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From Horse Power to Horsepower: Equine Panic Gives Way to Fraught Coexistence

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When the first horseless carriages appeared on our streets around 1900, Americans had been using animals for work and mobility for some 300 years. There were early adapters who jumped at the chance to own an automobile, but many North Carolinians were comfortable with their animals, and they dismissed the newfangled contraptions as playthings. Our relatively slow transition from horse power to horsepower resulted in an extended period of sometimes fraught coexistence on the roads. Horses in particular tended to panic at the onrush of an automobile, as in the movie scene above, where the farmer has pulled his wagon over and is trying to comfort his animal. When the machine has gone past, he will shake his fist at it.

300 years of living, breathing horse power

The horse was first introduced to the land that would become North Carolina in 1609. The animal was unknown to the indigenous people of the Piedmont until traders began to arrive in the late 1600s guiding large pack trains down from the Virginia colony. But even among early European colonists, ownership was not common. North Carolinians did not keep horses in significant numbers until after 1700. And even then, horses were expensive, and ownership was limited to the well-to-do.

But the horse population continued to grow, both in population and in animal size. As horses became a staple of work on the farm, the relatively small horses of the early colonial era were bred for size. The modern work horse has a lineage that goes back to around 1760. And as horses became more numerous and more sturdy, they became essential to both agriculture and transportation.

The horse, it should be said, was not the only animal working of farm and road. Later, there was the notorious mule. But for settlers migrating down the Great Wagon Road, the beast of choice was the oxen. A team of oxen had stamina, and stability, and it had the pulling power to navigate mountainous terrain and to negotiate river fords. And big fellas remained popular as draft animals on the farm. The cost about one half of what a horse cost, and they ate half as much, too. And when they died, oxen provided protein for the family diet.

A little boy rides a great big old oxen.
A little farm boy and his big ox.
A gaggle of Raleigh girls with their oxcart.
A gaggle of Raleigh girls with their oxcart.

Between them, horse, oxen and mule provided the power needed to run a farm and to propel carriages, wagons and stage coaches down North Carolina’s rutted roads.

Working mules on the farm.
Four-legged beasts provided muscle on the farm.

 And our animals were often more than just a source of power. They were living, breathing creatures who, in addition to pulling strong, were companions and even family members.

A North Carolina family poses, people and mules.
A family portrait in Reidsville. Who's Poppa proud of?

Horsepower of a mechanical ilk

In the waning years of the 19th century, in workshops all across the country, mechanics and buggy makers were tinkering with a new idea: a self-powered carriage that needed no horse to pull it. The horseless carriages that rolled out of workshops all over America were essentially buggies to which an engine – electric, steam or gasoline powered – had been mounted.

The gasoline powered type in particular were loud, lurching contraptions that “spat oil, fire, smoke and smell.” Judgement of the disturbance was, of course, in the ear of the beholder. One owner described the sound of his horseless carriage as having:

a sweet, purring sound like a roadroller loaded with scrap-iron crossing a cobblestone bridge, when in motion, and when at rest the motor made a noise like fire-crackers under a dish-pan.

Others heard more firecracker than purring, and the machines were greeted with much disapproval by a public used to the sedate clop of a horse.

In 1902, when Reidsville buggy maker Fletcher Waynick drove his new velocipede past a Methodist church, the preacher chastised him for operating “an instrument of the devil.” And two years later, when Joe Smith of Newton bought a Cadillac – the first car in town – the local paper reported that when he started the automobile, “…horses bolted, ladies screamed, and children ran to their mothers.”

Equine panic

And therein lay the big problem. Not with ladies screaming and children running to their mothers; these things happen. But a bolting horse was a different kettle of fish. Panicked animals disrupted transportation and work, and a fleeing horse was a danger to all around it – not to mention the animal itself.

Gilbert S. Waters, who built his “Buggymobile” in 1900 New Bern, recalled many years later: “Horses hated cars. And mules despised them.” One tongue-in-cheek observer said that an auto could “exert a wonderfully rejuvenating influence” on even the most ancient, tired animal.

Henry Ford, who may have held a bias for automobiles, was asked if his machines ever frightened horses. He dismissively replied:

Depends on the horse. A low-bred ignorant horse, yes. A high-born fellow, no.

And for the record, it wasn’t just the cacophony of an un-mufflered gasoline engine that horses hated. They tended to panic at the approach of electric cars, too.

On the road from horse power to horsepower: Coexistence

A pony cart and automobile share the road.
A pony cart and automobile share the road.

Despite the wishful thinking of many, it became increasingly apparent that the horseless carriage was here to stay, although many thought it would be present only in a secondary role. After one town recoiled at the sight of its first automobile on the streets, the local newspaper dismissed the threat:

It will be some time before our gentle folk will consider swapping a quiet, safe, dignified Sunday afternoon buggy ride for a ride in a dirty, noisy contraption that careens around the countryside faster than a horse can gallop.

Be that as it may, with horse and auto sharing the roads, it seemed prudent to make efforts to reduce equine panic. Early on, those efforts came down decidedly on the side of the horse. In some states, the operator of an automobile was required to warn of a convergence of machine and beast by lighting a roman candle, by having a “person of mature age” walk ahead of the automobile waving a red flag, or by phoning ahead to the next town so that horses there could be led to shelter. And maybe the children, too.

Over a relatively short time, such laws were relaxed so that an automobile only had to slow down when passing a horse or to pull over when a horse came from the other direction. In North Carolina, Guilford, Wake and Wayne counties had laws that required a motorist to turn off his engine if so requested by a horse rider or wagon driver.

In the early 1900s, the sheer numbers were on the side of horse power over horsepower. When there were between 50 to 100 automobiles in North Carolina, the state claimed 147,000 horses and 135,000 mules. That balance would change dramatically, especially after 1908, with the introduction of the T Model Ford. In 1905, there were 550 automobiles registered in North Carolina; in 1919 there were 109,017. And the growth curve would only get steeper. From 1919 to 1920, revenues from automobile registrations in North Carolina exploded from $22,000 to $1,493,000.

But by the same token, the horse and buggy would not disappear any time soon. Many a first-time car owner in the early 1900s kept their horse and buggy as well. The fact that North Carolinians were not abandoning the old for the new is evidenced by the fact that between 1905 and 1909, the number of buggy and wagon manufacturers in the state rose from 125 to 138. And in 1906, the newly-incorporated Durham Buggy Company was able to raise $135,000 in capital.

But by 1910, automobile dealers who had catered primarily to the rich were selling to a much broader, more middle class market. And they were noticing a decided, almost begrudging – if still subtle – shift in public attitude toward the automobile. Maybe, just maybe, the horseless carriage wasn’t just a passing fad.

In Oxford, one lonely buggy in a sea of automobiles.One lonely buggy in a sea of automobiles.
In Oxford, one lonely buggy in a sea of automobiles.

Even so, there would be horses on North Carolina roads for decades, and towns tried to be sensitive to their needs. In 1913, Thomasville had 70 automobiles and 2 garages, but they still installed a horse watering trough downtown. In 1917, Oxford mandated that horses and wagons could park at the curb, where there might be some shade, while parked autos could bake in the sunny center of the street. And Hillsborough maintained a watering trough on main street until 1930, and the town had a livery stable until the 1950s.

A horse watering station on a Wilmington street
A horse watering station on a Wilmington street

Goodbye to Bob

In North Carolina of the early 1900s there was no convulsive rush to own a horseless carriage. Horse power and horsepower – beast and machine – would negotiate coexistence on the roads over decades. The change from horse power to horsepower would come gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, and only later more as a wave. And at the family level, when the transition did come, it often was a difficult, deeply emotional decision.

Many years after the fact, Robert M. Fayles, a physician in Wilmington, remembered his father’s difficult 1911 decision to replace Bob, the family horse, with a new automobile:

Well, Papa finally decided to make the change and paid $1,000 in cash for the new machine. Still, everybody in the family loved Bob, and most of us were in tears when he was led away and replaced with a large, black-painted monster of a machine that, when not running, did not breath and made no sounds.

The featured picture is a still frame from a US Department of Agriculture film “Wheels of Progress.” (1927 ish)

Boy on oxen photo and  courtesy of the Pack Memorial Library, Asheville. [J524-8].

The Photo of mules a work on the farm is courtesy of the Library of Congress [8a01349a]

The photo of a family portrait is courtesy of the Rumley family, Greensboro NC.

The photos of the Hotel Granville and the lonely buggy in Oxford are courtesy of the Granville County History Museum, Oxford NC.

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