Earlier this week, a small van was parked in front of the Exeter Historical Society.
The rear tire was precariously balanced on the granite sidewalk due to a parallel parking accident. We’ve all been there. Yet even if the situation looked pretty dire, the truck could make it home relatively unscathed thanks to the technology involved in modern tire design. Modern tires are more robust than their ancestors.
In 1918 there were few cars on the roads of Exeter. When Nathaniel and Theodora Burleigh decided to drive their new machine from New Haven, Connecticut to visit Theodora’s Exeter family, it was a monumental 182 mile journey. The fact that they brought their 22 month old baby, Barbara, made the trip even more extraordinary. Three days later, Nat asked her sister-in-law, Helen Tufts, if she would like to accompany him to Franklin to pick up her mother. Helen, 21, who everyone called “Betty”, was ready for the trip. Thanks to his journal, we can get an idea of what this kind of early road trip looked like.
Betty got up early to take care of her victory garden. The United States had joined the Great War in April, and on that day, in September, most of Betty’s produce was ready for harvest. She picked corn and beans, watered the rest, and then she and Nat left for Franklin just after 9 a.m.
“When we reached Epping Square we found out that we had lost the horn, so we returned to where we last blew it (about 2 miles from Exeter) but did not find it . ”
New Hampshire state law has been making traffic laws piecemeal since cars began to take to the roads. In 1915, the law stipulated that “the driver of a motor vehicle approaching an intersection must give a timely signal” with a bell or horn. They just couldn’t continue the journey without a horn. They decided to return to Epping where Nat had a cousin.
“There was a knock where we headed back to Epping,” she noted. Betty, who was the tough type, would have easily helped change the tire but, “as Nat started to fix it, it started to sink. It was soaked and I too got wet from the blowing rain. Betty, in her formal clothes, retreated to the safety of the car and stoically picked up her sweater. They arrived at Nat’s cousin soon after.
“We went to his cousins’ place and he fixed an old Ford horn and fixed another spare tire, then he called his mother to meet us in Concord.” They wouldn’t lead to Franklin. Nat’s mother, Nannie Burleigh, would take the train. “We had sandwiches in Manchester and made the most horrible detour, mud all the way to the hubs like chocolate pudding. Soon the engine stopped and Nat discovered that the supply hose was broken – a metal hose.
Still drenched, Nat went under the car – in the mud “like chocolate pudding” – and “fixed it with duct tape and string”. They had an advantage over other travelers: Nat was an engineer. He was currently employed with the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in New Haven, a post that relieved him of any military service, for which the family was grateful. Once the supply pipe had been temporarily repaired, they sped at full speed towards Concord.
“We got to Concord just in time to see the train they were probably on come out, so we made our way back to Manchester, again by the detour, but we couldn’t find them. We waited 10 minutes until another train arrived. So Nat called and found that they hadn’t started at all! It seemed that Nannie had decided to wait until tomorrow. The two got back into the car to go home. “I had another puncture in Raymond. Reception at 6.30 am. By nine hours they had traveled from Exeter to Epping, back to Exeter, back to Epping, Manchester then Concord, Raymond and finally Exeter.
Yet Betty never complains about the trip in her diary. On the contrary, she still seemed drawn to the allure of the automobile. Four years later, his father was campaigning for the State Senate. One afternoon he, Betty and Effie, his wife, took a ride in a sparkling new car. On May 21, 1922, she wrote: “My father bought the Chevrolet sedan! Father, mother, Ruth and I went for a Chevrolet ride with Albert Wetherell. Left 3 hours, nice ride and a dear little car. It was decided that Betty, 25, would become the designated driver. The next day she was practicing driving with Henry Grant, a local driver who also worked at the Wetherell garage. Nine days later, she passed her driver’s license. “He answered several questions on paper, then Mr. Wetherell pulled the car out of the garage for me and I drove him down Court Street, through Pine and on Front to the garage.” After that, Betty drove everywhere. They kept the car at Wetherell’s until she mastered saving in their own barn. She picked up the family cook every morning, transported her father to and from the train station and to his many campaign events. He ended up driving, but Betty did most of the family racing. The Tufts family had entered the modern era.
Barbara Rimkunas is the Curator of the Historical Society of Exeter. Support the Historical Society of Exeter by becoming a member. Register online at www.exeterhistory.org.