Sunday, June 12, 2011

Two worlds collide in the alleys of Washington DC

eb was 11 when he began working seriously in his father’s stable. He was a large boy for his age and because his mother had been “poorly” for the last few years and they needed more money to hold the family together, his dad had forcefully encouraged him to leave school to work with him. It was 1912. The stable and livery business had been slowing down ever since the “horseless carriage” had appeared on the streets of Washington about 10 years ago. Horses were reliable but required great care. These new machines were unreliable and also required great care. Jeb’s dad could not see any possible future for this recent “fad” of unreliable machines which were terrifying horses and pedestrians alike. Some were even electric (38% of the car market in 1900) like President Taft’s new car – a Baker electric. Jeb disagreed. 

Jeb was a smart kid and knew he had to figure out how to make a living for more than just a few years while his mother was ill. He believed in this new “fad”.

At the end of each day after the last horse had been stabled for the night, Jeb would ask his father for permission to visit the stable in the middle of the alley where they were beginning to work on horseless carriages. His father did not exactly approve of this but knowing that his willful son would go anyway and knowing the passion and curiosity that were growing within Jeb, he reluctantly gave his blessing.

The former stable Jeb visited as a child now called itself a garage. Gone were the smells of manure, replaced by the smells of gasoline, oil and grease. The second story hayloft no longer held hay. Instead there were rows of shelves of new replacement automobile parts – leaf springs, rubber tires, spoke wheels, axles, drive shafts and a number of  “odds” bin for smaller parts. The air was vibrant and Jeb was immediately captivated. How could you not be excited by this new world? It was so very different from his previous experience in his dad’s stable. The endless conversations were about what was coming next and whether this “new age” would last. In a way, nobody cared, for there was so much work at hand keeping these machines running. Most automobiles at the time actually required a chauffeur who was also a mechanic because driving and keeping them running was well beyond the capacity of the average owner. By contrast horses and carriages were so much simpler.

Model T Ford central leaf spring
Yet, there were enough similarities between the old and the new stable worlds that Jeb fit well in both. Fro example, the leaf springs of these new vehicles were almost identical to the leaf springs from carriages and replacing or repairing them was the same for each. The wheels and front axles were very similar. Everyone was learning “on the job” and sharing new information as each previously unrecognized problem was approached.

While Jeb’s dad remained skeptical about this new era, he was proud of his son who was growing in so many ways. Eventually Jeb began to work full time at the new garage and his younger brother took his place in his dad’s stable.  There was always a spring in Jeb’s step over the years when he walked a couple of miles to work at 14th and L Street each day. The alley was alive with clatter of hooves and the backfires of ill tuned cars. It was an uneasy mix of colliding transportation and service worlds. 

(Notice the hayloft doors above the Ford sign and the bollard at the original carriage entrance. 
The open windows are venting fumes. reference - 

By 1926, the automobile was clearly winning the transportation war. Essentially no new stables had been built in DC after 1910 and gasoline stations began appearing on corners throughout the city. Jeb was now 25 years old. He had missed action in WW-I because of his age but was grateful to have a job when so many did not. While his faith in the new “fad” had paid off handsomely he was saddened that his parents had not lived to see his success. He was now the manager of a highly profitable service garage that sold and serviced Ford Lincolns, Fordson tractors and Ford trucks. His neighboring garage serviced Nash, Overland and Willys-Knight cars. There were nearly a 100 different automobile manufacturers now. Who knew where it would ultimately end?

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