Photograph courtesy Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library
As car sales increased, demand for tires fueled a surge in manufacturing jobs at the Memphis Firestone plant.
Memphis’ first automobile owner didn’t have to travel very far to find the first automobile dealer in Memphis.
The year was 1901, and he simply walked next door.
By all accounts, Samuel T. Carnes was a visionary. The president of the Memphis Light & Power Company had installed the first electric lights in this city and set up the first telephone system. Born in 1850 in Hardeman County, Carnes worked as a bookkeeper for a bank when he first moved to the Bluff City, then for wholesale grocers and various cotton firms along Front Street before organizing the electric company that would evolve into modern-day Memphis Light, Gas and Water. He and his family — wife Kate and daughters Katherine and Juliet — lived in a sprawling stone mansion on Linden, and Carnes took the streetcar every day to his offices at 300 Second Street. At the age of 51, perhaps he was pondering new adventures, or maybe he was simply considering buying a bicycle, when he picked up the little catalog published by Jerome P. Parker.
A grainy old photograph shows the Samuel T. Carnes family in the first automobile purchased in Memphis.
Their paths might have never crossed if Jerome Parker had enjoyed working for his father’s real estate company. But city directories show that in 1895, he embarked on a new venture and opened a bicycle shop at 296 Second Street, in a building that formerly housed a wallpaper company. He shared the space with a plumbing firm, and to supplement his income, he also sold typewriters in addition to Union and Royal bicycles.
Parker had a view of the future as keen as Carnes. Though his storefront in a busy part of town no doubt attracted plenty of walk-in customers, in the last years of the nineteenth century he began publishing a comprehensive mail-order catalog that included a rather astonishing selection of parts and accessories: handlebars, sprockets, tires, spokes, cranks, pumps, bearings, pedals, and more. One of his most expensive options, at $15, was the Coey Railroad Attachment, a device that allowed bicyclists to ride along railroad tracks.
And then the world changed — not only for Parker, but for Samuel T. Carnes and everyone else in Memphis. The 1901 catalog for “Jerome P. Parker – Manufacturers’ Agent – Whole Sale and Retail” included a cover illustration of pretty girls taking their bicycles for a spin in the countryside. But the cover also announced something entirely new: “Bicycles and Automobiles.”
From his offices next door, Carnes probably perused Parker’s new offerings, flipping through 38 pages of bicycle gear, before he came to the very last page of the catalog, where he (and quite a few other Memphians) were stunned by an illustration showing — well, they really didn’t know what it was, exactly.
The headline was, “The Horse and His Successor.” Boldly declaring that the “Automobile Age had arrived,” the ad proclaimed, “There is a great demand for a self-propelling vehicle that will combine the qualities of lightness, speed, economy, safety, and ease of operation. The ‘Mobile’ is a steam motor vehicle having these desired qualities. The mechanism is very compact and there is but very little noise. There is no odor and no vibration.”
The price of this “Mobile,” as it was called, was $750 — an astonishing sum in those days when an average yearly wage was barely $500. (Parker’s best bicycle cost only $20.) But money wasn’t a concern for a man as wealthy as Carnes. How long did he wait, one wonders, before he rushed next door and placed an order for the first car in Memphis?
No, it’s not the Great Gatsby. Shown here in his office, looking every inch the successful car dealer, Robert R. Price was president of the Southern Motor Car Company, the city’s only Cadillac dealership in the 1920s.
Photograph courtesy PIXIE AND RICHARD WOODALL
In the archives of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library is a faded, grainy old photograph, taken sometime after 1901, showing Samuel T. Carnes, his wife, and his two daughters sitting proudly in their new automobile. Everything about this vehicle shows why they were first called “horseless carriages.” It’s basically a buggy without a horse, and tucked somewhere under the seats are the engine, gear train, and water and fuel tanks that could power this device at a then-unheard-of speed of 5 miles per hour.
No records have survived to show how many other “Mobiles” Parker sold that first year. But by 1903, his catalog began to offer a considerably more sophisticated-looking “Rambler” automobile (no relation to the later model from American Motors), calling it “in many respects the most remarkable carriage before the general public.” After all, the new model offered “a long wheelbase giving great comfort over rough country roads,” high horsepower “that will take you anywhere,” four full elliptical springs “to avoid the usual vibration,” and a weight “suitable to all American roads.”
It took a special kind of person to buy an automobile in the very early 1900s. City streets were unpaved, with loose gravel, rocks, mud, and potholes. With no service stations, repair shops, or mechanics, the new car owner was left to his own devices whenever repairs were needed. In those days, that could be a daily task. Tires required constant patching, potholes shattered the flimsy wheels, and the old steam engines were cantankerous at best.
Such necessary products as oil and, later, gasoline — when the internal combustion engine became more popular than steam — simply weren’t available at every corner. Drivers bought gas in gallon cans from the nearest dry goods store, in the early 1900s paying 9 cents a gallon, and they learned to keep extra parts and a full bag of tools on hand at all times.
If the public considered these new machines dangerous, they often had a good reason. In those days before Ford and the other automobile factories became part of the American landscape, cars like the “Mobile” and the “Rambler” were often assembled by hand, in backyard garages. Quality control wasn’t even considered, and the early cars’ brakes, transmission, wheels, suspension, and steering had a nasty tendency to fail at the worst possible moment.
Even when the automobiles operated properly, the drivers took the blame for many of the accidents that put a black mark on the early days of driving. Such basic features for controlling automobiles — stop signs, traffic lights, and even lane markings — were still in the future. And after traffic signals finally began to appear at a few busy intersections, drivers had to figure out that a red light (or in the early days, just a red flag) meant STOP and green meant GO. When lines were first painted down highways (a fellow from Detroit, appropriately, gets credit for that, by adapting the machine that sprayed lines on tennis courts), it still wasn’t clear to some drivers which side to drive on.
The Southern Motors showroom featured the latest model Cadillacs, mosaic tile floors, and potted plants.
Photograph courtesy PIXIE AND RICHARD WOODALL
Despite all the challenges — and downright dangers — the brand-new automobile industry was clearly on the move. Between 1900 and 1910, more than 670 individual automobile companies opened across the United States. Most of them closed within a few years; it’s possible the public didn’t leap at the chance to buy cars with names like Blood, Bugmobile, Dodo, O-We-Go, or Seven Little Buffaloes. Jerome Parker’s first offering, the “Mobile,” was out of business by 1903; his more advanced “Rambler” endured until 1914.
In Memphis, Parker reigned as the city’s sole automobile dealer for just two years. In 1903, another bicycle shop downtown, owned by Harry A. White, began to offer automobiles. As with Parker, he initially advertised “Bicycles, Cycle Sundries, and Parts,” and almost as an afterthought, announced he was a “dealer in automobiles” (without mentioning the brand he was selling). A year later, a third dealer joined the competition. Tri-State Automobile and Supply Company not only offered cars for sale but provided an additional service: “Competent and careful operators, ensuring safety, to accompany parties.”
And then the floodgates opened. By 1910, barely a decade after Carnes drove the first automobile down the streets of Memphis, this city had more than 24 dealers. Well-known models were now available here — Ford, Packard, Hudson, Buick — along with the smaller manufacturers, such as Lozier, Jackson, White, and others.
Samuel T. Carnes himself also joined the “Automobile Age” as an entrepreneur. By 1910, he was president of the Memphis Automobile Company, a dealership at Fourth and Monroe, offering Packards. Parker was still in business with a dealership on Madison Avenue. Two brothers, Myron and Ripley, established the Merriman Brothers Automobile Company, selling Thomas Flyer automobiles, Rapid trucks, and the new Babcock Electrics, showing that electric cars are really nothing new.
The Merriman Brothers’ property at Third and Washington included offices, shops, and a garage, and the firm also sold tires, polish, soap, oils, grease, and other supplies. They joined a rapidly growing auto-related industry in Memphis. By 1910, city directories listed three automobile accessory dealers, eight garages, 14 repair shops, an automobile parcel-delivery service, and — for those owners of Babcock Electrics — the Oliver Electric Company, which provided “automobile charging.”
When Owen Lilly opened his carriage-making factory in 1870, he surely never dreamed he would someday become one of the leaders of the rapidly expanding automotive industry in Memphis. Lilly, along with five other local businessmen, was a charter member of the Memphis Automobile Dealers Association, established on December 11, 1916 (and known today, a century later, as the Greater Memphis Automobile Dealers Association to reflect the dealers’ steady expansion beyond the city limits and into Arkansas and Mississippi).
By 1920, the “Automobile” category that once occupied a couple of lines in the Memphis city directory now spilled over onto 20 pages or more. The listings included dozens of automobile dealers, most of them at this time clustered along Madison and Monroe, with Union — formerly a residential avenue — slowly evolving into “Auto Row.” Most of the “big names” were now established here: Buick, Ford (“The Universal Car”), Nash, Stanley Steamer, Studebaker, Chevrolet, and Cadillac (“Cars of Quality”).
The very first car owners had no service stations or mechanics if they ran into trouble with their vehicles. Within a few years, full-scale repair shops helped to encourage car purchases.
The Southern Motor Company opened in 1909 and within a few years moved into a handsome brick building at 627-631 Monroe. The first owner was Stephen H. Butler, but in 1927 he sold the concern to Robert R. Price, who had relocated to Memphis with his wife, Olive, from Jacksonville, Florida. The Prices raised two daughters who gained fame in later years for their artistic skills: Billy Price Carroll became a talented painter, specializing in portraits and landscapes, and older sister Nadia Price Strid was an acclaimed photographer, with her own studio in Cooper-Young.
The family’s involvement with a dealership in Memphis came in a roundabout way. Robert R. Price had owned a successful Hupmobile car dealership in Florida, but a family tragedy — the death of their first daughter — convinced them to move away from Jacksonville. Years earlier, Price had become friends with Eddie Rickenbacker, the famed World War I flying ace, who introduced Price to an executive with a newly established company called General Motors. Impressed with his sales efforts in Florida, the GM executive offered Price the chance to operate a Cadillac and LaSalle dealership in Memphis.
Price accepted the offer, and in 1920, company letterhead shows he was part of the management team at Southern Motors, which included Stephen H. Butler, Stephen H. Butler Jr., and H.C. Williams. On September 6, 1923, Price purchased the dealership from Butler. Members of the Price family still have the original letter of agreement for that transaction, which reveals that Price paid exactly $100,000 to the Cadillac Motor Company of Detroit to buy the dealership. It’s interesting that the money wasn’t paid directly to the previous owner of the dealership, but to the manufacturer.
With a slight name change to the Southern Motor Car Company, Price’s firm was the sole Cadillac dealership in Memphis. In 1928, outgrowing its cramped location on Monroe, it moved to 731 Union Avenue, in the heart of “Auto Row.” It later moved even closer to downtown, to 341 Union, where it would remain for decades.
Today, Price’s granddaughter, Pixie Price Woodall, and her husband, Richard, have maintained company photos and letters from the 1920s and 1930s. A pocket-sized booklet contains illustrations and detailed specifications for more than two dozen Cadillac models offered in 1931, ranging from the “Standard Brougham” to the top-of-the-line “Fleetwood 3275 Seven-Passenger Imperial.” The latter model featured such luxuries as a long-grain “landau” leather roof, mahogany trim, a folding trunk rack, a nickel-plated cowl band, cushioned foot rests, and even a “vanity case” that came complete with “eight-day Waltham clock, mirror, memo pad, and two silver-top perfume bottles.”
The photos show a beautifully decorated showroom, with a gleaming mosaic tile floor and potted plants, a sun-filled space designed to showcase the automotive works of art on display. Other images depict the spic-and-span parts department, the spacious garage, Southern Motors mechanics and technicians at work, salesmen at their desks, and Robert Price in his office, looking dapper and successful in an all-white linen suit.
“I remember going downtown to Pappy’s office many times and running back to the Coke machine with the nickel that he always gave me,” Pixie Woodall says today. “I must have been only 5 or 6 at the time, and it was a real treat for me.”
Price was a respected businessman and community leader, who served several terms as president of the Memphis Automobile Dealers Association. “He was well-known, especially for the automobile shows that he helped put together in the 1930s,” says Woodall. “For each show he had national orchestras and bands come to play.” These annual events, usually held at Ellis Auditorium or the Fairgrounds, lasted as long as a week. Part of the celebration included a parade of the newest vehicles down Union Avenue, from Crosstown all the way to the river.
“In fact, my Aunt Nadia drove a 1906 Olds-
mobile down Union Avenue in the grand parade in 1934,” Woodall recalls. “She was only 15 and not old enough to have a driver’s license, but Pappy told her that it didn’t matter because it was only a parade. She was ‘decked out like a queen,’ she told me, and had a wonderful time.”
In 1953, Price sold the Cadillac dealership to Lawrence Canepari, who continued to operate it as Southern Motors. By 1958, a nephew, Joseph Canepari, was running the business, until a different family took over and changed the name to one quite familiar to many Memphians — Madison Cadillac — so named, not because it had moved away from Union Avenue, but because the new owner’s name was Albert F. Madison.
Electric cars were introduced in the early 1900s, and judging by ads like this, manufacturers hoped to attract decidedly upscale customers.
For a few years, a couple of Memphis companies even tried their hand at building cars. The best-remembered of these was the “Southern Six,” crafted by the Southern Automobile Manufacturing Company. The factory was located at Mallory and Latham, and an old advertisement explained that this was “a million-dollar organization composed of Southern people, manufacturing the pleasure car.”
A significant development was the appearance of the first full-fledged service stations. In 1920, Memphis drivers could take their vehicles to only four of them: C.G. Arnold Service on Adams, Automotive Electric Service on Dudley, the Owl Auto Service Club (providing “unique emergency service”) on Madison, and the one that endured longer than any others, the East Memphis Motor Company, located at Madison and Cooper when that intersection — known today, of course, as Overton Square — was literally on the eastern edge of Memphis.
Around the city, entrepreneurs specialized in a surprising number of other services and accessories. Chickasaw Sheet Metal Works offered refurbished automobile bodies. The J.P. Bruce Company sold a product called “radiator cement,” presumably to stop leaks. More than a dozen companies provided batteries. Stewart Products claimed to repair automobile horns, and Verdel & Company offered to do the same with headlights.
A business with the enticing name of the Magic Tunnel Auto Laundry, perhaps one of the first car washes in the city, opened on Union in 1921, promising customers would be “On Your Way in 15 Minutes.” Even the venerable William R. Moore dry-goods company got into the act, offering “Clothing for Automobilists” — almost a necessity in cars that often lacked heaters, tops, windows, and even windshields. Finally, for families with money and means, the Tennessee Auto Top and Painting Company provided “lettering, monograms, and coats-of-arms.”
By 1903, bicycle salesman Jerome Parker’s automobile selection had improved. The new “Rambler” model, priced at $750, was beginning to look more like a car and less like a carriage.
It was one thing to build a car; plenty of individuals and companies proved they could do that. It was another feat entirely to sell the vehicle to a still-skeptical public, and still another challenge to protect that investment.
Henry Ford made national headlines in 1914 when he dropped the price of the Model T to $440, but Fords and certain models of Chevrolets, selling for around $800, were the exception. In the 1920s, when the average annual wage was barely $500, a new Cadillac with all the trimmings could cost more than $4,000, as did Packards and Lincolns. Even such mid-range cars as Buicks or Dodges might sell anywhere from $1,300 to $3,000 depending on the model.
As a result, two other industries developed in direct response to the rise of the automobile, and often worked hand-in-hand with the car dealerships: finance companies and insurance agencies.
Detroit got into the act, in 1919 forming the General Motors Acceptance Corporation, which helped owners finance their new cars. The program was so successful that GMAC estimated that almost three-fourths of the automobiles sold in the early 1920s had been purchased with some sort of financing plan. Of course, automobile dealerships, banks, and loan companies, such as the Motor Securities Company in Memphis, also began providing services that enabled families to buy their very first cars.
But how to protect that investment? The American Automobile Insurance Company, with offices in the Bank of Commerce Building, may have been the first agency in Memphis to offer insurance policies exclusively for automobiles. Newspaper ads in 1918 declared the company was “Writing Nothing But Automobile Insurance” and mentioned assets of $2 million. Just one year later, the National Automobilists Protective Corporation Company joined them, and soon other insurance agencies began writing policies for drivers.
The combination of reliable manufacturers, full-scale dealerships, the availability of better parts and service, and time-payment plans to finance their purchase helped put thousands of Americans behind the wheels of new cars.
Later chapters of Memphis in Motion showcase the transformation of Union Avenue into “Auto Row,” profile the “big wheels” in the local car industry (families like Hull, Dobbs, Fisher, Hoehn, Oakley, Schaeffer, Skelton, and more), and follow the exodus of the car-sales industry eastward to Mt. Moriah, Covington Pike, Germantown Parkway, and beyond, examining the countless people and places that have played a role in the automobile business in Memphis. For more information about purchasing copies of Memphis in Motion (available in November), please call 521-9000.