First auto returns to Clayton County

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Dave Beck, Tom Chandler and Delbert Reimer are restoing a 1903 Crestmobile.

By Pat McTaggart

Freelance Writer



fter almost a century’s absence, what is thought to have been the first automobile in Clayton County has finally made its way back home.  In 1902 Judge James O. Crosby, Garnavillo, ordered a “horseless carriage” from Crest Manufacturing, Cambridge, MA, at a cost of $600.  The company manufactured this particular Crestmobile model from 1901-04.

According to Crosby’s diary, the Crestmobile arrived on May 15 in the town of Clayton by train.  Crosby hired a man named Henry Kuhlman to make the six mile journey and pick up the crate with his horse and wagon, paying Kuhlman $1.25 to haul it back to Garnavillo.  With the help of some friends, Crosby assembled the vehicle and then went to bed “very tired and with a hammered thumb.”

Once the Crestmobile was operational, Crosby drove it around town and the countryside, much to the awe and delight of area residents who had never seen a motor vehicle before.  A 1918 article in the McGregor Times newspaper stated that Crosby’s Crestmobile was the first horseless carriage brought into Clayton County.

Judge Crosby died in 1921, and the vehicle became the property of his son, William, who lived in Oshkosh, WI.  In 1927 William loaned the vehicle to the Oshkosh Public Museum.  Moving to California in the 1930s to live with his daughter Caroline, William gifted the vehicle to the museum in 1937.

Almost 30 years later, in 1966, the Garnavillo Historical Society dedicated the Garnavillo Historical Museum.  Some of the older town residents recalled seeing Crosby’s machine when they were youngsters and thought it would make a good addition to the museum’s collection.  Caroline was contacted and asked about the vehicle’s whereabouts, and she confirmed that it was still at the Oshkosh Museum.

That began a 50 year campaign to get the Crestmobile back to Garnavillo.  Caroline and members of the Historical Society contacted the museum in 1966 asking for the vehicle’s return.  Each request was met by a resounding “No”.  In 1991 another series of requests was met with the same answer.

Finally, in November, 2016, the Historical Society received a letter from Anna Cannizzo, curator of the Oshkosh Museum.  “We are offering the Crestmobile as a donation as it no longer advances our mission and we would like it to go to an institution where it can remain in the public domain and cared for”, she wrote.  It took another year and a half to finalize things, but on May 7 David Beck, a member of the Garnavillo Historical Society, and Elkader residents Tom Chandler and Delbert Reimer set off for Oshkosh to pick up the vehicle.

“We literally had to pick it up”, said Chandler, who has been restoring antique vehicles for decades.  “It was in a display case on the third floor of the museum.  We took the wheels and motor off, took apart the steering mechanism and starter, and then four of us carried the buckboard like passenger compartment down a set of winding stairs because it would not fit in the elevator  Once we got everything loaded, we headed back to my shop in Elkader.”

The Crestmobile was reassembled in the shop, and Chandler and Reimer went to work to make sure it was in running condition.  “It was in pretty good shape cosmetically,” Chandler said.  We checked it out mechanically and cleaned out and readjusted the carburetor.  The ignition still worked pretty good.  It did need a new block chain, which has steel blocks instead of the typical rollers that you see on things like bicycles.  I got the chain from an individual in England.  It’s really an interesting vehicle, but I would be surprised if its top speed is much more than 15 miles per hour.”

At the 4th of July parade in Garnavillo, the Crestmobile will make its debut.  After the parade, people will be able to see the car and talk with about it with Beck and Chandler near the Garnavillo Historical Museum.  Sometime after the 4th, it will be permanently displayed in the museum.

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