Spring 1998

Home Index Museums Blog Authors Site Map About


Grandma's Model-T Stories


Thomas D. Cornell

Ever since Rochester's Marketplace Mall opened in 1982, I've been a regular visitor. Occasionally I'll shop there. But what I usually do is to read or write over a meal and then walk-especially when the weather is too cold, too hot, too wet, or too snowy.

Adding variety to the mall environment, thoughout the year, are special week-long exhibits. Of these, my favorites are the antique shows. But as much as I enjoy contact with old things, my feelings on such occasions are usually mixed-for unlike the objects that once filled my grandmother's house and barn, those at the mall no longer come with stories attached.

I'm especially saddened by the old photographs. In addition to their stories, most have lost their basic information. They bear no dates. Nor are they labeled with the names of people or places. "There but for Grandma Cornell," I say to myself as I walk past them, "go our family photographs. "

My grandmother, Marie Beard Cornell, was born in 1896 on a hilltop farm near Campbell, New York. Early in the twentieth century, her family moved to town, and after her marriage in 1923 to George Cornell-who was principal of the Campbell Union School-she continued to live in town.

On my visits during the years before her death in 1990, Grandma shared with me her interest in family and local history and our conversations often focused on photographs. One notable example surfaced in early March, 1989.

Grandma herself stands on the far left. Next is Lillian, the daughter of her sister Maude, and kneeling in front of the group is Maude's son, Francis. The older woman in the center is Grandma's mother, Delphine Emerson Beard, followed by Edith the younger of Grandma's two older sisters-and Edith's husband, Fred Aber. Finally-not counting the goat, in the lower righthand corner-is Grandma's father, Myron A. Beard.

The picture, Grandma told me, was taken during the summer of 1914-by which time she had finished the first year of her two years of teacher training at the state normal school at Geneseo. The place was Edith and Fred's farm, adjacent to the farm of Fred's parents on Mount Washington, near Bath, and the occasion was a family visit-for which Edith had fixed a meal. Grandma wasn't sure who had taken the picture. But she did recall that after receiving it she had written Edith to say it was good of everybody except the goat!

Having identified the people in the picture and explained the circumstances, Grandma went onto describe her own appearance. "I wore my hair in a figure-8 on top of my head," she told me. "Somewhat later, I wore it in back. I still have some of the bone hairpins I used. I couldn't part my hair exactly in the middle, because of a cowlick."

Regarding the coat she was wearing, she commented: "A neighbor came by our house in Campbell one day and wanted to sell it to me-for $3." Associated with her handbag was a slightly longer story. "When I graduated from the Corning Free Academy in 1913, people asked me what I wanted as a graduation gift. 'I need a pocketbook,' I told them. After that, I got all kinds of pocketbooks, but not what I wanted."

Grandma also talked about the car in the background. From time to time on my previous visits, she had mentioned her father's four-door Model-T. "The first road to be paved in Campbell," she would say, "was from the Erie Station to the bridge over the Conhocton. Father objected that it had been paved because of the cars wealthy people were buying. Cars looked to be luxury items. But in 1914 he bought a Ford, and after that he was all for good roads"

Implicit in Grandma's remarks was the gist of Henry Ford's creative achievement. Although the question of who invented the automobile has long been debated, what Ford did was to rethink the basic idea. Where others saw cars as destined for an up-scale market-and designed them accordingly-Ford aimed at the average citizen. His distinctive contribution was the inexpensive, mass-produced automobile-with the Model-T being his masterpiece. It first appeared in 1908; by the spring of 1914 his engineers had fully implemented the continuously moving assembly line for producing it; and it remained in production until 1927 (after which it was replaced by the Model A).

Ford's achievement was a matter of public record. But with the old photograph in front of us, I now had a concrete way of tying Grandma's life to this familiar piece of American history. One of the things I wanted to know more about was how the Model-T worked. "The brake wasn't a foot pedal," Grandma said, in response to my interest. "It was a lever. " She also described the car top: "You could let it down, and the side curtains could be detached, folded, and stored under the seat. If the clouds got dark, you could stop and snap on the side curtains. With a horse and buggy, it it rained you just got wet."

Best of all were Grandma's accounts of events involving the Model-T. "He was eager to go places" she said of her father, thereby beginning one story. "But he didn't take to driving a car-having driven horses for so long. I explained to him once that I wanted to buy some clothes, so we set off to Corning in the car. On the way he called out: 'Just as well go to Elmira. ' On the road below Big Flats, while we were going slowly over the railroad tracks, the car stopped"-fortunately, without mishap. "On that trip," she added, "another car sped by and Father said: 'The fool! He goes so fast. Twelve miles per hour is fast enough for anybody '"

Grandma even recalled one of her own early experiences behind the wheel. "Father was very eager for me to drive," she began. "On our lot in town we had a big, two-story, horse-and-hay barn. It was very well built. There was a place you'd drive in. To the left there was room for parking another wagon. Ahead of the space for the first wagon was a stable for two horses, and in front of the stable were harness cupboards. Once when I was driving I forgot how to stop, so I ran the car into the harness cupboards. The cupboard doors were never the same after that."

Over the years Grandma told me a variety of other car stories. For example, upon one of my visits before the Model-T picture surfaces, she commented that she and my grandfather, during their brief courtship, took a trip to Watkins Glen, and-on the way back-he asked her to drive his car. "I had driven before," she explained to me. "But I didn't have enough experience to feel comfortable. I remember feeling quite uncomfortable driving through the Narrows below Campbell"-where the road gets squeezed between the river and the steep hillside. Yet she must have caught on fairly quickly, because a photograph from the period (probably from the camping trip they took on their honeymoon) shows her in the driver's seat.

Another story dates from the early 1950s, when Uncle John was a college student at the University of Michigan. "In my DeSoto," Grandma told me, "I would take him to catch an 11 p. m. Lackawanna train at Bath. On one of his visits home I asked him, 'How would you like to drive through?'"- which is just what they ended up doing.

Dad had gone to Michigan earlier, and he and Mom had met there as students. At the time of the trip that Grandma was telling me about, Dad was still working on his doctorate. "Your folks," she continued, "were not expecting us. They lived in an upstairs apartment in Ann Arbor, and I stayed with them."

Then without my having expected it-Grandma put me into the story. "Your mother had been planning to visit her parents in Youngstown, Ohio," she concluded. "So I offered to take her and you on my way back to Campbell. We stopped every so often so your mother could bottle-feed you."

By the time I began visiting Grandma regularly-in the mid-1980s-old age was catching up with her. As a result, she quit driving altogether and surrendered her license. But she kept her Oldsmobile Cutlass stored in the barn-insured, inspected, and serviced—ready for us to use whenever I came down from Rochester.

Perhaps in the long run of history, I—along with fellow denizens of the twentieth century-will be harshly criticized for making such free use of the gasoline-burning automobile. Yet I'm also well aware of what I've gained from my many trips to Campbell. Although we occasionally exchanged letters and talked by telephone, the bulk of Grandma's stories came to me because of the time we spent together-a condition that the automobile had made possible.

Now whenever I walk past the unmarked photographs for sale at the mall, I find myself wondering what it would be like not have seen Grandma's photographs until after her death. Suppose that had been true of the Model-T photograph. I'd probably recognize some of the people in it, and I might even guess that the car was the one she had occasionally mentioned. But likely I'd not get any further.

But because I had put myself in her physical presence, time after time after time, Grandma and I had been able to weave photographs like the one with the Model-T into a rich tapestry of stories. As a result, I've inherited a deeply satisfying sense of the past—something I could never have gotten from the anonymous photographs at the mall.

1998, Thomas D. Cornell
CLR Blog | Site Map | Contact CLR