Dr. Kenneth Rowe (former Methodist Librarian at Drew University) and I have an affinity for automobiles. He enjoys collecting and refurbishing old cars. I enjoy watching them race each other on Sunday afternoons. During a recent visit to the Methodist Library Ken gave me a photocopy of an intriguing article titled “Little Known History: Wisconsin Pioneer of the Automobile and Road Signs and Markers.” The story was from the May/June 2010 issue of the Bulb Horn, a periodical published for the Veteran Motor Car Club of America.
The author of the article, Richard Lichtfeld, claims that the first automobile in the United States was designed and driven by a Methodist minister, one Reverend John Wesley Carhart. For two years Carhart and his brother worked on a steam-powered automobile that by early May of 1873 was ready for its initial road test. The Racine (Wisconsin) Journal, a local newspaper, covered the reveal in its May 7, 1873 issue. Carhart’s “steam buggy” weighed in at 1,100 pounds and was powered by a coal-fed boiler. The car sparked an automotive interest, perhaps a need for speed, with the people of Racine and surrounding areas. Within two years the Wisconsin State legislature offered a $10,000 prize for anyone who could build an automobile that would serve as substitute for the horse.
As a librarian and former history professor my first inclination was to search through the dust of our library to track down additional evidence to validate whether Carhart really invented the first American automobile. His name “Carhart” seemed synonymous with what would be later called the “car” – but I wanted to find additional primary evidence. I located a copy of Carhart’s autobiography Four Years on Wheels; or Life as a Presiding Elder (Oshkosh, WI: Allen & Hicks, Printers, 1880) at Drew University. I thought for certain I would find ample evidence of the Methodist itinerant traveling from parish to parish in his steam buggy or driving carloads of church youth group kids to the county fair. No such luck. But, I did find that Carhart enjoyed dabbling with mechanical devices. In his Four Years on Wheels he wrote, “I always had an irrepressible passion for mechanics, and during my stay in Troy I accidentally invented, and subsequently perfected, an invention in the form of an oscillating valve for steam engines, which I patented and out of which I made a few thousand dollars.” (138)
Carhart evidently had altered the way clergy traveled in the United States. The Methodist circuit rider, a weather-worn itinerant who had traveled on horseback throughout colonial America and the early National period of the United States, was now fitted with wheels. Former “circuit riders” were now buzzing down local Wisconsin roads as “circuit drivers” … performing ministry at 5 miles per hour. Richard Petty, former NASCAR driver and self-acclaimed Methodist, was the 20th century “King” of automobile racing. Rev. Charles Wesley Carhart, it seems, was the first parson on wheels and would later receive international notoriety as the “Father of the Automobile” at the 1908 Automobile Exposition in Paris.