The Elegant, Eccentric Essex

By Evelyn Halverson

        Although my grandchildren are apt to tell you that I grew up in the horse-and-buggy days, it’s because they know full well that a statement to that effect will be certain to draw a swift indignant denial on my part, “Well, just how old do you think I am?” Actually, Henry Ford’s dream to put a car at the disposal of every family in the country had become a reality. In fact there were quite a selection of models to invest in at my earliest recollection of automobiles.

            My dad loved machines and especially machines with engines. Although he farmed with horses, the first decade of his farming experience, it was not by choice. Horses were the accepted true horsepower needed to plant and harvest crops during the pre-depression and Depression years. Horses were economical to use, and the fuel needed for the horsepower was included in the grain acreage production of oats each year. So my dad made the best of the situation, as the tractors were just over the horizon and would soon enter the farm scene. My father would purchase one of the first tractors and gradually eliminated his horse herd.

            To go back in history, when my father was 14, his father was struggling to raise his family of four boys and four girls alone after the death of his wife at the age of thirty-eight. He married a woman with six children a couple of years later. My father was one of the older children, and it did not take him long to figure out that a stepmother and fourteen children were just too many people under one roof!

            Therefore, an opportunity to escape the crowded home atmosphere presented itself when a neighbor made the request to hire my dad to help him during the summer months. My dad, and likewise his father, accepted the job offer with alacrity. My dad, because it offered a solution to a crowded situation, and his father because it meant one less mouth to feed!

            The neighbor and his wife had no children, but what they did have, much to my dad’s delight, was a steam engine with which the owner did threshing, plowing, and whatever else was needed in the area where the steam-engine horsepower was needed. My dad, even at the age of 91, would describe that first summer with the steam engine. He was the wood and water boy. It was his job to make sure that the two commodities needed for the operation of the steam engine always be in abundance and ready for use. He always described it with a glint in his eye and excitement in his voice as he relived that time in telling us of his experiences. I don’t recall that he mentioned much of the farmer, his wife, or living conditions. They always seemed to be merely an accompaniment to that behemoth steam engine. I barely recall the people’s names, but I believe it was Gonnerman, but I could be wrong. They lived near Wall Lake, Iowa.

            When the summer ended, the kind folks asked my dad if he would like to live with them for room and board and even offered to send him to high school. He had to milk cows, help with chores, and, therefore, missed many weeks of school sessions in the fall and again in the spring when plowing with the steam engine as custom work demanded. For the next three years, his life revolved around the demands of the big, clanking, chain-driven, hissing steam engine, as well as the glorious whistle of the big machine. In the meantime, the young lad was avidly learning all about the engine’s outer mechanics which included the sliding piston in a cylinder which stroked back and forth, powered by the steam from the water in and the fire under the boiler! I have a vivd memory of my dad rolling up a newspaper and sliding a kitchen knife to and fro in the newspaper tube, meanwhile relating the intense power of the steam in driving the huge engine. My brother and I were fascinated by the illustration, partly because we felt pretty important by the attention fostered on us by our dad. So at a time when my grandchildren would be learning about “Sally, Dick and Jane” and “Run Spot Run,” my brother and I were learning about the mechanism of steam-driven power. When dad was 19 years of age, he got a job with the railroad as a fireman on a freight train. He later served as an engineer and worked for the railroad until he was 27 years of age when he married my mother. He gave up his beloved railroad job on her insistence that she did not want him to be gone from home on his train “runs”! This was a decision that they were to regret during the Depression years when the railroad employees had a steady job, good income, and retirement pay!

            My father’s love of engines transferred quickly to automobiles, and his first purchase was a Model-T Ford family touring sedan. However, my dad was not a follower, so subsequently in later years when all his neighbors and relatives opted for Fords and Chevrolets, he owned a Hudson, a Terraplane, a Chrysler, an Essex, and a Studebaker, all family sedans.

            I was probably 6 or 7 years old when my dad brought home the Essex. That car immediately became the family pet or pest! It was a marvel to behold with a beautiful shiny black exterior and all of the metal parts; a lot of the cars in those days were chromium-plated. The more chrome, the fancier the car, and the Essex must have vied for the top of the line! My brother and I were often delegated to the job of cleaning the car, and it was fun to see ourselves in the mirror-bright chromium trim as we cleaned. It was like the fun-house mirrors when we saw our reflections distorted by the rounded chrome on the headlights and radiator trim of that Essex! However, we soon found that the job of keeping that Essex looking like new was boring and hard work. It was frustrating to have everything “shined up” and then have to drive on a dirt road for a mile or more before getting on graveled Highway 9 into Rock Rapids. The difference between gravel and dirt roads was that you weren’t apt to get “stuck” in gravel when there was wet weather. When it was hot, dry, and windy, there was no discernable difference in how the car appeared!

            Naturally, I don’t recall all of the idiosyncrasies of our Essex. But I do remember my dad spending a lot of time with the car hood up, and his body bent over the front working on the motor. He was always “tuning it up”! We usually drove to town twice a week: on Saturday night to do the weekly shopping and on Sunday morning to attend Sunday school and church. There was one Sunday morning when we were all seated in the car ready to leave, but the unpredictable Essex was not of the same mind! After much grinding away on the starter and double choking (by hand), dad saw that the motor just refused to start! There just wasn’t anything to do but get out, and I am sure I heard my mother’s car door really slam shut and disappointedly go back into the house to change from her “Sunday best” into her everyday clothing. All hope of seeing our friends or of spending an hour of fellowship was dashed by that contrary car! I suspect my dad had a busy Sunday afternoon with his dead under the car hood. As usual he would get the problem solved but, of course, not in time for this Sunday’s activities!

            The Essex also was built much lower to the ground than its counterparts, the Ford and Chevy, which fact was brought home early on to our family. It was probably after the first rain of the spring or when the frost went out of the ground on our dirt roads. Once a wheel rut was established it was only wise to stay in it if possible because if the car jumped out of it, it meant getting stuck! The Essex got stuck over and over! The only recourse was for someone, usually Dad, leaving Mother to steer, which somehow created a tense atmosphere among us children! The worse scenario was my dad having to walk home and hitch up Duke and Prince for a “pull out” job! “Degrading” best described that situation!

            There was one other exercise in futility that the Essex offered. If the Tom Creek bridge east of our farmstead was washed out by a heavy rain, (which happened very frequently), we were forced to take the west dirt road which approached Tom Creek Hill from the north. The designers of the Essex did not power it for hill climbing, even a lesser hill such as the Tom Creek Hill! I have often wondered how many Essex autos were sold in the Ozark area of Missouri? My dad soon discovered that he had to tromp down on the gas pedal and start accelerating well in advance, or we would never get that Essex up that hill! Fact of the matter was there were several occasions when we had to quit trying to defy the law of inertia and back on down the hill for another run at it. Climbing that hill with the Essex sedan always provided those in the back seat with a breath holding “hang in there” situation! My dear German grandmother was a frequent rider in the back seat, and that always meant she would “acht” and “cluck”; this combined with her sudden and audible intakes of breath added to the excitement!

            Such was the saga of the Essex in our family. It was an elegant auto with four hydraulic shock absorbers, an electric gauge for gas and oil, radiator shutters, saddle lamps, a windshield wiper, a glare-proof rear-view mirror, electrolock controls on the steering wheel, and all of that chrome! All priced at $695.00! The price was a bit higher for the convertible and couple models! My dad loved that Essex sedan!


Transcribed by Karyn Berg
Copyright 2004

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