­son in charge of a car­riage, vehi­cle or engine pro­pelled by steam except road rollers, shall not cause or per­mit the same to pass over, through or upon any pub­lic street or high­way, except on rail­road tracks, unless he sends at least one-eighth of a mile in advance of the same, a per­son of mature age to notify or warn all per­sons using the street or high­way with horses or other domes­tic ani­mals; and at night such per­son shall, except in an unin­cor­po­rated vil­lage or city, shall carry a red light.”

In 1898, the first one-seat Stan­ley Steamer car in the state was pur­chased by Dr. J. H. Lind­sey of Burling­ton. The prac­ti­cal Steamer was pur­chased for about $900.00. There were no gas pumps to be seen. The sec­ond car was a Haynes-Apperson bought by Charles C. War­ren of Water­bury a year later.

Finally, the leg­is­la­ture real­ized the unen­force­abil­ity of it statute and repealed the 1894 auto­mo­bile gov­ern­ing law in 1900, and in 1902 sub­sti­tuted 15 mph on the open road and 6 mph in town regard­ing speed gov­er­nance. Young Homer Stan­ton, a North Danville res­i­dent, records in his diary that there was auto­mo­bile race at the Cale­don­ian County Fair on Thurs­day, Sep­tem­ber 17, 1903 not­ing what may have been the first auto fatal­ity in the town: “Dr. J. M. Allen(‘s) machine went over the bank killing the man with him and braking(sp.) his legs and one arm…”

By 1903 roads, such as they existed, were unmarked dirt tracks which turned to frozen ruts in the win­ter, became swamps in mud sea­son and bone-dry, dusty ruts in sum­mer. Nonethe­less, in that year an intre­pid Ver­mon­ter, Dr. Hor­a­tio Nel­son Jack­son of Burling­ton, accepted a $50.00 bet and drove across the con­ti­nen­tal United States from San Fran­cisco in a two cylin­der Win­ton accom­pa­nied by a mechanic named Crocker and a dog named Bud. It took 65 days. (See the Ken Burns film Horatio’s Drive).

The leg­is­la­ture passed Vermont’s first reg­is­tra­tion law in 1904. It pro­vided that all vehi­cles had to be reg­is­tered by May 1, 1905. Soon after, the state was issu­ing white on blue enam­eled iron plates bear­ing the words “Ver­mont Auto­mo­bile Reg­is­ter” and the num­ber given by the Ver­mont Sec­re­tary of State. The laws of 1905 pro­vided more uni­for­mity and the reg­is­tra­tion fee was to be based on the horsepower.

The excite­ment in the North­east King­dom must have been as great by the advent of the gas-powered car as it was for rural elec­tri­fi­ca­tion sev­eral decades later. The car could now trans­port a per­son many miles to see a rel­a­tive, go to town, see the doc­tor (or to see the patient) in hours instead of days. Not to men­tion the macho image of a sin­gle male cruis­ing (albeit bump­ing along on the rut­ted road) in front of the girls!

In 1906, 24-year-old Ned M. Pet­tengill of Danville, a tall, hand­some, man received Ver­mont reg­is­tra­tion No. 667 for a 1903 T. B. Jef­freys Tour­ing Car, 16 horse­power, mak­ers No. 1–344 sport­ing a bright red color. The car made in that year was steered not with a wheel but a tiller (they reverted to the wheel in 1905). It was the sec­ond high­est in pro­duc­tion vehi­cle in the United States that year after the Olds. There were only 373 cars reg­is­tered in Ver­mont the year before, and the State, I learned, main­tains no com­pre­hen­sive reg­is­tra­tion records dat­ing back to 1906.

No research revealed any newer own­ers in Danville, unless there was an unreg­is­tered car in town. There­fore, Ned seems to be first car owner in town. This was con­firmed by Con­rad Hugh­son of Put­ney, Ver­mont, who has accu­mu­lated a list­ing book for Ver­mont show­ing each plate num­ber, to whom it was issued and where.

The pic­ture of the car that we have found in the col­lec­tion of Danville His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety shows it with­out license plates yet affixed, sit­ting in front of the Bad­ger black­smith shop on Route 2, south of the high school. Research indi­cates that car is a type of Jeffrey’s called the Ram­bler. (The Jeffrey’s Com­pany later sold to Nash, who retained the famil­iar Ram­bler name.)

In the Pet­tengill papers, are a plethora of mail­ings to Ned from the emerg­ing Motor Age Mag­a­zine offer­ing sub­scrip­tions, insur­ance and do-it-yourself auto­mo­bile books to demys­tify the air-cooled motor and the “prac­ti­cal” gas engine.

No diary entries from Ned exist show­ing that he took advan­tage of these books and pam­phlets but let­ters and other records show that he had mar­ried Martha Stocker on Octo­ber 8, 1903, and had two chil­dren Esther and Edmund. He then moved to Boston where he was a street­car con­duc­tor and later to Fitch­burg, Mass­a­chu­setts, where he worked on the rail­road. Even­tu­ally, he became an engineer.

His early car pur­chase and his life’s path show a love of wheels, engines and cylin­ders. His jour­ney may have been bumpy, but it was indi­vid­ual and unique. We salute Ned Pet­tengill in his bright red Ram­bler, rid­ing his way into Danville history.

To view a photo album that includes Ned’s reg­is­tra­tion and driver’s license click here.

For a YouTube video of a car just like Ned’s click here.

This arti­cle was first pub­lished in the April, 2011, issue of the North Star Monthly.


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One Response to Ned, You Ought To Take Me in Your Auto

  1. Beverly Boggs says:

    I loved the part about the macho male dri­ving on bumpy roads! Times have not changed so much!

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