Jump-Start for an Industry

In those early days of the last century, the smell of horses filled the Medford air. Each morning, saddles were cinched, wagons hitched, and when anyone talked about horsepower, that's exactly what they meant.

A very few motorcars had sputtered over Main Street, but until the morning of April 30, 1903, no one living in Jackson County had ever owned one.

Jeweler Elmer Elwood took delivery at the train station and then asked a bunch of the boys to help him push the car to his Central Avenue home. Day after day, with instructions in one hand and a wrench in the other, Elmer twisted, tapped and coaxed, but the engine wouldn't start.

Not until October, with a new motor installed, would Elwood finally drive the first privately owned automobile south of Salem on a Medford street.

Seeking better weather, the family temporarily moved to Northern California. That's where Medford's first auto caught fire and was transformed into a heavily charred, metal skeleton.

By early 1905, wealthy orchardist Albert C. Allen owned two Oldsmobiles, but they were the only two automobiles in the county. Buying a car and keeping it running was beyond the budget of almost everyone else. There were no garages, gasoline was available only at the hardware store, and the roads, at best, were in terrible shape.

Ordering a vehicle was like ordering a carriage from the Sears catalog.

Although only 12 automobiles were owned around Medford in fall 1906, that was enough to lure William Hodson away from his boyhood home in Roseburg. He told a Medford Mail newspaper reporter that because Roseburg didn't have nearly that many vehicles, he had come to open a repair garage and would order a "carload" of automobiles from the factory. With those on hand, he would, he said, "have cars to send out at all times."

Medford's first automobile dealership had arrived.

Hodson was a machinist who had worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad and also held the patent on a device that while harvesting a sugar beet also cut off the beet's top leaves — all in one motion.

In 1904, he purchased the Roseburg Bicycle and Machine Shop from his former employer, and within a year was not only selling bicycles, but also Rambler motorcycles powered by 1.75-horsepower engines. Had automobiles not become so popular, he might have stayed in Roseburg.

Hodson's Medford dealership was an inspiration, igniting an interest in dealerships no one had previously anticipated. Some faded away quickly, while a few others managed to survive a while longer.

"Five years ago," wrote a reporter for the Medford Daily Tribune in August 1909, "there was only one automobile in Medford. Now there are over 200 — more than any community of similar size on Earth."

A year later, based on registrations recorded in Salem, Medford claimed more than 400 cars.

"The residents of this town were inoculated with this mania three years ago," wrote a Mail Tribune reporter, "and have been in the throes of it ever since."

For Hodson, the ride was over. He filed bankruptcy in late 1910, lost Medford's first dealership, and after a brief career in long-distance transportation near Klamath Falls, returned to mechanics. He died in Jacksonville in May 1944.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.

Reader Reaction
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Rules. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or fill out this form. New comments are only accepted for two weeks from the date of publication.