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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

historical moments & musings: Facts & Fables from BV Historical Society - Serpaci and the Horseless Carriage

Monday, October 1, 2012

Many historical artifacts of our forefathers disappear over time, depriving us of the actual sight, the feel, the smell, the sound and the personalities of their history; leaving us with only the handed-down, cold, impersonal documentary facts of their existence. We tend to lose an appreciation of their existence, innovation, craftsmanship, utility, their stories, and their very contributions to our own existence. So it has been with one of the most important technologies to our modern way of life--the automobile, or more commonly referred to in its earliest days as the "horseless carriage". Without belaboring the history, importance and technological development of this marvel, which has become not only a basic necessity of our culture but also a phenomenon of our personalities, this article pays homage to a Buena Vista County organization that is dedicated to preserving our automotive artifacts--the vintage and classic automobiles.

From the time that the government bought this land from the Indians and designated it in 1851 as one of the 99 counties of the State, and the county government established in 1858, and until the first county road was built, transportation throughout Buena Vista County was by horse- and oxen-drawn carriages of various kinds--from personal buckboards to the stagecoaches. The trails that they followed were narrow, dirt-trodden paths through prairie grass, marshes, swamps, and streams. In summer, rain turned them to mud, and in winter they were impassible from snow. Finally, in 1867, the first county road was graded and others soon followed. These roads were dirt, 66-inches wide, graded above level, and were essentially the responsibility of the farmers who used them to maintain them. Eventually, some became "somewhat" graveled. Never-the-less, travel by horse-drawn carriages and wagons was still a haphazard adventure.

Then, one day in 1902, Bert Lewis came driving into Storm Lake from Sioux City (a tremendous ordeal, to be sure) with Buena Vista County's first automobile: a 1-cylinder, 6-10 horsepower Oldsmobile. But, not to be outdone in spite of the difficulties of negotiating those impossible roads in a "horseless carriage", and scaring the hell out of horses on the roads, other citizens of the county began acquiring automobiles. By 1904 there were numerous horseless carriages challenging the county's impractical roads.

These automobiles were the primitive models of the era: the Mason, Spaulding, and Colby built in Iowa; and cars like the Duer, Aerocar, Fuller, Autocar, Halsman, the Thomas Flyer, Imperial, and numerous others. By 1910, an enterprising entrepreneur in Storm Lake started the first used car business in the county. As more advanced models became available, owners traded for these mechanically superior cars, such as the: Hupmobile, Ford, Oakland, International, Oldsmobile, Hudson, Cord, and others. As a result, the models of the earlier eras passed into obscure antiquity through natural attrition.

In 1913, the Iowa legislature created the Iowa Highway Commission, which required each county to have county engineers to establish a network of "farm-to-market" roads. This resulted in more high-grade gravel roads. Bonds were passed to finance permanent bridges. In 1950, the first county road was paved. The numbers of cars had multiplied rapidly but, unfortunately, due to advanced models, more of the earlier models were disappearing. The automobile had become almost an obsession (and certainly a necessity) and a symbol of the owner's personality. Comfort, style, convenience, horsepower and speed were being demanded and improved--while the history, character, nostalgia and heritage of the early machines were being lost.

Enter Serpaci

Finally, in 1957, a fellow by the name of John Dvergston of Storm Lake, an automobile aficionado, felt compelled to take action to preserve the heritage of the historic old cars. He and twelve other car buffs organized "The Society for the Encouragement of Restoration and Preservation of Antique Cars", which was incorporated the following year--thus becoming "SERPACI". They began recruiting other interested owners of vintage cars, held meetings, and published a newsletter. The organization soon affiliated with and became a member of the Horseless Carriage Club of America, a national organization of 7,000 members. Jointly, they held local and regional parades, car shows, and grand tours of their restored vintage automobiles. That year, 130 participants with 70 vintage cars paraded down Storm Lake's Lake Avenue, with an estimated 5,000 spectators. In 1959, they conducted a third annual 4-day tour to the Iowa Great Lakes, with a caravan that varied from 75-85 cars from 7 states along the way. The tour stopped in the various towns for car shows. Participants dressed in attire representing the era of their particular vintage car. Governor Herschel Loveless rode with SERPACI, and Storm Lake Mayor Lloyd Bridge declared June 26 as SERPACI Day.

By 1961, SERPACI had over 100 members, with the organization sponsoring parades, rallies, car shows, regular social activities, and publishing their annual newsletter--"SERPACI Exhaust". In 1973, the organization boasted 50 vintage cars. According to inventory records, in January of 1983 the organization included 62 owners of 208 vintage and restored cars, including models of: Willys, Duesenberg, Winton, Flanders, Stutz, Oakland, Marquette, LaSalle, Franklin and Corvair air cooled models, Packard, and others too numerous to mention here; and not to mention the later classics of more familiar names.

But alas, the siren song of the modern automobile--power, speed, comfort and technologies--lures the younger generations to be oblivious of the heritage and grandeur of those vintage magnificent machines. They heed not the call of the craftsmanship, the beauty, the personalities, and pride of ownership of those legacies (not to mention the challenges of cost and manual labor of restorations!). And so, unfortunately, the ranks of those who do respond to the call are dwindling, as are the icons of those vintage years. Yet, those of the younger (as well as the older) generations will gather at the parades, shows and exhibits of those vintage and classic machines and view them with awe, wonder, and even respect. And as long as they do, the dedicated aficionados of organizations like SERPACI will survive and perpetuate the heritage of the magnificent "horseless carriage".