Memories of a Model T Ford
By Hulda Franklin (as told to her by Agnes Bentley Bailey)
Edited by Reg Quist
Yes, I can still remember the early spring day when the model T Ford Coach entered into our farm history. It was in fact, an exciting break in our struggle for survival during those “dirty thirties”. For us kids, Ralph and I, it was to be a turning point in our young lives. Now we could hope to go to places far away. Even as far as the Edmonton exhibition.
Painted black, as all up-to-date cars were in those days, it rolled into our yard loaded to the hilt. And firmly tied to its flat top was our grandmother’s oak dining room table.
Dad and his brother had taken turns driving the loaded car all the way from Western Oregon where Dad had gone to help settle his father’s estate. He had fallen heir to what was to become our never-to-be forgotten model T Ford. At least she was model T to our Dad. She was Betsy to Ralph and me.
As we grew older Ralph began calling her Henry T, or sometimes other names that weren’t quite so complementary
Dad soon came up with an addition for his beloved automobile. No longer was he going to haul our cream and eggs to town with a team and wagon. All it took was a discarded running gear and his skill as both mechanic and carpenter to come up with the two-wheeled trailer.
From that day on model T was seldom seen without her ‘colt’ as some had dubbed the trailer.
That model T was not a new car when it arrived in our yard. But in those days Ford cars were not built to fall apart. Year after year it chugged along. Over rough roads, through mud and slush, snow drifts and blizzards, our model T lugged its passengers and loaded trailer wherever they wished to go.
To be sure, dad always kept old Betsy in good repair. He loved to tinker. And Ted Reynolds, the Ford dealer in town, could usually come up with the needed part, even if he had to take it off some other old wreck.
All mama had to do was mention a trip on the coming Sunday. If it happened to be a jaunt of more than say twenty-five miles, up came the usual reply from dad: “Now that sounds interesting, guess I’ll have to check the automobile.”
Checking that automobile was no small job. It meant driving Betsy right across the front door opening of the barn. Here she would have either her engine or tail end lifted with the hay-sling rope, while Dad carefully investigated and disassembled the moving parts. For the next day or two, we would have to pack the pails of milk around by a back door to get to the milk house up front.
By Sunday morning there usually were a lot of necessary parts still lying around. Ralph and I would watch almost frantically as Dad slowly and carefully put each part back in place.
At last the sling was untied and the old vehicle lowered to the ground. Once more the model T was ready to go. Then wouldn’t you know? Usually that lovely sunny afternoon, when a lunch was packed and we were all ready to take off, something would come up to delay us.
One time, a small black cloud appeared over the garden. The bees were swarming. This would be another time-consuming wait as they were finally retrieved and settled into a new home.
Late start? Aw, well, the cows would just have to wait a bit longer that evening for their milking.
Mom raised a thousand or so chickens every summer and caponized the roosters. With plenty of milk-mash these capons grew into huge, meaty birds that she sold at a premium to the packing house in Edmonton.
One fall day dad decided it would speed up marketing to borrow Uncle George’s four wheeled trailer, and so take a larger load. Uncle George went along on the trip, in case of emergency. But there was no trouble, the little old Ford just travelled right along, pulling this heavier load.
Driving down Jasper Avenue in those days wasn’t quite the jam-packed situation it is today. But there was still considerable traffic and, of course, the trolley cars. Suddenly Uncle George noticed a load of crated chickens pass them on his side. Someone else must be taking chickens to market also. Then it dawned on him.
“Ward, he exploded, those are our chickens ahead of us.”
Luckily, the road was edged with curbs. With the trailer’s wheels angling towards the curb, the trailer was soon brought to a halt. The wayward trailer was once more fastened to the hitch and the trip resumed. No damage was done, but Dad was always thankful there was no policeman close by and no trolley car right at that moment.
Dad had made up his mind that I was not going to learn to drive the model T, since the outdated gearshift was worked with foot levers. I could learn to drive a more modern car when my time came.
But when I became of age, I soon realized that driving for me would be a long time coming if I had to wait for a new car to replace the faithful Betsy. So, with much persuasion I was allowed to drive. Then came the day for my driver’s license.
Proudly I filled out the form and answered all Magistrate Simpson’s questions. Then to our surprise he asked Dad if, seeing there was no police around to do the driving test, I could take him for a test drive. Dad reluctantly agreed.
We followed the magistrate to the courthouse door. Dad, as usual, was quite unconcerned. But I had more than one butterfly in my stomach.
Turning to dad at the door the magistrate asked, “Where is your car?”
Dad pointed to Betsy, sitting on the town street with her trailer in tow and in the trailer, a well tied down barrel of buttermilk for Mom’s chickens.
Magistrate Simpson was a man of quite some prestige in our town. He took one look and decided on the spot. He wasn’t going to be seen riding in that thing.
“You say, Mr. Bailey, that your daughter drives quite well?”
“Well, yes, I guess she’s a good driver.”
We walked back to his office and without another word the document was signed. I left the magistrate’s office with the right to drive. And never did take a driving test.
That old Ford hung together through World War Two, when you couldn’t purchase a new car unless you were high on the priority list. As long as Betsy continued to run, we would be nowhere near the top of the list. One day Betsy’s ‘colt’ provided downtown Wetaskiwin with a real scare as she stood motionless by the sidewalk.
The war was at its peak. Everyday planes, out on training runs, zoomed overhead in formation. People were on edge even in our small town.
Like new car’s, tires were almost nonexistent. Dad tried to keep the ones on the car in fair shape but those on the trailer had been patched and re-patched.
Unlike the tires of today, the old tires were filled with high compression rubber tubes. Naturally, the heavily loaded trailer added greatly to the strain on the tires. When a bomb exploded on the town’s main street that day, only dad realized one of his precious tires had gone up in smoke, as people stood in bewildered silence, looked for shelter, or ran from the buildings to stare at seemingly nothing.
As I look back now, I know those model T days were some of the happiest in our lives, while also being some of the most frustrating.
Dad took the utmost pleasure in that old car. His greatest pride was to see it ticking along, firing on all cylinders.
Often as a young fellow, Ralph would declare, “When Ted Reynolds runs out of repairs Dad will make something that will work. And so he often did.
When the model T’s body almost fell apart, we thought surely dad was beat. But from somewhere he and Ted Reynolds dug up an almost new one and the little Ford carried on, even after we got a new vehicle, years later.
Now Betsy lies rusting away in the bush. Once in awhile my son looks her over and dreams of what he could do, had he found her all intact. For he has his grandfather’s fix it know-how.
Why, he’d be the talk of the town as he drove the old model T down main street in a parade.
How times do change