Museum rekindles island car controversy
In the early 1900s, a battle erupted when the first cars began negotiating the roads of Mount Desert Island. Some saw these “devil carts” as a scourge while others embraced the advantages of motorized transport.
The Seal Cove Auto Museum in Tremont is telling this story and linking it to transportation issues on the island today in its exhibit “Auto Wars: Then and Now.” The exhibit, which opened May 1, invites visitors to join in the controversy through choices made on their walk through the museum’s collection of more than 50 cars and motorcycles from early 1900s, many from the Brass Era.
Visitors immediately are confronted with a choice: Pro or con?
“You have to choose your own adventure,” explained Raney Bench, the museum’s executive director. “Based on your choices, you get a different story.”
“Them devil carts are injurious to life and limb, run over hens and raise up runctions generally.”
The exhibit is the result of two years work, Bench said. A goal was to attract more people to the museum.
“One of the challenges we have is we have a static collection, Bench said. “We decided to use the cars as backdrop to create a story so people come back.”
The exhibit also ties in nicely with this year’s Acadia National Park centennial, she added.
Other choices are offered to the visitor along their route. Two touch-screen video displays allow visitors to consider different viewpoints as told by various members of the island community and Acadia National Park officials. The interviews were filmed and edited for the displays by cinematographer Thom Willey.
The visitor quickly learns that the introduction of cars on the island was extremely contentious.
“It was a 16-year debate,” Bench said. “The history is interesting and entertaining.”
The debate began as early as 1901, Bench said. “The story is confusing and convoluted.”
By 1903 summer residents were petitioning the Maine Legislature to allow each island town to decide whether to allow cars. The summer residents were claiming motorized vehicles “would ruin this rustic, bucolic place,” Bench said.
The discussion soon moved to town meetings, where there was considerable support for a ban.
“Them devil carts are injurious to life and limb, run over hens and raise up runctions generally,” was the opinion expressed by a selectman at a March 1906 town meeting in the town of Eden, now Bar Harbor.
Of course not all were opposed to automobiles. It seems residents of Southwest Harbor and Tremont were in favor; there was no ban in those towns, Bench said. A photo in the exhibit shows chauffeurs posing with cars being kept in a large Southwest Harbor garage. The vehicles were owned by summer residents living in other towns suggesting, perhaps, that some of the wealthy weren’t anti-car as much as they were against cars near their shorefront cottages.
The exhibit tells of several incidents where the bans in certain towns were challenged by drivers who ignored the law or, in one case, tried to get around the law by hitching a horse to his car after he reached a point in Bar Harbor where cars no longer were allowed.
The driver might have succeeded if he had a stronger horse. When the animal could not pull the vehicle up a steep hill, the man started the engine and drove up the hill. The honeymooning subject later was arrested at his hotel, Bench said.
The ingenuity of island residents also is illustrated in the exhibit. The display features a mock-up of a homemade car built by the Bar Harbor boys, Leslie Brewer, Freddy Richardson and William Dolliver, using some of the parts from the original. In November 1908, Dolliver was granted a driver’s license and license plate for the vehicle, which was cobbled together from old carriage parts and powered by a boat engine.
Earlier in Bar Harbor, an entrepreneur set up shop to build steam cars there. The Boston Automobile Co. did produce several of these vehicles but went out of business after the company’s plan to market them to summer residents backfired, Bench said.
Today, of course, cars are a fact of life on Mount Desert Island. But, as a destination for tourists and summer residents, issues such as traffic congestion and pollution have followed. The exhibit doesn’t ignore these issues. Instead, they are presented in a thought-provoking manner, tying them in with the early clashes regarding cars on the island.
“All this we were talking about 100 years ago we’re talking about today,” Bench said.
Of special note, the museum has on loan a custom 1934 Ford built for Edsel Ford, the son of Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford. The coachwork for the one-of-a-kind Luxus cabriolet was done in Germany and fitted to a standard 1934 Ford chassis and once was a fixture at Ford’s Skylands estate in Seal Harbor, now owned by domestic diva Martha Stewart.
The Seal Cove Auto Museum is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Oct. 21. For more info, call 244-9242 and visit www.sealcoveautomuseum.org.