GOOD-BY, DOBBIN, THE WORLD'S GOT WHEELS

JOHN DE BONDT May 1 1967

GOOD-BY, DOBBIN, THE WORLD'S GOT WHEELS

JOHN DE BONDT May 1 1967

GOOD-BY, DOBBIN, THE WORLD'S GOT WHEELS

JOHN DE BONDT

IN AUGUST 1917 The Farmer's Magazine, published in Toronto, carried an advertisement that wondered in big, bold type, "IS THE HORSE DOOMED?”

The product advertised was a remedy for horse colic, but the doom referred to wasn’t brought on by colic or any other animal disease. What was threatening the horse, especially on the farm, was an epidemic known by a variety of names, the most familiar of which perhaps was Ford.

On Canada’s 700.000 farms alone, more than three million horses were in use (against fewer than 50.000 tractors) and in every village, town and city the horse was still as common as in a western. It was, as the horse-medicine ad put it, "in the last degree unlikely that the noblest of the dumb animals will be rendered useless by mechanical devices."

If the patent-drug people showed faith in the horse's continued presence, the motor-car industry was steering straight for Dobbin's death. “Replace Your Buggy With A Ford,” one ad told farmers. Not all manufacturers stated their case convincingly. In June 1917 a full-page ad in The Farmer's Magazine proclaimed that “All out - of - doors coaxes, teases and invites you to get an Overland.” To a farmer who had been working in the blazing sun all day. that must have seemed like a poor proposition in spite of the curvacious blonde beckoning from the horizon in the picture.

But it didn't take Overland long to learn the farmer’s language. In February 1918, under the unmistakable heading “The Thrift Car,” the ad writers made a good point despite their grammar: “A farmer 30 miles from town with an Overland is closer than one five miles away who depends entirely upon horses. Often a repair is suddenly needed when harvesting — with an Overland it is no trick to go to town, get the repair and return to work without losing precious time.”

The Chevrolet people in Oshawa, Ont., contented themselves with printing pictures of their various models. “A complete line of ten models includes a car for every class of buyer,” said a September 1917 ad. Eight months later these classes were spelled out in what, with a nudge at the apostrophe, had become Farmers' Magazine. Although the illustration showed a tubby touring car in a farmyard, the text prescribed that “Doctors. businessmen, farmers, salesmen and ladies — all should use the Chevrolet Four-Ninety and crowd more energy, activity and business into the busy day.”

Getting more done in a day even stirred Overland to patriotic overtones. "The call for extra effort has been heard and answered by men. women and even children.” said an ad in the September 1917 issue of Mac Lean's. "Do your bit, but keep fit. If you work harder, play harder too. Have a motor car.”

Less direct was a 1922 ad in MacLean'’s, under the heading. "Peace and Plenty Here Abide.” Under an idyllic picture of a sun-drenched farmhouse on Sunday afternoon, the text drawled, "All over Canada are thousands of scenes like this — the substantial dwelling built by patient industry from the fruits of Mother Earth — roomy barns that hint of blooded stock — spacious lawns — giant shade trees that tell a story of acres wrested from the forest by pioneers whose thews and sinews had to take the place of the time and labor-saving devices we know today.”

The ad rambled on. "For them long hours of unremitting toil. For you the Fordson tractor. . . For them the plodding ox team and a life of loneliness and isolation . . . For you the Ford Car that opens the door to every city convenience and removes the last barrier to that social intercourse which alone makes life worth living.”

But that wasn’t the end of Henry’s repertoire. A 1918 ad showed a barn with a horse and buggy, harnesses, blankets, whips, currycombs, brushes, horseshoes, pitchforks, feed bins and “many articles that are a source of continuous expense to the man who still drives a horse.” The heading said, “A Ford Car Takes The Place of all These Things,” and the copy pointed out that “when a Ford is standing idle it does not eat three meals a day.”

The car makers were enthusiastically supported in the news and editorial pages of the day’s farming publications. In a 1917 number of Farmers’, one of a pair of pictures showed two horses and a carriage, with the cutline, “A team, carriage and harness, serviceable, ready for emergency, costs fully $650. Twenty miles would be a big drive.” The other photo showed a touring car, with the caption, "An automobile costs from $500 to $1.000. John Young, of Alameda, Sask., finds that its upkeep is not so high as a team of road horses and decidedly less in regular attention. Twenty miles would be a noon spell trip.”

Learning to drive the newfangled machines was a problem quickly talked out of existence by eager salesmen and equally eager teenage sons. There was also, of course, the ever helpful Farmers’ Magazine, which preached this emergency rule: "When you don’t know what to do, shove out both feet.” The anxieties of novice farmer-drivers were reflected in the automotive question-and-answer columns. One reader wondered what to do "if your starter failed to work and you had lost your starting crank.” Very simple: "Jack up rear wheels, let clutch in, put in high speed, turn back wheel quickly, either by hand or by stepping on the wheel spokes. When engine starts, put gear in neutral.”

But such negative musings could never cope with the contagious positive thinking from Oshawa and Walkerville. Ont. Almost every article in the farm magazines contained happy endorsements from farmers who had bought cars. “We live about four miles from church,” wrote one farmer in 1917, “but now we all go there together and we can get home before we are unduly hungry.” “Even pleasure is more pleasant,” extolled another. There is no doubt that the automobile “widened rural joys,” as one writer put it. Living on a farm before the days of the motor car meant isolation and even visiting a neighbor five miles away was “a trip.” The touring cars and tonneaus, runabouts and roadsters changed all that.

If anybody today claimed that a car had saved his marriage, it would sound farfetched, but E. M. Munro in the May I, 1918, issue of Farmers’ Magazine did just that, in a touching tale of rural drudgery. “There's something about the long hours and the dog - tiredness that puts a wet blanket over anything emotional or idealistic.” he wrote, and “there we were — our ideals bursting like bubbles and nothing before us but the grinding routine that has turned many an inspired farmer into a mere ‘man with a hoe’ and set the faces of his family toward the town.”

The day he finally bought a car, he and his wife Jane “both had just that quality of tiredness that needs only another straw to make something snap.” But their first trip in the new “shining throbbing thing with its mirror sides and canvas top” made all tiredness vanish:

“It was a new sensation to float along mile after mile with the w'ind fanning the scent of clover in our faces, to soar up hills like a bird and coast down the other side with every nerve tingling with the joy of speeding. It was better than a visit to the movies to see the pictures flying past of lamplighted houses with blinds undrawn and families gathered about the table, of cattle settling down sleepily in pasture hollows and white mists rising over the fields. Then we turned and came home very slowly and quietly in the dark. We noticed how still the night was and how clear the whip-poor-will sounded from the marshes, and how the moonlight filtered through the elm trees — but we didn’t say much about it. We had caught the thing that had been slipping from us since the last night of our honeymoon when we drove over the same road from the station to the farm, and we were strangely quiet. Only when we turned in at the gate of the modest little farm house we saw it through different eyes: there was a dearness in every line of it not to be compared with the biggest houses we had passed, and we knew that the dullness, the monotony, the brooding discontent had all been within ourselves.”

Such stories sold cars. It wasn't tractors, or trucks, but passenger cars that constituted the appeal few farmers could resist. The automobile set the farmer free and made him a country gentleman.

Of course, the number of trucks and tractors did rise gradually. In 1921 there were 711,000 farms in Canada and only 47,455 tractors — or about one tractor on every 15 farms. Ten years later there was one tractor for every seven farms. And in 1961 — the latest year for which census figures are available — there were 550,000 tractors on 481,000 farms. (The number of farms has gone down, but total farm acreage has increased. ) The number of farm trucks, too, rose, from 48,401 (one for every 15 farms) in 1931 — the first time they were mentioned in the census — to 302,000 in 1961, or two for every three farms.

When the century was a teenager, Canada’s farmers found them-

selves the delighted winners a contest that was changing face North America: it was the car against the horse -and 01’ Dobbin didn’t stand a chance

But the passenger car came in with a bang and in 1931 there were already 321.000 cars on Canadian farms — almost as many as the 358,000 cars on farms in 1961.

Meanwhile, the number of farm horses declined steadily. In 1921 there were 3.452.000 of them, or about five per farm. In 1961 there were only 512,000 — roughly one left on.every farm. It is doubtful whether many of these animals are being used as motive power today, and virtually none are road horses.

Such was — and stili is — the tremendous appeal of the automobile.

It was Dobbin's doom. ★