Race Day: A detail from a photo of the Mitchell Jubilee shows touring garb circa 1908.
'Road Trip,' a new show at History San José, revives the days when driving was fun
By Michael S. Gant
WITH GAS prices above $3 a gallon and stretches of the valley competing for the dishonor roll of the nation's worst commutes ("Off my bumper, idiot!"), I have a hard time imaging that driving was once a recreational pleasure ("Nice signal, pal!"). But the motorists in the old-time photos at History San José certainly beam with bonhomie as they cruise the vestigial roads of Santa Clara County a century ago in search of landmarks, vistas and picnic grounds.
The pictures in "Road Trip: The Birth of California Car Culture" come from three albums assembled by the George Polhemus family of San Jose circa 1906–09. Two of the albums arrived at History San José nearly 20 years ago; the third recently surfaced and was snatched up by the Sourisseau Academy for State and Local History at SJSU. A delightful sampling of these motoring memories, along with some evocative artifacts, will show through January. The photos, sometimes casually cropped and mounted, often have hand-drawn outlines in white ink on the black paper; the captions, probably by George's wife, Jennie Ryder, were written in a meandering script. Most are amateur shots, although a pro named Frank Davey recorded the Alum Rock Hill Race.
Polhemus owned the San Jose dealership for Wintons, manufactured by the Winton Motor Carriage Company of Cleveland, which started in 1896 and lasted until 1924. An ad in the exhibit proclaims some impressive stats for the Winton: a six-cylinder engine putting out 48 horsepower could carry up to seven passengers in open-air style.
An enthusiastic and self-interested promoter of the horseless carriage, Polhemus became the first president of the newly formed Santa Clara County Automobile Club, which sponsored numerous outings and car races. Despite the rugged conditions of the day, the members sometimes cruised at speeds up to 60 mph and made one-day outings as far as Santa Barbara. A trip to Paso Robles, memorialized with a funny picture of a squatty Toonerville-style trolley, required an overnight stop or two.
The show includes snapshots taken on jaunts to New Almaden Quicksilver Mine (where club members dined with Thomas Derby at his Casa Grande), the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Pt. Lobos, the Hotel Del Monte (site of an early oval track for both horse and auto racing), the Palisades rock formation between Prunedale and Gilroy, the mission at San Juan Bautista in a state of disrepair, the South Bay Yacht Club at Alviso and Smith's Creek on the way to the summit of Mt. Hamilton.
Historical events intrude. In the summer of 1906, the club toured the aftermath of the great earthquake, taking photos of the ruins in San Francisco, Stanford and Palo Alto. A fascinating glimpse of another mode of transportation gone wrong shows a crane car valiantly trying to right a locomotive that derailed at Edenvale in May 1906. Closer to home, the show includes a marvelous shot of downtown San Jose and its early garages. The painted signs advertise products like Wizard Oil and Drifted Snow Flour.
Many of the photographs encompass surprisingly wide views of the countryside. Early in the 1900s, amateur shooters were beginning to use simple, portable box cameras, and some even had access to panoramic units. Perhaps the Polhemuses used the Kodak Panoram that came on the market around 1900.
In addition to recalling a less stressful era, when another motorist would receive a welcoming wave instead of the finger, these casual photographs offer some quirky, uncalculated delights. In a sweeping shot of the busy revelers at Casa Grande, an old gent holding a mug stops and stares straight at the camera, as if to ask, "What are you looking at?"
Road Trip: The Birth of California Car Culture runs through January 2008 at the McKay Gallery in History Park, 1650 Senter Road, San Jose. Tuesday–Sunday, noon–5pm. (408.287.2290) Historian Charlene Duval and curator Sarah Puckitt offer a walk-through of the exhibit on July 29, 1–3pm.
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