Rocky Road

It was summer 1899. The circus was in town and the exotic parade was about to begin. Lions and tigers rolled by in their cages, with acrobats, jugglers and funny-faced clowns.

A steam calliope bubbled out a giddy tune and as it passed, mama and papa cheered and the children giggled.


With mouths wide open, spectators stared in amazed silence. A sputtering automobile, the first ever seen in Southern Oregon, was crawling up Medford's dirt-covered Main Street.

Children squealed, jumping up and down and hysterically pointing at the "carriage without a horsey."

The engine backfired again, stalled and then clattered back to life, moved forward a few feet, then stalled again.

"Get a horse!" someone jeered, and everyone laughed.

Four years passed and the smell of horses still filled the air. Saddles were cinched, wagons hitched, and nobody thought much about automobiles, except Medford optometrist Elmer Elwood, a man with a dream.

His auto arrived on the morning train, April 30, 1903, the first privately owned automobile south of Salem.

Although a later report said the machine was a Lambert, and Elwood told an interviewer in 1931 that it was a Daimler, most evidence points to a 3-cylinder, $1,200, Baldner Runabout.

When it arrived it wasn't ready to move on its own yet, so Elwood and a bunch of boys pushed it all the way home.

Just a few adjustments, he thought, that's all it would take. It was an optimistic beginning to his summer of discontent.

Day after day, with instructions in one hand and a wrench in the other, Elwood twisted, tapped and coaxed, always mumbling something under his breath.

When friends stopped by to tease him with their latest automobile joke, Elwood faked a laugh and went back to work.

The engine never started and the laughter never stopped. It was "Elwood's Pushmobile."

By the end of summer, a discouraged Elwood ordered a new engine and waited impatiently for yet another morning train.

It was October before the motor arrived, but within days it was purring and Elwood proudly gave it a few test runs. But winter rains had come early and the roads were soon deep in mud. Elwood's auto dreams would have to wait until spring.

Elwood couldn't wait that long. Whether it was the constant teasing or simply a chance at drier weather, he put his auto on the train and the family moved south to Chico, Calif.

He must have also packed his persistent bad luck. In February 1904, while hunting with a friend, Elwood tied the auto to a fence for safekeeping. When they returned, the machine had caught fire. Nothing was left but a charred metal skeleton.

Southern Oregon's first automobile was gone for good, but not Elmer Elwood. After only six months in "sunny" California, he returned to Medford, and except for the good-natured teasing that followed him for the rest of his life, talk of automobiles was carefully avoided.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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