~ by Amy Jenness ~
In June of 1916 the Inquirer & Mirror ran an item in its “Waterfront” column recounting the story of a recent Nantucket visitor looking to hire a car. The man, who had never been here before, asked a group of local men for information about the island. “You see this is my first trip down here and I am in love with the place just from the view I gained in approaching it on the steamer and in breathing this fine air,” the newspaper quoted him saying. Then he asked how to get a car.
“As I tenderly as possible the news was broken that automobiles were barred from Nantucket and that if he wanted to go to ‘Sconset he would either have to go by train, in a carriage behind a horse, or ‘hoof it.’ Evidently it was a severe blow to his Nantucket enthusiasm.” The visitor left and did not return. The first cars arrived here in 1900 and frightened the horses so badly that buggy passengers feared for their lives. Nantucketers did not embrace the automobile and in 1908, under pressure from the island, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a law banning cars from the island from May to September.
A few off-islanders challenged the law, but Nantucket remained car-free until 1913 when Clinton S. Folger, who owned a livery business and was a vocal automobilist, was given the contract to deliver the mail. The next week he travelled to Boston and purchased a car.
The Inquirer & Mirror noted Folger’s disregard of the car ban. “The 1909 law stands unchanged on the statute books today, and the report that one of the island liverymen has actually taken steps to bring a machine to the island, has caused a feeling of unrest, both among the islanders and summer visitors who seek to keep the machines away.” In response, Nantucket selectmen voted to ban automobiles year round.
Two weeks later Folger and his Overland car arrived on the steamer Sankaty and a crowd gathered to watch it come off the boat. Some predicted a police arrest or a riot, while others cheered as the car rolled down the ramp. Folger disembarked peacefully and drove his car to ‘Sconset on the first mail run. Both supporters and critics carefully watched to see how much Folger’s car tested the will of the selectmen. Within weeks town leaders called a hearing. William A. Thibodeau, attorney for the Automobile Legal Association, spoke in favor of allowing cars on the island and said he represented Clinton S. Folger and 781 Nantucket taxpayers who had signed a petition. He argued, “The law plainly says that no regulation shall be valid which excludes automobiles from any state highway, yet the selectmen have actually done so, inasmuch as they have excluded automobiles from all roads leading to the state highway on Nantucket island.”
As debate heated up, Folger dug in. On the days of his ‘Sconset run, he hitched a pair of horses to the car and towed it through town. Folger’s “Horsemobile” made headlines in off-island newspapers and soon people from all over the country wrote letters to the Inquirer & Mirror rooting for Folger and his cause.
Folger was fined and called into court repeatedly, but despite his trouble with the law, his car did a brisk business. Doctors called upon him for house calls. Residents living in rural areas called upon him for rides to town. Yet he still had not won over the majority of town voters, who declined to support repealing the car ban several times between 1914 and 1917.
By 1916 many summer people, accustomed to driving on the mainland, brought their cars and used them. When they got in trouble with the law, the Massachusetts Automobile Association represented them. The convenience and popularity of cars proved undeniable. When the Nantucket Railroad closed in 1917, 36 years after its inaugural run, railroad owners cited the popularity of automobiles as the main reason for the decline, even though cars were still illegal on Nantucket. By 1918, Nantucket was the only Massachusetts town that didn’t allow cars and the tide of public perception started to turn in support of allowing them on the island. Perhaps Nantucket voters felt they could no longer stop progress or perhaps they simply changed their minds, but four years after Folger first drove off the boat, they narrowly elected to repeal the automobile ban.
Three weeks before the vote, a letter appeared in the Inquirer & Mirror signed “Old Fogey.”
“The scrapping of the railroad has caused me to look backward. I remember when the railroad came, for I did not want it to come. How we did kick about it and how we predicted all sorts of calamities. But it came – and now we are all sorry it is going to leave us.
The letter continues to list other modern improvements that met resistance on Nantucket, like the water company, electric street lights, the telephone, and the “auto-chemical” fire engines. In regards to allowing cars on Nantucket’s streets, the writer says, “I’m almost tired of bucking against these modern inventions. They come in time and then we are glad they are here. Suppose it will be that way with the automobile after it gets here.
Probably it will prove a blessing like the rest of the things we bucked against. I’m against it just the same from force of habit, for I’ve been against everything else that spells progress and guess this is about the last chance I’ll have to kick, for my kicking days are almost over.”
Amy Jenness is the author of “On This Day in Nantucket History,” available in local bookstores