Story by Jorge Luis Chavez, OSU History Student and Stillwater History Museum Intern
In 1904 the first fully-operational automobile was showcased at the Stillwater County Fair. On that day, the citizens of Stillwater began their love affair with the automobile. Since that time, automobiles have moved from a county fair attraction to the most popular daily transportation vehicle. The automobile has played a crucial role in the development of Stillwater through today.
As early as 1913, C.C. Platt brought the first Ford dealership to Stillwater. At this time automobiles were viewed as a luxury item, or even a toy, that few people could afford. Even if people had the funds, early automobiles were hard to start and there were few roads that could handle these fledgling models.
In response to the new demand, Herb Ricker opened the first automotive community garage in Stillwater. Community garages were a safe place for people to store their automobiles without having to worry about starting their engines, access to gasoline, or parking. Often, owners took their automobiles for joyrides around downtown and then bring them right back to park at Ricker’s garage. He would start the cars for the owner and would even deliver cans of gasoline as needed.
These early automobiles shared the roads with horses, buggies, wagons, and pedestrians. The streets were uneven and there were no road rules or licenses. The situation was so bad that some concerned residents even believed that the introduction of automobiles would be detrimental to the further development of the early town; and in 1906, storage of gasoline was outlawed at residences or even in cars when not in use.
Others saw cars as the future. Dr. W. C. Whittenberg, a prominent Stillwater country doctor, was one of the first to use a car for house calls. In Robert E. Cunningham’s book, “Stillwater: Where Oklahoma Began,” a story about the doctor explained that Whittenberg ran his Cadillac into a ditch off one of the unpaved roads on the outskirts of early Stillwater. Fortunately, a local farmer crossed his path. Immediately, Whittenberg proposed to trade his Cadillac, which at the time was one of the newest and fanciest models, for the farmer’s horse and buggy to get back to town.
Unlike Whittenberg’s Cadillac, Fords were relatively inexpensive. This made them increasingly affordable for the residents of Stillwater. As the decades passed, owning an automobile went from a limited luxury to a common and practical amenity for all. As time went on, more dealerships began to move into downtown Stillwater. This increase in traffic opened the door for many other businesses to move in as well. The development of the dealership business mirrored the steady economic growth of all other Stillwater businesses.
As the automobile increased in popularity within Stillwater, city officials quickly changed and adapted city ordinances to keep up with the constant evolution of the automotive industry. Swift action by city officials opened the door for Stillwater to capitalize on all of the benefits of a driving community. Following both World Wars, many veterans returned home with the proper training to drive automobiles. This indirectly led to another increase in the amount of Stillwater residents owning and driving their own automobiles.
Increasing traffic made city officials focus on traffic safety to keep order on the newly paved roads. By the 1940s and 1950s, Stillwater’s dedication to traffic safety paid off with a record number of days without a single traffic related death, which helped the city greatly with the National Safety Competition for cities. Stillwater began to win multiple National Safety Competitions back to back for many years. This was a result of constant focus on traffic safety and driving education, whether at the Stillwater High school or Oklahoma A&M. The students also attempted to win their own driving safety competitions. Even the local radio stations played advertisements advocating for traffic safety. This sense of community responsibility to traffic was a fundamental principle for the Stillwater community.
These are just a few of the many ways in which the automobile has impacted the Stillwater community. If you would like to learn more about the automobile’s impact on Stillwater, visit the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar. The grand opening for the “Automobiles in Stillwater” Exhibit will be on March 7th from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. The exhibit will be on display until October. Admission is always free. Learn more about this exhibit and other upcoming programming at www.sheerarmuseum.org.
Robert E. Cunningham’s book, “Stillwater: Where Oklahoma Began”
Robert Newsom’s book “Stillwater A Cradle of Oklahoma History”
Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar Photographic Collections