Road Candy of the ’40s

A Rochester Democrat & Chronicle photo from 1947 documents the Higinbotham’s win in a Rochester parade.

A cool $25 bought me my first car in 1947.

In February 1946 I’d just returned to an East Bloomfield home my mom had moved into while I’d been away in the military. Plans were for getting a part-time job at Canandaigua National Bank and then off to college for my last two years. Mom gave me the use of her four-door 1941 Mercury for my 14-mile round trip to work that summer. In the fall a train and bus delivered me for my first year (as a junior) at Hanover College in Indiana.

The following summer I did a lot of thinking about growing up in Caledonia, riding in old cars with my brothers. A lot of those cars had ended up in scrap piles during the war. “Are any still around?” I asked Curt Peck from the local garage. Curt knew of a Model-T that was sitting in Mr. Wheeler’s old barn near where the village limits of Holcomb and East Bloomfield adjoined. Jack Rice had used it for delivering groceries from the Wheeler’s Grocery Store to downtown Holcomb.

To my amazement, it was a brass “T.” Model-T’s had brass radiators through 1916; the ones I remembered were mostly steel. The people in the house told me Mr. Wheeler lived in Syracuse, so I wrote expressing my interest in the car. He responded that he’d sell it for $25. Judging from the license plate still attached to the car, it had been kept in the barn, dry and well preserved, since 1927. I sent him the check and became the proud second owner of a 1,600-pound 1915 Model-T Ford.

A Family Project

Meanwhile, my brother Bob and his new bride were returning from his military assignment in Japan. Mom and I went up to the Rochester Railroad Station to meet the train they’d taken from New York Central. Heading home in her car, Bob told me he’d had a dream on the return ship about an old car. “Do you know where we could get one?” he asked.

“I just bought one!” I responded enthusiastically.

I returned from work the following day and the two of us went to look over my purchase. It would have to be towed home – a matter taken care of within a few days. Bob and I worked over the engine – a ring and valve job, new pistons, a dry cell battery, plugs, rebuilt brakes and a radiator check. During the time, Bob’s wife jokingly commented, “I lived in Japan during the war, married this handsome American Army captain, came to a new country to meet my new mother-in-law and live in a new home...only to become a Model-T widow!”

Once everything was in order, we fed it some gasoline and hit the road in style! She served us well that summer. Bob, his wife Galla, my sister Dorothy Anne and I entered a Rochester, New York, parade and won “the most authentic costumes” prize. It was a grand time enjoyed my all.

Arriving in Style
Too soon it was time to get ready for my final year at college. Bob asked if I’d given any thought to driving the “T” to Hanover, a 600-plus mile trip. Montgomery Ward’s had just come out with 30 x 3.5 tires, we’d had fun, the car ran reliably all summer. “Why not,” I responded. The car was running, the tires were new, and I was ready to go!

Leaving East Bloomfield for the big trip, my first stop was an overnight with Uncle Roy Outterson in Caledonia. The next morning I took off on the two-and-a-half-day journey, stopping every two to four hours to check the oil and gasoline. (The tank is under the front seat!) Top speed was 25 mph. No breakdowns. I pulled into Hanover mid-afternoon and was an instant hit! No other antique cars were on the 600-student campus.

Since there was no anti-freeze, when it started to get colder I put the side curtains up and drained the radiator for the long winter storage in the garage. Every Monday night we’d push the car outside, have our Sigma Chi chapter meetings in the garage, and then push the car back in. Winter holidays I traveled home by train.

Come the spring and warm weather, the “T” fired right up and was as eager to get on the road as was the bunch of fraternity brothers. I’d earned the nickname “JC” because of my love for music and the great trombone player Jay C. Higginbotham. There was a great place in Louisville where the O’Dell Baker Quintet played some real swing and bop. One Saturday night, after the basketball game was over, several of us decided to make the Louisville trip. It was a particularly good night and we rolled back onto campus around 4 a.m. I did make the church choir later that morning but can’t remember what we sang.

The “T” Retires
Not long after that, it was time to pack up and head home. My Hanover years were complete. I pulled out of the parking lot in the early morning hours with honorable diploma in hand and Bob Gabriel from Buffalo, New York, in the passenger seat.

First stop was Lebanon, Ohio, for lunch. We were getting out of the car when a lady emerged from the restaurant saying, “I’ve already called the Ford dealer.” The dealer, Arch Wharton, and a company man showed up and gave my “T” the once-over. He offered to buy our lunch, and we swapped stories about our cars – he had a 1906 Model “N” in the back of his showroom that he used occasionally for parades. I now had a contact man for future potential car problems. Back in the car, we made it as far as Mansfield, Ohio, and pulled into a hotel at 11 p.m. Off to an early start the next morning, we had an uneventful day of travel and arrived in Buffalo late that night. After dropping Gabe off, I decided to continue straight to East Bloomfield, pulling in the driveway between 3 and 4 a.m.

After I got back into the routine of a regular workday, it became obvious I’d have to get a serious daily mode of transportation and park the “T” unless it was a special occasion. Mom had just bought a car and gave me use of her old ’41 Mercury. In 1950 I headed out to the West Avenue Garage in Canandaigua and spoke to Murray Benham. He showed me a 1949 Ford two-door Club Coupe that had belonged to Charles W. Coe (Coe Insurance Company). Asking price: $1,100. A neat-looking car that smelled of cigar whenever the weather was damp. I applied for my first car loan and couldn’t sleep for two days, faced with the implications of debt.

Even though my father’s need for a “serious mode of transportation” is long gone, the toy “T” still sits in the barn waiting for special occasions. Recently his two grandsons and a trusted friend readied the “T” for an extra-special surprise to celebrate his 80th birthday. The ‘birthday boy’ with a twinkle in his eye proved he could still muster the coordination needed as he tore down his driveway, up his neighbor’s and across their adjoining lawn. When the car stopped on that chilly fall afternoon, the sun broke forth from the clouds and all was well with the world!

as told by John S. Higinbotham, to his daughter G. Yvonne Higinbotham Chavez

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