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History: Horsepower in Tulare County
Cars and Horses in Tulare County
Story & Photos provided by Terry Ommen
The story of transportation in Tulare County is filled with excitement and fraught with danger. Traveling on foot was of course a big part of the history, but beyond that, vehicles of all shapes and sizes came on the scene. Before Tulare became a county, native people used tule boats to get to favorite fishing and hunting areas, especially at Tulare Lake. Lacking bridges, settlers built ferries that hauled people, animals and goods across swollen streams and rivers, like the Kings River.
As the county developed, new vehicles were introduced, including stagecoaches, buggies, bicycles, and trains. Each had its advantages and disadvantages, and required an adjustment period for those interacting with them. Bicyclists, for example, learned the importance of safely maneuvering around pedestrians, and vice versa, and buggy drivers quickly learned not to get in the way of moving trains. The challenge was coexistence and tolerance for each other. While county residents did pretty well, there were two forms of transportation that had a difficult adjustment: the horse and the automobile.
The horse had a long history in the county, and for many years, it was the dominant form of transportation. Whether hitched to a wagon, buggy or piece of farm equipment, this animal was relied on to move many people from one place to another.
Even before the county was created, hundreds, probably thousands of horses roamed this remote and mostly uncharted land. Annie R. Mitchell, Tulare County’s premier historian, wrote that the Tulare Valley (now called San Joaquin) had more wild horses and mules than any other place of equal size in the world. Herds of hundreds of spirited steeds lived well with plenty of feed and water. By the 1870s, these wild animals disappeared and domesticated horses took over. Farmers used them for everyday transportation and for pulling heavy farm equipment. On horseback, stockmen and vaqueros used the tame horses to wrangle the thousands of cattle that fed on the open range land. It has been said that “the history of mankind is carried on the back of a horse,” and it certainly held true in Tulare County.
Compared to the horse, the automobile has a much shorter history. Grover L. Weathers, an early Visalia mechanic, claimed that the first horseless carriage was a steam Locomobile that came to the county in 1898 driven by Harry Brown, a New York real estate investor. The first gasoline-powered vehicle is said to have been a 3.5 horsepower beauty that stopped in Visalia in 1900.
These horseless carriages or “machines” as they were often called, caught on quickly, and soon county residents—mostly the wealthy—began purchasing them. In 1902, former Tulare County Sheriff and rancher, Dan E. Overall, bought a Model “AA” from the Stearns Steam Carriage Company in Syracuse, New York for $1,100. Another local, Reuben C. Merryman, a Lemon Cove area rancher, bought a “Rambler” in 1903. Both men liked their purchases, and with their endorsement word spread. Dealerships popped up everywhere and so did automobiles.
By 1913, Goldstein & Iseman, a well established mercantile business in Visalia, opened what is believed to be the town’s first gas station. They announced on March 13th, “The gasoline drum and pump on the sidewalk in front of G. & I. store on Main Street is now being set up and will be ready for use shortly. Automobiles will be able to fill in three minutes by driving alongside the curb…”
With the increase in autos, more and more horses and vehicles were crossing paths on the roads, competing for space. The meetings were mostly cordial, but sometimes they turned ugly. Both drivers felt they had the right of way. To make matters worse, many of the roads were narrow and riddled with potholes or washouts. Weathers remembered one occasion: while driving his auto near Farmersville, an irate farmer with a shotgun forced him to pull off the road so he could escort his team safely past the auto.
Frequently, these confrontations turned into accidents. A particularly bad one happened on a road near Farmersville. On the evening of October 14, 1911, at about 6:30pm, Porter Davis, a Farmersville rancher, was driving his auto with three passengers inside. He saw a horsedrawn vehicle ahead of him moving slowly, traveling in the same direction. As Davis started to pass the buggy, operated by Fred Van Loan and his wife, “the ‘machine’ struck with the hind wheel of the buggy with such force as to render the entire buggy a shapeless mass of kindling wood, knocking Mr. and Mrs. Van Loan out with such force as to cut a deep gash in her head…” Davis and his passengers were thrown from their automobile and Hyman Mitchell was pinned underneath. Despite the terrible crash, no one was killed.
Another accident occurred the following year. On the evening of August 27th, on a country road near Orosi, J. W. Byfield was driving a motorized delivery vehicle full of clothing bound for the Visalia Laundry. According to witnesses he was “traveling at a lively rate, and dodging past several rigs.” In one of the buggies was Mrs. J. T. Cottingham and Mrs. George Dean of Orosi. As Byfield passed the ladies’ rig, their horse became frightened and bolted at a high rate of speed with the ladies holding on for dear life. They were thrown from the buggy sustaining serious injuries, but they survived. It wasn’t until the next day that Byfield discovered that he had caused the accident.
Eventually, the number of automobiles greatly outnumbered horse-drawn vehicles, and the number of accidents between the two decreased. But the casualty list during these years of both horse and automobile proves just how difficult the transition was.