Those newfangled horseless carriages made in La Porte caught the fancy of many (except the horses)

The first auto maintenance garage in La Porte was at 804 Monroe Street, owned and operated by Fred Clark and Harry Pendleton. It was later operated by Axel Lindgren. (Photo provided)

The Munson Company was located at the southeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Washington Street. (Photo provided)

By Fern Eddy Schultz, La Porte County (IN) Historian

Most of us are acquainted with the Munson automobile. In 1898, the Munson Co. of Chicago announced its desire to move to La Porte. This was great news for the area coming so soon after Elwood Haines of Kokomo, Indiana, demonstrated his “horseless carriage.” His invention reached the speed of eight miles per hour and would run seven miles without stopping.  

La Porte County Historian Fern Eddy Schultz

The idea that a horseless carriage would be manufactured in La Porte meant that it was possible that the manufacture of these vehicles would soon be one of the leading industries of La Porte. It would be the only one of its kind in the State of Indiana and one of few of them in the West.

As of December 31, 1898, The Motor Wagon ordered by Dr. F.L. Sweany from the Munson Carriage Company was practically completed the prior day and was run on the streets of La Porte that evening for the first time. As soon as the running gear was painted and the finishing touches put on, the vehicle would be ready for delivery. The next week, this carriage frightened a horse at the corner of Michigan and Jefferson avenues. It was reported that the animal was so frightened that its legs gave way and it fell to the ground.

In September 1900, the four-seated Munson automobile, which had been perfected and now fully met the expectations of the manufacturers, was loaded in a boxcar of Lake Shore Railroad and would start by fast freight to New York where it would be on exhibition. John H. Munson, head of the plant in New York in October 1901, served notice on stockholders in La Porte that any attempt on their part to manufacture automobiles on the design of Munson would be met by action in Federal Court. Thus ended La Porte’s dream of an automobile industry.

There were two other automobiles produced in La Porte. Axel Lindgren started experimenting with a machine of his own design in 1896. He demonstrated his first successful vehicle to La Porteans in May 1900. It has been described as a “gasoline powered auto and very practical.” He built two more but it is said “he never contemplated production for the general market.”  

In May 1902, the Great Western Manufacturing Co. announced the satisfactory testing and demonstration of a steam automobile. The engine was designed and constructed by Mr. Baylor, superintendent of the company. Published information advertised the boiler, water and gas tanks were made by M. Rumely Co. in La Porte. The machine was sprocket driven and had a minimum speed of fifteen miles per hour.

The first privately owned automobile in La Porte was the Munson owned by Dr. Sweany and the second was a Milwaukee Steamer bought by Emmet Scott in 1900. Martin Barlag reported in information he compiled that W.E. Schilling had the next gasoline powered auto after Axel Lindgren’s. In 1903, he bought a Friedman friction drive machine made in Belvedere, Illinois. It was known as the Red Devil and it was reported that before the ladies of La Porte would venture out with horse and buggy, they would check whether or not the Red Devil was loose on the streets.

In 1904, Ellsworth E. Weir had a two-cylinder Ford which was nicknamed The Yellow Streak. By 1905, there were twenty automobiles in La Porte. Among those were Oldsmobiles, Northers, Waverly Electrics, Buicks, Great Western, White Steamer, Wayne, and Steamer. Ernest Bement became the first farmer to own an automobile when he bought a 1905 Buick. Emily Bement learned to drive this car and became the first lady driver in the county.

It was not unusual in the early years of the automobile in La Porte to have problems with a vehicle not operating correctly. This was an opportunity for the passerby to jibe the car owner to “Buy a horse.”

The automobile brought with it many needs not previously available.  The first garage in La Porte was at 804 Monroe Street, owned and operated by Fred Clark and Harry Pendleton. This later became Axel Lindgren’s.

The first automobile show was held at the fairgrounds in 1921 and by 1922, showed twenty different makes representing La Porte.  Numerous other needs could be added to this for today’s automobile owners.

FERN EDDY SCHULTZ is La Porte County’s official Historian.

2 Responses to “Those newfangled horseless carriages made in La Porte caught the fancy of many (except the horses)”

  1. Mike

    Feb 05. 2019

    … and so it began… La Porte’s traffic nightmare!!

    😉

    Reply to this comment
  2. ILUVLP

    Feb 05. 2019

    Great piece if automotive history Fern. Thank you.
    100+ years later Ford and Buick are still around.
    I will miss Pontiac and Oldsmobile.

    When I read, “His invention reached the speed of eight miles per hour and would run seven miles without stopping”, I thought you were referring to the Yugo. Lol.

    Reply to this comment

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