I was looking through my Aunt Gladys’ memoirs and came across this story written by her husband, Uncle Steere de Montfort Mathew, sharing the small joys of friendship with the boy who owned the only car in the neighborhood and his enthusiasm for the chance of a weekend ride. While no date was provided on the papers, I think the story took place between 1909-1913:
During the warm weather, Saturdays in my home town were always eventful. Chester, the boy next door, owned a steam automobile which he had won in a prize contest conducted by a grocery store in Denver, and on Saturdays the lucky lad who stood in well with Chester was invited to go for a ride in this chariot. Of course, Chester couldn’t run it himself, but his father, who fortunately worked only at night, would be the chauffeur.
A ride in this car was an adventurous journey. In the first place, you didn’t just get in, step on the starter and roll away. First of all, the car had to be pushed out of the shed into the back yard, usually with the help of half a dozen of us boys. Chester didn’t have to help; he was boss. In the daylight, the car, at first glance, looked something like a baby buggy. It had lovely carving dashboards at the front and back. The seats for four passengers were exactly in the middle of the car. Those in the front seat looked forward and those in the back seat saw the scenery receding in the distance.
The driver steered with a shiny gracefully curved tiller, and he governed the speed with a round valve handle. His attention was not diverted with speedometers, thermometers, ammeters and all those other gadgets found on modern cars. His only encumbrances were a foot brake and a pump handle conveniently located near his right hand so that he could keep the boiler full especially when going up a hill. All he had to look at occasionally was a vertical glass tube which showed the amount of water in the boiler. A string was tied around the glass at the point which showed that the water was getting dangerously low. When the water reacher this point, the pump was vigorously employed.
This was a car. But it still had to be started. That operation required just about three hours. First of all, the garden hose was attached to the boiler, and while it was filling with water, Chester’s father went over the machinery with an oily rag and an oil can. During the filling period, one of us was dispatched to the grocery store for some gasoline. Sometimes the narrow tires on the slender spoked wheels had to be pumped up. This was an honor eagerly sought after by each of us.
At last, the boiler was full of water, the tank was full of gasoline, the tires were full of air and the machinery was full of oil. Now to light the burner. This was a job that Chester’s father kept for himself. He usually used a long thin piece of wood in place of a match so that his fingers wouldn’t get scorched in case some gasoline had leaked from the burner.
Soon it was alight.
Waiting for the steam pressure to rise to the proper height was an interminable period. However, I could follow operations from the window in my kitchen so I went in and had a good lunch which helped to kill the time. Finally, when the suspense was practically unbearable, the automobile was ready to go. That is after the car was maneuvered into the alley party by steam and partly by boy power.
Most of the time, level roads were chosen for the trip but who knew just how far we might explore. One day we even went way over to North Denver. Just think! A twelve mile journey up and down hills. That was the day that I was chosen as one of the elect.
Then all aboard. Had we the parasols for the ladies, and the bucket of sand to put out the fire which usually started when a long hill was to be climbed? We puffed away and the thrill of looking down from the lofty seat at the swiftly receding ground; the gasps of admiration when we whizzed by a slowly plodding horse; that was the very essence of adventure.
When we went up that long hill with me pushing and the ladies walking alongside and encouraging me, I scorned the forgotten sand in the bucket and scooped it up from the road and threw it on the fire. The return trip, over the same route, was just as much fun except that it was down hill and I felt the adventure was ending too soon.
Then home at last. With reluctant feet I clambered down from my magic carpet. The car which moved so easily under the urge of six or a dozen boys now felt like a big freight car and was an almost immovable object which had to be pushed into the back yard again. It was not the simple flip of a switch that ended the business with the car for the day earlier. The fire was turned off and any gasoline remaining was drained into a jug and saved for cleaning. But there was still one more thrill. A hose was connected to the boiler and run through a hole in the fence into the alley. The blow-off valve was opened and with a thunderous roar the escaping steam hid the sunset.
The roar soon tapered off to a whisper and with the silence which followed came the realization that for another week at least I would have to seek my adventures on foot.
I asked my mom to write a bit about Uncle Steere:
Steere de Montfort Mathew-Every once in awhile, one meets a person who is so genuinely nice and giving. These are the qualities that characterized our Uncle Steere. Born in 1896 in Illinois, his father had come to America as a park planner, having been educated in his native England. Steere graduated from East Denver High School in 1913 and went on to the University of Colorado where he earned a degree in the newer field of electrical engineering and belonged to Phi Delta Theta fraternity.
After graduation he married Gladys Hagee, a fellow student at Boulder. He worked tirelessly to support her career in opera, and he became involved in all sorts of offstage projects in the New York Opera Community, as well as being one of the founders of New York Community Opera.
Steere’s electrical engineering background led to a career in radio, which eventually brought him to NBC. He was one of the pioneers of radio and a central figure in the first transcontinental radio broadcast. Upon retirement, he devoted much of his time to developing community opera in New York until his passing in 1966.