hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News June 2018


Changing pace as roads shifted from horses to cars

Maury Thompson



The diversification of J.E. Sawyer & Co. in 1918 was a sign of changing times.
The Glens Falls company, which supplied retailers throughout New York, Vermont and Massachusetts, became a distributor of the Marathon brand of “hand-made” automotive tires, The Post-Star reported on April 6, 1918. The tires came with a 5,000-mile warranty.

At the time, J.E. Sawyer’s core business had been in horse tack, carriage wheels, iron, steel, rope and blacksmith supplies. But its focus began to change amid the automotive boom of the early 20th century.

One of the main public issues in the early years of cars revolved around the safety of motorized and horse-drawn vehicles sharing public roads.

A Post-Star editorial on Feb. 7, 1908, endorsed a proposal in the Legislature to require that all future state roads be constructed with dirt paths along the shoulders, wide enough for horses to travel separate from automobiles.

“It would seem that the horse still has some rights and that he is entitled to at least that much consideration from the auto driving builders of our state highways,” the editorial stated.
It’s too bad the state didn’t adopt that practice. Those carriage paths, if maintained over the decades, would have made great bicycle and pedestrian paths today, saving a lot of expense in planning and building modern multi-modal transportation networks.

The New York proposal for separate travel lanes for horses and cars was an attempt at compromise. In Vermont in the early 1900s, some wanted even stricter measures to control automobiles.

Joseph Battell, founder of the Bread Loaf Inn in Ripton (now the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College) and publisher of the Middlebury Register, urged the state to ban automobiles from public roads.

Battell, as I learned when I was a student at Middlebury College in the early 1990s, said automobile owners should have to band together and build, at private expense, separate dedicated roads, just as railroad companies had done.

But despite the skepticism of Battell and others, the automotive age was taking root. In Warren County, N.Y., for example, one in 13 residents owned an automobile in 1918, compared with one in 23 in the state and one in 24 in the nation.

The number of automobiles registered in Warren County had increased from 1,164 in 1916 to 1,217 in 1917 and 1,717 in 1918, The Post-Star reported on March 4, 1918.

The automotive business boosted newspaper revenue. The Post-Star set what was then an advertising record, with 5,308 column-inches of advertising in its special automotive edition of March 28, 1918 -- more than double the 2,396 column-inches of ads in its 1917 automotive edition.

The 1918 edition, featuring automotive-related articles and advertising, was 56 pages in four sections, while most of the paper’s daily editions at that time consisted of 10 to 12 pages in a single section.

Still, even a newspaper publisher could be wistful about the era that was ending.
The Post-Star, in its Feb. 7 editorial, said it was unreasonable to dismiss automobiles as a passing fad, yet it was too soon to write off horse-drawn carriages as a vestige of the past.
“It is said that there were 400,000 buggies sold in the United States last year. So, it is not a completely horseless age after all,” the newspaper wrote. “A good many prefer the buggy ride that takes in the scenery and induces sociability to the rushing automobile, but the hard macadam road makes horse traveling almost impossible.”

Maury Thompson retired in September after 21 years as a staff writer for The Post-Star of Glens Falls. He is now a freelance writer specializing in the history of politics, labor and media in the region.