Last week I share the story of the Xenia Cycle Car, a product of Paul Hawkins and associates. This was not the only automobile built and sold in the city of Xenia.
Before many of the major manufacturing plants moved to Detroit, there were literally hundreds of automobiles being constructed in cities around the country.
It seems that nearly every city had someone who wanted to provide better transportation and worked on perfecting the horseless carriage. Originally, those vehicles strongly resembled the carriages of the day. Rubber tires were not filled with air, and there was no steering wheel on the earliest versions. The driver steered with a rudder attached to the front wheels until the steering wheel proved to be the answer.
Cars were started with a hand cranking device attached to the engine on the front of the car and after several turns of the crank, the motor would hopefully start and the driver could jump in the car and speed away at a rate of four or five miles per hour.
Brothers Jake and Fred Baldner designed and manufactured an automobile which bore their name. After they ceased to make their car, the Xenia Cycle car was made in their garage with their assistance.
The brothers wanted to be among the first in the nation to build a satisfactory motor car. They took their new invention to the streets of Xenia on April 24, 1904.
One of the earlier incidents which nearly halted their venture was the day Jacob was driving the car through Xenia. A horse pulling the rig of one of the young ladies in town was frightened by the noise and bolted, leaving the lady in considerable distress. Being a gentleman, Jake jumped from the car and rescued the damsel in distress, much to his credit. The problem was he had forgotten to stop the car before he ran to help and the car continued to run away as well.
This was about the time that the city determined that sidewalks should be placed. Curbs were made of large stones, partially buried in the ground and in time the streets were paved with bricks, making the passage of the new automobiles much easier.
With the advent of more motor vehicles on the streets, the city council passed an ordinance in 1904 regulating the use of automobiles on the city streets.
Another venture of the brothers was when they served as local agents for the Republic auto which was made in Hamilton. This was a high-speed car (1909) which sold for about twice the cost of a Buick which was also made at that time.
The following story appeared in the Xenia Gazette as told by a friend of Fred Baldner: “Probably the first car to make a cross country run was made in Xenia by the Baldners. The purchaser was an official of the Chicago Police Department. Part of the sale price was the delivery of the auto to Chicago under its own power, the buyer being a passenger. Fred, the younger brother, did the driving and one of my pleasant memories of bygone days was to hear him tell of the trip. The car behaved very well mechanically but the tires were what would be called casings today.”
One of my favorite stories about the Baldner brothers was the time they were trying to sell their car to an interested citizen. The man was told go get in the car and drive around the block to see if he would like to purchase one. He came around the block the first time and waved at Jake who was standing by the street, Jake waved back. A second and third time, the man came around the block, each time waving a little more at Jake with Jake returning the wave each time. Finally the man came around again and yelled “How do I stop this thing?” Jake waved back and yelled “It will eventually run out of gas.”
The Baldners did not succeed in making their car a huge success, but they did perfect a transmission which was a considerable improvement. Henry Ford adapted this technique, and for some years the boys tried in court to prove that it was their invention, not Ford’s, but to no avail.
As a side note, Henry Ford and his wife visited Xenia often. They came by rail, of course, in their own private car which would be “”parked” near the Pennsylvania station. What brought them to Xenia often? Mrs. Ford’s brother was E. R. Bryant who owned the Bryant Motor Sales at the corner of Market and Whiteman Streets where he was, of course, the only Ford agency in the area.
Early in the development of motor cars, W. A. Kelley Co. was located at the corner of Market and Greene Streets. In 1921, Mr. Bryant bought the business and continued in that location until 1929 when he built a new brick English-type sales and service building at the corner of Market and Whiteman. The business was perhaps the oldest auto agency in continuous operation in the county when E.B. Ellis purchased the business in 1945.
It is of no use to speculate about how different it might have been if the Baldner brothers and Paul Hawkins had been able to continue their automobile manufacturing companies.
Once upon a time, two different cars were made here. The cycle car sported two seats, with the passenger seated behind the driver. The Baldner had room for a passenger next to the driver as well as some room in the back for other passengers. Both showed the ingenuity of invention and both hoped for big success.
Joan Baxter is a local resident and weekly historical columnist.