For all the conveniences of automobile driving, there is a darker side to this practice. The black exhaust of motoring includes road rage, speeding, drunk driving, auto theft, accidents and fatalities. When did motoring become so maddening? These problems surfaced as soon as automobiles hit the roads en masse in the early 1900s.
In June 1913, there were 140 automobiles in Morrison County. The newspaper published lists of car owners and the makes of the cars they owned because the automobile was such a novelty at this time. By August 1915, there were 562 automobiles in the county and around 86,000 cars in the state.
Some driving disasters were caused by the design of vehicles and poor roads. Early cars were top heavy and had no seat belts or air bags. Roads were unpaved, bumpy and dusty, and had no shoulders or dividing lines. Just as many car catastrophes were caused by human error.
Holding political office is no guarantee of safety from automobile accidents. In May 1910, Little Falls alderman, J. F. Bastien, was struck in downtown Little Falls while crossing the street. “Due only to the fact that the car was moving at a slow rate of speed and that Mr. Bastien had presence of mind enough to cause him to clutch at the hood of the machine saved him from being severely injured” (LFDT-May 26, 1910).
The first auto fatality occurred in the county on April 22, 1913. Warren Farrow and Frank Kerich were on their way to Little Falls from Pierz on the Pierz Road (now Highway 27) when the accelerator stuck. In trying to free the pedal, Farrow took his eyes off the road and the car “turned turtle” over an eight-foot embankment. Kerich, the passenger, was thrown from the car and was crushed as it rolled. Farrow was thrown free of the car and became unconscious. When he awoke hours later, he crawled to a home a half-mile away to get help. It was one o’clock in the morning by the time he reached the Mike Thommes house. News of the accident reached Coroner N. W. Chance, who brought Charles Farrow and F. P. Farrow (Warren Farrow’s father) to the scene to retrieve Kerich’s body and the automobile.
A particularly heart-wrenching auto accident occurred on March 30, 1917, when eight-year old Viola Beveridge was hit as she roller-skated across the street near the Episcopal Church on Fourth Street in Little Falls. Several people, including children, witnessed the accident as the Central School was located across from the Episcopal Church at the time. Ben Coen was speeding in the car as it rounded a corner and struck Viola. He and his companion, Roy McGregor, had been drinking before the accident. Police officer James Larson saw them driving recklessly and was about to arrest them for the offense, but was too late. McGregor picked up the severely injured Viola and the two men drove her and her brother home where the girl died. McGregor and Coen were arrested, Coen while sitting in a saloon. The men were both charged with Second Degree Manslaughter because McGregor owned the car and Coen had been driving at the time of the accident. The speed of the court proceedings was far quicker than those we now see. By April 25, 1917, Coen was found guilty and sentenced to a term in the Stillwater State Prison. On May 1, 1917, it was reported that McGregor was also found guilty and given the same sentence. It was evident from the coverage of this case that both Coen and McGregor were sorry for causing Viola’s death. McGregor was concerned about getting the child home to her family and Coen cried in jail. The jury also asked the judge for mercy in sentencing the two men.
Road rage figured prominently in an accident that occurred in August 1919. Mrs. E. A. Berg and Malonda Koeppe were driving to St. Cloud when they came upon a car that was moving slowly. They tried to pass, but as they did, the driver of the slow-moving vehicle deliberately swerved into their car and pushed them off the road and over an embankment. The women were pinned under the car, but were removed with only minor injuries. Road rage was not the term used at the time to describe the reason for this accident. Instead, drivers who behaved in such a manner were called “road hogs.”
With automobiles being a coveted commodity, theft of cars was inevitable. Two automobile thefts were thwarted in December 1916 by savvy car owners. The cars of Harry Weimer and H. A. Rider were targets of thieves on two consecutive nights. The men parked their cars in locked garages. They discovered that the locks had been pried open, but their cars remained safely inside their buildings. Weimer and Rider had the foresight to remove the batteries from their cars so that thieves could not start them. The newspaper reported that people generally stole cars in order to go joyriding, but that “the attempts on two garages in the last two nights indicate that whoever tried to break into them intended to steal the cars and not merely to borrow them, as joyriding is not a popular pastime in zero weather” (LFDT-December 9, 1916).
On a lighter note, sometimes automobiles decided to leave on their own. In Motley, on August 2, 1919, Gust Herman parked his Ford in front of B. F. Cales’ store and gasoline tank. When Thomas Goggin came to get some gas, he pushed the Ford to get it out of the way. The car started up on its own and took off. It ran into an electric pole and a telephone pole before the back end of the car hit the Davenport Restaurant. No one was hurt in the accident, but there was quite a bit of damage to the car.
From these examples of early automobile troubles, it should be of no surprise that the current rate of driving disasters far exceeds those that used to occur. Without the convenient newspaper accounts of automobile owners, it’s a sure bet that there are far more than 562 cars in Morrison County today.
by Mary Warner
Copyright 2002, Morrison County Historical Society
The following issues of the Little Falls Daily Transcript were used as sources for this article: May 26, 1910; April 23, 1913; June 17, 1913; August 31, 1915; March 31, 1917; April 2, 1917, April 11, 1917; April 25, 1917; May 1, 1917; August 2, 1919.