My Little History of Old Time Cars

When I was young girl, I once visited my grandparents in the summer by myself. I traveled by bus from our Marshall home, in the southwestern part of the state, to Rochester, Minnesota. A long six-hour trip. So happy to see Muzzy and Papa at the station, I hugged them even though they tended to be more reserved. Muzzy reached down, brushed my bangs to the side and straightened my braids. On the way to their home, I stretched out in Papa’s big, clean, shiny Buick, leaned back on one of Muzzy’s hand-crocheted pillows and listened to her talk about the good old days. She grew up with horses, buggies, and sleighs. “The sleigh rides were magical,” she told me. “Orion’s belt of stars danced in the sky. The moon beamed on trees and bushes. Snow, clean and white, crunched beneath the runners. Smell of hearth fires in the air. So bright, brisk, beautiful.”

Muzzy told me after she married Papa in 1907 she learned how to drive a car. She practiced out in the country with him.

“But, Muzzy,” I said, “I’ve never seen you drive.”

“Not since the doors . . . a long time ago,” she began. “I was taking one of Papa’s cars into the Van Dorin Garage in Marshall. The workmen called out, ‘C’mon, Mrs. Schreiber, bring it in, c’mon, closer, closer, give it some gas . . .’” Muzzy glanced down at me. “I stepped down—hard—on the accelerator and shattered the plate glass service doors. The crash sounded and looked like a mighty waterfall. I made it back to Ghent, but I never drove again.”

“When did Mom learn to drive?” I asked Muzzy.

“When your mother was young, she sometimes got to ride along with Papa on demonstrations of his new model cars. He’d hold her in his lap in the door-less, horseless carriages. Sometimes Papa even let her steer the cars. Your mom loved to drive. As she grew older, she wanted—more than anything—her own car. When she got the job working for Mr. Hall in the law firm, we helped her buy a model T Ford so she could go back and forth from Ghent to Marshall. Coming home late one night, the car’s generator went dead. Driving without lights, she steered into a ditch, hitting a concrete culvert. Her chin struck the steering wheel. Twenty-one years old, she needed twenty-one stitches. She told me her looks would be ruined, but Dr. Ford in Marshall stitched her up so fine that only when she lifted her chin, stretching it, could you see the long white scar.”

The Model A replaced her Model T. Muzzy said sometimes Mom took Edward, her younger brother, hunting—the car was perfect for that. Mom zipped over to Lynd and into Camden State Park, Edward hanging out the seat with his 410-shot gun, watching for pheasants. Every time he missed a shot he shouted: “Alice, you’re going too slow” or “Alice, you’re going too fast.”

When Dad courted Mom, they drove to dances and movies in his beat-up, old Model T, but it was Mom’s Model A they drove to Rochester for their wedding day. They left the car in Muzzy and Papa’s garage while they honeymooned, taking the 400 train from Rochester to Chicago. From there they hopped on a bus to Detroit to buy their first car together.

“Imagine, buying a car on your honeymoon!” Muzzy sniffed. “And your mom told me years later they had to stop again on their way back from Niagara Falls to visit the same relatives of your father’s who they stayed with in Detroit. They had to borrow money from them because they had spent all theirs on china dishes in Canada.” Muzzy sniffed again.

After the honeymoon, Muzzy drove along with Mom from Rochester to Marshall because she wanted to go visit Grandma and Grandpa Dierickx. Dad led the way in their new Model T. “Straight into a terrible blizzard.” Muzzy shook her head. “April 17, 1939, one of the worst ever.”

Dad got stuck going up the New Ulm hill, then Mom, who was following very closely, plowed in behind him. Dad jumped out of his car and swore, “Damn it, Alice, why were you right on my tail?”

Mom told Muzzy the honeymoon was over. They couldn’t make it to Marshall that night because of the snow. They had to take two rooms in the Tracy hotel, something they had not bargained for on their tight budget. “What an ending for a beginning,” Muzzy concluded.