Automobile in mud

In this undated photo, an automobile mired in the mud is hitched to a team of horses for rescue.

Editor's note: This piece originally was published on March 31, 2002, as part of David Harding's "Everyday History" column in The World-Herald.

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At the turn of the 20th century, automobiles with eager drivers began to venture out on Nebraska's roads.

As long as they stayed close to town, these contraptions might find sure footing on brick streets or a compressed form of crushed rock called macadam. Once they wandered into the countryside, however, a new category of embarrassing stories was born.

My grandfather used to tell about his family's first road trip. His parents had lived in Norfolk before they moved to Omaha in 1900. By 1905, their creamery business was churning along successfully. Great-grandpa bought a fancy five-passenger Rambler and thought it would make quite a splash in his former hometown.

At that time roughly 500 cars could be found in the entire state, and none of them parked in Norfolk.

Going for a drive in 1905 required proper driving apparel. Men wore full-length linen coats called dusters, along with fancy driving caps and goggles to protect against dust and bugs.

Women also wore linen coats. Their floppy hats were held in place by long scarves wrapped once or twice over the top and under the chin, then fastened with a knot.

Grandpa and his parents set out from Omaha one afternoon and headed for Fremont. At 18 years old, he welcomed the responsibility to crank-start the car and keep it on the road. The trip to Fremont was uneventful, except for an occasional problem with high-centering.

Most country roads had a pair of deep ruts worn by horses traveling two abreast in a team. The wagons they pulled had plenty of clearance underneath, so the high crown in the middle of the road didn't bother them.

Navigating these roads in a car was trickier, and the Rambler ground to a halt on the crown a few times, but Grandpa always managed to back it up and go around.

The next morning they traveled from Fremont to West Point. Cars generally slowed down or stopped altogether upon meeting a wagon and horses on the road. Even so, some horses became skittish in the presence of an automobile and were prone to bolt.

The Rambler caused one runaway that morning. Such incidents led farmers to despise automobiles, but on this occasion the wagon driver regained control of his team, and all was forgiven.

The family lunched with relatives in West Point, then set out on the final 45-mile stretch to Norfolk. At Stanton, they were caught in a downpour and took shelter at the hotel for the night. By the time they awoke the next morning, rain had washed out a section of railroad track between Stanton and Norfolk. They were advised not to proceed for a day or two.

Great-grandpa got restless around noon and determined they should drive on. He paid for his impatience when the Rambler sank into a mudhole seven miles short of Norfolk.

Surveying the situation, he put his shoulder to the back of the car while his son threw it into low gear. The car refused to budge and Great-grandpa sprained his back.

Soon he was in a lot of pain, so his son went for help at a nearby farmhouse. The only person around was a young boy who had never heard of an automobile and was nervous about this teen-ager explaining his automotive predicament.

The boy finally agreed to hitch up a horse and buggy and took Great-grandpa into town.

When they arrived in Norfolk, word quickly spread that Charlie Harding had bought a car, driven up from Omaha, gotten it stuck in the mud, hurt his back, and had to beg a ride in a buggy. It was not the triumphal return he had imagined, and he used the excuse of a strained back to stay off the streets for a few days until all the talk died down.

Want more of this? Check out Omaha.com/history for more stories from our city's fascinating past.

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